BMCR 2005.05.20

Translating the Heavens: Aratus, Germanicus, and the Poetics of Latin Translation. Lang Classical Studies vol. XIV

, Translating the heavens : Aratus, Germanicus, and the poetics of Latin translation. Lang classical studies ; vol. 14. New York/Washington, D.C.: Peter Lang, 2004. xiv, 279 pages ; 24 cm.. ISBN 0820469394. $69.95.

“Translating the Heavens” takes up the important task of explaining how Aratus’ Phaenomena was translated and adapted for a Roman audience. As the book’s subtitle “Aratus, Germanicus, and the Poetics of Latin Translation” implies, emphasis is placed on Germanicus Caesar’s Aratea, but Possanza (henceforth ‘P.’) contextualizes Germanicus’ learned translation in the broader literary movement of translations and adaptations of Aratus’ poem by Cicero (and Cicero’s brother Quintus!) and Ovid, in addition to Vergil’s many allusions to it. The focus of P. throughout is on understanding how Germanicus read and rewrote Aratus’ Phaenomena to suit contemporary Roman literary tastes and political ideology.

This volume is a revision of P.’s 1987 dissertation.1 In the seventeen years since its completion much has been done to further the study of Latin translation, Aratus, Hellenistic Poetry in Rome, and Ovid’s Fasti, and P. has read widely and used new findings.

The purpose of P.’s introduction, “A New Phenomenon” (pp. 1-19), is to paint in broad strokes the literary environment in which Germanicus wrote. With the acknowledgment that “Germanicus did not translate … in a vacuum” (p. 99) P. presents Germanicus as writing in the inescapable shadows of Vergil and Ovid. Not only did Germanicus have these giants to contend with, but he also had to respond to Cicero’s translation of Aratus’ poem. P. then presents Germanicus as grappling with the entire Greek literary tradition, stretching from Homer and Hesiod to the Hellenistic poets, especially the latter group as imitators of earlier poetry and innovators in their own right. P. also explains how Germanicus had to respond to Latin poets and their readings of Hellenistic Greek texts (in turn responding to earlier models). P. does an admirable job of summarizing the complexities of Germanicus’ placement within and his response to Greek and Roman literary tradition. This chapter includes a useful comparative table of contents of Aratus and Germanicus (pp. 8-9), slightly adapted from elsewhere.2

Chapter One, “Intertraffique of the Minde: A Critical Description of Poetic Translation in Latin” (pp. 21-77), introduces the translation and manipulation of Greek texts by Latin poets. To situate his remarks P. first offers a brief introduction to adaptations of Aratus’ treatment of the constellation Perses ( Ph. 248-53) by Cicero and Germanicus. P. contrasts these “remarkably different” translations (pp. 23-27), before concluding that Cicero employed “a fullness and weightiness of expression which is characteristic of the republican epic and tragic poets,” while Germanicus was more under the influence of “the Neoterics and Augustans,” who had tamed the Latin language with a “strict regimen of Hellenistic poetics” (p. 28). I have quoted P.’s characterization of Cicero and Germanicus here because this division underlies much of P.’s subsequent discussion of Latin poetry. P. then reviews many of the documented circumstances of translation of Greek poetry into Latin, looking briefly at Terence and Plautus, but paying particular attention to Livius Andronicus (pp. 46-56). We read that Livius “treated the text of the Odyssey not as an artifact which required reverential preservation in Latin but as a living organism interacting with its new environment, still capable of change and adaptation” (p. 54). P. stops short of saying that all later Latin poets working with Greek texts followed the same procedure, though this is essentially the picture he develops throughout the rest of the book. P. goes on to characterize the “defining features” of Latin translation as “subjectivity, innovation, assimilation to the Roman world of discourse, incorporation of new material found in literary, critical or exegetical sources, and variations in mode” (p. 62). In later chapters P. describes how Germanicus’ Aratea exhibits all of these features.

Especially important throughout this chapter is the distinction between what we might today call literal translation and poetic adaptation. Not surprisingly, all the Latin poets considered fall into the category of “adaptors,” and this book is more about unraveling the complicated ways they read texts and wrote poems than about engaging with Translation Theory per se. P. does take aim at those critics who view translation as “the mechanical activity of converting a text written in one language into another language,” and whose “primary goal … is to produce an accurate version of the source text to the extent that the receiving language will allow” (p. 30), but these critics (see pp. 66-67 n. 16 for their identity) are not Classicists, who, I think, as a whole do not read texts so shallowly. Along the way P. also rejects what Roman writers themselves had to say about the practice of translation because their “conceptualization … lagged far behind practice” and there was a lack of “systematic treatment” (p. 62). Although one might object that passing over their statements on translation theory is potentially problematic, I doubt that this book would have been improved by the presentation and deconstruction of their views.

