Wednesday, March 15, 2017


Scott McGill, Joseph Pucci (ed.), Classics Renewed: Reception and Innovation in the Latin Poetry of Late Antiquity. Bibliothek der klassischen Altertumswissenschaften. NF, 152. Heidelberg: Universitätsverlag Winter, 2016. Pp. 432. ISBN 9783825364489. €48.00.

Reviewed by David Ungvary, Harvard University (

Version at BMCR home site

[Authors and titles are listed below.]

Classics Renewed: Reception and Innovation in the Latin Poetry of Late Antiquity explores various modes in which Late Latin poetry engaged creatively with the classical tradition. Together with Jaś Elsner and Jesús Hernández Lobato's The Poetics of Late Latin Literature (Oxford 2017), this rich collection of fifteen essays stands as one of two major collaborative volumes to appear in the last year on the subject of late and post Roman verse. Organized chronologically by subject, the essays in Classics Renewed chart a long and winding course across five hundred years of literary terrain, from Juvencus' groundbreaking biblical epic of the fourth century to Hrabanus Maurus' mesmerizing carmina figurata of the ninth. Despite the diverse content and many critical models, readers remain oriented thanks to consistently transparent engagement with scholarship, helpful literary-historical contextualization, and keen methodological self-awareness. The editors, moreover, have produced a collection that achieves marvelous coherence of purpose. Each contribution is clearly motivated by the conviction that "what really sets late antique poets apart from earlier authors is what they did with the cultural past to which they were bound" (15). In this spirit, the essays offer sophisticated analyses of reconfigurations, appropriations, and imitations Late Latin poets performed on and with classical source material.

Marc Mastrangelo's "Toward a Poetics of Late Latin Reuse" attempts to shape a critical lens for examining the production and consumption of classicizing verse in the fourth, fifth, and sixth centuries. To begin, the author describes the "historical conditions of Late Latin reuse," a set of three challenges faced by all poets who wrote amid the fourth-century Christianization of the Roman elite: 1) a dual anxiety of influence attached to biblical and classical literary traditions 2) the novelties of Christian doctrine and shifting political structures 3) and the "trivialization and pigeonholing of poetry by Christian thinkers" (28). Under these conditions, Latin poets were galvanized into intense dialectical action. One response entailed using textual "tools of reuse" to make allusive poetry that could generate power from the past to "[propel] the reader toward monumental ideological commitments and choices" (38). Mastrangelo argues that, in the late antique period and especially among Christians, poetic intertextuality was transparently motivated by a stable idea of poetic practice. From perceived ideological constancy he extrapolates "a convergence of late antique poet and reader and, therefore, of critic, poet, and reader as an engine of interpretation" (44). The literary critic is therefore uniquely enabled to presume Christian Latin poets' intentions and readers' expectations.

Mastrangelo's model, positioned at the front of the volume, pulls readers to consider how ensuing contributions attract to or repel from its constituent arguments with various force. His essay is strongest in articulating the interpretive challenges introduced by allusion and intertextuality, and in reviewing past scholarly attempts to describe their place in late antique poetry (33-40). To extract meaning from allusion he proposes balancing a reader-oriented methodology against historicist logic with attention to author and context (39). Discussion of these issues is recast and repeated at numerous points in the volume, frequently within explorations of the programmatic potential of late antique poetic allusion. In an essay on Juvencus, Scott McGill demonstrates how the first biblical epicist utilized Virgilian poetry to underscore the epic character of his literary endeavor, and to construct an allusive dialogue with the classical past beneath the text's surface. McGill's analyses of particular passages add to the cache of compelling allusions to Virgil, sometimes contrasting, other times complementary, that readers of Juvencus have long treasured. But he also finds a place for the "good majority of instances [where] a connection cannot be drawn between the substance of a line in Juvencus and the substance of a Virgilian line" (66). McGill argues that such nonreferential intertextuality, intentional or not, has the double-edged effect of Christianizing epic vocabulary while epicizing biblical content (66). E.J. Hutchinson's complementary chapter on Virgilian Kontrastimitation in Sedulius' Carmen Paschale expertly reexplains the literary critical obscurities of allusion (265-274). But Hutchinson probably overreaches for Sedulius' allusive agenda — "to Christianize Roman epic" (269) — when he encourages inductively classifying cases of non-referential intertext as programmatically designed, and when he uses a subjugation metaphor, reminiscent of the passé conflict model of pagan-Christian interaction, to conclude "Virgil, too, is made to bow the knee and confess that Christ is Lord" (296).

