Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2014.03.14 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2014.03.14

Doreen Selent, Allegorische Mythenerklärung in der Spätantike: Wege zum Werk des Dracontius. Litora classica, Bd 2.   Rahden/Westf.:  VML Verlag Marie Leidorf, 2011.  Pp. ix, 365.  ISBN 9783867574723.  €34.80 (pb).  

Reviewed by Helen Kaufmann, Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford (

Table of Contents

Doreen Selent’s monograph, a revised version of her doctoral thesis from Rostock University, offers an analysis of the allegorical modes of composition and reading in Dracontius’ poetry, ethical allegoresis, physical allegoresis, Euhemerist-rationalist allegoresis and typology, a device closely related to allegory.

The first chapter provides a short introduction to Dracontius’ life and works, Vandal Africa and to the book itself, which is described as a first step towards “[e]ine systematische Betrachtung der Allegorie als Kompositions- und Deutungstechnik im Werk des Dracontius, die nicht nur einzelne Aspekte, sondern ein breites Spektrum allegorischer Ausdrucksmöglichkeiten in den Blick nimmt” (15).

Chapter 2 focuses on allegory proper as a mode of composing as well as reading poetry. It reviews its origins and various ancient and modern concepts of allegory, including allegoresis in its different forms. This review shows the breadth of the concept as well as the difficulties in finding a suitable definition for the proposed study on Dracontius’ use of allegory. The latter are overcome by the introduction of Servius and Fulgentius as guides to what kind of allegory might have been best known and most relevant to Dracontius.

Allegorical personification is explored in the third chapter. Selent introduces a list of criteria to identify such personifications and discusses how they are different from gods and mythological figures, on the one hand, and simple personifications, on the other. This latter distinction is clarified by the examples of Mater Patria from Romul. 5, a simple personification without narrative context or action potential, and Gratia and Pudicitia from Romul. 7, two allegorical personifications that act as characters within a wedding narrative.

Chapter 4 returns to the distinction between god and allegorical personification and, on the basis of the criteria listed in the previous chapter, discusses the nature of Cupid in Dracontius’ poetry. This takes the form of a case study to exemplify one of the major allegorical modes, ethical allegoresis. The passages for discussion come mainly from Romul. 2 (Hylas) and 10 (Medea) as well as the two epithalamia (Romul. 6 and 7). Selent finds that while Cupid occasionally acts like a god from myth, for the most part he can be understood as an allegorical figure, representing two kinds of love: amor profanus (love as lust and desire) in Romul. 10 and some passages of the epithalamia Romul. 6 and 7); and amor sanctus (love as sanctioned by Christian marriage) in other passages of Romul. 6 and 7. The last part of the chapter focuses on aspects of Dracontius’ Cupid (fire and ruler of the world) that can be read as an ethical or a physical allegory. This neatly links the chapter to what follows.

The fifth chapter discusses physical allegoresis by the example of Cupid as representing fire in passages in which he shoots deities representing water (e.g. Neptune and the nymphs in Romul. 2; unspecified comites of Venus in Romul. 7). Selent connects this clash between fire and water in the epithalamium with traditional ideas of creation and conception, and compares it with the roles that Dracontius attributes to fire and water in the creation story in laud. Dei 1,25f., reading this as a physical allegory of the creation in Genesis 1,2. Comparing and contrasting this pair of elements with Stoic and other philosophical doctrines, with earlier poetry (Ov. met.) and with other examples of late antique thought (e.g. Lactantius, Servius and Fulgentius) Selent identifies concordia discors as the key creative principle in Dracontius’ account of the creation: to allow fire and water to come together for creative purposes, Dracontius stresses their complementary rather than contrasting features—i.e. warmth (fire) and humidity (water). As a side effect, this argument strengthens the case for the unity of Dracontius’ Christian and mythological/rhetorical works. This last point is also strengthened by another parallel between Amor as fire and the fire-like spiritus dei in Dracontius’ Christian poetry. Fire as an attribute for a cosmic ruler is finally found in the allegorical reading of the Sun as a charioteer governing the four elements (laud. dei 2,15-21).

