Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2002.12.25

Anne Friedrich, Das Symposium der XII Sapientes: Kommentar und Verfasserfrage.   Berlin-New York:  de Gruyter, 2002.  Pp. 526.  ISBN 3-11-017059-0.  EUR 98.00.  

Reviewed by Fritz Felgentreu (
Word count: 2469 words

The Symposium XII sapientum is a garland of 143 epigrams (Anthologia Latina 495-638 R2) from late antiquity, the general idea, date, and authorship of which have not been sufficiently explained before. The epigrams are assigned to twelve speakers and divided into twelve cycles of varying meters and growing length. While the order of speakers remains constant, each cycle is introduced by a different speaker according to a rotating pattern that makes the first speaker of a given cycle the last in the next. Each cycle (except for the last) is dedicated to a single topic designed to demonstrate wisdom and learning. Among the contents the epitaphs on Cicero displayed in the tenth cycle have received the most attention because they are our only source for the name of the man who buried the orator, his friend Lamia. Baehrens believed that the collection recorded a symposiastic competition among friends, a theory that has been widely accepted. For most modern readers twelve variations on a theme such as frozen rivers, rainbows, or the four seasons have proved too artificial to be palatable. The Symposium's playful atmosphere and obsession with structure, however, make it a particularly characteristic example of the literary culture that produced such authors as Optatianus and Ausonius. Solving the problems the collection poses, then, is a task that well deserves some effort. If we find out when, where and to what end it was composed, we can enhance our understanding of the work's formal aesthetics and its literary historical significance in fourth century Latin literature.

With the published version of her Halle-Wittenberg dissertation from summer 2000, Anne Friedrich (henceforth: F.) provides a new edition and the first full-scale commentary on the Symposium XII sapientum, complemented with a scholarly introduction and two analytical chapters. F.'s fine work not only serves as an invaluable companion to reading these poems but also offers well-argued new insights into the structure and purpose of the collection. The question whether it is the work of a single author or an arrangement of epigrams by the twelve wise men named in the title is now settled. F.'s spectacular conclusion that the Symposium is to be identified with the first entry in Jerome's catalog of the works of Lactantius makes this commentary a major contribution to the study of late third- and early fourth-century Latin literature.

The edition is structured in a clear and logical manner. In two introductory chapters, F. presents a brief review of previous research on the carmina XII sapientum and discusses their textual transmission. The following two chapters, comprising the main body of the book, offer a new edition of the text and a line by line commentary. Chapter 5 answers questions of structure, genre, and social provenience. In the final chapter, F. identifies the so-called "Christian Cicero", Lactantius, as the Symposium's author, basing her conclusion on evidence that had been partially registered in the nineteenth century but long since overlooked. The documentation is wrapped up by a trim bibliography and indices of text-critical problems, subject matter, and loci citati.

In reconstructing the transmission of the text, F. relies heavily on two studies by Rossellini,1 whose tripartite stemma she adopts as a basis for her own edition. Although one may doubt the premise that one branch of the text's transmission breaks up into five parallel subdivisions, F.'s identification of the most important manuscripts and their interdependence seems well founded. The latest and most prolific of the three branches combines the Symposium's tradition with that of the appendix Vergiliana, a logical consequence of the fact that the sapientes revert to Vergil in cycles II, VI, IX, and in sap. 141. The Vergilian epigrams have also been transmitted separately in manuscripts of that poet's works. The original title of the collection cannot be deduced from the manuscript tradition. Among speakers' names of doubtful spelling, F. argues in favor of Pompelianus (over Pompilianus or Pompeianus) and Hylasius (over Hilasius or Hilarius).

If each cycle of twelve epigrams is introduced by a different speaker according to a rotating pattern that makes the first speaker of a given cycle the last in the next, the uneven number of transmitted poems (143) indicates that at least one poem must be missing, a problem that F. addresses in her treatment of the text. Since the last two epigrams given to Pompelianus are missing from the tradition, F. establishes lacunae where sap. 126 and 137 would have been, so the last poem, which contains a dedication to Asmenius, is numbered 145. Thanks to F.'s new numbering, one can now discard that of the Anthologia Latina, which neither makes a given epigram's position within the corpus transparent nor takes the missing poems of Pompelianus into account.

