Cicero's The Dream of Scipio from his book, De Re Publica, a dialogue in six books written in 54 B.C. The dream section is actually Cicero's most influential work, particularly for its impact on Medieval and Renaissance writers and philosophers, who frequently commented on it as a springboard for their own philosophies - even though it is but a fragment of a Stoical revision of The Republic of Plato. The dream features Scipio Africanus (the Elder), Roman general in the Second Punic War, against Hannibal, who appears to his descendent, Scipio the Younger (the conqueror of Carthage). What then follows is a sort of cosmological tour which nicely summarizes what an enlightened, Augustan Roman would have thought about the life, the universe and everything (text below from Percy Bullock trans., 1894):

WHEN I came to Africa, where, as you know, I was Tribune to the Fourth Legion of soldiers, under the Consul Manius Manilius, nothing appeared to me more desirable than that I should meet Masinissa, a Monarch who had ever been most friendly to our family for just reasons. When I came to him, the old man, having embraced me, wept, and, after a pause, looked up to Heaven : " Ah, thanks," said he, " to Thee I render, Oh Highest Sun, and to ye other Celestial companions, in that before I depart this life, I am permitted to behold in my own Kingdom and under these skies Publicus Cornelius Scipio, whose name itself refreshes me: for, never from my soul has the memory of that best and most invincible of men departed!"

Then I inquired of him concerning the affairs of his Kingdom, and he of me respecting our Republic; and our day thus passed in lengthened conference. After a royal entertainment our talk again draw out into the far night, when the old man would speak of nothing save the elder Scipio Africanus: everything about him he remembered, not only his deeds, but even his sayings. When, therefore, we parted to retire to rest, what with the journey and our nocturnal sitting, I was more than usually tired and fell sound asleep. Whereupon (as I believe arising out of the subject of our talk ;— for it often happens that our thoughts and conversation produce some such result in sleep as that which Ennius relates to have happened concerning Homer, whom it appears he was frequently accustomed to meditate upon and to talk about during his waking hours) Africanus appeared to me in a form which I recognized more from his bust than from my knowledge of the man himself.

When I recognized him, I trembled indeed: he, however, speaking said, " Take courage and banish fear, Scipio ; commit to memory what I have to say." " Seest thou yonder City, which, compelled by me to submit to the Roman people, yet renews its former wars, unable to remain at peace ? (Here he shewed me Carthage from a certain clear and brilliant spot in the celestial heights, full of. stars) and to the assault of which thou comest, as yet a mere boy ? This City, in two years from the present time, thou as Consul shalt overthrow, and that hereditary name, which hitherto thou bearest from us, shall belong to thee by thine own exertions. When moreover Carthage has been razed by thee, thou shalt effect thy Triumph and be made Censor; then as Legate thou shalt proceed to Egypt, Syria, Asia and Greece, being made Consul a second time during thy absence, and undertaking thy greatest war, destroy Numantia. But when thou are borne upon the triumphal car to the Capitol, thou shalt find the Republic thrown into confusion by the policy of my grandson.

Here, O Africanus, it will be necessary for thee to display to the Fatherland the light of thy spirit, thy genius, and thy wisdom ; at this period of thy life I see but darkly the course of thy destiny, though when thine age shall have completed eight times seven circuits and returns of the Sun, thus bringing thee to the fatal epoch of thy life by the natural circuit of these two numbers (each of which is held to be perfect, the one from a different reason to the other); to thee alone and to thy name the whole State will turn; to thee, as Senator, all good people, the Latin allies and the Latins themselves shall turn ; thou shalt be the one upon whom the whole salvation of the State shall rest, and, lest misfortune befall, it behooves thee as dictator to firmly establish the Republic if you would escape the impious hands of thy kinsmen : " at this portion of the recital Laelius cried out and the others bitterly lamented, but Scipio, smiling slowly, said : "I beseech you not to arouse me from slumber ; peace for a little, and hear the rest."