The topic of the following chapter is Euhemerist-rationalist allegoresis. Its case studies rely heavily on previous scholarship by Roswitha Simons (on myth in Dracontius [1]) and Annick Stoehr-Monjou (on Orpheus in Romul. 1 [2]). Starting from Stoehr-Monjou’s allegoresis of Orpheus for the poet’s teacher Felicianus, Selent explores a further allegorical reading by aligning Orpheus with the poet himself. Comparisons with Servius’ and Fulgentius’ statements on Orpheus highlight the mythological nature of the character in Dracontius and introduce the term ‘transmythologisation’ for such a rationalist allegoresis within a mythological account.

The last kind of allegory discussed in the book is typology. After arguing that allegory and typology are closely related concepts, Selent discusses three biblical typologies in laud. dei: baptism (prefigured in the flood and the crossing of the Red Sea), the eucharist (prefigured in the manna episode) and Christ (as the tree of life prefigured in the tree of knowledge in paradise). To these she adds one example of a non-biblical typology: the bird Phoenix as a figure of resurrection. Selent concludes that Dracontius’ typology, for most parts, does not stand out as such, but is ambiguous and unobvious.

The last, brief chapter summarizes the findings of the main body of the book, pointing to connections between chapters and drawing conclusions from the material. This is followed by two even briefer summaries of the whole book (in German and in English) and a bibliography.

The book under review is rich in material, thought and analysis. It brings together passages from Dracontius’ Christian and non-Christian works as well as modern readings of select passages in Dracontius that have not yet been considered together. It also engages in theoretical discussion of defining allegory and distinguishing it from personification and typology and presents methodological tools such as a list of criteria to distinguish between allegory and personification. Finally, the book contextualizes Dracontius’ use of allegory by comparing it with Servius’ and Fulgentius’ statements and practices.

I have found Selent to be at her best and most convincing when analyzing select passages from Dracontius, for example the prominence of fire in the creation, the characterization of Amor and the description of Phoenix, or the analysis of the different kinds of love, or again the multiple references to Orpheus. Furthermore, the book provides a systematic and useful description of four major kinds of allegories illustrated by examples from Dracontius’ poetry. For all this, the book deserves praise.

Yet, without a natural affinity for allegory I have also struggled to fully understand the book (well written as it is). First, the combination of title (“Allegorische Mythenerklärung in der Spätantike”) and subtitle (“Wege zum Werk des Dracontius”) has puzzled me. Is this a book on allegorical interpretations of myths in late antiquity or on Dracontius’ poetry and its allegories? The content makes it clear that it is the latter, but the link between Dracontius, on the one hand, and Servius and Fulgentius, on the other, has continued to confuse me. For example, statements from Servius and Fulgentius on allegorical readings are introduced in chapter 2 as the framework within which Dracontius’ poetry will be read allegorically in this study, yet I have found no recourse to these statements in the detailed discussions of the example passages in the main body of the book. Instead, further passages from Servius and Fulgentius are introduced for comparison with a specific topic in Dracontius (e.g. Cupid, physical allegoresis of gods; Orpheus). They are used by Selent to characterize the phenomenon in question in Dracontius more precisely, and they are certainly very well used for that, but they do not seem to advance our understanding of allegory in late antiquity or to help us define relevant concepts and categories. For example, Cupid both in Dracontius and in Fulgentius combines ethical and physical allegoresis, which is stated for each author separately, but not developed any further to ask questions such as whether Cupid might not be the ideal example of an ethical allegory or whether it would be better to consider ethical and physical allegory to be only one category in late Latin literature. In any case, there seems to be much interesting material still out there waiting for the more general study on allegoresis in late antiquity hinted at in the main title of the book.

Another two quibbles concern layout more than content. Firstly, in a book on poetry, it seems very regrettable that quotes from Dracontius’ works and those of other poets are not printed in lines (even if “/” are used to mark the end of each line). Secondly, the headers on each double page give the author’s name and the main title of the book (in reverse order in chapter 7!), instead of those of chapter and subchapters; this does not facilitate orientation in the book and fills its pages with unnecessary information. And if I may add another minor point, I have failed to work out why most, but not all, Latin texts are accompanied by a German translation. However, in general the book has been very carefully produced (I found only one minor issue on p. 81).

This having been said, the book under review is a very welcome addition to the scholarship on Dracontius and makes an important contribution to our understanding of Dracontius’ poetry and of allegorical readings of myth in Late Antiquity. Even if the topic has not been exhausted, the book offers more than just the first step towards a systematic analysis of allegory in Dracontius and has, I hope, opened a line of enquiry and discussion as relevant to Dracontius’ poetry as that of most other late Latin poets.

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