The careful edition of the text gives little reason for complaint, except that the critical apparatus is too diplomatic. I do not see why so many erratic medieval spellings, or simple spelling errors such as irosci for irasci in sap. 4, need to be recorded. Minor problems arise in single lines. Sap. 75, 4 may indeed be the first instance of adverbial hiberno after Venuleius Saturninus in the first century A.D. (cf. OLD s.v. 'hibernus'), but since the sapientes are not prone to adventurous grammar, it seems much more sensible to follow the editores veteres in printing frigidus hiberna est gravibus nive nubibus aether.

The modern edition enables the reader to make new suggestions about the problems posed by the transmitted text. For example, in sap. 129, 5 scorpius atque sagittifer aequoreique capri frons (of the zodiac), I find no post-Ennian parallels for a metrical pattern that shows none of the usual caesurae, which leads me to suspect corruption, perhaps with arquitenens hiding behind atque. The asclepiadeans of sap. 135 on Fortune, a subject treated in the same meter in Senecan tragedy (Herc. f. 524 sq. [F. a.l.]), are also found in the opening poem of Horace's lyrics. The poem is preceded by an epigram in another Horatian meter, and it falls neatly into three sections of four lines each (1-4, 5-8, 12-15). Should these observations not raise the question whether the lex Meineke is in effect here? I propose that something like quae numquam decoris, non memor est mali has been lost before v. 11 quod dignis adimit, transit ad impios, a line obelized by Buecheler due to its dissonant change of grammatical subject.

The commentary is divided into twelve sub-sections (one for each cycle), which always start with a detailed introduction, followed by line-by-line explanations. In cycle XII with its various topics, this pattern is repeated for every single poem. The commentary occupies some 320 pp., constituting the bulk of F.'s work, and by its very opulence often refutes the general rule that commentaries do not answer a reader's specific questions. F. pays most attention to three aspects: general information about the theme of the cycle under examination, the history of its treatment in ancient literature (including models), and linguistic questions. Structured in this way, the commentary is a treasure trove for any reader interested in the game of duodecim scripta, epitaphs on Vergil and Cicero, the poetic description of various natural phenomena and of the zodiac, poetic arguments of the Aeneid , the labors of Hercules, Orpheus, Fortune, Achilles and Hector, the letter Y, love and wine, gardens, envy, and the Sirens in Latin poetry. If in the following discussion of details I shall be concerned only with the few instances of disagreement important enough to mention, this must not be mistaken for a negative verdict on the qualities of this rich, enjoyable, and instructive commentary.

P. 89, n. 113: Sidon. ep. 1, 2, 7, obviously, would have been hard put to speak of Theoderic the Great; his Theoderic is a Tolosan Visigoth king. Ad sap. 19, 2: pressit acerba quies is, indeed, modeled on Aen. 5, 22 dulcis et alta quies, but acerba corresponds with dulcis, not with alta. P. 124 (a literary history of the topos of the frozen Ister and accompanying poetic adynata) uncritically dwells on Ovid's self-portrait in his exile poetry as though it were a factual record of his experience at the Black Sea. P. 208: I do not see why in a fictitious epitaph on Cicero written at least 300 years after the murder, calling the second triumvirate tres tyranni should be considered an overly harsh reprimand of Augustus. P. 211: I do not think that Juv. 10, 123-5 means to denigrate the literary qualities of Cicero's second Philippic: Juvenal more likely blames it for causing the orator's death. P. 350: F. claims that the diminutive in hortulus compromises the praise lavished upon it. I wonder whether in the 4th century the diminutive force of the suffix was still felt at all. The form suits the poem's iambic meter perfectly. P. 364 sqq.: Attention should have been called to the fact that the hortus-poem sap. 142 and the livor-poem sap. 143 are identical in length and directly juxtaposed, even in terms of subject matter (content vs. discontent).

The final chapters begin with an analysis of the garland's structure. Several cycles seem to be organised according to the principle of ring composition. Cycles unified by an equal number of lines for each poem (II-IV, VI-VIII, X-XI) are always introduced by a series of epitaphs. In the final polymetric cycle, if the missing sap. [137] is assigned to the place it would take, four groups of three poems are formed by the patterns in which line numbers and meters are varied. F. might have noticed that the poem introducing the second half of cycle XII (sap. 139 on the symbolic meaning of the letter Y) corresponds with the first poem of that cycle (sap. 133 on Hercules' labors) through the Hercules theme, since the letter Y is an image of the crossroads where the easy road of vice and the steep road of virtue separate.