" But, Africanus, in order that thou mayest be the more devoted to the welfare of the Republic, mark this well: for all those who have guarded, cherished, and assisted their Fatherland, a particular place in Heaven is assigned, where the blessed enjoy everlasting life. For nothing on earth is more acceptable to that supreme Deity who reigns over the whole Universe, than those assemblages and combinations of men united by Law which we call States; the rulers and pre-servers whereof coming forth from this place, return thither." At this point, although I was thoroughly terrified, not so much by the fear of death, as by the treachery of my own kinsmen, I asked notwithstanding whether he himself was really alive and my father Paulus and others whom we believed to be annihilated ? "Yea," said he, "in very truth, those still live who have flown forth from the bonds of the body as from a prison: for indeed, what is called your life, is but a death! Why,dost thou not see thy father Paulus coming to thee ?"

At that sight I indeed burst forth into a flood of tears : he, on the other hand, embracing, kissed me and forbade me to weep ; and then, when my tears had been repressed, and I began to be able to speak, " Prithee tell me," said I, " most revered and excellent father: Since this is life, as I have heard Africanus say. Why do I tarry upon Earth ? Why do I not hasten to come hither to you ? " "It may not be," he replied, "for, unless that Deity who is the Lord of this Universe which thou beholds, shall liberate thee from the prison of your body, hither approaching it is not possible to come. For men are born under this Law to be faithful guardians of that Globe which thou seest in the midst of this Universe and which is called the Earth : and a Soul has been given to them from those sempiternal fires which you call Stars and Constellations ; these being spherical and globular bodies, animated with divine Souls, pursue their circling orbits with marvelous celerity. Wherefore, 0 Publius, both by thee and all pious persons, the Soul should be retained in the keeping of the body: not without His command, by whom that Soul is given to you, must it depart from mortal life, lest you should appear to be untrue to that duty to Mankind which has been assigned to you by the Deity. But do thou cultivate justice and piety, O Scipio, following in the steps of thy Grandsire and of myself, who begat thee.

These qualities, although excellent among parents and relations, become still more noble when practiced towards one's Country: through this life lies the road to Heaven and to the assemblage of those, who have already lived upon earth and now, released from the body, inhabit this place which thou seest (this Sphere shone forth with the most resplendent brightness amid blazing stars) and which, after the Greeks, you call the Milky Way. From this place all other bodies appeared to my gaze exceedingly bright and marvelous. There were, moreover, those Stars which are never seen from Earth : and the magnitude of all of them were such as I’ve have never suspected : among these I beheld the smallest to be tlie farthest from Heaven and the nearest to Earth, shining with a borrowed Light. Moreover, the spheres of the Stars far transcended the size of the Earth. Thus, the Earth itself already appeared small to me, so that I was grieved to observe how small a part of its surface we in reality occupy." As I continued to gaze steadfastly, Africanus continuing said, " How long wilt thy mind remain riveted to the Earth ? Dost thou not behold into how glorious a Temple thou art come ?

Now know that the Universe consists of nine circles or rather Spheres, all connected together, one of which is celestial and the furthest off, embracing all the rest, the supreme Deity preserving and governing the others. In this sphere are traced the eternal revolutions of the Stars and to it are subject the seven spheres which revolve backwards with a contrary motion to that of the Celestial Sphere.

The first (of these Seven) Spheres is occupied by the Star which on Earth is called Saturn.

Next comes the sphere of that splendid Star, salutary and fortunate to the human race, called Jupiter.

Then comes the Red Sphere, terrible to the Earth, which you call Mars,

Following beneath these spheres, and in almost the middle region, is placed the Sun, the Leader, Chief and Governor of the other Lights, the mind of the World and the organizing principle,—of such wondrous magnitude that it illuminates and impregnates every part of the Universe with its Light.

The Spheres of Venus and Mercury in their respective courses follow the Sun as companions.

In the lowest Sphere the Moon revolves illumined by the rays of the Sun.

Below this in truth nothing exists which is not subject to death and decay, save indeed the Souls, which by the gift of the Gods are bestowed upon the human race.

Above the Moon all things are eternal, but the sphere of the Earth, which occupies a middle place and comes ninth does not move: it is the lowest and to it all ponderable bodies are born by their own gravity."

