Face front, true believers! This incredible new book brings to a modern audience much more than the “satirical defense of Latin and Neo-Latin literature” its title promises. In unearthing Jacob Balde’s Expeditio Polemico-Poetica, Eckard Lefèvre has done nothing less than rediscover the first Golden Age crossover story ever written. It prefigures the Justice League/Justice Society team-ups that American kids couldn’t get enough of a few decades ago, only instead of crime fighters or mutants, its superheroes are Latin poets. Amazingly, this story was published in 1664 and not 1964, the heyday of those crossovers, and if you like comic books, you are going to love it.1
In Balde’s Expeditio, a team of Latin poets from classical antiquity crosses space and time to assist their “silver age” counterparts. This latter group, the “neoterics,” is an all-star squad of Renaissance Latin poets. The groups join forces to assault, sack, and destroy a bastion of evil and stupidity. While the title literally means A Military-Literary Team-up, a bold translator might well be pardoned for calling it The League of Extraordinary Latin Poets: The Martial-Artists or even Mission Impossible: The Fortress of Ignorance.
Jacob Balde (1604-1668) was a Jesuit priest and the greatest Latin lyric poet of the German Baroque (1600-1720). His prose Expeditio is a stunningly original and creative piece of work; it deserves credit for inventing a theme that has proven massively influential in our time. I salute Lefèvre for publishing this fine edition, translation, commentary, introduction, as well as the other supplementary materials he has equipped it with. He has made this difficult text accessible to all readers for the first time, and his book deserves a place in every serious research library.
The Expeditio comes in two unrelated parts. The first, Castrum, narrates the poets’ siege and sack of the “Fortress” of Ignorance. It is fascinating, vigorous, exciting, funny. The second, called Elenchus, is a turgid “List” of 489 prompts (“argumenta,” “inventiones,” “themata”) devised by Balde to spark young poets’ creativity; I will come to it below. For now I will focus on the first part, since the story is too good not to summarize.
Castrum begins with a siege in progress. We are in the 16th century—a century before Balde was writing—and in an imaginary borderland between Arcadia and Boeotia. Led by Petrarch (1304-1374), a fantasy ensemble of fourteen Renaissance Latin poets2 is failing in its attempt to sack the fortress of Ignorance (castrum Ignorantiae). This fortress is the stronghold of know-nothing critics and “jackasses” who enjoy medieval scholasticism and revile humanism. The poets team up to “eradicate barbarism” (barbariem eradicare, chapter 11) by importing the new-wave humanistic learning from (Catholic) Italy into this hinterland. Yet the fortress, surrounded by a moat and two watchtowers, proves impregnable. Its defenders—the forces of ignorance preventing reform in (Protestant) German schools and universities—are mighty. The poets’ only hope is to resurrect ancient learning as a weapon and to seek reinforcements—in the form of ancient authors.
Enter 18 supermen from the glorious age of classical poetry: Virgil, Horace, Ovid, Juvenal, Statius, Plautus, and a dozen more.3 Led by Apollo, they charge up from Elysium and to the rescue. With superb irony, each of these heroes has his own “specialty,” based on his poetry, name, or place in literary history, and acts accordingly. The venerable Virgil, for instance, coordinates everything, while Statius advises on siege warfare. Lucretius is the group’s engineer, Lucan its trumpeter, and Horace its piper. Juvenal and Perseus are fearless, but the elegists are a wishy-washy mess. In spite of their brilliance, the heroes soon posture and bicker and disagree.
Each of the 18 superpoets acts and speaks in a fashion that mirrors his name or all or some part of his writing. The animating principle is le style, c’est l’homme. Hence Pontanus wants to attack the bridge (pons) while Plautus’ job is to strike the Jackass Tower (turris Asinaria). The approach explains the (initially cryptic) compound adjective of the title, a “military-literary” (polemico-poetica) operation: in this narrative, each poet’s ars becomes his Mars.
Thus the Expeditio functions as a sort of humanistic literary history, as if Conte’s Latin Literature: A History were recast as a Renaissance satire. The obvious drawback, as Lefèvre points out (p. 17), is that Balde’s book is not meant for beginners in Latin literature; only experts will spot all the allusions.
But back to our story. When the heroes do at last agree to a common plan, the villains are doomed. In chapter 48 the satirists smash the doors—CRAACK!—Claudian grabs an axe—THWACK!—and the team storms the Fortress—BOOM! Inside are footsoldiers, nameless, faceless, numberless. The poets capture the jackasses and sacrifice the critics to Wisdom and Minerva, but Lady Ignorance herself, the mastermind, slips away to fight another day. While the other heroes plunder the fortress, Persius discovers their secret plans—now foiled—to eliminate champions of good literature. The heroes demolish the fortress and charge Ovid with inscribing their victory in the Fasti. Yet their triumph is clouded by the reflection that Ignorance dwells everywhere in the hearts of money-minded men. ‘Nuff said!
After this incredible adventure story comes Elenchus, the “List” of prompts for poets. It is even longer than the Castrum. In it Balde poses nearly 500 ideas or aphorisms, with a recommendation for the character, form, or style in which each would best be treated (poetry/prose, elegy/hexameter, satire/lament, and so on). Some are interesting, others not; nearly all are obscure. Here are three consecutive examples, chosen at random:
369. Hypocritarum fatua navigatio in Regnum Utopiae. Explicatio, “An idiotic voyage taken by hypocrites to the Land of Utopia. Explain it.”
