Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2001.10.41

S. A. H. Kennell, Magnus Felix Ennodius: A Gentleman of the Church.   Ann Arbor:  University of Michigan Press, 2000.  Pp. 256.  ISBN 0-472-10917-0.  $49.50.  

Reviewed by Michael Klaassen, The Episcopal Academy (
Word count: 1930 words

Stephanie Kennell has done late antiquity a great service in her Magnus Felix Ennodius: A Gentleman of the Church, the first book-length English study of Ennodius, and the first in any language in many years. Kennell wonders in her introduction [1-2], whether "we really need an entire book devoted to a writer regarded as either a passable source of historical information or a third-rate hack?" It is hard to imagine any student of Ostrogothic Italy responding in the negative. Ennodius' letters and poetry, long a pasture for linguists and prosopographers, have never been granted a literary treatment of any length or care. Kennell has given us both length and care. In her book she applies tried and true methods of the trade in a remarkable blend of literary, historical and rhetorical criticism.

In chapter 1, "Looking for Ennodius," Kennell, after a biography of her subject, accounts for his inaccessibility as an author. She focusses on two aspects: the arrangement of the corpus and Ennodius' aims. Kennell argues that central to the understanding of Ennodius is reading his material in the rough chronological order of the manuscripts. Vogel's MGH edition and Sundwall's study, which retain the original order, are much to be preferred to Sirmond's, in which Ennodius's works are divided up according to literary type. Reading Ennodius according to Vogel and Sundwall establishes a firm ecclesiastical context for all Ennodius's writings, even those which are considered "secular." Kennell insists that the only way to understand Ennodius is to read him on his own terms: we must first understand Ennodius as a man of his time who placed a high value on appropriateness of expression and the maintenance of friendships. His works, she maintains, are inaccessible because he wrote to particular people on particular occasions, but they are not less worthy of study for that reason. Kennell has decided to approach Ennodius "through what he writes about rather than through the people to whom he writes," and the end of chapter one is devoted to showing, through several examples of Ennodius's correspondence, how "medium and message" intertwine.

Chapter 2, "The Divinity of Letters," begins where chapter 1 left off, by affirming that "for Ennodius communication was the essential activity" [43]. By examining several groups of letters and addressees, Kennell shows that for Ennodius education, good expression and communication were the foundation of literary and social life: "we can observe Ennodius's thinking on what the Greeks called paideia: how education ought ideally to work and what he believed the well-educated man should be capable of (words and deeds conformable to both moral and aesthetic criteria)" [44]. She demonstrates that, contrary to the prevailing opinion that Ennodius's sentiments about education and literature are trite and frivolous, they were, in fact "intent on presenting images of chastely virtuous rationality." And here Kennell reveals circumspectly what she hints at frequently: that Ennodius actually believed in and revered the virtues and activities he discusses so frequently. Kennell demonstrates Ennodius's use of agriculture as a metaphor for education, which she returns to throughout the book. The chapter closes with some samples of the kind of dreary writing that Ennodius must have come into contact with daily in his duties as deacon. Kennell comes close here to suggesting that their decidedly unliterary nature may have acted as a spur to move him in the other direction, but she deftly does not step over the line, and the examples of clumsily written papyri serve as a nice counterpoint to Ennodius's care.

Chapters 3 and 4 are of a kind--two sweeps through the Ennodian corpus with the aim of highlighting two of its more prominent features: Ennodius's fascination with the world around him, and the prominence of the language of family in his work. Both chapters offer a comprehensive treatment of their subject, but because of their length and the broad range of topics that fall under their respective headings, it is easy to lose track of how the discussions of individual letters, poems and dictiones help the broader argument of the book. They are, however, indispensable for Kennell's arguments in chapter 5, which is in many ways the climax of the book.

In chapter 3, "Living in a Material World," Kennell continues her task of rescuing Ennodius from accusations of banal compositions with little relevance. In a second broad sweep of the corpus she highlights a whole range of subjects treated by her author from landscapes to seasons to buildings to curiosities. Again, speaking against the prevailing view that these descriptions are little more than demonstrations of literary skill, she insists that, as with everything Ennodius writes, "considerations of medium, occasion, and audience temper how he describes and weighs the animate and inanimate creatures with whom he interacts" [85].

