Eights Week in Oxford always heralds the approach of midsummer. The various college boats strive to outdo each other on the river, with triumph and disaster being part and parcel of the experience. Everyone begins in the position that they held at the end of last year’s competition; the universal plan is to finish further up the ladder, but inevitably with the success of one crew comes failure for another. The dodo’s verdict in Alice In Wonderland that “everybody has won and all must have prizes” is foreign to the Isis, as our stretch of the Thames is known.
It was a good year for the club whose colours I hold and wear; there were many happy sunburnt faces on the banks and in The Bear afterwards. The Eights always make me think of Virgil, and the great rowing race that takes place in the fifth book of his Aeneid, in which four galleys compete in honour of the memory of Anchises, Aeneas’ father. His mother was held to be Venus, which raises all sorts of other questions, but I suppose one has to meet the story on its own terms.
“They clustered at the shore, a merry band,” Virgil tells us, “some as spectators, others as competitors”. The “well-matched” ships are Centaur, Chimera, Sea Dragon and Scylla; they are captained by Sergestus, Gyas, Mnestheus and Cloanthus respectively. Each craft is driven by triple ranks of oars; “they drew lots for starting positions, and the captains on the sterns were dressed magnificently in purple and gold, sparkling in the distance.” All set off after a clear trumpet note gives the signal; high drama soon ensues.
Amid shouting and the thrashing of water into foam, Gyas takes the lead, but Chimera turns too wide at the halfway point and loses her advantage. Centaur overtakes, but Sergestus miscalculates and drives her onto rocks. Scylla and Sea Dragon race neck-and-neck to the finish; Cloanthus only bests Mnestheus after praying to the gods of the ocean. So delighted is Aeneas with the day’s sport that he distributes lavish gifts to all concerned, with a special care for Sergestus, who has managed to dislodge his craft and bring her and her crew safely back to shore.
Narrating the closing moments, Virgil captures the tension between the physical and the metaphysical elements of the world as the pagans knew it. The crew of Scylla only triumph because of the intervention of their gods; that of Sea Dragon relies on its own skill. “Possunt quia posse videntur,” he writes: “They can because they think they can.” Mnestheus’ men might have succeeded because they believed in themselves, had Cloanthus not promised his idols that he would “gladly set a snow-white bull before your altars… throw the entrails into the salt water, and pour out pure wine.”
This tale of a competition in which the winner prevails through the perceived intervention of his deities, such as they are, finds its Christian fulfilment in St Paul. The prize becomes Christ himself, and the race the life of discipleship. “All the runners at the stadium are trying to win,” he warns, “but only one of them gets the prize. You must run in the same way, meaning to win. All the fighters at the games go into strict training; they do this just to win a wreath that will wither away, but we do it for a wreath that will never wither.”
Perhaps it’s worth reflecting on whether the great apostle to the Gentiles knew Virgil’s story himself; certainly the Aeneid was one of the best-known Latin texts among the literati of the preceding generation, Paul having been born only about two or three decades after Virgil died. Is it too much to hope that some clever scholar will be able to demonstrate that Paul had in fact read and enjoyed the great sea scene in the Aeneid himself, and later determined that he would mine it for his own purposes, and then transfigure its broad themes into a preaching tool?
Either way, to further his mission of evangelism, Paul certainly co-opted imagery of the sporting contests in the ancient world that he and his readers knew well. This was clearly no accident, for his detestation of paganism and its associated idolatry is well-recorded. Among other stories, it is hard not to feel just a bit sorry for Demetrius, doing his best to earn a crust making silver shrines of Diana at Ephesus. “It is on this industry that we depend for our prosperity,” he complained. “This man Paul has persuaded and converted a great number of people with his argument that gods made by hand are not gods at all.”
St Paul would have approved of many of the lessons of Eights Week; in the evident effectiveness of discipline, determination, endurance and comradeship he would have found metaphors galore. What he would have thought and written of the hearty celebrations at the boat houses, the overindulgence of the boat club dinners, and the burning of boats by the victors (ostensibly to return their spirits to the gods of the river) is another matter entirely, of course.
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