Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2011.06.28

Stéphane Gioanni (ed.), Ennode de Pavie: Lettres. Tome II, livres III et IV. Collection des universités de France. Série latine, 395.   Paris:  Belles lettres, 2010.  Pp. xxxvi, 147.  ISBN 9782251014562.  €45.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Bianca-Jeanette Schröder, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München (

Ennodius is still a relatively unknown Latin author from Late Antiquity. He lived ca. 474-521 in northern Italy. When he wrote the works that are transmitted to us, he was a deacon in Milan; later (ca. 515) he became bishop of Ticinum (today Pavia). He composed texts in both poetry and prose in a wide variety of genres and with an impressive range of content. Probably his bestknown work is a prose panegyric for Theoderic. Among the various addressees of his approximately 300 surviving letters are many prominent figures of his time (Boethius; Bishop Caesarius of Arles; Bishop Symmachus of Rome), but also his relatives, especially his sister and his nephews. Ennodius’s Latin is very difficult; he seems to take care that his readers cannot just glance over his texts, but really have to concentrate to understand what he wants to say. Every page of his writings gives the impression that he wants to show his contemporaries that it is possible to write ambitious Latin prose and verse even under the reign of the Ostrogoths, and that he wants to urge his readers --not least the addressees of his letters-- to maintain a high literary level.

Like most of his contemporaries, Ennodius suffered for a long time from the common prejudice towards late antique and Christian authors. Thanks to Rohr’s edition of the Panegyricus (1995), Kennel’s monograph A Gentleman of the Church (2000) and three very fruitful conferences in Pavia and Naples that were dedicated to Ennodius, interest in Ennodius‘s texts has increased substantially.1 Thus, in the last ca. fifteen years, understanding of this difficult author has been noticeably deepened. Translations are still rare, but there are at least some editions with translation and commentary, and some studies which comprise translations of the passages that are interpreted.2 In this situation, Gioanni is facing an important task. It is a great challenge to translate the letters without an existing commentary to draw upon. Ennodius’s texts can be of much interest for historians of the Ostrogothic dominance and of the church, for theologians, for linguists who are interested in late antique Latin, and for literary scholars-- in this case especially for those who study the immense area of late antique epistolography. Accordingly, scholars in many fields will be extremely grateful that Gioanni has now presented the second part of his translation of Ennodius’s letters (Books III and IV), following on the 2006 publication of the Books I and II.

As French is not my mother tongue, I will not take it upon myself to judge the translation as such; to me it seems very readable and sound. Disagreement on the understanding of single passages does not invalidate gratitude for having a translation with which to compare one’s own understanding. In this review, I will rather analyze Gioanni’s approach to the letters and the idea he gives of this example of late antique epistolography.

This second volume of the letters follows the organization of the first exactly: introduction, table of chronology, bibliography, short summaries of the letters, edition and translation and notes on the letters ("notes complémentaires"). Since Ennodius is an extremely difficult writer, the introductions to general features of the letters, the summaries of the letters and the notes are as crucial for every reader as the translations. Even in translation, the content and the function of a given letter is very often not at all obvious.

The introduction in this volume concentrates on the historical context of this part of the letters, i.e. the time of the schism between Symmachus and Laurentius (p. vii-xiv), and adds some introductory remarks on the variety of subjects that come up in the letters. General subjects such as, for instance, "life", "functions of the letters", "transmission" have been treated in the much more exhaustive (c. 200 pp) introduction to the first volume. It has to be noted, however, that in the introductory chapters Gioanni exaggerates the significance of the letters as a historical source. He seems to be somewhat overwhelmed by his amor negotii suscepti, which causes him to give the impression that the letters are more explicit and straightforward than they really are. Of course, the letters are one of the sources for the history of this period, but it is important to stress that if we had only the letters, modern readers would not understand any of the few allusions to concrete historical situations Ennodius makes. In fact, we need other texts-- some by Ennodius, some by other authors-- to have a firm suspicion that, e.g., Ennodius is referring to the schism when he talks of "malum cui Roma subcumbit" (Ep. 1,3,7). If we had nothing but the letters, it would be almost impossible to know their approximate date. The same critique applies to Gioanni’s presentation of other subjects of the letters, for instance, when he writes that the letters illustrate Ennodius’s manifold duties as a deacon (p. XV "illustrent les multiples activités d’un diacre au service de son éveque"). This is an extreme exaggeration. If the reader has a certain knowledge of the duties of a deacon, he can spot the passages where Ennodius is talking about them. But reading only the letters will not give a clear picture of the duties of a deacon. Wanting to highlight the importance of the letters, Gioanni overshoots the mark. These letters are not so much sources that offer a wealth of instructive details that modern readers would like to know, but rather show how little "information" was conveyed by letters. This fact does not make the letters boring or useless. Rather, it reminds us that they require an approach that combines methods from several scholarly fields. Of course, Gioanni is presenting a translation and not a commentary, but still it could be useful to consider the literary tradition of epistolography to see where Ennodius is following or subverting one of the conventions of letter-writing. In several cases, such an approach can help to understand Ennodius’s reason to write. There are still very few studies of Ennodius’s letters, so it comes as a surprise that Gioanni omits serious engagement with most of the few that do exist (without at least contradicting them).3

