in Bertrams

Chapter 38 – Cairo

the Sir Omicron of the Hurst Staple district

At the beginning of this chapter, it is revealed that Arthur’s health is in decline.  In order to remedy this, his physician tells him that he should travel to Egypt.  Trollope names the doctor only as the “Sir Omicron of the Hurt Staple district.”  Sir Omicron was the physician Harcourt cited in the previous chapter as having recommended that Caroline quit London for the sake of her health. As previously discussed, Omicron is a Greek letter that serves to associate the physician with the prestige of Classical (and specifically Greek) medicine.  [CMC 2012]

No doubt there is some humor intended by so referring to a country doctor, even a well-respected one.  [RR 2012]


so we will pass on

Trollope chooses to skip over a description of the journey that George and Arthur take to get to Alexandria, instead inserting the reader directly into a description of the city.  The technique of mentioning something only to state that it will not be mentioned is called praeterito.  Given the expansive nature of the plot both geographically and temporally, this is of useful practical significance to Trollope.  Further, it allows him to progress immediately into a description of Egypt and its cities.  [CMC 2012]



Trollope begins the Egyptian portion of the novel with a lengthy lamentation regarding the modern state of the city of Alexandria.  Founded by Alexander the Great, Alexandria was once the center of the Hellenistic world.  It was known all over the Mediterranean as a nexus of science, learning, and culture.  Trollope contrasts this with the current city.  This supports the Victorian image of England as the successor to the Hellenistic and Roman world.  If London is the new center of the world, than it makes sense for the previous cities which occupied this seat to have decayed.  [CMC 2012]

Source:  OCD.


auri sacra fames

In describing modern Alexandria, Trollope states that the motto of modern Greece is auri sacra fames, “the cursed greed of gold.”  This is part of a line from the Aeneid, where Vergil points out that a lust for gold will drive men to the worst things.  Trollope is using this quotation to contrast the virtue of ancient Greece, to which England sees itself as the successor, and modern Greece, which according to Trollope is beset by greedy men.  [CMC 2012]

The adjective sacra can be translated as either “cursed” or “holy,” and both meanings are at play in the Latin phrase:  the inordinate desire for gold as if it were holy leads becomes a terrible trouble.  Trollope imagines his modern Greeks as seeing gold as sacred, while Trollope himself suggests that a driving desire for it is accursed.  [RR 2012]

Source:  Vergil, Aeneid 3.56.


auri sacrissima fames

Trollope uses a play on part of a line from the Aeneid to describe the foreigners that live in modern Alexandria.  Trollope modifies the adjective in the original line (sacra) to its superlative form (sacrissima).  It can now be rendered into English as “most accursed [or most holy] greed of gold.”   Trollope highlights the utter moral decay of modern Alexandria when compared to its illustrious (idealized) past.  It is this past, and not the greedy modern incarnation, that Trollope’s Victorian audience would have identified with and seen themselves as heirs to.  [CMC 2012]


Pharos, Pompey’s Pillar, Cleopatra’s Needle

In describing Alexandria, Trollope lingers on some of the better-known physical landmarks of the city.  Pharos was the island in the harbor at Alexandria that had once held the great lighthouse, a marvel of Hellenistic engineering and a testament to the city’s mercantile importance.  It is also considered one of the Wonders of the Ancient World.  Pompey’s Pillar is a large triumphal column.  Pompey was a contemporary of Caesar and friend of the Ptolemys of Egypt; he was eventually killed in Egypt on the orders of Ptolemy XIII during the Civil War that ended the Roman Republic.  Cleopatra’s Needle is an obelisk:  a square column topped with a pyramid and carved with hieroglyphics.  All of these physical landmarks have strong associations with the grand Classical past of the city.  They are used by Trollope as a contrast to the modern state of the city.  It is Alexandria’s Classical past that Trollope’s audience would have identified with.  [CMC 2012]



George and Arthur are reminiscing on their past few years while viewing the pyramids.  George asks Arthur to remember back to when they had just completed their university degrees and he had been so full of triumph while Arthur had been in despair.  Triumph here is the being used in the Roman sense of the word, as the language Trollope used to describe George at that point in the novel had military connotations.  Here, George is anything but triumphant, and that characterization is heightened by the contrast the character himself draws with his past, care-free self.  [CMC 2012]


Lucifer and Pandemonium

George and Arthur are observing a whirling dervish, a member of the Muslim Sufi sect involved in a mystical relationship with Allah.  Part of Sufi ritual involves spinning until the point of exhaustion.  The groans of the participants are described as being like the legions of Lucifer within the bowels of Pandemonium.  Lucifer is another name for Satan, used by John Milton in Paradise Lost.  Pandemonium is literally “the place of all demons,” a word coined by Milton using Greek elements.  In Paradise Lost, Milton closely associated the Classical past with the forces of Satan.  Here, Trollope is tapping into that same idea, only he is conflating Classics, Satan, and Islam.  [CMC & RR 2012]



As George and Arthur watch the climax of the ritual, Trollope describes the sounds that the participants make as coming from Tartarus itself.  Tartarus was the deepest part of the Greek Underworld.  This reference continues Trollope’s association of Islam with Classics and the Christian Hell.  It is a very tidy way of communicating to his audience what one Victorian attitude toward Islam was.  [CMC 2012]