When I had recovered from my amazement at the sight of these things, "What," said I, "is this sweet and wondrous melody which fills my ears ? " "This," said he, "is that harmony, which, affected by the mingling of unequal intervals, yet notwithstanding in harmonious proportions and with reason so separated, is due to the impulse and movement of the spheres themselves : the light with the heavier tones combined, the various sounds uniformly going to make up one grand symphony. For, not with silence, can such motions be urged forward, and Nature leads us to the conclusion that the extremes give forth a low note at the one end and a high note at the other. Thus the celestial sphere, whose motion in its starlight course is more rapid, gives forth a sharp and rousing sound : the gravest tone being that of the lunar sphere, which is lowest; but the Earth, the ninth sphere, remains immovable, always fixed in the lowest seat encompassing the middle place of the Universe.

Moreover, the motions of those eight spheres which are above the earth, and of which the force of two is the same, cause seven sounds supported by regular intervals ; which number is the connecting principle of almost all things. Learned men, having imitated this divine mystery with stringed instruments and vocal harmonies, have won for themselves a return to this place, just as others, who, endowed with superior wisdom, have cultivated the divine sciences even in human life." " Now to this melody the stopped ears of men have become deaf; nor is there any duller sense in you. Just as at that place which is called Catadupa, where the Nile falls from the highest Mountains, the people living there lose the sense of hearing on account of the magnitude of the sound, so, indeed, such a tremendous volume of sound arises from the rapid revolution of the whole Cosmos that the ears of men are not capable of receiving it, just as you are unable to look straight at the Sun whose rays would blind the eye and conquer the sense."

Filled with wonder at these things, my eyes ever and anon wandered back to Earth. Hereupon Africanus said: "I perceive that even now you gaze upon the habitation and abode of mortals. But, if it appear as small to thee, as indeed it is, thus seen, strive ever after these heavenly things and lightly esteem those of earth. For what glory or renown really worthy of being sought after canst thou derive from the mouths of men. Thou seest that the earth is inhabited in scattered places confined within narrow limits, such inhabited regions are in themselves mere specks upon its surface with vast wildernesses intervening : and those who dwell upon the earth are not only separated thus, so that no communication is possible amongst them from the one to the other, but they occupy positions partly oblique, partly transverse, partly even opposite to yours; from these you can certainly hope for no glory. Also thou wilt perceive this same earth to be, as it were, circumscribed and encircled by zones, two of which, the most widely separated and situated at each end under the very poles of heaven, are ice-bound as thou seest: while the middle and largest zone is burnt up with the heat of the Sun.

Two zones are habitable, one of which lies to the South, those who dwell therein planting footsteps opposite to your own, and having nothing to do with your race. As to the other zone which you inhabit, and which is subject to the North wind, see how very slender a part has to do with you: for the whole surface inhabited by your race, restricted towards the poles and wider laterally, is indeed but a small island surrounded by the sea, which you call on earth the Atlantic, the Great Sea, or Ocean. Yet, notwithstanding its name, it is but small as thou seest. How then is it possible that from these known and cultivated countries either thy name or that of any of us can cross those Caucasian Mountains, which thou seest, or pass beyond the Ganges ? Who, in the remaining parts of the East, in the uttermost regions of the wandering Sun, either in Northern or Southern Climes, will hear thy name ? So then, with these parts taken away, dost thou indeed perceive within what narrow limits your glory seeks to spread itself; and how long even will those who sing your praises continue to do so ? "Yea, indeed, if generations hence posterity shall seek to perpetuate the fame of anyone of us handed down from father to son, yet notwithstanding, on account of fire and flood, which will inevitably happen at certain fixed periods of time, we are unable to attain lasting renown, much less eternal glory.