The notes, too, show that Gioanni’s approach is definitely not that of a literary scholar, but of a historian. The notes give rich prosopographical and historical information which is extremely helpful, especially since Ennodius is writing to such a great number of addressees. But in order to understand why a letter was written, some information of a different kind might be useful. In the introduction to the first volume, Gioanni has illustrated the various functions of letters and has mentioned the importance and accumulation of epistolary topoi (p. xxxiv-lxxxii). In the notes, however, there is almost no reference to these aspects. Modern readers would be grateful for a hint that a given passage is a concrete example of a general phenomenon that has been presented in the introduction.

What is somewhat more astonishing is that Gioanni seems to assume, or at least to hope, that the letters contain all the information a modern reader needs to put the scattered pieces of the old mosaic together. In some cases, a more careful and sceptical view would have been more realistic. It is quite probable that, at times, we will never be certain about the concrete situation of a letter or the meaning of an allusion. We have to keep in mind that Ennodius obviously did not revise his letters for publication (and in this respect they resemble Cicero’s letters). Looking at, for example, Ep. 3.6, it is possible, but not certain – as Gioanni points out - that the addressee, called Laurentius, is bishop Laurentius of Milan. But, contrary to Gioanni who identifies the context of a certain financial transaction ("sans doute", p.75), I am far more sceptical that the letter offers any hint at a concrete situation. What is sure is that Ennodius speaks of a letter carrier who will have transmitted information orally. The words are a declaration of friendship, but Ennodius also makes clear that he is not writing because he is overpowered by his feelings, but because the carrier is available and it would not be nice to let him go without a short salutation. We should be aware that, as a deacon, Ennodius will have had to exchange information on innumerable questions with his bishop, not just the very few we know of by chance. So, rather than speculating on the concrete occasion, the admission that there really is no hint at all would be simultaneously more honest and also quite instructive concerning the habits of late antique letter writing. In this case, the letter itself is the message. Even if these epistolary habits and topoi cannot be exploited as sources for the history of events or for prosopography, they are still sources for the ways of interaction the correspondents cultivated. Hints on this kind of "content" could be useful for many modern readers who are not familiar with the habits of late antique letter writing.

The certainty of being provided with all the pieces of the old mosaic also leads Gioanni to propose new dates or a different order of letters in several cases (e.g. 3,3; 3,15; 3,18). To give just one example: In Ep. 3.26 Ennodius is grateful to his addressee for having received scripta ("writings"). Gioanni combines this (p. 98 "sans doute") with the information from another letter to conclude that Ennodius has read declamations written by this addressee. On the basis of this speculation, he proposes a new chronology of the letters. Yet Ep. 3.26 offers no hint at all that the received scripta are anything but a letter (cf., for instance, Ep. 17.1 for evidence that this is a typical term for a letter).

To sum up, many scholars of late antiquity, esp. of epistolography, will gratefully use the translation and the historical, especially the prosopographical notes. Still, they should be advised that Gioanni is quite selective and optimistic. On the one hand, we often know a lot more than the summaries of the letters and the notes tell. Results of literary studies should have been incorporated into the translation and interpretation of individual letters. On the other hand, we often cannot be as sure of understanding the allusions to situations and people as Gioanni encourages us to believe.


1.   Christian Rohr, Der Theoderich-Panegyricus des Ennodius, Hannover 1995. – Stefanie A. H. Kennell, Magnus Felix Ennodius. A Gentleman of the Church, Ann Arbor 2000. – Fabio Gasti (ed.), Atti della prima Giornata Ennodiana, Pisa 2001. – Edoardo D’Angelo (ed.), Atti della II Giornata Ennodiana, Napoli 2003. – Fabio Gasti (ed.), Atti della terza Giornata Ennodiana, Pisa 2006.
2.   In addition to the titles mentioned in note 1, especially the following books: Simona Rota, Magno felice Ennodio, Panegirico del clementissimo re Teoderico, Roma 2002. – Gianluca Vandone, Appunti su una poetica tardoantica, Ennodio, carm. 1,7-8, Pisa 2004. – Daniele di Rienzo, Gli epigrammi di Magno Felice Ennodio, Napoli 2005. – Bianca-Jeanette Schröder, Bildung und Briefe im 6. Jahrhundert, Berlin/ New York 2007.
3.   Gioanni mentions my monograph on the letters (see above, note 2) in the first sentence, but afterwards only uses scattered details.

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