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Changing Stories: Ovid’s Metamorphoses on canvas, 83 – Augury and pestilence

Posted: 10 Apr 2018 04:30 AM PDT

As Ovid nears the end of the last book of his Metamorphoses, he has just told of the transformation of King Numa’s inconsolable widow Egeria into a spring. He still has some key moments in Roman history to cover before reaching Julius Caesar.

The Story

We next are taken through a short series of strange events which occurred during the early history of the city of Rome. First, an Etruscan was ploughing his fields when one of the clods was transformed into a prophet named Tages. Ovid then mentions the spear of Romulus, which was transformed into a tree on the top of the Palatine hill in Rome.

He moves on to the great early Roman general Cipus, who one day discovered that he had grown horns on his head. He was invited to become the King of Rome, but used a ploy to have himself banned from even entering the city. The Senate then gave him a plot of land outside the walls, commemorating his actions in a carving on the city’s nearby gate.

Ovid then gives his account of the bringing of the god Aesculapius (Asclepius) to the city, which at the time was suffering an epidemic of a fatal disease:
A dire contagion had infested long
the Latin air, and men’s pale bodies were
deformed by a consumption that dried up
the blood. When, frightened by so many deaths,
they found all mortal efforts could avail
them nothing, and physicians’ skill had no
effect, they sought the aid of heaven. They sent
envoys to Delphi center of the world,
and they entreated Phoebus to give aid
in their distress, and by response renew
their wasting lives and end a city’s woe.
While ground, and laurels and the quivers which
the god hung there all shook, the tripod gave
this answer from the deep recesses hid
within the shrine, and stirred with trembling their
astonished hearts —
“What you are seeking here,
O Romans, you should seek for nearer you.
Then seek it nearer, for you do not need
Apollo to relieve your wasting plague,
you need Apollo’s son. Go then to him
with a good omen and invite his aid.”

The Senate despatched a party to the port of Epidaurus in quest of Aesculapius, a son of Apollo. The envoy leading that mission had a dream one night, in which he saw Aesculapius beside his bed, holding a staff around which a snake was entwined. The god told the envoy that he would change into a larger snake, for the Romans to find and take back with them.

The following morning, the Romans gathered at the god’s temple, where they saw a large golden snake, which the priest told them was the god Aesculapius. The snake promptly slithered down to the port, where the Roman ships were berthed. It boarded one of them, so the Roman party set sail to take it back to Rome with them.

Ovid provides a long illustrated list of the places that they sailed past in their return journey, including a stop at Antium during bad weather. The ships finally sailed up the River Tiber to the city of Rome, where they were greeted by great crowds:
The serpent-deity has entered Rome,
the world’s new capital and, lifting up
his head above the summit of the mast,
looked far and near for a congenial home.
The river there, dividing, flows about
a place known as the Island, on both sides
an equal stream glides past dry middle ground.
And here the serpent child of Phoebus left
the Roman ship, took his own heavenly form,
and brought the mourning city health once more.

So Aesculapius the god ended the epidemic which had been killing so many of the citizens of Rome.

The Paintings

The short stories of strange happenings, including the transformation of Tages from a clod of earth, the turning of Romulus’ staff into a tree, and the horns of Cipus, seem to have escaped the attention of major painters, but the bringing of Aesculapius to Rome has been part of several intriguing paintings.

I have previously looked at depictions of Aesculapius more generally, from which I bring these, showing Ovid’s story.

Sebastiano Ricci (1659–1734), The Dream of Aesculapius (c 1718), oil on canvas, 80 × 98 cm, Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice. Wikimedia Commons.

When I first looked at Sebastiano Ricci’s The Dream of Aesculapius (c 1718), I couldn’t identify its literary reference. In the light of Ovid’s account here, it clearly shows Aesculapius, clutching his staff with snake in his right hand, appearing in the dream of the Roman envoy at Epidaurus.

Jules-Élie Delaunay (1828-1891), The Plague of Rome (1869), oil on canvas, 131 x 176.5 cm, Musée d’Orsay, Paris. The Athenaeum.

