Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2008.07.16

Étienne Wolff (ed.), Rutilius Namatianus: Sur son retour. Collection des Universités de France. With the collaboration of S. Lancel and J. Soler.   Paris:  Les Belles Lettres, 2007.  Pp. xcix, 118.  ISBN 978-2-251-01447-0.  €29.00.  

Reviewed by Michael Kulikowski, University of Tennessee (
Word count: 1652 words

The De reditu suo of Rutilius Namatianus has been edited many times -- it is very short, which helps. Yet he is read much less than the last pagan poet of imperial Rome should be. That honour, after all, does belong to him and not to Claudian, though in nearly every other respect Claudian is the better poet. Poetic mediocrity, exacerbated by dreadful textual transmission, no doubt explains Rutilius' relative neglect. The easy dismissal of late ancient poetic tastes is no longer the done thing, but in the case of Rutilius it remains easier than rehabilitation -- his language, the metrical purity of his couplets, his virtual refusal of enjambment may be stately, but they are also very dull. To this day, one turns more profitably to Rutilius for his social history than for his literary qualities, as John Matthews must have known in taking our poet's ordo renascendi as the title for two classic chapters of his Western Aristocracies and Imperial Court.

English readers will normally come to Rutilius via the injudicious text of Duff and Duff in the Loeb Minor Latin Poets. The scholarly standby of choice, and similarly widely available, is probably the old Budé of Vessereau and Préchac (1933), despite its sparse annotation and inadequate index; yet it predates the discovery of important, if exiguous, new fragments in 1973 and its only real rival, the heavily annotated text of Doblhofer published in 1972 and 1977, is similarly deficient in that respect. These editions -- and an unconscionable number of others -- differ hardly at all in their evaluation of the author's transmission, which M.D. Reeve described with all necessary economy in Texts and Transmissions: a Bobbio manuscript preserved the text until its discovery in 1493, whereafter two extant manuscript copies (Vienna 277 = V and Rome, Bibl. Cors., Caetani 158 = R) were made; the editio princeps (= B) of Giovanni Battista Pio appeared in 1520; and no one, or at least none of the dozens of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century editors, looked at the Bobbio manuscript again before Prince Eugène of Savoy commandeered it in 1706, proceeding to lose it in the course of his campaigns. In 1973, Mirella Ferrari published a fragment she had found in Turin F.iv.25, almost certainly part of the lost Bobbio manuscript, but separated from it for use in a binding before 1493. The Turin scrap preserves the ends of 39 lines which supply hitherto missing text from Book II of the De reditu; they do nothing to alter the known history of the poem's transmission or establish a textus receptus for disputed readings in the 713 lines of elegiac couplets that have long been known. Fragments aside, everything else was already to hand in the 1904 editio maior of Vessereau, one of the few French critics of the period to achieve both the insight and the technical rigor of German contemporaries like Leo, Norden and Wilamowitz. Whether a new edition could be anything other than a more attractive version of Doblhofer plus the fragments was always going to be something of a question; it is sharpened in the present case by the precedent of recent Budé editions of late pagan authors, nearly all of which have suffered from the need to conjure a connection to the chimerical Annales of Nicomachus Flavianus, frequently rendering their analysis useless in the process.

It is therefore a pleasure to report that this new Budé Rutilius dodges that trap, into which it might so easily have fallen given the overlap of Rutilius' circle and that attested in Symmachus' letters. Instead, Wolff does in fact offer a more attractive, less digressive, and thus thoroughly functional version of Doblhofer plus the fragments. It should now be the edition of choice for anyone who does not require a minute discussion of the text's Renaissance reception. The utility of this version stems precisely from the editor's unwillingness to strive after the radical for its own sake: though he has collated V, R and B (the latter two from autopsy, the former from microfilm) and retranscribed the Turin fragments from published photographs, he forthrightly acknowledges the slim chance of novelty: his text is effectively that of Vessereau, though more sensibly punctuated, so that Rutilius' rare enjambment is not hidden behind unnecessary punctuation at the end of lines. He correctly rejects Doblhofer's otiose double title (De reditu suo sive Iter Gallicum) and follows the account of transmission sketched above, though like Doblhofer he posits an unnecessary intermediary between the Bobbio archetype and V/B. Again following Doblhofer (and against the still naggingly attractive proposal of Vessereau, who was operating under the spell of fin de siècle decadent poetry), he accepts a lacuna before the extant text begins, on the grounds that the potius of line 1 cannot refer to matter that comes after it. At l. 612, he prints custodes, following the manuscripts, Doblhofer and most editors. On the rare occasions at which he departs from both Vessereau and Doblhofer, he may well be right to do so: pleading the rule of the lectio difficilior, he prints the placatum Castore pontum of R and B at l. 155 (a Vergilian usage, Aen. 1.42 and 3.69, not cited, though nor is the closer parallel, Horace, carm. 4.5.19) in place of the less striking pacatum of V, favored by the other standard editions; and he corrects the manuscripts' Faleria to Falesia at l. 371.

