Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2006.05.38

Manfred Hoffmann, Alcimus Ecdicius Avitus. De spiritalis historiae gestis. Buch 3. Einleitung, Übersetzung, Kommentar. Beiträge zur Altertumskunde, 217.   München/Leipzig:  K.G. Saur, 2005.  Pp. lii, 336.  ISBN 3-598-77829-5.  €118.00.  

Reviewed by Gerard O'Daly, University College London (
Word count: 1368 words

This book, a 2003 Göttingen doctoral thesis, is a substantial commentary on Book 3 of Avitus' Christian Latin biblical epic De spiritalis historiae gestis. Avitus, bishop of Vienne on the Rhone from about 490 to 518, was a highly cultured member of the Gallo-Roman aristocracy of late antiquity, associated with the families of Sidonius Apollinaris and the Neoplatonist Claudianus Mamertus. He was an influential figure in the Burgundian kingdom (when Vienne enjoyed renewed importance), dedicating writings to, and corresponding with, King Gundobad, and converting his son and successor Sigismund from Arianism to Catholic orthodoxy. His correspondents included the Frankish King Clovis. The historical interest of his prose works (letters, homilies, treatises) is considerable.1 But his fame, extending from the 6th century2 to the medieval and Renaissance periods, rested chiefly on the five books of his biblical epic, which deal with the Genesis account of creation, and the fall and punishment of Adam and Eve (Books 1-3), and then (Books 4-5) leap to the Flood and the crossing of the Red Sea. Neglected and often dismissed in modern literary criticism, Avitus has been enjoying a gradual rehabilitation since the 1980s, and since 1999 a French edition of the complete poem has appeared, as well as a complete English translation and a learned German commentary on parts of books 4 and 5.3 Now Hoffmann (hereafter H.) provides the first comprehensive commentary on an entire book, contributing significantly to our increasing understanding and appreciation of the distinctive poetic qualities of Avitus, and advancing a critical metamorphosis comparable with the recent re-evaluation of Silius Italicus.

H.'s introduction considers the structure of the entire poem and Book 3 in particular, the influence of Ambrose's commentary on Luke, and Avitus' relation to the pagan epic tradition and that of biblical epic. A plain text and close German translation precede a painstakingly detailed literary and linguistic commentary of 260 pages on the 425 lines of Book 3. A brief concluding chapter summarizes H's general argument. Three appendices follow.4 There is a comprehensive bibliography,5 and indexes of select passages, themes, and Latin words.

H. commendably avoids a single-focus interpretation of the poem, a tendency of much previous criticism. Thus, it is not biblical paraphrase, not a rhetorical exercise, not predominantly didactic or edifying. Rather, H. argues, Avitus achieves an organic fusion of re-narrated biblical text and exegesis. The exegesis is influenced by the prose commentary tradition as practised by Ambrose, Augustine, and others, and it employs familiar typology. But at the same time it is inherently poetic, progressing by association, allusiveness, and imagery. If the poem has a primary theme, it is soteriological: the focus is on Christ and human redemption, emphasized in the extended prayer to Christ that concludes Book 3. This reading, intimated in earlier work on Avitus, is overwhelmingly confirmed by H.'s painstakingly close reading of Book 3, with generous references to the other books, particularly helpful in the absence of commentaries on most of the poem. The soteriological theme embraces others, particularly the moralizing emphasis of Book 3, where Adam and Eve's too-late remorse (209-19) is further developed in the exemplum from Luke 16--the parable of Dives and Lazarus--that immediately follows (220-305). H.'s commentary on this episode is one of the best parts of his book, bringing out the traditional epic elements--and particularly the influence of Lucan 10.107-71 and Sidonius Apollinaris, Letter 2.136--in the description of Dives' food and drink (224-32), portrayed, in traditional Roman terms, as an instance of corrupt luxuria. In this context, H. is surely right to read pallens ... minister (232) as a collective singular: bustling and exhausted crowds of servants are part of the stock colouring of such scenes. Later in the episode (282-4) H. finds double intertextuality with Virgil, signaled by Abraham's haut talia dudum / dicta dabas (282-3), which reproduce Aeneas's words at Aen. 10.599-600, and ipse, ignotus, egens (284), which is Aeneas's description of himself at Aen. 1.384. These intertexts intriguingly present Abraham with some of the fierceness of Aeneas, and echo the punishing deity of Book 3, as well as giving Lazarus something of the status of an epic hero. Here, as elsewhere in his book, H. is sensitive to Avitus' late Latin poetic style (see the index s.v. 'Stil'). He might have added that the style, for the most part, applies the principles that Avitus himself sets out in the prose prologue to his poem and in his Letter 51 (which also provides the work's title).7 His poetry is "play", a product of his leisure, but avoiding the fictional excesses, as he sees them, of secular verse, paying more attention to the rule of faith than the rules of metre: conventional authorial modesty and piety, perhaps, but there is more at issue here, as Avitus attempts to define the tone and purpose of Christian poetry, at once serious and entertaining, conscious of, but avoiding, the baroque mannerism of predecessors such as Prudentius and Sidonius Apollinaris.

