A cento is a verbal, usually poetic, mosaic or, etymologically, “patchwork.”1 Its author fashions or stitches together a new text entirely from elements (half-lines, single lines, or as many as several successive lines) excised piecemeal from an older one. Homer and Vergil were favorite sources of the lexical tesserae or patches used by cento-poets. The genre appears to have been invented in the third or fourth century C.E. Early exponents were Hosidius Geta, who (according to Tertullian, de praescr. haeret. 39) composed a Medea from Vergilian hexameters,2 and Falconia Betitia Proba, poet and wife of Claudius Celsinus Adelphius, who was prefect of Rome in 351. Proba’s Vergilian cento dealt with the subjects of genesis and the life of Christ.3 Ausonius’ quasi-pornographic Cento Nuptialis may be the most well-known instance of the genre, though for reasons more prurient than aesthetic. In fact, centos have enjoyed sporadic vogues not only in late antiquity, but also during the Middle Ages and more recent times: “dozens of ancient and modern centos exist, some pious, some political, some obscene, patched together from the works of Euripides, Vergil, Ovid, Cicero, Petrarch, Shakespeare, Goethe, and Emily Dickinson” (p. 2).
Critical and scholarly opinion of the form has in general been harsh, often contemptuous. Usher cites Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s censure of Eudocia Augusta for having “sat among the ruins of the holy city [Jerusalem], addressing herself most unholily, with whatever good intentions and delicate fingers, to pulling Homer’s gold to pieces bit by bit” (p. 1). Arthur Ludwich, commissioned by Teubner Verlag to edit her work, made no proper collation of manuscripts and completed only about one-fourth of his task before abandoning the project as not worth the effort.4 Joseph Golega, a specialist in later Greek literature, deemed the Centos “weder des Druckes noch des Lesens wert.”5
Besides the need to overcome literary critical disapprobation heaped upon his author, Usher must also solve grave problems of text transmission. He does so by privileging one manuscript — Iviron 4464 (in the Iviron monastery on Mt. Athos) — over all others. The rationale for so doing is presented elsewhere as prolegomenon to his new Teubner edition of the Eudocian Centos.6 I will not venture here to assess Usher’s arguments about textual tradition, beyond commenting that they strike this non-specialist reader as persuasive.
In the present book, a volume in the series “Greek Studies: Interdisciplinary Approaches,” edited by Gregory Nagy, Usher handles Eudocia’s Homeric Centos with all the respect and attentiveness that one might wish accorded to a serious work of literature. He does not provide a running, detailed critical description of the content of the work, episodes from the life of Christ. Rather he concentrates on narrative technique. In chapters 1 and 2, Usher characterizes Eudocia’s technical expertise as comparable to that of certain earlier adapter-performers of Homer’s poetry: “If the Homeric cento poet is a successor to the ancient rhapsode, then declamation … is their historical intermediary, and Homeric centos are best viewed as a rhapsodic expression of it, requiring of their practitioners the same great mnemonic capacity and technical expertise” (29-30).
In chapters 3 and 4, Usher discloses the nature of this technical aptitude first on the line-by-line level, then on the level of theme deployment and intertextual significance. Centos are not fashioned word by word in any conventional sense of literary creation. Thus Usher’s treatment of Eudocia’s compositional technique centers on “accommodations,” by which Homeric verses are slightly modified to ensure coherence of content and syntax among lines excised from their original contexts. Such adaptations may be either grammatical or semantic. Though it is sometimes difficult, as Usher admits (following a comment of Stephanus), to discriminate between deliberate and inadvertent changes, the logic of the variations is generally discernible.
A specific category of accommodation — enjambement — is the subject of a separate chapter. Not surprising, since the whole line rather than the individual word or formula is the unit of composition, and the assembly of the text consequently a matter of suiting each verse to its neighbors. Now, the study of enjambement in Homeric versification has of course a long history, beginning with a seminal paper by Milman Parry himself.7 Usher, conversant with all the most current studies and theoretical refinements, accepts with slight reservations the system worked out by Carolyn Higbie.8 Four types of enjambement are defined and detected the Homeric Centos: adding, clausal, necessary, and violent. Usher’s findings show that Eudocia possessed remarkable facility in an essential device of oral composition. “Eudocia, like an ancient bard, composed by analogy, adapting Homeric formulas in her word and phrase substitutions. Her frequent use of all types of enjambement is especially impressive given her concern to reproduce Homeric lines as accurately as possible. In sum, Eudocia proves to be fluent in Homer and the Homeric style” (73).
