Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2010.11.50

Henriette Harich-Schwarzbauer, Petra Schierl (ed.), Lateinische Poesie der Spätantike: Internationale Tagung in Castelen bei Augst, 11.-13. Oktober 2007. Schweizerische Beiträge zur Altertumswissenschaft 36.   Basel:  Schwabe, 2009.  Pp. xvi, 316.  ISBN 9783796524110.  €68.50.  

Reviewed by Roald Dijkstra, Radboud University Nijmegen (

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

In their introduction, the editors Harich-Schwarzbauer and Schierl explain the aim of Lateinische Poesie der Spätantike: they intended to bring together scholars from different countries and traditions in order to shed more light on the poetry of late antiquity. Moreover, participants were invited to connect their topics to modern theories in particular. The book at hand testifies for the success of this congress and indeed represents research towards a variety of late antique authors in articles written in French, German, Italian and English. Many authors tried to put their analysis of late antique poetry in a methodological framework.

The first three articles are about Claudian. Jean-Louis Charlet examines which audience Claudian had in mind when he wrote his poetry. He distinguishes three addressees: the person to whom a poem was dedicated, the audience present when a poem was recited (like senators and dignitaries from the court) and the people who would read the written version. Charlet considers Claudian to be a pagan, which can be deduced, among other things, from the absence of Christianity in his first panegyric in honour of the Roman consuls of 395. This is in contradiction, however, with his statement that Claudian adapted himself to his public. Poem 32 of the Carmina minora is Christian because it was written on demand, according to Charlet. Although Charlet agrees with Cameron who considers Claudian a propagandist of Stilico,1 he emphasises that the poet also had a message of his own. He aimed at reconciling the East and West of the Roman Empire. Charlet also points to the importance of the city of Rome in Claudian’s oeuvre. At the end of his career, Claudian’s ideas about the empire did not correspond to Stilico’s anymore: the panegyric to Honorius on the occasion of his adventus in Rome was the last poem in which Claudian was able or allowed to give his own opinion (albeit in guarded terms).

Henriette Harich-Schwarzbauer proposes a serial reading of some of Claudian’s Carmina minora. She assumes that Claudian wrote his poems for special occasions in order to be read aloud in public. He did not conceive his Carmina minora as a whole; nevertheless, some poems seem to create a fictive context, which was not unusual in Roman poetry. Claudian might have been inspired by Martial in this respect. Poem 1 seems to form a bridge between the carmina maioraand minora. Poems 2-7 are connected by the theme variatio and function as the actual preface to the Carmina minora. Harich-Schwarzbauer could have analysed poems 6 and 7 more thoroughly. She also links Carmina minora 29 and 33-39 to the Orphic Lithika: crystal and magnetite are the key-words. In the Lithika they bind the cosmos together, in Claudian’s poems they form the core of his minor poems. Two poems to Serena (30-31), Claudian’s muse, are enclosed by them. Harich-Schwarzbauer remains vague about the function of the Christian poem 32 in this framework, but her analysis is convincing.

Marie-France Guipponi-Gineste concludes the Claudian cycle with an article about metapoetics and self-reflection in Claudian’s poetry. The basic elements in an investigation of this topic are, in her own words, “rapports entre autoréférence et représentation du monde, besoin de légitimation, conscience aiguë de l’intertexte”. Claudian often connects ars and ingenium, the two elements which constituted a poet’s legitimacy in Roman antiquity. The phoenix in Claudian’s poetry is a symbol for poetic inspiration, as the secrets of nature are an allegory for the creations of the poet. Ornatus is also important in Claudian’s oeuvre. By discussing the reliability of representation, Claudian calls into question the capacity of poetry to represent the real world.

Alexandre Burnier concentrates on the position of the narrator in the Mosella of Ausonius and the ninth Natalicium of Paulinus of Nola. These two poems both have a first-person narrator who stands somewhere between reality and fiction. Burnier analyses the function of the narrator by examining (in the prefaces of both poems) the three main factors which contribute to the narrator’s construction: the genre, the mise-en-scène of the narration and the mixture of biographical and literary elements.

Nils Rücker also compares Ausonius to Paulinus. He discusses Ausonius’ poetic letters 27.21,22 and 24 (and 23, which might be part of 24) and Paulinus’ replies (carmina 10 and 11). In letter 21 the intertextuality with Ovid’s Tristia 3.7 and 4.7 and Epistula ex Ponto 4.3 contributes to the reader’s understanding of Ausonius’ message. Whereas the beginning of 21 and the end of 22 allude to Ovid, the last part of 21 and the first part of 22 primarily refer to Vergil. These intertexts are not only decorative, but also determine the structure of Ausonius’ letters. It remains difficult to draw the line between reality and fiction, as Rücker himself admits.