Chapter Two, “The Cosmographical Glass: Aratus’s Phaenomena” (pp. 79-103), is dedicated to a summary of Aratus’ Phaenomena, accomplished in part by a nice outline of the poem (p. 80). P. reasons that a summary and review of the poem is necessary because the Phaenomena is “preceded by its reputation” (p. 79) and that perhaps many of his readers will not be overly familiar with the poem. This may be true, and those who are might skip this chapter. Worth reading, however, are P.’s remarks on the reception of Aratus’ Phaenomena among his contemporary readers (e.g., Callimachus, Leonidas) and the production of technical commentaries (e.g., Attalus, Hipparchus). P. offers a particularly good summary of the problems of understanding Callimachus’ epigram in praise of Aratus (pp. 87-88, 101-02 nn. 16-18).

P.’s third chapter, “A Second Original” (pp. 105-67), contains a series of close readings of Germanicus’ reworking of Aratus in an attempt to show different modes of translation. To take the first example, P. compares the proem of Aratus to Germanicus’ proem, illustrating that although the two poems begin with the same phrase ( ἐκ Διὸς ἀρχώμεσθα = ab Iove principium), they quickly diverge: Aratus’ Stoic Zeus is left behind in favor of imperial panegyric. P. immediately draws attention to a theme recurrent in this and the next chapter, namely how Germanicus incorporates political ideology into his rewriting of Aratus’ poem: the “implications of the proem for the dynastic politics of the imperial house are obvious” (p. 108) because Jupiter himself approves of Augustus (v. 4: probat ipse deum rectorque satorque), and Germanicus expects that he himself will receive similar sanction from Jupiter. P. then moves on to show how Hesiod stands in the background to Germanicus’ proem (filtered through Aratus), and how there are also resonances “in the context of agriculture, seafaring, and the constellations” (p. 113) with Vergil’s first Georgic. Germanicus’ departure from Zeus in the proem also marks what P. calls his “secularizing stance” (p. 114), a shift which allows him to focus on Augustus and “the good order … returned to the Roman world after protracted civil war” (p. 114). After the ground has been set in this way, the chapter treats Germanicus’ approach to three star groups: Ursa Major and Minor (pp. 117-28), Virgo (pp. 128-45), and Draco (pp. 146-56). The point of each section is to illustrate the variety of ways and methods in which Germanicus expanded upon Aratus’ version. Germanicus sometimes implicates more authors than Aratus, for example in his catasterism of the Bears when he includes a reference to Callimachus’ Hymn to Zeus (pp. 122-23), perhaps filtered through Ovid (p. 123) and perhaps with a nod toward Vergil and Horace (p. 124). P. also describes how Germanicus sometimes transfers a traditional Greek paradigm into a Roman context, for example when he likens the Hesiodic and Aratean Dike to the Roman Iustitia but does so by weaving in Vergil’s image of the Golden Age in Italy (pp. 131-38). Never far from these discussions are Cicero’s versions of the same passages, but, as should be obvious, P. presents Germanicus as having a closer affinity to the poetics of his contemporary Augustan Rome than to Cicero’s translations of the same passages.