Moreover, of what importance are the things which shall be said concerning thee by those to be born hereafter, when no one who existed before will then be alive ? More especially, when of those same men who are to come, not one will be able to remember the events of even one year. Now, according to common custom, men usually measure the year merely by the return of the sun, or, in other words, by the revolution of one star. But when the whole of the constellations shall return to the original positions from which they once set forth, thus restoring at long intervals the original configuration of the Heavens, then can that be truly called ' the Great Year,' within which period, I scarcely dare say how many generations of men are comprised. For, just as in time past, when the Soul of Romulus entered into these sacred abodes, the Sun appeared to fail and be extinguished, so when the Sun shall again fail in the same position and at the same time, then, when the Signs of the Zodiac shall have returned to their original position, and the Stars are recalled, the cycle of the Great Year shall be accomplished; of this enormous period of time, know that not a twentieth part has yet passed away. " Wherefore, if thou despairest of a speedy return to this quarter, wherein all things are prepared for great and excellent men, pray of what value is that human glory which can scarcely endure the smallest part of one cycle ? And so, if you would look on high and fix your gaze on this state and your eternal home, thou shalt pay no heed to vulgar talk, neither allow thy actions to be influenced by the hope of human rewards. True virtue for its own sake should lead thee to real glory.

Leave to others the care of ascertaining what they may say of you : they will assuredly speak of you beyond all doubt. Human fame is wholly restricted within these narrow limits which thou seest, and never at any time has anyone gained immortal renown, for that is impossible through the annihilation of men and the oblivion of posterity.' Whereon I said, " If indeed O, Africanus, for those who have deserved well of their country a Path, as it were, lies open to Heaven —although from my youth up I have followed in the footsteps of yourself and my father, and never tarnished your great renown—now nevertheless, with such a prospect before me, I will strive much more vigilantly." " Strive on," said he, " with the assurance that it is not you who are subject to death, but your body. For thou art not what this form appears to be, but the real man is the thinking principle of each one—not the bodily form which can be pointed out with the finger. Know this, then, that thou art a God, inasmuch as Deity is that which has Will, sensation, memory, foresight, and who so rules, regulates and moves the body to which his charge is committed, just as the supreme Deity does the Universe, and as the Eternal God directs this Universe, which is in a certain degree subject to decay, so a sempiternal Soul moves the frail body. "

Now, that which is always in motion is eternal, whereas that which only communicates motion, and which itself is put in motion by some other cause, must necessarily cease when the motive impulse is withdrawn. Accordingly that alone which moves spontaneously because it is ever all itself, never indeed ceases to move, and is moreover the source of motion in all things. Now a primary cause is not derived from any other cause; for forth from that do all things proceed, and from no other. That which springs from something else cannot be the primary cause, and if this indeed never had a commencement, neither will it ever have an end. For the primal cause once destroyed could neither be generated afresh from any other thing, nor itself produce anything else : for all things must necessarily proceed from the primal cause. This eternal principle of all Motion arises out of that which is moved by itself and of itself, and cannot therefore be born or perish; or else of necessity the whole heavens must collapse, and all Nature come to a standstill, unable any longer to derive the impulse by which it was set in motion at the first. "Since, accordingly, it is manifest that that is eternal which moves of itself, who will deny this eternal principle to be a natural attribute of Souls. For everything which is moved by an external impulse is inanimate : but that, on the other hand, which energizes from within is truly animated, and this is the peculiar operation of the Soul. If then the Soul is the one thing above all, which is self motive, it certainly is not born, but eternal.

Do thou then exercise this Soul of thine in the noblest pursuits: solicitude and care for the welfare of one's country are the best: for, animated and controlled by these sentiments, the Soul passes more swiftly to this sphere—its true home. And this may be the more speedily achieved if, while imprisoned in the body, it shall rise superior to terrestrial limitations, and by the contemplation of those things which are beyond the body, it shall abstract itself to the greatest degree from its earthly tabernacle. " For the Souls of men who have delivered themselves over to the desires of the body, and of those women who, as abettors, have surrendered themselves, and by the impulse of passions obedient to sensual gratifications, have violated the laws of God and of Man, once liberated from the body, are whirled around this world, and such tortured Souls will not return to this place, save after many centuries." Here he ceased, and I awoke from sleep.