Sigrid Schottenius Cullhed's article on Proba's Cento illustrates how the poet employed intertextual strategies to weave "patterns of coherence" into her patchwork text (98). In her persuasive reading of the Virgilian aspects of Proba's persona she shows how the author consistently lent herself the voice of the Aeneid's prophetic figures, such as Anchises, the Sibyl, Silenus, and Proteus (107-9). Cullhed succeeds in revealing the unity that a poem of fragments creates between Virgil and the biblical tradition, guided by a self-styled Christian prophetess whose message was "to declare that Virgil sang about the pious feats of Christ" (Cento 23, trans. Cullhed, 109). The cento appears again as "auto-cento" and "atomic cento" in David F. Bright's illuminating study of Hrabanus Maurus' In honorem Sanctae Crucis (IHSC). In the cycle's 28 carmina figurata, individual letters belonging to metrical lines of subtext are circumscribed and recombined by a visual superstructure to make new words and phrases called intexti. (Luckily this is made easier to grasp by the inclusion of six color reproductions of manuscript folia, though the codex is uncited.) While verbal echoes of Lucretius are absent in IHSC, Hrabanus' competitive engagement with the ancient poet elsewhere authorizes Bright to construct a compelling interpretation of his Lucretian poetics. The dynamics of the figural poems show affinity with a metaliterary analogy Lucretius makes between atomic formation of matter and literal formation of words (e.g., De rerum natura 2.86-94). Hrabanus centonizes his own text, "detaching [an individual letter] from the word it is currently helping to build and using it in a new combination of atomic letters" (378) as his lines graphically "swerve" to meet the shape of figurae. These novel forms of meticulously planned reuse and reconfiguration challenge Lucretius by artistically representing the intricacies of divine design that the Epicurean had dismissed (378). Bright shows how Christian poets could confront non-Christian metaphysics and ideologies of the classical past without allusion.

Mention of ideology brings us back to Mastrangelo's piece. Though he rightly advocates for a heavier dose of historicism and an appreciation of Christian ideology in Late Latin literary criticism, his argument does not put forward the same level of refined thought on these issues as on allusion. He leaves his concept of ideology wholly undefined. His criteria for the "patristic conventions of poetic practice" (43) buttress a notion of late antique Christian poetic ideology more static, monolithic, "all-consuming" (40), and less contested and tessellated than evidence would seem to suggest. True, Gerard O'Daly's elegant explication of Prudentius' total reconceptualization of versification as Christian activity confirms many of Mastrangelo's suppositions. But O'Daly would seem to suggest that Prudentius' particular poetic methods and the ascetic, "special strand of reflection on the nature and purpose of poetry" running through his corpus were distinctive (239). Neither Mastrangelo nor the book as a whole treats such poets as Sidonius Apollinaris and Ennodius, for example, in whose writing tensions between Christian commitments and secular literary habits fluctuate dramatically.

Several chapters in the volume, however, do expose the problematic consequences of maintaining an over-simple vision of Christian ideologies and their relation to poetry. Michael W. Herren's essay "Dracontius, the Pagan Gods, and Stoicism" comes first to mind in this regard. He seeks to understand why a professing Christian poet "invested his talents in rewriting the mythological tales of ancient Greece for a Christian and Arian readership in North Africa" (297), and posits the mediating influence of Stoicism. Herren suggests Stoicism endowed Dracontius with methods of exegesis that could accommodate the pagan gods as symbols representing "delusions" and passions (especially erotic desires) that lead to sin (320). His essay addresses and then disappointingly abandons the possibility that such fiction may simply have been authorized in fifth- and sixth-century Africa, which generated such fantastical writers as Martianus Capella and Fulgentius the Mythographer. And he does not cite Jonathan Conant's now essential monograph on the Vandal period, which shows how late antique North Africans fervently wished to be culturally Roman.1 Nevertheless, Herren's argument is admirable for its fundamental assumption that Christian ideology was not always transparent nor "all-consuming," but rather often in subtle negotiation with non-Christian worldviews.

Dennis Trout's chapter on the explosion of epigraphic verse in fourth-century Rome enriches the discussion of late antique poetry's social and political power and reach. In the first part of the paper, he argues that allusive references among metrical inscriptions on Constantine's arch, Constantius' obelisk, and Constantina's basilica at the cemetery of Saint Agnes along the Via Nomentana indicate a high-stakes poetic strategy of "verbal and monumental interplay" implemented by imperial benefactors, who counted on the close-reading Roman public to draw connections among them (86). Another part of the paper examines this phenomenon within Christian verse epitaphs, paying special attention to verbal interactions with Damasus' epigrams. Trout finds evidence of allusion to the bishop's poetry that evinces "the allure of commemorative verse at social levels considerably lower than those occupied by Rome's late fourth-century bishops" (90). His study convincingly shows how Christian inscriptional verse was not limited to a fixed set of a fixed set of ideologically homogenous elite authors and patrons. It was up for grabs, available for use and reuse to a diverse "community of often otherwise unknown poets, patrons, and readers" as a means for making political and ideological claims of identity (95).