Although Jules-Élie Delaunay’s The Plague of Rome (1869) is based on the account in Jacques de Voragine’s The Golden Legend, that refers in turn to the story told by Ovid here. A pair of angels were claimed to have appeared, one good, the other bad. The good angel then gave the commands for people to die of the plague, and the bad angel carried the commands out. At the upper right edge of the canvas, the anachronistic white statue shows Aesculapius, who was to be the city’s salvation.

Jacques-Charles Bordier du Bignon (1774-1846) (attr), Aesculapius Routing Death (1822), media not known, dimensions not known, Wellcome Library, London. Courtesy of Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org, via Wikimedia Commons.

A drawing attributed to Jacques-Charles Bordier du Bignon, Aesculapius Routing Death (1822), also appears to have its roots in Rome’s plight. Aesculapius has two staffs, with which he is despatching the ‘grim reaper’ of Death. The woman to the right of Aesculapius has been thought to be Ceres, as she is pouring out her breast milk to feed the starving, something not mentioned in Ovid’s account.

Giovanni Battista Cipriani (1727–1785), Aesculapius Holding a Staff Encircled by a Snake (date not known), media and dimensions not known, Wellcome Library, London. Courtesy of Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org, via Wikimedia Commons.

There are also general representations of the god with his trademark serpentine staff, such as Giovanni Battista Cipriani’s drawing of Aesculapius Holding a Staff Encircled by a Snake, completed before the artist’s death in 1785.

The English translation of Ovid above is taken from Ovid. Metamorphoses. Tr. Brookes More. Boston. Cornhill Publishing Co. 1922, at Perseus. I am very grateful to Perseus at Tufts for this.

Solving update problems with softwareupdate

Posted: 09 Apr 2018 11:30 PM PDT

Between them, the App Store app and its preference pane work fairly well most of the time. There are still some oddities – updates which appear then vanish again – but so long as you leave them to get on with it, they’re fairly reliable. When anything does go wrong, though, they don’t provide the tools to deal with it.

If you cancel or ignore an update, for example, it is all too easy to end up losing that forever. In that event, you’ll need to use the command tool softwareupdate. But don’t, whatever you do, trust its man page: it is incomplete and confusing. If you need more information, type
softwareupdate --help

You’re best off running softwareupdate as an admin user; most of its options require that, and some may even need the elevated privileges of sudo.

Although it has other uses, softwareupdate has three common functions: to list available updates, install them, and clear any that have been marked as ignored. The important additional option for the first two is whether to include system and security updates, which only applies to Sierra and High Sierra, not El Capitan.

The basic command to list available updates is
softwareupdate -l
and in Sierra and High Sierra you can add system and security updates with the --include-config-data option thus
softwareupdate -l --include-config-data
That doesn’t appear to be an option in El Capitan, though.

The basic command to install available updates is
softwareupdate -i
but you’ll probably want to make that more specific. Add an a to the option to specify all appropriate updates
softwareupdate -ia
and, in Sierra and High Sierra (not El Capitan), ensure that system and security updates are included using
softwareupdate -ia --include-config-data

You can also select individual updates to install from the listing obtained using the -l option. Do that with
softwareupdate -i myPackage1.05
to install the update package known as myPackage1.05.

If you have set an update to be ignored and now want to change that, use the command
softwareupdate --reset-ignored
to enable all ignored upates.

Another useful command is that to trigger macOS to perform background checks for system and security updates
sudo softwareupdate --background-critical
which should download and install any that are waiting for you, over the coming ten or twenty minutes.

If any of the above commands fails when you’re logged in as a regular and not admin user, try them from an admin account instead. If that doesn’t do the trick, preface the command with sudo. And if you want fuller details of the other tasks that softwareupdate can perform, check using
softwareupdate --help

Three of these commands are also built into my free app LockRattler, available from Downloads above. That gives you single-click access to the following:
sudo softwareupdate --background-critical (not for El Capitan),
softwareupdate -l --include-config-data, or plain softwareupdate -l for El Capitan,
softwareupdate -ia --include-config-data, or plain softwareupdate -ia for El Capitan.