In chapter 4 "Family's Boons, Kinship's Bonds" Kennell explores the language of family which figures so prominently in Ennodius's writing. The chapter falls roughly into two halves: a discussion of Ennodius's interactions with people more or less closely related to him by blood, and a discussion of the language of family in Ennodius's set-pieces and dictiones. In the first part, Kennell shows that there are very few close relations of Ennodius to be found in his writings, but many more remote kin. Though Ennodius refers frequently to their relation to him, in most of these cases "a particular individual's characteristics...make more of a difference than whether he or she is a relative or not" [150]. The second half of the chapter is a particularly fine study of Ennodius's 15 academic dictiones, which are predominantly concerned with conflicts within families, particularly among fathers, mothers and sons. Kennell showed in chapter 2 that "certain declamations display awareness of social realities" [152]. Here, she runs through the variety of moral situations which Ennodius treats in his declamations. Of several noteworthy discussions, one in particular deserves special attention. Vogel's number 363 is a declamation that uses a Quintilianic declamation as its springboard (Decl. Maj. 5, the aeger redemptus). In the Quintilianic declamation, a father, faced with the prospect of ransoming one of his two sons from pirates, ransomed one who later died. The unransomed son escaped and the father argues that his son ought to support him in his old age. Ennodius takes the part of the unransomed son. Kennell suggests that the fact that Ennodius can prosecute the father shows a sea-change in the discussion of the family, brought about by Christianity with its idealized father-son relationship [156-157]. It would be nice to see, particularly in chapter 3, more of what Kennell offers us at the end of this chapter [164-166], where she discusses briefly the views of other Gallic contemporaries of Ennodius on the subject of family. This is perhaps the work of future studies, but Ennodius will remain isolated without more explicit links with his contemporaries.

Chapter 5, "Speaking out for the Faith," is the high-point of the book and falls roughly into two sections, a discussion Ennodius's views of "what bishops should be and do" [181] through various dictiones and Kennell's "readings" of Ennodius's most famous work, the Libellus and the in Christi nomine. Her treatments of both these works are an important contribution to scholarship. Ennodius wrote the Libellus, Kennell argues, for a "specific, highly cultivated senatorial audience." She demonstrates that Ennodius showed great care in calibrating "the relationships between a given subject and its audience, genre, and occasion" [191]. He addresses his audience in terms that they can understand and are familiar with but turns the tables on them, demonstrating "the baseness of the pope's enemies not with theological argument, but by drawing attention to their aesthetic and person qualities in zoological and literary-critical modes" [189]. Ennodius addresses his audience, not with deference, but with "robust self-assertion." The effects of Ennodius's Christianity are strongly felt here: "Ennodius chose his phrases carefully, but the moral rightness of his cause gave him leave to transcend aesthetic niceties" [201]. In her discussion of the in Christi nomine, Kennell again draws on the foundations she laid in chapters 1-4 to show how the tenor of the work can give us some notion of the circumstances of its composition. She convincingly argues that the in Christi nomine was composed after the letter of pope Symmachus on the same subject, the Acacian schism, rather than the other way around.

Chapter 6, "Postscript" briefly outlines the evidence for Ennodius's life after he became bishop of Ticinum, particularly the two embassies from pope Hormisdas to the emperor Anastasius.

This book is unique in its scope and approach to Ennodius, and it will be the major sounding-board for further work on its subject. As such it needs better cross-referencing to reach its full potential as a resource. The footnotes are rich with references to Vogel's MGH edition of Ennodius. There should be an appendix of all the references to Ennodius' writings in Kennell's discussions. There is a useful concordance of Vogel's and Sirmond's numbering. Furthermore, some of Kennell's references to her own discussions are not very specific. Because the book is in many ways homogeneous in its approach, and the names, situations and details tend to run one into the other, it is sometimes difficult to recall earlier discussions. On page 162, for instance, Kennell refers to one of the dictiones she discussed earlier in the work, and she refers us in the text to chapter 2. But a page number in the text or a footnote would save the reader the time of looking through the lengthy chapter 2 to find the reference.

The striking novelty that Kennell brings to her subject is that she takes Ennodius seriously and genuinely wants him to be understood. Her approach is that of the historian, despite the marked literary bent of the book. But the neo-historical approach is dangerous: in discussing Ennodius's family in particular Kennell comes closer than many would to making historical statements about Ennodius's beliefs and feelings. For example, in her discussion of the dictio "against the legate who betrayed his fatherland to the enemy," Kennell suggests that the situation in the dictio is a kind of analogy, Ennodius's way of working out some of his frustration with "how the reconciliation of the former Laurentians to Symmachus was proceeding" [163]. Kennell's main and important point, though, is that Ennodius's works cannot be understood or appreciated either alone or in the context of the early sixth century by the haphazard reading of random items or passages. Kennell helps to remedy Ennodius's isolation by connecting him with the literary culture of his period. While his work resists the "casual synchronic approach," the fact that his pieces were intended for a specific audience at a specific time "makes him a mirror of the tendencies of his age" [21]. Classicists have for long been quick to dismiss as empty that which comes from the schools of rhetoric, and many authors, saddled with the same accusation of grandiloquent vacuity which has afflicted Ennodius for so long, are enjoying a resurgence of popularity. This book will go a long way to clearing away some of the prejudice and bringing Ennodius into the literary mainstream.

Kennell makes no attempt to make us believe that Ennodius' prose and poetry is beautiful or that we need to adjust our aesthetic sensibilities, but she demonstrates that Ennodius, far from producing a motley collection of prose and poetry devoid of life and substance, penned a corpus which hangs together, stands firmly on its own and is a gateway to the literary culture of Ennodius's time, rather than its rhetorical cul-de-sac.

Errata: "ecclesiatical", pp.7, 9, 13; "inar-ticulate" p.53.

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