BMCR 2000.09.14

Clothed in Purple Light: Studies in Vergil and in Latin Literature, Including Aspects of Philosophy, Religion, Magic, Judaism, and the New Testament Background

, Clothed in purple light : studies in Vergil and in Latin literature, including aspects of philosophy, religion, magic, Judaism, and the New Testament background. Stuttgart: F. Steiner, 1999. 256 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm. ISBN 3515074228. $55.00.

Steiner Verlag upholds a tradition all but vanished: publishing a scholar’s varia. This collection may, in several respects, remind readers of the 19th-century Germanic tradition of publishing opuscula minora or, perhaps, of a collection such as H. Nettleship’s Lectures and Essays of 1885. Here we are offered eleven papers on Virgil, three on Catullus, one on Propertius and Plutarch, three on Ovid, and three on topics concerned with religious texts and beliefs. Many of these studies were previously published as articles in standard journals, Festschriften, and the Latomus occasional series Studies in Latin Literature and Roman History; one study previously appeared as a review in Gnomon. Four items have not previously seen the light of the printed day.

The forces binding this collection into a coherent whole are similar to those of an earlier collection published by Steiner: Relighting the Souls: Studies in Plutarch, in Greek Literature, Religion, and Philosophy, and in the New Testament Background (1998) [reviewed by Alan C. Mitchell in BMCR 00.03.28]: Father Brenk’s interest and expertise in exploring imagery and mythological exempla in standard texts; his profound interest in the Plutarch who expressed his understanding of the Academic philosophical legacy in both the “Lives” and the “Moralia” — readers will be acquainted with Brenk’s three substantive contributions on Plutarch and topics therefrom arising in ANRW : II.16, 33 & 36; a fertile mind well-versed in the standard classical literary curriculum, capable of discerning connections and influence among seemingly-diverse ancient texts, and endowed with a gift for the striking title loosely-derived from an ancient phrase. (For the present title, see Aeneid 6.640-41.)

The sub-title of this and the earlier collection may be taken lightly: these studies, as do many in ancient literature, history, “cultural studies” and the ancillary disciplines of epigraphy, papyrology etc. touching upon Mediterranean societies during the chronological period embracing Sulla and Septimius Severus, per force contribute to our understanding of Hellenistic-Roman Judaism and the matrix from which emerged Christianity. But there is little here which offers new light on or interpretation of contemporary Jewish and Christian texts.

To quote the author himself, the Virgilian papers in this volume exhibit well a skill at exploring “imaginative symbol[s] with deep literary roots”(p.2). These studies are particularly concerned with the themes of Aeneid 6 and demonstrate Brenk’s interest in the Virgilian transformation of Greek literary and mythological motifs.

The first study, “The Twofold Gleam — Vergil’s golden age and the beginning of empire”, dates from 1980 and still reads well. Brenk explores the ancient concept known well from Hesiod of a golden race of mankind and its mutation into a golden age of varying connotations in the Virgilian corpus. In recent decades, of course, Virgil has not always been read as the triumphalist Augustan poet that earlier exegetes assumed and presented. Brenk is well aware of discordant voices within the text, and this study is a fine appreciation of the epic poet’s ambiguous stance, throughout his corpus, of the relationship of violence to Romanitas.

Next, a tidy discussion of how Iliad 11.92 may inform our understanding of the “sepulchrum Bianoris” at Eclogue 9.59-60 precedes three detailed (and, when read in sequence, somewhat repetitive) discussions, within a wide-ranging appreciation of literary and historical contexts, of the figure and fate of Palinurus in Virgil.