In a nicely written article, James Uden investigates the influence of contemporary culture on the fables of Avianus. In opposition to the tradition of the genre, Avianus states that truthfulness in general is not obligatory in a fable. Uden is nevertheless able to show that Avianus’ fables do reflect real late Roman concepts of justice. The lugubrious physical suffering which is often described in his work can be explained by the deterrent effect punishment was considered to have in late antique Roman society. Misuse of power is also depicted, e.g. in the exemplary fable 30, which lets Uden to conclude: “Law in this fable is inconsistent, partial and excessive.”

The Laudes Domini, one of the earliest Christian poems in Latin, are discussed by Petra Schierl. She also investigates the milieu in which some of the first Christian poems, the poetry of Optatianus Porfyrius, Juvencus and the author of the Laudes Domini, could arise. Unfortunately, she does not share her point of view regarding Commodianus, who probably wrote in the third century already. In the Laudes Domini, the author incorporates praise for Rome, Constantine and the land of the Haedui (probably his homeland), in which he situates a miracle: a widower who remained unmarried was rewarded for his chaste behaviour by seeing his wife one last time before his death. This story might be connected to the author’s praise for Constantine’s legislation. Cod. Theod. 8,16,1, promulgated by the emperor, lifted the legal discrimination of widow(er)s and childless people which dated back to Augustan times. In an “Anhang”, Schierl concludes that the poem was written between 317 and 324 (which is communis opinio).

Franca Ela Consolino provides a detailed study of Juvencus’ 3,33-72. She argues that John the Baptist is compared to Priam and Pompey by several intertexts. As is, unfortunately, often the case in articles about Juvencus, she does not mention which biblical text she uses as a reference (printed in an appendix), but it seems to be the Vulgate. However, Juvencus could only use the Vetus Latina, since he published his epic around 329/330.

Karla Pollmann examines the concept of decadence linked to the passing of time in the pseudo-Hilarian poem Metrum in Genesin or Carmen de Evangelio. Lucretius’ De rerum natura is an important intertext for this poem. The author of the Metrum in Genesin considers human culture to be part of God’s spirit and therefore to be essentially good. Pollmann ingeniously detects a reference to the Eucharist in the description of the Golden Age, which is itself based on Lucretius. She also soundly discusses the way the author of the poem sees the Fall of man and the Redemption by Christ. “Pseudo-Hilary” adapts the Lucretian model of time to the Christian dogma: instead of Epicurus, he presents Christ as man’s moral guide.

Nicole Hecquet-Noti analyses the presence of the narrator (who in this case is rightly not distinguished from the author) in the biblical epics of Juvencus, Sedulius and Avitus. She applies methods used in the study of Roman historiography to biblical epic. Among other things, she examines the use of the first person singular and plural and distinguishes two kinds of the latter (the “nous dilutif” and “nous involutif”). She also discerns two types of “auctorial intrusions” which she considers necessary at the beginning or end of an epic, but optional in the rest of the text. Whereas Juvencus “vanishes” behind his text, Avitus frequently gives his opinion while the story is going on (“évaluation”). Both Sedulius and Avitus sometimes interrupt the story in order to intrude into it (“exhortation”). Although the analysis is carefully conducted, the method does not result in new insights in the versification technique of the poets.

Danuta Shanzer discusses two case studies. The first is about Claudius Marius Victorius’ description of Eden (Alethia 1,224-269) and the motive of trees singing hymns to God (245-251). She distinguishes parallels with Lucianus’ Verae historiae, the Byzantine story of Barlaam and Josaphat (6th or 7th century), the Passio Perpetuae, the Quaestiones in Genesin, Vergil and Philo of Alexandria. This proves, according to Shanzer, that Victorius was more aware of the exegetical tradition than has often been thought. Including a bizarre footnote mentioning that the Mormons believe that Christ was in the Americas between his crucifixion and resurrection, the second case study focuses on Luke 23,43 (“hodie mecum eris in paradiso”). The place where Jesus stayed after his death and before his resurrection was much discussed in late antiquity. Shanzer presents this debate and also shows Sedulius’ and Avitus’ wordplay on the stealing thief.