Wolff's biographical inferences are traditional, but safely minimalist: Rutilius Namatianus was from southern Gaul, but not necessarily from Toulouse, and he was indisputably a pagan. His circle of acquaintance overlapped that known from the letters of Symmachus. He was certainly magister officiorum, probably but not certainly in 412 because, probably but not certainly, he should be identified with the magister officiorum Namatius of CTh. 6.27.15. He was praefectus urbi in 414, but only for a few months, and was succeeded by his friend Albinus. And he left Rome for Gaul in 417 because it had by then become safe for him to do so, the magister militum and later emperor Constantius having finally stabilized the province (the new fragments allude to Constantius' second consulate, hence securing the date of a journey which might be placed in 416 on the evidence previously known). He left Rome in autumn, traditionally the season of mare clausum, so he must have had a reason: perhaps he was meant to supervise the settlement of the Goths in Aquitaine, or perhaps he was needed for the opening session of the new concilium Galliarum established in 417, but we cannot tell. The Querolus may have been dedicated to him; or alternatively, the Querolus may predate the De reditu and have nothing at all to do with it. The Palladius of l. 208 may be the future author of the Opus agriculturae or then again he may not. Better to remain uncommitted on all these points than to push too hard for deceptive certainties.

Wolff's reading of the poem is similarly conventional, but sound. While elegiac couplets made a small comeback in the later fourth century (vide Ausonius, Claudian, and Prudentius), they chiefly recalled Augustan poets and it is noteworthy that Rutilius' closest affinities throughout are to Ovid -- and specifically the Ovid of the Tristia -- rather than the recherché imperial poets favored by contemporaries. While the De reditu is at one level a poem about the voyage home, it is at the same time a poem of exile from the spiritual home that is the city of Rome, and thus Rutilius can portray himself as a new Ulysses (Homeric, but mediated through Ovid). Wolff wastes no time trying to date the stages of Rutilius' journey from Rome to Luna, where the extant narrative breaks off, recognizing -- as too few have done -- that the poetic chronology does not permit precision. In his treatment of the language, style and metre, however, his summary offers little not already said by Vessereau a hundred years ago.

Where Wolff is less sure is on the politics of the poem. Rutilius is aggressively anti-Stilichonian, to be sure; whether this makes him 'antigermanique' -- or whether that word is meaningful in a political sense -- is another matter. The same assumption invades the explanatory notes: thus the plight of Gaul, longis nimium deformia bellis, in l. 21 need not refer exclusively to the barbarian invaders of 406, as Wolff believes, but equally or alternatively to the civil wars of 407-413. More importantly, however, Rutilius is decidedly anti-Christian and here Wolff follows a long-standing French tradition of special pleading on the poet's behalf, trying to excuse or explain away the anti-Christian polemic that has seemed all too evident to Anglophone critics since the days of (a thoroughly approving) Gibbon. The attacks on both eremitic and cenobitic monasticism do not in themselves convict Rutilius of anti-Christian hostility. But when his virulent tirade against Jews attacks both their antisocial nature and their cannibalism (a canard thrown at Christians, not Jews, by third-century pagans), and insinuates servile status for both Jews and monks, we have clearly entered the realm of anti-Christian polemic disguising itself behind a safer, indeed comfortingly traditional, anti-Jewish display.

Despite these interpretative blemishes, however, Wolff's presentation is essentially reliable. The bare-bones prosopographical appendix, with full references to PLRE, PCBE and other relevant literature, gives enough essentials for the edition to be used on its own. The notes, keyed to the French translation not the Latin text, are more than adequate without approaching a full commentary. One will still need Vessereau's editio maior for a full apparatus of humanist readings, while Doblhofer provides an exhaustive account of the text's fifteenth- and sixteenth-century history for those who require it. Those of us who want to read and use Rutilius' poem itself, however, can now turn confidently to Wolff -- and hope that his achievement staunches the flow of new editions for a very long time to come.

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