“Auorum spes et purpurei flores”, reprinted from AJP 1986, studies Virgil’s eulogy for young Marcellus at Aen. 6.868-86 in terms of ancient funereal traditions and representations. We learn much here of the lore of flowers at funerals and, in general, of ancient Mediterranean funeral customs. Brenk includes consideration of the Augustan dynasty’s massive mausoleum in the Campus Martius (wherein the mortal remains of young Marcellus were interned) — on which we may add a work unavailable at the time Brenk first published this study: Paul Zanker’s discussion of the mausoleum Augusti in The Power of Images in the Age of Augustus (1988), 72-77. In his review of some of the evidence for eulogies, Brenk takes into account the well-known Scipionic elogia, but we miss specific discussion of the rhetorical reality underlying those elogia: the tradition of the Roman aristocratic laudatio funebris. That custom is of particular relevance to Brenk’s essay because Virgil’s “epicedion Marcelli” (see R.G. Austin’s classic Oxford commentary on Aeneid VI [1977], 268-69) follows his laudation of that great late third-century vir militaris, M. Claudius Marcellus, five times consul and lauded in 208, at his funeral, by his son (Livy 27.27.12-14; see also H. Malcovati, ORF ed. 3, #5; in general, H.H. Scullard, Roman Politics: 220-150 B.C. ed. 2 [1973], 252; Harriet Flower, Ancestor Masks and Aristocratic Power in Roman Culture [1996], passim). The tradition of a public laudatio funebris Augustus fulfilled for Marcellus (Dio Cassius 53.30; Servius ad Aeneid 1.712) and consideration of Velleius Paterculus 2.93 and Seneca Consolatio ad Marciam 2.3-4 suggests the language which princeps Augustus employed to eulogize his son-in-law.

The purple flowers of Aen. 6.886 bloom again in the next essay as part of an additional discussion of flowery funereal motifs in Hellenistic poetry. In the next two essays Brenk extends his interest in the funereal language and imagery of Aeneid 6. The final contributions to the Virgilian section of this volume are a considered review, reprinted from Gnomon, of Patricia Johnston’s study of the Georgics ( Vergil’s Agricultural Golden Age [1980]) and a traditional word study reprinted from the Encyclopedia Virgiliana : “Salus and Sancio in Vergil”, with a brief addendum on “sanctus” in a few other authors. “Ennius and Lucretius especially influenced Vergil” (p. 129). Well, yes; it is therefore surprising to find in these semantic studies no consideration of (e.g.) Michael Wigodsky’s Vergil and Early Latin Poetry (Hermes Einzelschriften 24 [1972]).

“Non primus pipiabat”, observations on the bird who famously appears in Catullus 2, 2A & 3 (in Mynors’ OCT) initiates three papers on Catullus. Brenk discusses “passer” (Greek strouthos/strouthion) as term of endearment and erotic symbol in ancient poetic texts and, generally, surveys the certain, probable, and conceivable Catullan debts to Sappho. Brenk refers appropriately in this article (first published in 1980) to the first epiphany of Jeffrey Henderson’s The Maculate Muse: obscene language in Attic comedy (1975); we will now consult on Latin sexual semantics J.N. Adams’ The Latin Sexual Vocabulary (1982). Furthermore, this is not the only contribution to this volume (see especially p. 145 and note 20) suggesting that Brenk does not understand that Paul the Deacon epitomized the dictionary of Sextus Pompeius Festus, who we assume with no little confidence, employed the antiquarian lexicographical research of that noted Augustan scholar, Verrius Flaccus ( Suetonius de grammat et rhetor. 17, with R.A. Kaster, Suetonius de grammaticis et rhetoribus [1995], 190-96). To cite Paul as a witness independent of Festus and to exhibit no awareness of Verrius Flaccus is a very curious characteristic in a scholar concerned with the Augustan literary scene.

The next two brief papers comment on K.J. McKay’s discussion of Greek “ligus” & “liguros” in Glotta 60 (1982), and the analogous semantic range of the Latin adjective “argutus”. Brenk proposes that an acceptable rendering of “arguta solea” at Catullus 68.72 should include the auditory and visual dimensions of the Latin adjective: perhaps (to follow McKay and Brenk) something like “delicately-tapping sandal”.

Chapter 15 discusses somewhat inconclusively and without specific conclusion the permutations of the Tarpeia legend as we meet it in Propertius 4.4 and Simylus frag. 1 (= Plutarch Romulus 17). Additional — and different — readings in modern scholarship might have honed the focus of this study. To mention, for example, the claims of the gens Iulia to descent from the kings of Rome without consideration of Stefan Weinstock, Divus Iulius (1971), 5-7, is odd. More importantly, Brenk offers a range of bibliography on the shadowy Hellenistic poet Simylus (see, in brief, Der Kleine Pauly 5 (1969), “S#2,” col. 206), but does not incorporate a convincing study which would have bolstered his argument (and obviated the need for many a bibliographic citation): Arnaldo Momigliano’s concise discussion of Tarpeia and Simylus, as reprinted in Quarto Contributo alla storia degli studi classici e del mondo antico (1969), 479-85.

