Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2017.10.50 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2017.10.50

Marco Onorato, Il castone e la gemma: sulla tecnica poetica di Sidonio Apollinare. Studi latini, n.s., 89.   Napoli:  Paolo Loffredo iniziative editoriali, 2016.  Pp. 534.  ISBN 9788899306434.  €36.80 (pb).  

Reviewed by Joop van Waarden, University of Amsterdam (

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With this book, Sidonius Apollinaris, the mannerist poet, has found his congenial reader. In a dazzlingly detailed study of his poetry, Marco Onorato succeeds in creating an enthralling blueprint of its architecture, seen as a multilayer structure of atomizing details, accommodating rare words like gems. More than just matching the complexity of its subject, Onorato’s analytic virtuosity plausibly recreates the conditions under which Sidonius’ poetry could be meaningful and could indeed be a first-rate artistic achievement.

Sidonius’ poetry as we have it consists of forty-one items, varying from impromptu couplets to elaborate, six-hundred-line panegyrics. Three imperial panegyrics and a number of occasional pieces date to the 450s and 460s and were published together around 469. This group contains twenty-four items. The remaining poems are scattered across the letter collection, which extends as far as 482/83. Onorato’s analysis is basically concerned with generous fragments of Carmina 2, 5, and 7 (all panegyrics); 9 (the programmatic opening poem of the section of occasional verse); 11 and 15 (both epithalamiums); and 22 (the laudatory description of a friend’s mansion).

The book consists of two main sections. The first is concerned with what Onorato calls Sidonius’ ‘diaeretic technique’ in handling commonplaces and ecphrases; the second treats ‘lexical alchemies,’ with a discussion of Sidonius’ adroitness at forging hapax legomena at strategic positions in poems. These sections are followed by an extensive bibliography and an index of quotations. The bibliography reveals that Onorato has a minute knowledge of the secondary literature that he applies to great effect in a wealth of footnotes broaching many ancillary subjects. As to the question of indexes, however, in such a microscopic book, which often operates on word (and even phoneme) level, the lack of a word index makes it much less useful for subsequent consultation than one might have hoped.

In his two-sided take on Sidonius’ poetics, Onorato declares himself indebted to Michael Roberts’ The Jeweled Style (1989) for structure and to Isabella Gualandri’s Furtiva lectio (1979) for verbal detail. His claim is that Sidonius takes the late antique aesthetics of fragmentation to a climax in a uniquely controlled way, resulting in highly organized rhetorical and lexical compositions, intimately connected with the structure of the verse. Driven by an extreme form of intertextuality, Sidonius’ ‘expressive exuberance’ is ‘proudly post-classical.’ Onorato duly acknowledges the many predecessors who have investigated Sidonius’ poetic technique over the past decades, but he is convinced that it is necessary to go deeper in order to gain a full understanding of its complex nature.

The proofs of this claim are convincing, especially in the first part on diaeretic technique. As the argument develops and one passage after another is analyzed, one senses an internal logic of method which is not only insightful to the modern reader but also can be plausibly supposed to reflect the author’s intention. Onorato’s system is to dissect a passage into its various levels, for instance Anthemius’ education in Carm. 2.134-92: the first level consists of the elements A (his infancy ) and B (his boyhood and adolescence); B is then subdivided into B1 (hunting), B2 (philosophical studies), and B3 (literary studies); B2 (to take just one strand further down) is divided into B2α (introduction), B2β (Seven Sages), and B2γ (various schools), ending, five levels down, with the pairs B2γ8’ (Plato) / B2γ8’’ (Aristotle) and B2γ9’ (Presocratics) / B2γ9’’ (Socrates). The point of Onorato’s analysis is that he is able, every time, to show that this amplificatio is precisely structured and serves expressive ends bound up with variatio and exact timing within the meter. Comparisons with similar passages in, e.g., Claudian demonstrate how this strict diaeretic technique is Sidonius’ hallmark. Successive chapters probe topoi like the hero’s education and the gallery of philosophers, as well as ecphrases of gods and men or landscapes and objects, composed with constant reference to a variety of earlier poets. A running comment on Carmen 9, the famous list of subjects the poet will not treat (amounting to an inventory of literary history) which never reaches the turning point of ‘… but I …’, makes sense of its claim to novelty (rejected by other scholars), defining the poem as ‘a manifest of uncompromising formalism,’ a clear-cut demonstration of neoteric poetry to the limit, entirely to the taste of a literary elite in its pursuit of Romanitas against the gloomy foil of barbarian undoing.

