Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2014.05.42 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2014.05.42

Joop A. van Waarden, Gavin Kelly (ed.), New Approaches to Sidonius Apollinaris. Late antique history and religion, 7.   Leuven:  Peeters, 2013.  Pp. xi, 397.  ISBN 9789042929289.  €89.00.  

Reviewed by Paolo Mastandrea, Università Ca' Foscari Venezia (

Table of Contents

This book undertakes to present readers with some ‘new’ ways of approaching Sidonius. The volume arises from a project carefully planned and organized by the editors and the collaborators, and is the fruit of their close cooperation. The team is comprised of of fourteen scholars, all European except one (their profiles are listed in the front matter). The fact that the work is the product of such a large group accounts for the frequent and helpful internal cross-references, but also raises great expectations for future developments, because this interdisciplinary and intercultural approach could create the conditions for a real leap forward in the study of a historical and literary personality who, until recently, has been little appreciated by critics, and often misunderstood.

According to Joop van Waarden, the co-editor and author of the introductory chapter, ‘Sidonius seems to have the potential to offer a point of clarity in a fuzzily drawn and highly debateable period – debateable above all in the rival scholarly arguments about the process by which the Roman empire in the west came to an end, between models that emphasize the fall if not the decline and those that focus on continuity’ (p. 7 s.). It is indeed true that, after André Loyen’s publications in the 1930s-60s, there has never been a remarkable authoritative monograph on Sidonius dominating the landscape to match the one dedicated to Claudian by Alan Cameron (1970). Perhaps this has been a boon: due to his penchant for taking centre stage and shunning conformism, or rather for creating a revisionism that allows no revisions, Cameron’s strong personality has for decades easily dominated the spotlight, which induced other scholars to take positions either for or against his opinions as though they were dogmas of faith. The opposite happens in the volume under consideration – a collective and ‘pluralistic’ undertaking, inspired by diverse viewpoints and contrasting methods in the various domains of literary history, history of the Latin language, religious history, and using, in short, every sort of historical approach.

The advantages of thus pulling down the barriers between disciplines, unafraid of the border patrols, are clear. It is part of a trend in recent scholarship to abandon the monograph (which is always authorial, hence individual) in favour of working together in groups following research procedures that are normally adopted by researchers in natural sciences. This gives a new sense to the term ‘laboratory’, to officina, or even to the academic seminarium philologicum in the positivistic German tradition. Vive la différence, then; long live the plurality of perspectives and of tastes. In this volume, sympathy is mixed smoothly with antipathy – also in the assessment of the artistic dimension of an author who is appreciated in diametrically opposed ways. Here in particular (to turn now to the discussion of the book), markedly harsh criticism is levelled, in clear contrast to some other contributors, by Piet Gerbrandy, in the chapter on ’The Failure of Sidonius’ Poetry’ in the section on ‘Poetics and Intertextuality’. As a polemicist against the futility and the mediocrity of Sidonius as a versemonger (‘a bad poet’, p. 65 and like his tedious poetry, ‘a failure’, p. 76) he is at least as implacable as Eduard Norden was towards Sidonius as a prose writer. However, what escapes the provocative irony of this comparatist scholar who introduces himself as a critic of contemporary Dutch poetry (p. 72) – hence his applying modern aesthetic parameters – is the rhetorical charge of the customary recusatio coming from the pen of an ancient Roman poet. Gerbrandy’s failure to recognize Sidonius’ use of the recusatio results in his complete deafness to the development of Carmen 9, which he dismisses as a literary programme ‘dramatically devoid of content’ (p. 73).

The reader will find the chapters of the first section, ‘Cultural Diversity in Research’, useful for providing information on the current situation in the national European ‘schools’ (or rather, in three large regions: French, German, and Italian; Anglophone and other European scholarship is reviewed in chapter 1). The book goes consistently beyond the level of a simple inventory or compilation of academic opinions, offering excellent leads for reconsidering issues of intertextual analysis – which has, over the last twenty to thirty years (thanks in part to the formidable innovation of digital techniques), become the main laboratory bench for philological approaches to literary texts, and especially to late antique texts.