Brenk’s traditional stance towards his texts and the pertinent scholarship is nowhere more clear than in three papers on Ovid exploring how an Augustan poet employed mythological themes in Metamorphoses 7 (Cephalus and Procris) and 13.740ff. (Galatea). These studies are informed well on modern scholarship to ca. 1980 and exhibit little interest in, or acquaintance with, more recent and contemporary literary theory as applied to the Augustan poets. Nor is there much awareness here of the dissonant voices of Ovid, not least his deadly playful ambiguity about the Augustan regime and about his own authorial persona. (We think, of course, of Alessandro Barchiesi’s study of Ovid’s Fast: The Poet and the Prince: Ovid and Augustan discourse [1997]; a similarly-nuanced approach to the Ars Amatoria may be readily-envisioned.) Brenk’s solid, traditional discussions have a surprising postscript on p. 196: A.J. Boyle’s reported opinion that these studies indicate a scholarly “time-warp”. That cosmic dislocation Brenk resolves by a summary of Garth Tissol’s acclaimed study (1997) on Ovid. We may cite an even more sophisticated reading of Ovid, Stephen M. Wheeler’s A Discourse of Wonders: audience and performance in Ovid’s Metamorphoses (1999), with P. Bing’s informed review of the latter, in BMCR 99.10.26. But Brenk’s manifest nervousness in acknowledging Boyle and trying to account for Tissol almost leaps off the page and is surely utterly unnecessary. His style of scholarship and his approach to his texts is so different from that of readers of Ovid such as (e.g.) Tissol, Wheeler, Myers, and Hinds that, while acknowledgment is certainly polite and appropriate, congruence is all but impossible.

Several of the final contributions to this volume raise issues and topics worthy of further discussion. Chapter 19 was published in the Festschrift for Paul MacKendrick (1998) and is replete with suggestive possibilities. Brenk offers a potentially-important discussion of James Russell’s masterful demonstrations that bleeding Caesar’s last words to assassin Brutus, as reported by Suetonius Divus Iulius 82.3 — “kai su, teknon?” — are no variation of a Latin “et tu, Brute?”, but an apotropaic formula known from other sources in various contexts. Brenk fruitfully applies Russell’s discussion to an unusual, poorly-inscribed stele, reportedly from Lykopolites (Egypt), as published by F.M. Heichelheim in JHS 62 (1942), 14-20, at 17. But Brenk’s suggestion — however plausible — needs considerable refinement. That stele records an expression of good luck to Nero from a synodos (ln 6: that reading is certain). Synodos of what? A. von Premerstein suggested a local club of young men — “neoi”, plausibly read in ln. 7 of this text; or perhaps, better, “neaniskoi”: cf. C.A. Forbes, NEOI: A contribution to the study of Greek associations (1933), 38-44 & 63-67. But the stele has as heading the letters “KAI SU”, which von Premerstein, followed by Heichelheim, restored as a dedication of this synod to Caesar: “καἱσαρἰ συν)”. But “sy-” is neither a common nor a rare abbreviation for “synodos”: cf. Poland, RE 4A (1932), esp. cols. 1421-24; SIG ed. 3, vol. 4, p. 576. Brenk’s reading is therefore reasonable: KAI SU is not an abbreviation of anything. But this discussion would be more convincing if Brenk had reported fully what Heichelheim published (including von Premerstein’s suggestions) and transcribed completely what the fine photograph included here manifestly reads; we may also note, courtesy of that welcome photograph, that it is not self-evident that the hand which inscribed the “KAI SU” was identical to the hand which wrote the dedication. Furthermore, to discourse upon Julius Caesar’s reported final words (p. 200f.) without first-hand consultation and study (as opposed to an obvious citation from Russell) of Weinstock’s discussion ( Divus Iulius, 342-46) simply leads author and reader astray. From Weinstock, for example, we learn that the observation that the only sources Suetonius quotes in the “Divus Iulius” are of the Caesarian era was the significant contribution of Karl Lachmann’s sometime colleague and correspondent, the estimable Moritz Haupt — and for Brenk’s purposes, Haupt is still well worth consulting. The concluding paragraph of this study I pass over, save to recommend that those who instruct rhetoric or Horace have here an astonishing modern example of a “purpureus pannus”.

