Juvencus’ fourth-century biblical epic Evangeliorum Libri Quattuor is an important case study for the continued vigour of the classical literary tradition in the later Roman Empire and likewise its renovation in the hands of Christian authors. The poem recounts in four books of Virgilian hexameters the Christian gospel story, drawing material from all four gospels to write a continuous narrative steeped in the language of Latin epic. With its forceful synthesis of traditional source texts, the poem performs the kind of aesthetic transformation that Formisano has described as “innovation under the banner of tradition”.1 The poet employs a linguistic and literary polysemy that relies on readers activating meaning from varied interpretive contexts, even as the text demands that we read it as part of a persistent poetic tradition. Though Juvencus’ innovations may seem radical, even jarring, the poet’s success, like that of earlier successors to Virgil, depends on the assumption of a shared understanding of literary form and linguistic texture even in the face of seismic semantic shifts.
McGill begins his “Introduction” by examining a passage that illustrates the way Juvencus moves between—or rather, brings together—the contexts of traditional Latin literature and the Christian gospels (pp. 1-2). McGill shows how Juvencus uses Virgilian intertexts in his account of the meeting between Jesus and Nathaniel to contrast first the political power of Octavian with the salvific powers of Christ and then the divinely enhanced body of Aeneas with a Christ truly divine. Juvencus’ poem opens a lengthy tradition of biblical epic, and its originality derives from the author’s attempts to negotiate the divergent (if not necessarily opposed) authoritative texts that inform his composition. The ways in which Juvencus negotiates these authorities can prove a challenge for modern readers. For this reason and others, McGill’s new translation and commentary will be a very welcome contribution.
This is the first complete English translation of Juvencus’ poem. It therefore has the potential to introduce to a wider readership a work long read almost exclusively by specialists of later Latin poetry. This possibility is furthered by the impressive competence and at times real beauty of McGill’s translation. Rendered in iambic pentameters (as seems appropriate), the translation is readable and adheres in number to Juvencus’ original lines. The significant compression necessitated by the shift from epic hexameters to the shorter line of iambic pentameter demands difficult decisions. McGill’s verse is sure and strong, but his prosaic diction allows readers sometimes to forget we are reading poetry written long ago in a foreign place and tongue. Still, the clarity of expression justifies McGill’s approach. There are, moreover, enough moments where the translation allows the reader to feel fully the traditions that inform it. So in Book 3, lines 257-67 (p. 80):
After they skimmed the surface of the deep
and came to famous lands that Philip’s name
made glorious, Christ gathered his disciples
and asked who common talk supposed he was.
They answered that the crowds said many things:
they often heard and many men affirmed,
he was good John who cleansed crowds in the stream.
And some relayed the words of swift-winged rumor –
Elijah had returned, whom raging flames
in chariot form had placed among the stars
on its fast course through the celestial gyre.
The translation carries us through Juvencus’ Latin, but we hear in phrases like “surface of the deep,” “swift-winged rumor”, “placed among the stars” and “celestial gyre” the sort of poetic language that relays the voices of Juvencus’ sources in his poetry.
The introduction and notes to McGill’s translation give readers the resources necessary to comprehend and appreciate this poem. McGill’s introduction grounds new readers in the text and its context while offering observations of real interpretive value to scholars of Juvencus. He reviews what little we know about Juvencus’ biographical details and reaffirms that the poem is Constantinian, composed probably in the late 320s; he reads in Juvencus’ preface the author’s program with respect to earlier and later poets; he shows how the poem participates consciously in the generic conventions of epic poetry; he explores other classical models that influence the work; he situates Juvencus in a broader field of Christian thought in late antiquity; and he considers the aims and potential audiences of a unique work that seems to stand in relative isolation and with no extant contemporary parallel, even as it looks ahead to a robust tradition that will follow by the end of the fourth century. That McGill’s readings in many ways reaffirm the current status quaestionis among scholars of later Latin poetry should not be seen as a defect. Though such observations are unsurprising—they recall, for example, Fontaine’s assertion that late ancient literature is defined by a “mélange des genres”—nevertheless they prepare readers to make sense of and do real work with the text that follows.
The notes similarly aim to situate the text within its interpretive traditions and guide readers to the sources from which Juvencus’ composition flows. Consider the note for 4.714-15 (pp. 267-8). Chosen for present purposes at random, it is nevertheless representative and speaks to the strengths of McGill’s volume. There the author first unpacks his translation with direct reference to the Latin text; he links the phrase here to an earlier occurrence with which it resonates and then to a natural Vergilian precursor; that intertext suggests an interpretive contrast that allows McGill to tease out one of the ways Juvencus works with Virgil; finally, the author compares the possible gospel sources that underlie the lines. This is precise and important work: throughout these notes the author considers the apparent influences on Juvencus as well as his own subsequent influence, and thereby compels readers to understand the text on its own terms, even as he prepares us to make our own interpretive judgments. McGill’s regular reference to the Latin in his notes goes some way to mitigating the lack of a Latin text in the body of the volume. This absence will occasion some added labour for academic readers but should not be seen to detract from the primary aims of the volume: to provide a much needed translation of an important but understudied text and to prepare non-specialists for the work of understanding it.
The current volume will find its natural venue to be the university classroom. Juvencus’ poem would fit in an expanding Classics curriculum, whether in a class on the epic tradition after Virgil, one exploring the interplay of religious and cultural identities in the Roman empire, perhaps even as the object of a primary source study in a survey course on Late Antiquity. I would therefore echo the comments made by Scott Bruce in his review of an earlier volume in this new series from Routledge (BMCR 2017.01.11): at this price and in this format the volume is simply too expensive for classroom use. A paperback or electronic version of titles in the series would therefore be welcome.
This will be the standard English translation, so we should be glad that McGill has produced a text not just readable but pleasing and artful. Juvencus is no landmark of world literature, as the author himself admits, but this volume will allow it to illustrate for a broader audience an important moment in the development of Christianity and the history of Latin literature.
1. Marco Formisano, “Towards an Aesthetic Paradigm of Late Antiquity.” Antiquité Tardive 15 (2007): 281.
2. Jacques Fontaine, "Unité et diversité du mélange des genres et des tons chez quelques écrivains latins de la fin du IVe siècle: Ausone, Ambroise, Ammien," in Christianisme et formes littéraires de l'Antiquité tardive en Occident, ed. O. Reverdin (Geneva: Vandoeuvres, 1977), 425-72.