BMCR 2004.07.27

Io. Genesius Sepulveda. Epistolarum libri septem. Bibliotheca Teubneriana

, , Epistolarum libri septem : in quibus cum alia multa quae legantur dignissima traduntur, tum varii loci graviorum doctrinarum eruditissime et elegantissime tractantur. Bibliotheca scriptorum Graecorum et Romanorum Teubneriana ; 1252. München/Leipzig: Saur, 2003. xxxiv, 342 pages : illustrations ; 21 cm.. ISBN 3598712529 €86.00.

This is a new edition of a collection of Latin letters by and to the Spanish Aristotelian scholar, political controversialist, and royal chronicler Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda (1490-1573). Originally published in Salamanca in 1557, the collection contains 89 letters by Sepúlveda himself and 14 by his correspondents. Sepúlveda, all of whose published works were in Latin, composed these letters in a studiously Ciceronian style. Though they lack the immediacy and charm of many of the letters of Erasmus, they offer an illuminating look into the life of a Renaissance man of letters. Indeed, these letters have served as the foundation for the two most widely available lives of Sepúlveda: Angel Losada’s weighty Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda a través de su ‘Epistolario’ y nuevos documentos (1949; repr. 1973) and Aubrey F. G. Bell’s engaging biographical essay on Sepúlveda in the Oxford Hispanic Notes and Monographs series (1925). Readers of this volume of letters will find Losada and Bell helpful for background about Sepúlveda’s correspondents and the circumstances surrounding many of these letters.

Sepúlveda is best known today for wielding Aristotle’s doctrine of “natural slavery” in the vigorous Spanish controversy over the justice of the conquest of the New World, a debate perhaps unique among imperial powers still actively engaged in acquiring their foreign territories. Around 1547 this learned secular priest composed the Democrates Secundus, a Latin dialogue defending the subjection of the New World natives to Spanish dominion, but publication was blocked by the efforts of the fiery Dominican Bartolomé de las Casas, a dispute that culminated in an elaborate public debate convened on the orders of Charles V in the royal city of Valladolid in 1550 and 1551. Though the outcome of the debate was not officially conclusive, Sepúlveda never received permission to publish his book. Those who wish to learn more about the debate and Sepúlveda’s part in it should consult Lewis Hanke’s classic short account Aristotle and the American Indians (Indiana Univ. Press, 1959) or Anthony Pagden’s fuller The Fall of Natural Man (Cambridge University Press, 2nd ed., 1986). Classical dimensions to the debate are discussed in the present reviewer’s Romans in a New World (University of Michigan Press, 2003). Several letters in this collection address or allude to the controversy over Democrates Secundus : 5.3, 5.4, 5.5 (the fullest account here of the Valladolid debate), 5.7, 5.9, 6.3 (in which he insists that he was advocating political subjection, not enslavement — a point not always remembered even today when Sepúlveda’s name is invoked), and 7.2 (an indignant rejection of the rumor that he had been bribed by the conquistadors to write the offending dialogue).