Aptly, ‘Poetics and Intertextuality’ is the title of the second section, dedicated to Sidonius’ Carmina. Among the six studies in the section, chapter 9 (by Annick Stoehr-Monjou) seems the best, because of its methodological solidity as well as its vast documentation. This catalogue of allusions to Horace (meaningfully subtitled ‘The Art of Memory’) is not limited to Sidonius’ poetry, but also includes his prose. It is therefore worth concentrating on this piece, on the understanding that one could discuss more points1 because the author is in general too inclined to detect wilful allusions where similarities are due only to the mechanics of composition and versifying. For example, on p. 155 Stoehr-Monjou asserts, ‘Sidonius no longer puts the accent on the town of “Argos fit for horses” but on the horses offered to Rome by two other regions’ (i.e., Epirus and Arcadia).2 Stoehr-Monjou compares:

Sidon. Carm. 5.45 Arcas equos, Epiros equas, pecuaria Gallus
Hor. Carm. 1.7.9 aptum dicet equis Argos ditesque Mycenas.

However, Arcas equos presupposes no reference to Horace at all, and the parallel as such seems improbable to me because the choice of Arcas instead of Argos is determined by quite different requirements.3 Most importantly, apart from the sonic chiasmus between the two contiguous collocations (Arcas equos, Epiros equas), what prevails is the neutral echo of a charge, as authoritative as it is traditional, described by Vergil (Aen. 10.239 iam loca iussa tenet forti permixtus Etrusco / Arcas eques), and by Statius (Theb. 5.556 extemplo monitu ducis aduolat ardens / Arcas eques causamque refert; cf. Theb. 6.644), where prosody points to an epic- formulary origin on the basis of the various parallels Tuscus eques, Maurus eques, and particularly Romanus eques, which is frequent (not attested before Lucan, but presumably much older).4 Other examples of excessive identification of allusion in the chapter could be noted.5 The chapter is also marred by a number of bibliographical omissions.6 On the apology for the length of Carm. 22 (p. 164 f.), an article by Luca Mondin on La misura epigrammatica nella tarda antichità (in Epigramma longum. From Martial to Late Antiquity, Univ. di Cassino 2008, p. 474-77) is indispensable. On the next page (165 f.), the discussion of Horatian allusion at the end of Epist. 9.16 ignores Giovanni Ravenna’s subtle reading in the light of the last poem, Carm. 4.15, of Horace’s last Book of Odes.7 Earlier, at p. 139 and n. 34, Stoehr-Monjou ignores a very pertinent article in which A. Franzoi restores credibility to the manuscript reading victor, victor of Sidon. Carm. 4.12 on the basis of comparisons with Martial and Ennodius.8

On the long poems, which treat epic-panegyrical subject matter (not treating it as belonging to the genre of epic panegyric, as many say), the article by Tiziana Brolli presents practical points of departure for writing really advanced commentaries, while the one by Gavin Kelly contains some acute reflections on the strategy of intertextual research.

The third section deals with themes relating to the prose, from the angles of history, literature, and linguistics. Ralph Mathisen’s contribution, in which he tackles the thorny question of the chronology of Sidonius’ correspondence, is especially effective. It is commonly thought that the nine books were not all brought into circulation at the same time: a first group is discernable which comprises books 1-7 (finalized during exile but not published until his return to Clermont in 477/478), to which were added books 8 (published in 480 at the latest) and 9 (481 or perhaps 482). Another firm point is that the two initial books are composed of letters from before 469 (the year in which he was ordained a bishop), while books 3 and the following contain letters in which Sidonius is already a bishop. On this foundation, which is absolutely indispensable for the dating of the letters as they can almost never be linked to specific items in the chronology (either biographical events or external historical facts), Mathisen builds up valuable general methodological indications for the individual letters.