Chapter Four, “Doctus Poeta” (pp. 169-217), is the most thought-provoking in the book. It continues the examination of selected passages, but here the emphasis is less on Germanicus’ specific allusions to earlier writers and more on understanding the motivations behind the changes Germanicus introduces into his adaptation of Aratus. P. presents Germanicus as writing with a keener interest in aetiology and individual narratives than Aratus, whose primary purpose was to praise Zeus by illustrating his providential care for humankind. P. illustrates this claim with a chart showing how Germanicus has more than doubled the number of catasterism myths than appear in Aratus (pp. 172-73). A large number of these new myths occur in Germanicus’ elaboration of the constellations in the Zodiac (vv. 531-64), which is hardly more than a list in Aratus ( Ph. 545-52). Germanicus’ catasterism of Aries (vv. 532-35), for example, records an aition for the name of the Hellespont and mentions the quest for the Golden Fleece as well as the relationship of Jason and Medea (p. 180). The Aries of Aratus’ Zodiac is merely mentioned in a listing of the constellations ( Ph. 549), as it is in Cicero’s adaptation (v. 329) and in that of Cicero’s brother Quintus (v. 2). Each of the twelve Zodiacal constellations is similarly analyzed by P. (pp. 175-86). P. maintains that the “overall effect of these devices is to give to the description of the Zodiac a rich variety of emotions and experiences that takes the reader from the remote mythological past down to contemporary Rome and the ascent of Augustus’s numen into the heavens” (p. 186). Leaving the Zodiac, the chapter discusses four remaining examples (from the chart on pp. 172-73) of catasterism myths which Germanicus has added in his adaptation of Aratus. P.’s focus on these examples aims at highlighting the erotic element in each of the myths, thereby bringing Germanicus in line with Ovidian poetics. The catasterism of Aquila (vv. 315-20), for example, intertwines “the erotic theme of Jupiter’s burning passion and the epic theme of Troy’s destruction” (p. 191). The rest of the chapter (pp. 199-208) continues to tease out the complexities of Germanicus’ adaptation, in part as a “response provoked by something in the texts of Aratus or Cicero” (p. 201), in part as a removal of the theistic principles of Aratus, and in part as a poem profoundly influenced by contemporary poetic practices, especially as seen in Ovid.

Two appendices follow. The first, “Authorship and Date” (pp. 219-43), presents P.’s reasons for believing that Germanicus Caesar is the author of the Aratea, and that he composed the poem sometime between 4 and 7 C.E., and added lines 558-60 after the deification of Augustus in 14 C.E. On the whole, I find P.’s presentation persuasive, although it must be said that not everyone agrees in assigning this poem to Germanicus or to the same decade.3 In the end, however, what matters most for P.’s argument is not the answers to questions concerning a specific author or exact date, but rather that the Aratea is a work of late Augustan poetry which has closest affinities to Ovid’s poetry.

The second appendix, “A Disputed Reading: Parta or Tanta?” (pp. 245-48), trying to solve a disputed reading in v. 9. P. convincingly argues that we should prefer parta because it echoes the current “Augustan slogan pax parta terra marique” (p. 247).

The volume is handsomely produced, and there are only negligible typographical errors.4 The binding stood up to multiple readings. P.’s notes are placed conveniently at the end of each chapter. The book should have included a map of constellations, and P. himself admits that visual aids are useful in reading astronomical poems (speaking of Aratus): “Whatever difficulties the reader may encounter in following the descriptions of the constellation figures are easily solved by the use of a celestial globe or star chart” (pp. 80-81). The handiest maps are those in the Loeb edition of Aratus.

“Translating the Heavens” achieves its primary goal of presenting the Latin translator at work. The reader is shown the spectrum of poetic translation and adaptation, from translations of Greek into Latin nearly verbatim, to adaptations ranging from the slight to the substantial, and even entirely new insertions. But how and why a translator working in the late Augustan period combined these different approaches, and how his decisions exemplify contemporary poetics, is the real subject of the book. And as such, the book is remarkably successful.

The book can, I think, achieve a secondary goal, namely the rehabilitation of the study of Germanicus, who has been largely ignored by modern scholars. A glance at the bibliography relating to his poem5 will show how little has actually been written on so many extant hexameter lines of Augustan date. P.’s study should do much to correct a bias against Germanicus as merely a translator because P. has firmly situated Germanicus’ Aratea in the tradition of learned poetry.


1. “Studies in the Aratea of Germanicus Caesar.” University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. 1987.

2. See pp. 75-76 of the Budé edition of Germanicus by A. Le Boeuffle ( Germanicus: Les Phénomènes d’Aratos. 2nd ed. [Paris, 2003]), who also includes parallels to Cicero’s translation (ed. Soubiran), omitted by P.

3. For example, D. B. Gain, The Aratus Ascribed to Germanicus Caesar (London, 1976), pp. 16-20, is agnostic on the issue of authorship, and Le Boeuffle (see n. 2) prefers a date of composition around 16-17 C.E. (p. x).

4. I noticed that P.’s translation of Livius on p. 55 is not in parentheses, as is P.’s convention elsewhere; on p. 61, line 19 a few stray spaces seem to have crept in between “you” and “and”; on p. 155, line 29 “catasterism” is spelled “catastersim”; and in the Bibliography on p. 259, P.’s dissertation is listed as being from the University of Carolina, Chapel Hill.

5. See Martijn Cuypers’ bibliography.