H.'s densely-written commentary makes demands upon the reader: this book is intended for Latin specialists who already know their way around the classical authors and Avitus' Christian predecessors, especially Paulinus of Nola and Prudentius, and the 4th and 5th century biblical epic writers Juvencus, Marius Victor, Cyprianus Gallus and Sedulius (and on all of these the commentary has much to offer). H.'s judgement throughout is mature and sound, offering a more closely-argued reading of Avitus than any of his predecessors, and making many apt criticisms of the available French and English translations.8 Sometimes, however, the demands on the reader are excessive. Abbreviations are used throughout, but there is no key to references to other authors and their writings: the reader who does not recognize the reference (and several of the later authors are not well known) needs to consult the Thesaurus Linguae Latinae or (for Greek authors) Der neue Pauly. More regrettably still, no attempt is made in the preface to introduce Avitus. For his background, writings, and even dates, one has to turn to other introductions: their conclusions could have been briefly summarized here.9 Avitus is not as familiar an author as Virgil, or even Valerius Flaccus, and most users of this book would have been helped by some basic information on him. Yet H. is not insensitive to the topical elements in the poem, as his perceptive comment (p. 250) on Avitus' anti-Arian insistence on the unity of God and Christ in the epilogue to Book 3 makes clear.

Avitus' hexameters are replete with traditional epic diction and forms, with Virgil, Ovid, and Lucan as the most obvious influences. The episodic nature of his poem, in which global narrative continuity is abandoned in favour of juxtaposed sub-narratives, has led to the suggestion that Ovid's Metamorphoses is a formal influence, especially if, for the Ovidian theme of transformation, one substitutes the soteriological pre-occupation of Avitus.10 But H. argues (pp. xlv-xlviii) more subtly that Virgil is the dominant structuring influence. The Aeneid provided Avitus with an epic model of the elaboration of a view of history by means of myth, using prophecy and the kinds of correspondence (e.g. Hercules-Augustus) that Avitus' biblical typology also exploited.

Book 3 has often been considered the least successful of Avitus' five books of biblical epic. The intense dramatic debate on temptation, sin, and free will that characterizes Book 2, or the vivid excitement of the Red Sea crossing and its surrounding narrative in Book 5, have been more admired.11 H.'s commentary may not alter that perception radically, but it reinforces, with considerable learning and persuasiveness, the now prevailing view that the key to understanding the work lies in assimilating its subtle unity, and that poetry of quality is found throughout, especially if a skilled and patient interpreter helps to reveal it. For this reason alone, H. has produced a work of merit. But above all he has provided a model commentary (there are still all too few) on a Christian Latin writer, convincing and illuminating in its detail, and, as good commentaries do, enabling us to understand much about the antecedents of his chosen text, as well as the text itself. Students of late antique Latin poetry will want to return to this book often, and for many years to come.


1.   See Danuta Shanzer and Ian Wood, Avitus of Vienne. Letters and Selected Prose, Liverpool 2002 (Translated Texts for Historians, 38).
2.   Venantius Fortunatus, Vita Sancti Martini, 1.14-25, written in the late 6th century, includes him in a canon of Christian Latin poets, along with Juvencus, Sedulius, Orientius, Prudentius, Paulinus of Nola, and Arator.
3.   Michael Roberts, Biblical Epic and Rhetorical Paraphrase in Late Antiquity, Liverpool 1985 (ARCA, 16); Nicole Hecquet-Noti, Avit de Vienne. Histoire Spirituelle, I (Sources Chrétiennes, 444), Paris 1999, II (Sources Chrétiennes, 492), Paris 2005; George W. Shea, The Poems of Alcimus Ecidicius Avitus Tempe, Arizona 1997 (Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies, 172); Alexander Arweiler, Die Imitation antiker und spätantiker Literatur in der Dichtung 'De spiritalis historiae gestis' des Alcimus Avitus. Mit einem Kommentar zu Avit. Carm. 4.429-540 und 5.526-703. Berlin/New York 1999 (Untersuchungen zur antiken Literatur und Geschichte, 52).
4.   One appendix is metrical, one lists some thematic and linguistic echoes of classical and Christian authors in works of Avitus other than Book 3, and one gives miscellaneous parallels, discovered during H.'s research, between a variety of pagan and Christian authors that have no direct bearing on Avitus. This last appendix seems unnecessary, and buries some interesting comparisons that would better have been published independently.
5.   To which should be added Reinhart Herzog, 'Exegese--Erbauung--delectatio. Beiträge zu einer christlichen Poetik der Spätantike,' in Spätantike. Studien zur römischen und lateinisch-christlichen Literatur. Ed. Peter Habermehl. Göttingen 2002 (Hypomnemata. Suppl., 3), 155-77 .
6.   On which see Arweiler (n. 3 above), 323-7.
7.   H. and Hecquet-Noti (n. 3 above) do not provide the prologue or Letter 51, which is a pity; but see H. pp. l-li. The prologue is translated in Shanzer and Wood (n. 1 above), 260-2. For the Latin text, see the standard edition of Avitus by Rudolf Peiper, Berlin 1883, reprinted Munich 1985 (Monumenta Germaniae Historica, 6,2): there pp. 79-81 (Letter), 201-2 (prologue).
8.   Hecquet-Noti and Shea (n. 3 above).
9.   See Hecquet-Noti, 23-105, and Shanzer and Wood, 3-85.
10.   See Arweiler, 54.
11.   See Jacques Fontaine, Naissance de la poésie dans l'Occident chrétien, Paris 1981, 258-60.

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