It is an interesting observation that besides Vergil, Ovid seems to be a favorite author of the sapientes. The importance of Horace, however, is underestimated, if one considers that sap. 134 and sap. 135 are written in Horatian meters and that sap. 140 (wine) and sap. 142 (garden) develop Horatian themes. A terminus ante quem can be established through a literary reference by the sixth century poet Luxurius, but since a date later than the fifth century has never been proposed for the sapientes, this is not particularly helpful. A terminus post is indicated by the fact that the sapientes use material taken from Cyprianus, an unexpected model in a corpus not otherwise influenced by Christian writers.

F.'s analysis of the garland's structure suggests composition by a single author. She reinforces this interpretation with her explanation of the apparent loss of the Pompelianus poems in cycles XI and XII. In an excursus on the history of literary symposia since Plato, F. demonstrates that in all cases at least one guest either leaves early or threatens to do so. F. concludes that the omission of the last two poems that Pompelianus would have recited serves as a marker indicating the collection's generic affiliation with symposiastic literature. Since the sapientes do not have a narrative frame and since their original title is lost, their genre is implied by the choice of topics, which places the corpus in the tradition of scholarly symposia in the manner of Athenaeus, by the way in which the participants take turns to comment on a given issue and by the fact that one symposiast is found to have left in the eleventh cycle. His (unparalleled) name turns out to be significant as well, as it is derived from Greek πέμπω / πομπή. If her interpretation is correct, F. is justified in assigning epigram numbers to the functional lacunae in the final cycles.

This conclusion leads F. to take a closer look at the possible significance of the names of other sapientes. Hylasius the "barker" may be cast as a cynic, Vomanius as an Epicurean (qui in mensam vomant [Cic. fin. 2, 8, 23]), Euphorbius as a physician, and Iulianus as a rhetor. In this context, it seems scarcely credible that Asclepiadius and his asclepiadeans (sap. 135) should have nothing to do with Asclepiades of Samos, as F. contends, or that Palladius does not bring Pallas Athena to mind, who is, after all, the goddess of the arts (pp. 423 ff.).

As for the Sitz im Leben and the circumstances that may have given birth to this strange and innovative book of epigrams, F. tentatively pictures it in campus-like surroundings, possibly written by a colleague and performed by the students of a grammaticus named Asmenius, who appears as one of the Symposium's twelve personaeand to whom the dedicatory sphragis is addressed (sap. 145). With her assumption that the author probably was Lactantius, however, F. is on relatively firm ground. While a few but striking verbal parallels only prove that Lactantius must have known the Symposium, a piece of information preserved in a prominent tenth century manuscript of Vegetius (Vatic. Lat. 4493) points to his authorship. Here, a copy of sap. 135 is introduced as Celii Firminiani [sic!] Simphosii / de Fortuna, which F. takes to mean "On Fortune, from the Symposium by Caelius Firmianus". So when we read that Jerome begins his account of the works of Lactantius with habemus eius Symposium, the conclusion of Lactantian authorship (which F. corroborates with further evidence from the history of the text) becomes almost inevitable. If F. is right, Lactantius, with the Symposium, assumes a place by the side of Nemesianus as one of the first Latin poets that we have from the late period. This spectacular finding not only wins a new place for the sapientes in the history of Latin literature, but it also guarantees that F.'s commentary is a major contribution to the study of an important church father, whose development from a scholarly rhetor steeped in traditional learning to a devout Christian intellectual is becoming increasingly transparent.

All things considered, F. has produced a stimulating book vibrant with interesting information and crowned with a fine interpretation of genre and authorship, the gem in the crown being the rediscovery of the author, Lactantius. One major omission, however, is a study of the Symposium's meters. A comparison between the hexameter of the sapientes and that of silver latinity or that of the late Roman poets respectively might have been instructive. Secondly, I would have expected to find a reference to Michael Roberts's Jeweled Style2 somewhere, whose analysis might have helped to explain the mosaic-like aesthetics of the Symposium. And finally, a large number of typos (even in the edition: in sap. 66, 4, ratis is a misprint for fatis, sap. 105, 4 must read Euryalus) as well as questionable copyediting decisions (such as using hyphens for dashes) interfere with the enjoyment of reading.


1.   Rossellini, Michela, "Sulla tradizione dei Carmina Duodecim Sapientum (Anth. Lat. 495-638)", RFIC 122 (1994) 436-63. "Vicende umanistiche dei Carmina duodecim sapientum (con un' appendice sui titoli e le attribuzioni dei carmi)", RFIC 123 (1995) 320-46.
2.   Roberts, Michael, The Jeweled Style: Poetry and Poetics in Late Antiquity, Ithaca N.Y. (1989).

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