For students of the classical tradition in early modern Europe, Sepúlveda’s principal importance is that he was, in the words of Aubrey Bell, “one of the first and greatest of the Aristotelian humanists of Spain” — though perhaps it should be noted that his Aristotelian scholarship was conducted in Italy and published in Rome and Paris. In 1527 he published a Latin translation of the commentary on Aristotle’s Metaphysics by Alexander of Aphrodisias and his pseudepigraphic continuator, followed by a translation of and commentary on Aristotle’s Meteorologica in 1532, and the same for the Politics in 1548. Alas, these letters throw disappointingly little light on what Bell rightly called “the main devotion of his life.” Letters 2.8, 3.10, and 5.13 briefly record dealings with publishers and booksellers over the Aristotelian volumes. Letter 5.16, to fellow Aristotelian philosopher Gaspar Villalpando, discusses Aristotle’s views on the transmigration of souls. Letter 7.1, the longest letter in the entire collection, is an elegant exercise assuring us that Aristotle obtained eternal salvation, both for his teachings (advocating one god, who rewards and punishes human actions) and his way of life (too engrossed in philosophizing to get into serious worldly trouble). Though explicitly directed against his correspondent, fellow-Aristotelian Pedro Serrano, this letter is probably a swipe at Las Casas’s notorious dismissal of Aristotle in the presence of Charles V in 1519 as “a pagan burning in Hell.” Letter 7.3 is a somewhat tortured attempt to reconcile with Christian teaching Aristotle’s apparent acceptance of the traditional Greek view that “it is noble to avenge oneself upon one’s enemies, and not to come to terms with them” ( Rhetoric 1367a20-3). And Letter 7.5 is an amusing protest against a ill-informed plan to include a portrait of Aristotle among a gallery of famous Cordobans in a new Jesuit college. In the following letter his correspondent, the dean of the Cathedral, conceded the point that Aristotle was no Cordoban and cheerfully announced that his portrait was being relabeled as that of Avempace!

Sepúlveda’s classical interests emerge in several other letters in this collection. Five (3.15-19) are addressed to the eminent classical philologist Hernán Núñez de Guzmán, known as El Pinciano and El Comendador Griego. In the first letter Sepúlveda urges the Salamanca professor, currently emending the text of Pomponius Mela, to avoid undue harshness in criticizing earlier scholars lest “iniustae castigationis contumelia” fall upon his own head, and in the others he offers criticisms of Pinciano’s notes on Pliny the Elder — and in 3.17 ventures to propose emendations of his own (“Vettonum” for “Asturum” in NH 3.6; “immisum” for “immensum” in NH 4.110). Letter 4.2 is a disquisition on Cato the Elder’s contempt for Greek, making much of his repentant study of Greek late in life, followed by a rebuttal of the current notion that Greek studies somehow contributed to the spread of Protestantism in Germany. A couple of letters reveal Sepúlveda’s interest in Roman Spain. Letter 3.6 is a report to Prince Philip on antiquities Sepúlveda observed while accompanying the Bishop of Cartagena to fetch Maria of Portugal as the prince’s bride — as well venturing a fanciful derivation of “hidalgo” from “Italicus.” Letter 4.5, to the Duke of Frias, is a contribution to the perennial debate over the true location of the city of Numantia, an intensely patriotic symbol for Spaniards in this period. Sepúlveda follows Strabo and Polybius in locating the town close to Soria, against those who followed Orosius and advanced the claims of Zamora.

One of Sepúlveda’s claims to fame in his own day was his willingness to break a lance with Erasmus and yet still be able to consider himself an epistolary friend of the great man. His 1532 treatise Antapologia pro Alberto Pio was a response to Erasmus’ self-defense against a charge of crypto-Lutheranism leveled at him by Pio, prince of Carpi and patron of Sepúlveda. Quite apart from the demands of cliental pietas, Sepúlveda was miffed that Erasmus faintly praised him in his Ciceronianus as a “Portuguese” writer of considerable promise — this, when the Spaniard was nearly forty and an established scholar. All the same, the two managed to strike up and maintain a reasonably civil correspondence in the last four years of Erasmus’ life. Though Sepúlveda was clearly jealous of the fame of the Dutch humanist (see, for example, his letter to Alfonso de Valdés, 1.13), it is not surprising that he proudly placed his correspondence with Erasmus at the very beginning of his collection. Sepúlveda’s six letters to Erasmus display an eagerness to point out errors in his Latin version of the New Testament and in his commentary on it and to lecture him on such elementary points as the tendency of marginal comments to creep into a text (1.4). Erasmus in the two replies included here maintains a tone of cautious, if rather weary, respect. But his candid admission at the end of one letter (1.7) that he had not taken the time to proofread it may indicate the limits of that respect — at least, we know from a third party’s account that Sepúlveda took it that way.