Also a 2002 novel by Iain Pears, reviewed here:
"It was the first section of a twenty page manuscript in Olivier's hand which kept Julien awake at night in excitement, when he finally made the connection and understood its importance. According to Manlius. A brief sentence which meant nothing to most people, but all the world to him. In a moment of jest he said it was worth selling his soul for." (6)

      A "novel of ideas". The skeptic bell should duly sound for any who come across that useless yet ubiquitous bit of cant. Pretty difficult to respect the critical apparatus of any book reviewer (alas, they are legion) who would launch their exploration to such hollow tones. It is a phrase which tells us about as much as, say, calling a new tome a "set of words". Typically brought out for those challenging occassions when a reviewed is confronted with something minutely more complex than a disposable airport novel, of whichever spy/lawyer/shopping/serial killer mélange. The point remains, it still says nothing meaningful. For if a novel doesn't have ideas, one wonders why spill all that ink, fell all those trees? Would you not just cut straight to the screenplay?
      Browsing through a dozen or so reviews and interviews attending to Iain Pears (of An Instance of the Fingerpost fame) newest offering, The Dream of Scipio (Knopf, 2002), I stumbled over this phrase several times, usually used in conjunction (to make matters worse) with some lazy, askew comparison, be it to Peter Ackroyd, Julian Barnes, or most inexplicably, Ian McEwan. Which is when I realized "a novel of ideas" is actually an underhanded slight, a veiled criticism, a set-piece convention on the basis of which a book reviewer can then go on to relate shrill admonitions:

" army of words escorting a corporal of thought." or,
"Pears left out the mystery"1 or,
"The plot has more in common with an academic treatise than with a thriller," or, my personal fave,
"Julia and Julien do make love, but the scene comes well beyond halfway through the book, and is dismissed in a sentence."2
      In other words, it is dismissed as novel by this bureau of Camp Critical on the grounds, a) it falters from the six pages - sex scene - six pages - sex scene form which has so rewarded North American readers, b) mystery fails to unfold in the locked room, who-ever-you-least-expect-it-did-it, who will die next mode, and/or c) the narrative arc will actually require the reader to think, and, horror of horrors, possibly learn from the experience.

"Caius was one of those who glorified in his ignorance, called his lack of letters purity, scorned any subtlety of thought or expression. A man of his time, indeed. Once, and not so long ago, he would have fallen silent in embarrassment at his lack of knowledge; now it was the knowledgeable who had to mind their tongues." (16)

      The novel is set in three different epochs: the fifth century as the Roman Empire implodes and what we have traditionally called the Dark Ages begins, then the 14th c. as religious wars and the Black Death begin to decimate Europe, and finally during World War II as the continent is swept under tank tread, artillery barrage and buzz-bomb. These calamities, however, only frame the triple crux, a struggling couple in each of the time periods, linked together across centuries and war by their art, writings, ideas and mutually-felt reflections on violence, loyalty, death and collapse. Cheery, no? Three men: Manlius Hippomanes, Bishop of Vaison in Gaul; Olivier de Noyen, medieval poet and bookworm under the Avignon Papacy; and Julien Barneuve, historical scholar living in Vichy France, are the voices of the novel. None of these men, in the end, are nearly as moral or clever as they believe (our type has an insufferably long history) yet each has an admired woman in their life who still suffer them gladly. Each figure is divided (and eventually felled) by their sense of public duty and private adoration, each is troubled by a resonant past and darkening future, each worries for their loved one as all around worlds literally collapse. A recurrent motif is that the world can end more than once, that in fact it has already done so many times. As barbarian tribes swarm across the Roman frontiers, Manlius reassures a nervous friend: "We are the civilized world, you and I. As long as we continue to stroll through my garden arm in arm, civilization will continue," but flash-forward in a historical flash as German tanks grind toward the exact same hillside, Julien finds the state of culture precariously balance: "civilization needs to be nurtured, cosseted, and protected from those who would damage needs constant attention." Or as Julien finds himself waxing romantic (and Pears, deadpan) earlier on from the basement of some dingy archive,

"The world needs only a few geniuses; civilization is maintained and extended by those lesser souls who corral the men of greatness, tie them down with explanations and footnotes and annotated editions, explain what they meant when they did not know themselves, show their true place ... he considered himself in a small way a crusader for the true values of civilization, burning with love and life in an age which valued neither." (23)

