Among the Lesser Fires: Courtney Love’s Links to the Ancient Augustan Regime

A coin minted during the reign of Caesar Augustus. The comet on the underside, which appeared after Julius Caesar’s death, was used as a symbol of his deification and an adoptive son’s political career. The Latin there reads “Divine Julius”.

(This article contains some potentially offensive language)

I would like to preface this by saying that Hole are a special part of my life, and I owe them a lot. I have carried their lyrics around with me like a particularly angsty and vengeful amulet for the last six or seven years, horrifically misinterpreting them all the while. They have soundtracked countless bus rides to and from school – first relatable, then nostalgic, then relatable again but for different reasons. I even have a folder on my phone specifically for pictures of interesting merchandise (Live Through This snowglobes were released in Germany for a limited run!). Because their discography varies a lot between their three (four?) eras, I usually just stick to one album for a few months at a time – I always find things I never noticed before, or develop a new affinity for a song that was overshadowed in the past.

This year, I grew to love their very early music (I’d class this as 1990-93?). Most of the songs from this period are unforgettable, and showcase the mixture of fantastical lyrics and soft/loud duality that would go on to characterise the band – this is best encapsulated in 20 Years in the Dakota, which I still consider their most outstanding work (but I’ll save that for another post).

Retard Girl, embedded below, recorded in 1990 but properly released in 1997, drew me in with its bassline (which was perfect for my morning trip to school) but didn’t originally charm me with its lyrics. That is, until I realised what the line at about 1:30 was…

The idea of the titular girl being compared to ‘the moon among the lesser fires’ initially seems far, far too romantic for the song; the mixing of grotesque and beautiful imagery in Hole’s discography is something I’m a fan of, but it’s usually done far more artfully than this (some of the songs on Pretty and the Inside, released a year later, use biological terms along with celestial, fairy-tale language and absolutely master it). The profanity of the line after it is just jarring next to this one, and none of the other lyrics carry the same effect. It had piqued my curiosity, and after some research, I found something interesting:

(Thank you, Perseus Digital Archive!)

It was a translated quotation from Horace’s Odes 1.XII! This was the best possible situation! My favourite band of all time using Latin poetry in their lyrics, just as my love for Ovid was reaching dizzying heights! And it seemed to take pride of place for them: here’s the back of the cover of that single, where it’s in the original Latin and an early version of the Pretty on the Inside font (!)

The line also appears in the lyric booklet of Celebrity Skin (released in 1999), as something of a postscript just after Northern Star, a song I’ve always thought of as vaguely Ancient Latin-y anyway. It obviously still meant a lot to Courtney Love (the former song was about her experience of rape, the latter about the spirit of her late husband, Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain; the fact she’d include the same line from Horace, out of all Latin poetry or in fact all published literature, in both songs is pretty miraculous). But the meaning of the line in the original poem might shed some light on things.

The ‘Iulium Sidus’ just before ‘velut inter ignis luna minores’ is in reference to a comet discovered in 44BC, 1034 years before the line was paraphrased on Hole’s debut single. It was named ‘Julius’ Star’ after Julius Caesar, who was assassinated that year, and taken as a sign of his ascension to godly status. In the last book of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, he describes the gods releasing the comet as a portent of bad things to come after Caesar’s assassination:

Translation Brookes More 1922, hosted on the Perseus Digital Archive

Chilling! But the comet wasn’t only taken as a sign of Julius Caesar’s ascension; his nephew, Augustus Caesar, who became Emperor after his death, used the imagery of the star to mark out the apparently divinely-ordained nature of his familial line, and to launch his own political career. The star appears, for example, on coins from his rule. In Virgil’s famous epic The Aeneid, which Augustus loved and published due to its patriotic nature, Aeneas, the future founder of Rome, is compared to a comet himself:

17th century (! I have some thoughts on that too but that’s for another post) translation by John Dryden of Aeneid Book X

The ‘Sidus Iulium’, in short, was used as propaganda, and whether intentional or not, Courtney Love has flattered the Emperor Augustus, just as I despised Virgil for doing, by referencing the comet. In her latter use of the line, however, she wasn’t likening a fictional founder of a seven-hilled city to the Emperor Augustus – rather, she was comparing her own late husband to Julius Caesar:

The late Cobain is depicted here as a cold and unreachable star, almost deified in his heavenly position like Caesar was (perhaps a reference to Cobain’s position in death as a ‘rock god’ who is often accused of overshadowing Love). Perhaps she’s even claiming to uphold the continued empire as a sort of modern Augustus?

The message of Odes 1.XII fits perfectly with that of Northern Star, but it’s still a mystery as to why this line was so important on the Retard Girl single; a song about playground teasing, not death, and written only four months after she had met Kurt – she wasn’t to begin dating him for another year. A literary mystery! Love’s affinity for literature (an urban legend details her being rejected from Disney’s Mickey Mouse Club talent show after reading a Sylvia Plath poem for her audition) ensures she would never have been in short supply of things to reference – again, why Latin, why Horace and why that line?

Have fun shining among the lesser fires this week,