Tuesday, September 19, 2017


Michael Squire, Johannes Wienand (ed.), Morphogrammata / The Lettered Art of Optatian: Figuring Cultural Transformations in the Age of Constantine. Morphomata, 33. Paderborn: Wilhelm Fink Verlag, 2017. Pp. 548. ISBN 9783770561278. €78.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Christine Luz, University of Berne/Basel (christineluz@bluewin.ch)

Version at BMCR home site

Table of Contents
[Authors and Titles are listed below.]

What do you do when political misfortune has led to your banishment from the Roman metropolis and you want to get back? You might just try it: Optatian sent his emperor Constantine a volume of poems and achieved his revocation from exile. These poems not only delighted their imperial addressee but enjoyed multiple imitations in later antiquity and the Middle Ages up to Modern times, yet they were rather despised by classical scholars of the last two centuries. Only in recent years has Optatian met with renewed scholarly attention—and maybe this is no coincidence as several contributors to the present volume suggest. But who is he and what did he write?

Imagine an ancient manuscript, richly decorated with purple dye, whose letters are written in gold and silver colour. The thus lavishly exhibited poems mainly praise the emperor but also invite the reader to study them closely and to discover their ingenious compositions: some of them are pattern poems whose layout on the page sketches an image of their subject; others, the so-called carmina cancellata, display acro- meso- and telestichs or other intexts in various shapes, e.g. geometrical patterns, Greek and Latin letters (frequently the Christian chi-rho symbol) or even pictures of objects; a third group contains metrical and linguistic sophistries such as lines with words that consist of certain numbers of syllables or verses that can be read backwards in the same or a new metrical pattern; in other poems, the word order can be rearranged into a multitude of new poems etc. Optatian plays with the visual dimension of the text, invites multilayered perception, juggles with surface and hidden meaning, and challenges the reader to play the active part of a discoverer, interpreter and re-creator. Long considered a kind of a nerd obsessed with poetry that can at most be valued as art for art's sake, Optatian is today on the point of being appreciated as one of the most creative and innovative poets of late antiquity. Taking up and significantly promoting this trend, the present volume asks questions about what inspired such extraordinary compositions and how they relate to the literary tradition, the cultural context and the Zeitgeist of their time. Written in the second and third decade of the fourth century AD, in a time of cultural, philosophical, and not least religious transformations where the newly established Christianity challenges many a traditional view of how things are, Optatian's poetry not only reflects this fluidity but goes to the very core of the most crucial intellectual dynamics and anxiety of his time.

The central part of the volume consists of 14 contributions mainly by leading specialists on Optatian but also by academic newcomers; about a third of them are written in German (authors and titles are listed at the end of the review). The rich variety of subjects and the diversity of methodical approaches shed light on Optatian and his work from very different and often complementary angles. Literary and historical analysis stands next to comparative, lexicographic and philosophical studies, art history and archaeology find their place as well as investigations of Optatian's notion of text and mediality and of the ludic character and the interdisciplinary dimensions of his poems. The selection of topics shows a representative sample of the most booming interests of contemporary scholarship in such a multifaceted author and is by no means—and not meant to be—comprehensive. Rather it draws a wide horizon of research possibilities and seeks to attract attention, to break fresh ground and to cross-fertilise an already ongoing and fruitful discussion.

This central part is preceded by acknowledgements which explain the origin of the book, the customary lists of abbreviations, black and white figures and colour plates (the latter being assembled at the end of the book) and a typographic representation of Optatian's figurative poems. These are 23 out of the 31 surviving poems ascribed to Optatian. One might have considered to print the remaining works too (or at least those referred to by the volume's contributions) as not all readers can be expected to have their Optatian always ready at hand. The book concludes with useful summaries of all contributions in English which facilitate the reader's orientation in a more than 500-page volume (see also the synopsis in the first introductory chapter by Michael Squire) and notes on the contributors. There is no bibliography at the end: each contribution is followed by its own bibliographical notes.

The first contribution by Michael Squire provides an instructive and well-rounded introduction to the book and its subject. It presents Optatian's poems, their composition and original mise-en-page and puts them into their literary, intellectual and artistic context, in particular highlighting their affinity to visual art. But not only do the poems reflect the culture of their own time. Squire stresses their foreshadowing some intellectual concerns of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries (such as the instability of the text, the notion of iconotext, the text as a field to be navigated, the amalgamation of author and recipient etc.) and thus explains why today's scholarship rediscovered this fascinating poet.

The next two contributions expound the historical and literary contexts of Optatian's works. Johannes Wienand looks at the political significance of Optatian's poems and their role in the poet's relation to Constantine. On the basis of a re- examination of the epigraphic and epistolary evidence and the biographical information in the poems, he suggests a new chronology of Optatians career and the publication of his works (conveniently illustrated in a table).

Jan Kwapisz' contribution traces back possible Greek and Latin models for Optatian's ingenious poetry as far back as the Hellenistic technopaegnia. The examples are manifold: pattern poems, acrostichs, isopsephic verses, etc., which often originate in the context of sympotic entertainment at an aristocratic or imperial court, destined for amusement and playful competition. In particular, Kwapisz identifies two direct sources of inspiration to Optatian's poems: first, the Altar of Vestinus dedicated in all likelihood to Hadrian, which served as a model for Optatian's own altar-shaped poem 26, and second, the isopsephic epigrams of Leonides of Alexandria, active at the courts of Nero and Vespasian.