      To parasphrase one reviewer, there is little cleverness to Pears' writing. Pomo critics would likely tear a strip off the narrative (and I shudder to think how the Three Tenors of Critical Theory or their disciples would unpack such a textual-centric, power-focused storyline). Linguistic play and stylistic fancy are left to the Amises of the world, etymology for its own sake to the Ecoes. The Dream of Scipio sets its mark somewhere unfashionably higher - and moves unapologetically towards it instead, something very much like wisdom. The mysteries are still there (even if many reviewers are quite often blind to, or simply don't care about, a mystery lest it involve a still oozing corpse). How did the ancient, fragile works of knowledge survive the Dark Ages? Where did the later heretics come from and what might have happened to those who escaped the Church's wrath? Why were the Jews made scapegoats by the Church and why, despite this, did Pope Clement VI extend his protection to the Jews during the years of the Black Death? Pears tackles all these uncertainties, which in turn shaped modern Europe, and many more personal and moral puzzles as well in the course of the work: Imagine for example that the only woman you love opens her door to the police. They curtly ask her name, is she Jewish? In 1943, in a defeated, collaborationist France, that knock on the door was the only hearing you received as a Jew before you found youself on a train platform bound for a "work camp" in Germany. However, let us also suppose you could save here, say, by just informing on a childhood friend of yours, now a leader in the Resistance. You never liked him much anyway. Simple as that and your beloved is free. That is much deeper mystery, a moral puzzle. It is one of Pears' talents, as a fablemaker, to show how crises create vacuums, of both power and truth, and that personal and private morality always bend to these circumstances.
      But another wonderful aspect is the path Pears traces through the centuries with ancient texts and ideas, how they transmit though time, evolve in both form and meaning, and with each new interpretation add some re-emergent strangeness to the stories of the world. All through its pages, the novel dwells on the arcane means by which history is set down and made to last, while also lingering more romantically on how ghosts affect relationships. The tension between the two strains lend the story a saddened, almost autumnal air. Pears writes how "most of Manlius' great library was burned…the old rolls, the newly copied codices alike, were taken to the courtyard and destroyed…the bonfire burned brightly for more than three hours as his precious Ammianus, Tacitus, Ovid, Terence and Palutus went up in flames so their owner's purity would burn more brightly in posterity…none were needed, many were scandalous, all must go." (p.16) Manlius's books burn at his workers hands to protect his reputation, but "The Dream of Scipio" survives, hidden inside what seems to be a Christian codex. It sits in a Church archive for 300 years until that library, too, burns. But before that disaster, "The Dream" is transcribed again, and eventually it falls to Olivier de Noyen to copy, his work resting in the Vatican library for another six centuries, until finally Julien Barneuve rediscovers it as Nazi Germany mangles most of old Europe. This is the way manuscripts actually get handed down, as any codicologist or medievalist can attest. That Pears makes such compelling romance of the history itself (as opposed to a historical romance) in the course of his tale makes a tribute to both his fictive craft and historical Muses. Inspired, if not inspiring; nuanced, if not wholly new, this is a resilient, riveting re-vision.

1 Jonathan Heawood, "Lost in France", May 26, 2002,
2Sharon Barrett : "Heavy slogging through the centuries", June 23, 2002, - Ms. Barrett labors under the pithy impression that there can be only a single theme for any given work (she is a journalism professor, after all). She nicely renders this as follows, "civilization is always being threatened. Throughout the centuries, Ignorance, a major enemy of civilization, is always on the doorstep." A notion both wrong-headed, wrongly phrased, and finally just plain wrong. The novel puts forth a multitude of interesting propositions about our safe notions of civility, barbarism, culture and knowledge - but her reading misses all of them by an country mile. She either didn't read the second half of the novel, or she was interpreting at roughly a grade three level. So vapid is the literalism, I suspect most of her pupils would actually best her analysis. She probably does all her lectures in nicely bulleted PowerPoint lists. Pity the children.
3 Geraldine Brooks, "Time and Again" - Sunday, June 23, 2002; Page BW08, and Ron Charles, "Civilization in twilight: Three moments when the flame was almost extinguished", Christian Science Monitor; and Stephen Smith, "Lust, betrayal, secrets, murder", Saturday, June 22, 2002,