The second part of the book concentrates on hapax legomena from Sidonius’ own pen and devises a matrix according to their formal linguistic characteristics and their single or multiple intertextual roots. Again, Onorato is extremely detailed and schematic. We are given a credible sense of Sidonius’ method in creating new words while keeping close to the traditional repertory, and simultaneously get an inkling of how his literary memory could have worked across a labyrinth of source material. Thus, circumclamatus (Carm. 2.506-507 ora / … circumclamata procellis, ‘a shore around which tempests roar’) needs for its explanation Martial’s conclamata querellis (Epigr. 9.45.4), Vergil’s circum clamore fremebant (Aen. 6.175), and a number of examples of the preference of compounds beginning with circum- for this particular verse position. The argument is strengthened by the meticulous patterning of rare and/or long words apparent in so many verse lines, especially at strategic incisions in the text. Onorato’s cumulative evidence is impressive.

This book is an important contribution to the ever-growing awareness of what exactly Sidonius is doing as an artist. It is novel in clarifying the phenomenon of coherent fragmentation in his poetry as well as the complementary nature of the ‘jewels’ of the hapax legomena and their diaeretic ‘setting.’ Not the least of its merits is that its unflinching strictness invites the reader to look for nuance and ask further questions. Here are some:

1) There is more to Sidonius’ poetry than dazzlingly detailed lists and brilliant neologisms. How does Onorato’s method apply to the narrative bits in the panegyrics (for instance, the fighting in Carm. 7.239-94) or the ongoing contemplative strain that pervades Carm. 16 to bishop Faustus despite its outward fragmentation? It would also be interesting to have his opinion of the farewell poem, Carm. 41 (in Ep. 9.16.3), where fragmentation would not seem to be the primary drive. As to individual words, by focusing so strongly on hapax legomena in the second part of his diptych, Onorato unintentionally presents a skewed picture, masking the importance which all individual words may carry in Sidonius’ literary universe.

2) This is a book about poetic technique that provides cues for understanding Sidonius’ facilitas scribendi. Understandably, it largely leaves interpretation aside. However, while the suggested complexity of Sidonius’ poetic memory (the text as written) is already breathtaking, it is doubled as soon as the weight of interpretation comes to bear on it (the text as read): meaningful or mechanical intertextuality? coded communication or playfulness? straightforwardness or allegory? Maximized from all scholarly angles, the demand on one single artist would become questionable. To help frame further research, one central meta-question should be whether, and how far, advanced modern electronic search techniques plausibly replicate the poetic memory of ancient poets. Two prior questions could be profitably asked, according to one’s taste: either the big one, in line with the latest developments in cognitive classics, how human cognition and psychology steer the processing of large bodies of information in writing, including the limits and preferred directions of cognition. Or the mundane and practical one: how much time do we allot, and how much time and effort could Sidonius allow himself for reading, researching, memorizing, retrieving, and dictating so complex an oeuvre? Anyhow, we need a cleansing of method.

3) In a section on the cultural background of the late antique love for fragmentation, Onorato usefully comes up with explanations tied to grammatical and rhetorical education. But how is the phenomenon itself to be explained? Here, a wealth of material is left out. It is, for instance, worth looking at what David Rijser has called the ‘poetics of inclusion’: triggered by the need to create cultural memory in order to understand the present where ancient texts are no longer self-evident, the mere inclusion of as many elements as possible from the tradition is a vital cultural act. The mere presence of allusions, whether understood or not, the very sound of grand names in ancient lore serve as a ritual, existential guarantee.1

4) This book takes for granted the wholesale anti-barbarian stance of aristocrats like Sidonius. For a more nuanced picture, it is worth giving a second thought both to the notion of ‘barbarian’, which in recent scholarship on otherness, is less self-evident and monolithic than it used to be, and to the breaches within the elite and, indeed, to Sidonius’ own ambivalence.2

Summing up, Onorato’s study is an impressive achievement that solves a number of technical questions and makes it possible for others to paint ever richer pictures of Sidonius the poet and Sidonius the man.


1.   D. Rijser, ‘The Poetics of Inclusion in Servius and Sidonius’ in J.A. van Waarden & G. Kelly (eds), New Approaches to Sidonius Apollinaris, Leuven: Peeters, 2013, 77-92.
2.   For barbarians, see the edited volume (also in Onorato’s bibliography) R.W. Mathisen and D. Shanzer, Romans, Barbarians, and the Transformation of the Roman World, Farnham: Ashgate, 2011, and a number of subsequent studies, among them, specifically for Gaul and Sidonius, two forthcoming doctoral theses by Veronika Egetenmeyr (Kiel) and Sara Fascione (Naples). For ambivalence, particularly towards the ascetic trend of the times, see J.A. van Waarden, Writing to Survive: A Commentary on Sidonius Apollinaris, Letters Book 7, Volume 2: The Ascetic Letters 12-18, Leuven: Peeters, 2016, 17-22.

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