370. Mola asinaria jumentorum, splendide diu, noctuque servientium. Demonstratio, “The millstone dragged by draft animals that slave the night and day away. Demonstrate it.”
371. Amphion Coelestis. Christus suavissime invitans Homines Davidico Psalterio (in Germanicam Paraphrasin ingeniose traducto Augustae An. 1659) nimirum ut aedificentur muri Ierusalem; ex accurrentibus ad Lyram vivis & electis lapidibus. Sint Thebae, fabula: at Ierusalem, fabula non est. Ode, “The Christian Amphion: that is, Christ, merrily inviting us in the Book of Psalms (which was cleverly put into a German paraphrase in August 1659) to build Jerusalem’s walls with living, chosen stones, which come racing toward His lyre—yes, Thebes was a myth, but Jerusalem is no myth. Make it an ode.”
This material is dry as dust but Lefèvre gives it his full attention. He interleaves a translation (more literal than mine above) and at least a sentence or two of interpretative comment on each and every one of these entries. His ideas are all worth considering. He also argues, valiantly, that the Elenchus is also a satire, and that, taken collectively, the prompts illuminate Balde’s interests (25-48).4 Maybe, but to my taste this part of the Expeditio is more Battlefield Earth than Crisis on Infinite Earths.
3. Lefèvre’s contributions
Balde’s Expeditio was last printed in 1729 (online here). Lefèvre reprints that text and adds a detailed introduction, a word-for-word translation, and a running commentary. His 63-page introduction first discusses Balde as a teacher of poetry, and then the origin, originality, satire, contents, and (very slight) reception5 of the Expeditio. He adds two single-page appendices, the one arguing that Balde didn’t know Greek, the other on “the role of the hunter in Balde’s Sylvae 1 and Castrum.” The book has no index.
Balde’s prose can be difficult, especially if, as Lefèvre does, you keep his original punctuation and capitalization. Sentences are terse, clipped, unconnected, obscure. Much is in virtual oratio obliqua, and logical connections between thoughts are rarely expressed. Lefèvre’s 75-page interpretative commentary on the Castrum is, therefore, a spectacular aid to understanding the text. In it he tackles problems of interpretation head-on and supplies all the background information you need to know: biography, vocabulary, philology, history, parallels. It is a necessary complement to the facing translation (which is too literal to help on its own), and is impressive work. I see few opportunities to improve on his remarks.6
The book ends with a short bibliography. It shows that Lefèvre and a few others have been working on the Expeditio for the past couple of decades, but there is little evidence anyone else knew of it.7 With the publication of this book, that situation is set for change. Lefèvre’s edition makes a solid contribution to Neo-Latin studies and has unearthed a new milestone in the history of speculative fiction. Indeed, when an English translation finally does appear, perhaps it will take the form of a graphic novel. Anyone want to team up?
1. The first Golden Age/Silver Age crossover in modern times was Gardner Fox’s “Flash of Two Worlds” (1961). The team-ups then appeared annually from 1963-1985; see Roy Thomas, “The Justice League-Justice Society Team-Ups,” All-Star Companion, Volume 1 (TwoMorrows Publishing 2004), 184-193.
2. With Petrarch (1304-1374) are Sannazaro (1458-1530), Maffeo Vegio (1407-1458), Michael Marullus (~1453-1500), Baptista Mantuanus (1447-1516), Andrea Alciato (1492-1550), Baldassare Castiglione (1478-1529), Pietro Bembo (1470-1574), Politian (1454-1494), Girolamo Vida (1485-1566), Giovanni Pontano (1426-1503), Girolamo Fracastoro (~1478-1553), Eobanus Hessus (1488-1540), and Joachim Camerarius (1500-1574). All but the last two are Italian; Hessus and Camerarius, both German, were Lutheran.
3. Lucan, Seneca, Silius Italicus, Claudian, Ennius, Lucretius, Catullus, Tibullus, Propertius, Terence, Martial, and Persius.
4. Page 48: “That may be the true goal of the Elenchus. It is the personal testimony of a man who…came to know the world….”
5. Lefèvre overlooks the 1677 fan-fiction sequel spawned by Castrum, the De Castello ineptae Eloquentiae, ab Oratoribus & Historicis Veteribus ac Noviis expugnato of Magnus Daniel Omeis(ius) (Prolusiones Academicae, Altdorf 1677, 46-68, online here. Omeis acknowledges the debt on p. 10.
6. My marginal notes are mostly suggestive, e.g.: On p. 173 Lefèvre could have stated that the pons asinorum (Jackass bridge) harks back to Euclid’s Elements (it denotes a math problem designed to weed out slow students); he explains the name turris Cadmea (Cadmus Tower) indirectly via Actaeon, Cadmus’ nephew, but the point is surely mythic Thebes, the city-under-siege par excellence of classical antiquity (Statius Thebaid 10.906 turres…Cadmi). Likewise, he regards the name turris asinaria (Jackass Tower) as self-evident, but Balde surely took it from Bologna’s Asinelli tower (the name was Latinized as Asiniaria in his time: see Jean Hiernard (ed.), Les voyages de Seyfried Rybisch, étudiant silésien: Itinéraire (1548-1554), 2017, p. 120.
7. Likewise, there are only a few entries in Wilfried Stroh’s online bibliography on the Expeditio, none in English.