Lavinia Galli Milić meticulously shows how Dracontius’ Satisfactio (an appeal for clemency to the Vandal king Gunthamund) fits in the classical theories about rhetorical texts and argumentation. Dracontius praises the king via references to Ovid (Gunthamund is equalled to Augustus). Milić also detects some influence of Claudian. Dignitaries around Gunthamund would have drawn his attention to these flattering allusions.

Laure Chapuis Sandoz comments on Venantius Fortunatus’ Carmen 4,26 and its environment. The poem is an ode to the Merovingian Vilithute, who died in childbirth. Venantius Fortunatus has often visited Merovingian aristocrats; the eminent positions of many women at the court are reflected in his poetry. About Vilithute nothing is known. Within the 28 epitaphs of which book four of his Carmina consists, four are about women. Sandoz shows that the hierarchy of the deceased is carefully depicted in the order of the poems. Poem 4,26 is arranged as a traditional consolatio. Sandoz argues that Vilithute is represented as a symbol of marital chastity. However, due to our lack of knowledge regarding Vilithute, it remains unclear whether she merely was a symbol or whether a real woman had served as a model.

The last contribution is also about Venantius Fortunatus and is written by Michael Roberts. Following Jerome’s definition in his letter 108.8.1, Roberts distinguishes four travel reports in Fortunatus’ poetry and chooses to analyse three of them: 10.9 and 11.25 – which describe journeys Fortunatus made himself; consequently, personal feelings play an important role in these poems – and the final part of book 4 of the Vita Martini, about the fictive journey of the Vita. Roberts compares Fortunatus’ poems to other poems by Ausonius, Namatianus and especially Sidonius Apollinaris, whose carmen 24 reveals some similarities with the Vita Martini. However, Sidonius’ book traveled among intellectual aristocrats, whereas the Vita Martini went from shrine to shrine.

Lateinische Poesie der Spätantike is an inspiring collection of articles which approaches late antique poetry from several different perspectives. Many authors have tried to put their study in a clearly stated methodological framework, which often, though not always, leads to new insights. The book has been very carefully edited (I noted only one typing error) and contains a useful Index locorum of relevant passages at the end. A subject index would have made the book even more accessible. This book will undoubtedly stimulate new research to the poetry of late antiquity.

Einleitung vii-xi

Angaben zu den Autorinnen und Autoren xiii-xvi

Verzeichnis der Abkürzungen xvii

Jean-Louis Charlet: Claudien et son public 1-10

Henriette Harich-Schwarzbauer: Prodigiosa silex. Serielle Lektüre der Carmina minora Claudians 11-31

Marie-France Guipponi-Gineste: Poétique de la réflexivité chez Claudien 33-62

Alexandre Burnier: Décrire a/ la première personne: L’instance d’énonciation dans la Moselle d’Ausone et le neuvième Natalicium de Paulin de Nole 63-81

Nils Rücker: Ausonio possis considere portu (Verg. Aen. 3,378). Ausonius, Paulinus, Ovid und Vergil: Spätantike Briefdichtung neu gelesen 83-108

James Uden: The Failure of Fable: Art and Law in Avianus 109-127

Petra Schierl: Tu casti rectique tenax. Gottes- und Kaiserlob in den Laudes Domini 129-158

Franca Ela Consolino: Priamo, Pompeo e Giovanni Batista. Caratteri e limiti dell’allusività in Giovenco 3,33-72 159-177

Karla Pollmann: Populus surgit melior? Dekadenz und Fortschritt im pseudo-hilarianischen Doppelgedicht Metrum in Genesin - Carmen de Evangelio 179-195

Nicole Hecquet-Noti: Entre exégèse et épopée: Présence auctoriale dans Juvencus, Sédulius et Avit de Vienne 197-215

Danuta Shanzer: Poetry and Exegesis: Two Variations on the Theme of Paradise 217-243

Lavinia Galli Milić: Stratégies argumentatives dans la Satisfactio de Dracontius 245-266

Laure Chappuis Sandoz: “Ci-gît la gracieuse Vilithute...”. Construction sociale et religieuse de la femme dans les épitaphes de Venance Fortunat (carm. 4) 267-291

Michael Roberts : Venantius Fortunatus and the Uses of Travel in Late Latin Poetry 293-306

Index locorum : 307-316


1.   Cameron, A. (1970). Claudian. Poetry and propaganda at the court of Honorius. Oxford, Clarendon Press.

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