Chapters 5-8, devoted to “Cento Semiotics and Aesthetics,” make the most interesting and the most controversial claims for the artistic qualities of Eudocia’s work. Usher skillfully demonstrates the intertextual resonances of themes in the Homeric Centos. There is, of course, absolutely no doubt about the direction of the allusive cues, since the literal verbal content of the Centos derives directly from Homer’s poems. Usher lays out the tactics of thematic composition generally, and also scrutinizes the application of themes from both the Odyssey and the Iliad in the Centos. Dozens of thematic correspondences are revealed and dexterously analyzed. The following typifies Usher’s interpretive procedure.
In using Od. 20.25-28 … to describe Peter’s remorse [after his denial of Christ: Homeric Centos 1808-11], Eudocia displays a deep Homeric awareness of human psychology. In Homer these lines describe Odysseus’s rage at the disloyalty of his serving women who go out nightly to sleep with the suitors. In the simile he is both the haggis and the man who roasts it as he wrestles with whether he should kill them on the spot, or keep to his comprehensive plan for revenge ( Od. 20.10-13). “Disloyalty” is also the point of the biblical theme — of which the protagonist himself is guilty; thus, instead of indignant rage, we have remorse. The simile is used in the Centos as an icon for the nausea associated with remorse: the churning and burning of a stomach … “filled with blood and with fat” (136).
Such analyses of Eudocia’s exploitation of the resources of her Homeric matrix, though in some cases less convincing than in others, are nuanced and shrewd. The reader indeed gets a sense of Eudocia aptly selecting Homeric lines, nimbly accommodating them to her compositional needs, and effectively releasing the thematic riches of the original in a new and alien context.
Eudocia is very well served indeed by Usher’s careful and intelligent evaluation of her accomplishment as a cento author. Not every reader, however, will concur with his apportionment of credit for the qualities of the text she basted together from material belonging to an infinitely greater composer. Her achievement, like that of the photomosaicist, impresses more by its ingenuity than by the little it shares with true creative artistry.
1. Another analogue is the “photomosaic,” or image-composed-of-images through a computer-assisted technique devised by an MIT graduate student, Robert Silvers. Photomosaics are commonly available as posters, calendar art, and magazine covers (notably the sixtieth anniversary issue of Life magazine). See http://photomosaic.com/gallery.htm.
2. Probably to be identified with a poem in the Anthologia Latina : R. Lamacchia, ed., Hosidii Getae Medea: cento vergilianus (Leipzig 1981).
3. CSEL 16.568 ff.; see esp. Zoja Pavlovskis, “Proba and the Semiotics of the Narrative Virgilian Cento,” Vergilius 35 (1989) 70-84.
4. That is, 490 lines of the 1,943-line Codex Mutinensis ( Par. graec. suppl. 388), printed in Eudociae Augustae, Procli Lycii, Claudiani Carminum Graecorum Reliquae (Leipzig: Teubner, 1897). So, too, D.R. Shackleton Bailey omits centos (as opprobia litterarum) from his Teubner edition of the Anthologia Latina (Stuttgart 1982) — see Pavlovskis 79, n. 33.
5. Der Homerische Psalter: Studien über die dem Apollinarios von Laodikeia zugeschriebene Psalmenparaphrase (Ettal 1960) 1, quoted in Usher, p. 2.
6. See “Prolegomenon to the Homeric Centos,” AJP 118 (1997) 305-321, and Eudocia, Homerocentones (Leipzig/Stuttgart 1999). For an excellent edition based on a different interpretation of authorship and text tradition, see André-Louis Rey, ed. and trans., Patricius, Eudocie, Optimus Côme de Jérusalem: Centons Homériques (Homerocentra) (Paris 1998).
7. “The Distinctive Character of Enjambement in Homeric Verse,” TAPA 60 (1929) 200-220 = The Making of Homeric Verse, ed. A. Parry (Oxford 1971) 251-65.
8. Measure and Music: Enjambement and Sentence Structure in the Iliad (Oxford 1990).