The ensuing five contributions interpret Optatian's poetry (or single poems) by investigating them in the light of particular intrinsic characteristics. Anna-Lena Körfer explores the ludic character of the poems by pointing out the frequent use of forms of ludere and by drawing a parallel to the archaeological evidence of contemporary board games. She compares the text to the game board on which the lector ludens deciphers the poem according to the rules of its game. As a showcase serves poem 6, dedicated to Constantine's victory over the Sarmatians, which invites the emperor to relive and replay his martial success.

Meike Rühl reads the poems as multilayered fabrics admitting a variety of readings not only within the individual poem but also across the whole corpus and reaching back into the literary tradition. To illustrate this, she applies the metaphor of the palimpsest where hidden texts can be discovered by penetrating beneath the surface into deeper levels of the fabric. So, she states, the panegyric message works on several levels far deeper than the conventional topics on the surface.

Marie-Odile Bruhat sees the dynamics of space as one of the key features of Optatian's poetry. Physical space—the distribution of the letters on the page—and metaphorical space—for instance, the visualisation of the poetic programme in poem 2—merge into a presentation of the emperor's sublimity and the poet's relation to his patron.

Petra Schierl and Cédric Scheidegger Lämmle position Optatian's panegyric poems within the tension between the hackneyed topics of the generic tradition and the need to innovate in order to make one's praise exceptional. The poet's uniqueness, the authors argue, lays in the poetics of his virtuoso compositions. Particularly intriguing they find poem 3, which deconstructs the convention of imperial panegyric literature to draw on portraiture: while claiming to outdo even the best painter, the poem paradoxically represents in its versus intexti a simple geometric pattern. Irmgard Männlein-Robert equally investigates the puzzling picture of poem 3 and explains it as a deliberate strategy of ambiguousness. Furthermore, she interprets the poet's frequent use of weaving, painting and singing metaphors throughout the corpus as a multimedia address to the emperor which highlights not only the visual and intellectual but also the performative aspect of Optatian's compositions.

The following two contributions deal with Optatian's word material. Martin Bažil explores the metaphor of weaving and in particular Optatian's use of the word textus in relation to earlier Latin poetry and contemporary innovative notions of textuality, especially as found in Christian commentators on the bible. He argues that Optatian's poems, most notably the carmina cancellata, are representatives of a fundamental transformation of the concept of text in this period.

Aaron Pelttari's contribution contains a lexicographical analysis of poem 25, in which the words can be rearranged according to certain rules to new poems with the same metrical pattern. His aim is to show how interlinked lexicographical databases, which allow easy tracing of relevant intertexts, can significantly help our understanding of and working on late- antique poets, who heavily draw on and play with the long tradition of poetic diction.

The next three contributions look at Optatian's poetry in their philosophical, religious and intellectual context. Thomas Habinek investigates Optatian's poems in the broader context of late-antique philosophy, employing Aristotelian, Neoplatonic and Stoic ontology. Allowing multiple ways of reading on and beneath the surface, Optatian's poems represent ontological puzzles and as such tie in with other artefacts of the age of Constantine.

Meditating on the closeness of magic and poetry, Sophie Lunn-Rockliffe compares Optatian's poetry to contemporary gems and explores similarities in their use of signs (e.g. the Christian chi-rho symbol) and their protecting and promoting power.

Jesús Hernández Lobato looks at Optatian's works as conceptual poetry by juxtaposing them to twentieth century conceptual art. Many of the underlying notions which characterise this modern art movement mirror the cultural, philosophical and religious paradigm shifts of the early fourth century AD. Thus, the author argues, the poems reflect in artistic expression intellectual problems addressed by famous philosophers and Christian thinkers such as Augustine or Gregory of Nyssa.

The last contribution by Jaś Elsner and John Henderson termed as an envoi to the whole volume contains a retrospect to its themes, a literary-historical contextualisation of the poems and an outlook into the future of scholarship on Optatian.

Authors and Titles

Michael Squire: Optatian and his lettered art: A kaleidoscopic lens on late antiquity
Johannes Wienand: Publilius Optatianus Porfyrius: The man and his book
Jan Kwapisz: Optatian and the order of court riddlers
Anna-Lena Körfer: Lector ludens: Spiel und Rätsel in Optatians Panegyrik
Meike Rühl: Vielschichtige Palimpseste: Optatians Panegyrik und die Möglichkeiten individueller Lektüren
Marie-Odile Bruhat: The treatment of space in Optatian's poetry
Petra Schierl and Cédric Scheidegger Lämmle: Herrscherbilder: Optatian und die Strukturen des Panegyrischen
Irmgard Männlein-Robert: Morphogrammata - Klangbilder? Überlegungen zur Poetik und Medialität bei Optatian
Martin Bažil: Elementorum varius textus: Atomistisches und Anagrammatisches in Optatians Textbegriff
Aaron Pelttari: A lexicographical approach to the poetry of Optatian
Thomas Habinek: Optatian and his œuvre: Explorations in ontology
Sophie Lunn-Rockliffe: The power of the jewelled style: Christian signs and names in Optatian's versus intexti and on gems
Jesús Hernández Lobato: Conceptual poetry: Rethinking Optatian from contemporary art
Jaś Elsner and John Henderson: Envoi: A diptych

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