Classics Renewed is not only about Christian Latin poetry, of course. One of the most thought-provoking studies of poetic reference in the volume is Ian Fielding's chapter on the relationship between the secular sixth-century elegist Maximianus and Philodemus, the Greek epigrammatist of the first century BC. Much work remains to be done on bilingual allusion in late antique poetry, as a fascinating workshop at Ghent (Walking the Wire: Latin and Greek Late Antique Poetry in Dialogue) has lately underscored. Fielding takes us a step in the right direction with his analysis of Maximianus' fifth elegy, interpreting the old Italian's encounter with "the Greek girl" as an inversion of a poem of Philodemus' (AP 5.132) in which the Greek poet becomes infatuated with an Oscan woman (329). Fielding establishes literary-historical footing for further exploration of allusive play with Greek epigram by placing Maximianus in an Italian context where Greek translations and transliterated puns were common fare, and by connecting him to a Byzantine culture that, a generation later, was fully engaged in epigrammatic writing (333).

I would be remiss not to mention at least one of the three well-wrought chapters on Claudian, and Brett Mulligan's essay on self-translation and replication in that poet's epigrams fits nicely into this discussion of bilingualism. Mulligan challenges critical assumptions about how literary copies diminish cultural value, but he also prompts consideration of the interpretive relationship between Greek and Latin texts in imitative series. He reads closely a sequence of seven Latin and two Greek poems by Claudian on the same subject of a crystal, and argues that the iterations and replications within his Latin series would have increased the perceived value of the whole. As for the Greek poems, he thinks they would have been read as the prior composition, and thus fabricated a "poetics of simulation" in the Latin series, granting it a further claim to literary value (165).

Relatively few typographical errors appear in this book, none of which is especially troublesome. As a matter of factual correction, I would only remark that Eugenius II of Toledo died in 657 (p. 15, n. 5). Speaking of Visigothic Spain, its presence is missed in this volume. The editors assert that "Latin poetry in classical forms and meters almost entirely disappears from the record in the seventh century," citing Eugenius' verse as an exception (14-15). But Paulo Farmhouse Alberto's recent study cataloguing Visigothic poetry reveals a much richer literary history than is credited here.2 Notwithstanding these and other minor concerns, Classics Renewed makes a significant, positive contribution to the study of Late Latin poetry. It is a highly recommended volume for literary critics and historians of Latin late antiquity and those classicists interested in reception studies.

Authors and Titles

Editors' introduction
Toward a poetics of late Latin reuse / Marc Mastrangelo
Arms and amen : virgil in Juvencus' evangeliorum libri IV / Scott Mcgill
Poetry on stone : epigram and audience in Rome / Dennis Trout
Patterning past and future : virgil in Proba's biblical cento / Sigrid Schottenius Cullhed
Ausonius on the lyre : de bissula and the traditions of Latin lyric / Joseph Pucci
Translation and the poetics of replication in late antique Latin epigrams / Bret Mulligan
Dreams of genre and inspiration : multiple allusion in claudian (VI Cons., praefatio) / Catherine Ware
The emperor's love of Rome in claudian's panegyric on the sixth consulate of honorius / Stephen M. Wheeler
Prudentius : the self-definition of a Christian poet / Gerard O'daly
A preacher in Arcadia? Reconsidering Tityrus Christianus / Petra Schierl
Words made strange : the presence of virgil in the miracles of Sedulius' paschale carmen / E. J. Hutchinson
Dracontius, the pagan gods, and stoicism / Michael W. Herren
A Greek source for Maximianus' Greek girl : late Latin love elegy and the Greek anthology / Ian Fielding
Elegy and elegiacs : venantius fortunatus and beyond / Michael Roberts
Carolingian hypertext : visual and textual structures in hrabanus maurus, in honorem sanctae crucis / David F. Bright


1.   Conant, Jonathan, Staying Roman: Conquest and Identity in Africa and the Mediterranean, 439-700 (Cambridge, 2012).
2.   "Poetry in Seventh-Century Visigothic Spain", in C. Codoñer and P.F. Alberto (eds.) Wisigothica: after M.C. Díaz y Díaz (Firenze, 2014), 119-75.

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