Sepúlveda’s placement of his correspondence with Erasmus at the beginning of his collection invites a comparison of the two humanists’ epistolary personae. The Spaniard emerges from this implied contest respectably, though not spectacularly. While occasionally verbose and convoluted, he is a studiously correct and generally clear Latin stylist, tending to follow his own advice to his secretary Sebastián de León (3.11) to adopt Cicero as the very model of proper Latinity. His letters lack the vividness and sprightliness of many of those of Erasmus, and the personality they reveal, while not that of the savage jingoist of partisan accounts then and now, is not uniformly engaging. Far too many of these letters are given over to complaints about open and secret enemies — rival scholars, his Dominican nemeses, and assorted ill-wishers in the courts of Charles V and Philip II. (Sepúlveda was attached to the court as an official chronicler in 1536, and he continued in this capacity for some twenty-eight years.) Among the more attractive letters are his accounts of his beloved estate near his native Pozoblanco, near Córdoba, where he spent as much time as possible from 1536 on, after a twenty-year sojourn in Italy. Letter 6.6 is a particularly delightful epistolary idyll of his life on this farm: watching a stream irrigate his citrus orchard planted “quasi gradibus instar theatri in montis latere”, inspecting the beehives that were a source of fascination for one who had written much on political theory, and eagerly awaiting the gift of young peacocks that his correspondent, the bishop of Córdoba, had promised to send him — he assures the bishop that the birds are likely to find safe perches at night to avoid the foxes who are in the habit of absconding with the farm’s chickens. Letter 7.7 offers further details of Sepúlveda’s daily life on his estate, including his support of about twenty servants, some of them impoverished relations.

Valverde Abril’s Teubner edition of Sepúlveda’s letters joins A. Ramírez de Verger’s 1993 Teubner edition of the same author’s posthumously published account of the conquest of Mexico, De rebus Hispanorum gestis ad Novum Orbem Mexicumque (more commonly known as De orbe novo). It remains to be seen what effect the recent publication of these works will have upon the ambitious project of the Ayuntamiento of Pozoblanco, Sepúlveda’s hometown, to issue uniform critical editions of the Spanish humanist’s complete oeuvre.

Given that the 1557 editio princeps of Sepúlveda’s letters appeared in his own lifetime, was supervised by his close friend Diego de Neyla, and is characterized by Valverde Abril himself as “correctissima”(p. VIII), prodigious feats of textual criticism need not be expected here. In his preface Valverde Abril acknowledges the dependence of later editions of the letters on the editio princeps and plausibly asserts that manuscript and printed copies of certain individual letters were derived from the inferior copies whose circulation Sepúlveda offered as one reason for issuing the collection in the first place. It appears that no original manuscript survives of a letter in this collection. Valverde Abril’s job as textual critic, then, has consisted largely in printing the 1557 Salamanca text, incorporating a handful of obvious or attractive emendations printed by the editions of 1602 and 1780 (as well as a handful of his own), and recording in the apparatus criticus a selection of variant readings offered by those later editions and by the miscellaneous books and manuscripts that printed letters from “unofficial” copies. All in all, Valverde Abril appears to have done an able job of presenting a readable text of these letters. The only glaring typo I caught was “poximas”for “proximas”in Letter 4.10, line 5 (p. 145).

Valverde Abril’s most helpful activity as editor is his industrious supplying of passages in ancient and modern texts to which Sepúlveda or his correspondents refer. In addition, he has compiled a number of useful indices: one of names and places mentioned in the letters (an indication of Spanish versions of these names would have been helpful); a 22-page “index rerum memorabilium” (virtually a concordance of nouns in the collection); a list of Greek words in the letters; and a list of passages cited from ancient and modern authors. And finally he has supplied a table of the letters arranged in their apparent or explicit order of composition, for the sequence of the printed letters is only roughly chronological.

All in all, we can be grateful to Valverde Abril and to Saur for this Teubner edition of letters which constitute a significant contribution to our understanding of the classical tradition in early modern Spain.