This collection closes with two essays (Chapters 20 & 21) exploring themes in Plutarch and the Fourth Sibylline oracle — on which, see, conveniently, John J. Collins’ translation, in The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, ed. J.H. Charlesworth, I (1983), 381-89.

The first (previously published) essay is a meditation on the ancient literary references concerned with the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 CE, with particular attention to Plutarch Moralia 398E (de sera numinis vindicta 29) & 566E (de defectu oracul. 9) and Fourth Sibyl. lns. 130-39, prophesying volcanic eruption and the return of Nero from the east in recompense for the destruction of Jerusalem by a Roman leader come to Syria. This essay has considerable value in reminding us of the specific (and very diverse) literary sources for that legendary geological phenomenon; this essay scarcely serves scholarship, however, by implying (even if with tongue firmly planted in cheek) that the Jewish and Christian Sibylline oracles were perhaps more or less genuinely prophetic, rather than (as most of us who read these texts assume) a farrago of post eventum prophecies melded with implausible (and inaccurate) predictions.

The Fourth Sibylline (lns. 115 & 126) incorporates the Hellenistic Jewish conceit of claiming Homeric ancestry for Jerusalem’s chosen people: the martial, if shadowy, Solymoi of Iliad 6. Brenk offers in his final (previously unpublished) essay an informed survey of those ancient texts employing Solymoi for the inhabitants of the holy city. He might have noted that vernacular Jewish epigraphy did not, at least in the western Mediterranean, adopt this conceit: for example: David Noy, Jewish Inscriptions of Western Europe I (1993), #26, pp. 44-45 (= CIL 10.1971 = ILS 8193): “[Cl]audia aster/ [H]ierosolymitana/ [ca]ptiva … etc.” (from Naples).

The Solymoi re-emerge in Flavian adulatory poetry (e.g, Statius and Silius Italicus), and Brenk suggests as the prime reason the epic poem rumored to have been in composition by Domitian. Perhaps. The poetic pretensions and aspirations, if not the skills, of the younger generation of the Flavian dynasty are known well (Suetonius Titus 3; Domitian 32, contrast Dom. 20), but there is little to suggest that the epic poem on his envied brother’s military accomplishments which Valerius Flaccus (1.10-12) politely affirms Domitian could well compose was ever written. (Brian W. Jones, The Emperor Domitian [1992], 12-13, has sensible commentary on the reported literary agenda of Titus and Domitian.) Brenk is on more firm ground, I suggest, in suggesting that the appearance, in Flavian and later Greek and Latin authors (e.g., Tacitus Histories 5.2), of “Solymoi” as a learned reference to the inhabitants of Eretz-Israel reflects a conscious attempt by the Flavian dynasty to encourage perception and presentation of its destruction of Jerusalem in epic terms. In this as in other ways (in brief, see Albino Garzetti, From Tiberius to the Antonines [1974], 631-32, 654), the dynasty snobs sneered at as a “gens obscura” sought to enhance its repute.

The original pagination of these studies is reprinted, along with new, continuous pagination. Proofreading for this edition has been erratic. For example: “Paninius” Statius makes several appearances, as does “Silvius” Italicus. The collection is enhanced by indices of select “Subjects”, “Selected Texts”, and “Modern Scholars”. Published students of Virgil (and other Augustan authors) will therefore find citation of their works easy to note; others may well question the utility of this index and wish that attention had been devoted rather to a less-idiosyncratic index of subjects and texts and more attention to revising notes and bibliographies now (as not very subtly suggested above) somewhat dated.

In sum, an uneven collection (as would be and are most volumes of this sort), but this reader readily concurs with the judgment in the prefatory statement to this volume by Charles Segal—itself a model of how to phrase cautiously-restrained enthusiasm: there is something rewarding for every interested reader in each of these papers.