Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2010.01.22

Michael Roberts, The Humblest Sparrow: The Poetry of Venantius Fortunatus.   Ann Arbor:  University of Michigan Press, 2009.  Pp. xii, 364.  ISBN 9780472116836.  $85.00.  

Reviewed by John Moorhead, The University of Queensland (
Word count: 1355 words


The extraordinary growth of interest in late antiquity has been among the most significant developments in the humanities over the last few decades. This book, while it can be placed within the general field, nevertheless stands at an angle to most of the work being done in it, for its approach is that of literary criticism. Its strengths, already apparent in earlier studies published by this author, are close and sensitive readings of the Latin text, often expressed in beautiful translations, which successfully render the sensus without moving too far from the verbum of the original. After a preliminary chapter discussing epitaphs, a series of chapters deal with Venantius' poetry of praise, in particular that he devoted to bishops, his poetry concerning the saints, chief among them Martin of Tours, and his verse correspondence and personal poetry; his better known liturgical poems are therefore not discussed in their own right. Roberts evaluates the texts with delicacy and precision, placing them against the background of preceding Latin poetry, both classical and Christian. This is a corpus that Roberts knows dauntingly well and which Venantius turns out to have appropriated remarkably often, Vergil and Sedulius being the most important presences in his oeuvre. One of the pleasures of this book is to discover the many subtle ways in which Venantius worked with what he had read, often in a spirit of rivalry with those who had gone before.

Given that Roberts' approach is based on precise readings of individual passages, it will be worth examining in some detail his treatment of one important poem, which is devoted to bishop Gregory of Tours (poem 5.3, discussed pp. 106-122). The poem is divided into three sections, in which Venantius successively describes the arrival of bishop Gregory in his city, expresses hopes for what he would do as bishop, and discusses the reward awaiting him in heaven. Within this framework, Roberts helpfully places Venantius' treatment of the arrival of the new bishop in the context of the ceremonial reception of adventus, and draws attention to the prominence of language concerning flocks; the play on a personal name in the expression 'Gregorius, pastor in urbe gregis', in which the last word recalls the first, is typical of this author. A close reading of two verbs allows Roberts to finesse a commonly accepted view as to those who supported Gregory's becoming bishop, for while each of Sigibert and Brunhild are described as supporting him (favet), the verb which is used to describe Radegund's loving him (amet) is in the subjunctive, suggesting that she may not have been one of Gregory's initial supporters. Venantius' emphatic account of a universal consensus that greeted Gregory is related to the possibility of there having been opposition to his appointment which needed to be countered. The poem ends with a list of the saints whose company Gregory could expect to enjoy in heaven, commencing with Peter and Paul and proceeding two by two. (Here I am not sure about the translation Roberts offers for another passage of Venantius he quotes for comparison; it is drawing a long bow to render 'ac monitis Pauli noscere clausa poli' (poem 3.6.14) by 'to poll the confines of the sky by the teachings of Paul' (114).) The final pair of saints mentioned by Venantius are the glimmering Caesarius and the gleaming Basil (Basilius rutilat Caesariusque micat). What can have prompted him to have placed together two figures who seem to have little in common? Attractively, Roberts suggests another pun, for Venantius probably knew that Basilius meant 'royal', and Caesarius can be interpreted as 'imperial'. After pointing out that the first and third sections of the poem are predominantly metonymic while the central section is metaphorical, he completes his treatment by turning to the second section, where among other things he provides evidence to support a suggestion of Reydellet that Venantius' use of the word 'vigil' is a play on Gregory's name, which is similar to the Greek verb for being awake. (We may note in passing that, along with the significance proposed for the name Basilius, Roberts' suggestion opens the question of how much Greek Venantius knew; if we accept Paul the Deacon's statement that he was educated in Ravenna, it may have been quite a bit.) At one point Venantius is shown to be using language close to that of a passage in the Acts of the Apostles, but Roberts does not stop there, for he goes on to demonstrate that it is even closer to a version of this passage provided by an Italian poet who wrote earlier in the sixth century, Arator; traces of this author, and of Ennodius, in Venantius' writings raise again the question of his formation before he left Italy.

Another example of Roberts' subtle and ingenious way of proceeding is provided within his evaluation of a poem on St Maurice and the saints of Agaune (poem 2.14, discussed p. 179f), in which Venantius writes of soldiers Maurice had armed with the teaching of Paul that it was sweeter to die for the name of Christ:

...armasti dogmate Pauli
nomine pro Christi dulcius est mori (lines 7f).

What particular Pauline teaching can Venantius have had in mind? Reydellet has proposed Philippians 1:21, 'mihi enim vivere Christus est et mori lucrum'. Roberts concurs, but goes further, proposing as well interference from a famous line of Horace, 'dulce et decorum est pro patria mori' (carm. 3.2.13). The case for there being intertextual reference is clinched by Venantius' use of the comparative, 'dulcius', which requires a comparandum: the implication is that dying for Christ is sweeter than the Horatian dying for one's country.

The precision with which such enquiries are undertaken and the closeness with which portions of text are analysed may suggest that the chief interest of this book lies in a large number of points of detail. But there is much to learn along the way about such matters as the role villas played in the society of the time and the responsibilities of kings and bishops, concerning which the views of Venantius are different to those of his better known contemporary Gregory of Tours in interesting ways. And while the circumstances in which Venantius came to Gaul from Italy remain unknown, Roberts intriguingly demonstrates that his poetry, in which he often presents himself as a humble petitioner, suggests emotional dependence on his correspondents, and that when writing to Radegund and Agnes he often uses kin terms. Venantius thus thought of himself as an exile separated from his natural family.

Other matters of general significance are raised in the conclusion. Roberts points to the frequency with which Venantius' lines of verse are divided into halves, these often being marked by rhyme or assonance, and connects this with his having written for a public unable to perceive the classical distinctions of quantity, and his consequent reliance on commatic structure. Venantius turns out to have been particularly widely read in the Carolingian period, when great interest was displayed in his writings on the saints and praise poetry, yet no manuscript of him survives from after the end of the eleventh century. Such a trajectory of interest is most unusual, and Roberts interprets it in the light of the strategies of intelligibility he sees Venantius' versification as deploying. Their purpose was to allow speakers of Latin in sixth century Gaul to understand his poetry when it was read out, but such a concern was no longer relevant after the reform of Latin during the reign of Charlemagne, when the language became a scholarly creation which no longer stood in a direct relation to the spoken language. Hence, the constrained poetic idiom employed by Venantius ceased to be worthwhile. Much serious work has recently been done on the Latin of the period, and the broad issues raised by Roberts' proposal are certainly worth wrestling with, although one may wonder why the decline of interest only set in some centuries after the situation which came to obtain in Carolingian times.

Satisfying for its learned attention to detail, and thought provoking in general terms, this is a book to be welcomed.

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