In organizing his corpus, Mathisen claims, Sidonius did not use thematic criteria as is usually believed: the books are rather the sum of materials archived in ‘dossiers’ belonging to the same period or sent to the same addressee. Mathisen supposes in addition that the author kept his personal correspondence at home, while filing the official correspondence with the episcopal archives of the cathedral of Clermont. This would explain why the letters addressed to bishops do not appear until book 6: Sidonius did not have them with him during the years in exile. However that may be, the historical context Mathisen gives to some letters of uncertain chronology is persuasive: in the light of his new proposal, Letters 3, 4, and 6 of book 1 were written during the voyage to Rome in 455-456, and not during that of 467-468 as hitherto thought.

The merit of Roy Gibson’s contribution is that it brings out again the importance of Pliny as a model for Sidonius’ correspondence, an idea hitherto belittled or ignored by criticism despite the fact that Sidonius declares explicitly that he has grafted his letters on Pliny’s. Gibson maintains that Sidonius repeats nothing less than the architecture of the nine books of Pliny’s correspondence, in which one goes from the optimism of the first books to the sombre atmosphere of the last. Parallel to his predecessor, Sidonius, in the final three books, concentrates dramatic and traumatic events, personal as well as public upheavals: the surrender of Clermont in 475, in the next years his own exile and the end of imperial power in 476; whereas books 7 and 8 make the most sombre impression, the ninth lets through some rays of light suggesting a better future.

Putting the articles by Gibson and Mathisen side by side presents a question that has no answer: how can one reconcile Gibson’s interpretation, which assumes coherent and unified planning (the ordering of the letters by Sidonius seen as following a design that revives the structure of Pliny’s correspondence) with Mathisen’s hypothesis on the material conditions (presence of dossiers, their physical grouping) supposed to have influenced Sidonius’ editorial decisions?

All in all, this is a stimulating book. The goal Van Waarden set out at the start, that the volume ‘is meant to convey both modesty and ambition’, seems to have been attained.


1.   For example the ‘Poetic Genealogy’ on p. 161, where demonstrably the model does not go back beyond Statius.
2.   From l. 40, Sidonius begins a catalogue of the provinces that offer their gifts to Rome: Tum quaeque suos prouincia fructus / exposuit: fert Indus ebur, Chaldaeus amomum, / Assyrius gemmas, Ser uellera, tura Sabaeus, / Atthis mel, Phoenix palmas, Lacedaemon oliuum, / Arcas equos, Epiros equas, pecuaria Gallus, / arma Chalybs, frumenta Libys, Campanus Iacchum, / aurum Lydus, Arabs guttam, Panchaia myrrham, / etc. The direct predecessor of this digression is found in the close of the panegyric Hon. III cos. by Claudian.
3.   As was surmised by R.E. Colton, Some literary influences on Sidonius Apollinaris, Amsterdam, Hakkert, 2000, 57: ‘He replaces Argos with the similar-sounding disyllabic Arcas’.
4.   In this connection, speaking of this panegyric, I would add that the half line Maiorianus eques of 5.218 only ‘formally’ imitates the Pompeianus eques of Lucan 7.507.
5.   For example, as to potor Mosellae and potor Tanaiticus (p. 163), Horace was not alone in indicating a people by mentioning its river: see Claudian, cons. Stil. 2.192 obsidione solutus / Pannonius potorque Saui.
6.   The list includes titles written in Italian by people who work close to each other. Is this perhaps an implicit confirmation of the general remark made by Stefania Santelia on p. 14, that ‘much of what was written in Italy seems not to have crossed the Alps’?
7.   I cite it in full: ‘Quos tamen chordae nequeunt sonare, / corda sonabunt’: Sidon. epist. IX 16, 3 vers. 83-84 (Sidonio Apollinare giudica la sua poesia), in Incontri triestini di Filologia Classica III (2003-2004), Trieste 2004, 315-26. Also on the site OpenStarTs.
8.   A. Franzoi, Memoria di Marziale in Sidonio (carm. 3 e 4), in Incontri triestini di filologia classica VII (2007-2008), 321-27. Also OpenStarTs.

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