BMCR 2006.03.31

Virgil Recomposed. The Mythological and Secular Centos in Antiquity. American Classical Studies, 48

, Virgil recomposed : the mythological and secular centos in antiquity. Master and use copy. Digital master created according to Benchmark for Faithful Digital Reproductions of Monographs and Serials, Version 1. Digital Library Federation, December 2002.. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005. 1 online resource (xxv, 231 pages).. ISBN 1423756495. $74.00.

Patchwork poems have long been deemed marginal poetry compared to serious and traditional literary genres. Dismissed as lacking in originality, centos have been regarded as irrelevant to many literary issues, such as reception theory, genre theory, and allusiveness in ancient Latin literature. This thoughtful and challenging book refutes this widely-held opinion. The author, Scott McGill (hereafter M.), offers a full insight into the history of the twelve mythological and secular Virgilian centos which have come down to us and range in date from ca. 200 to ca. 534 (Hosidius Geta’s Medea, De Panificio, De Alea, Iudicium Paridis, Narcissus, Hercules et Antaeus, Progne et Philomela, Europa, Hippodamia, Alcesta, Ausonius’ Cento Nuptialis, Luxurius’ Epithalamium Fridi). M. warns against judging patchwork compositions by the usual aesthetic standards and canons, correctly evaluates the role played by the Virgilian centos in Virgil’s reception, and ultimately demonstrates the richness and originality of this unconventional poetry. M.’s study allows us to look at ancient Virgilian centos from a new and more appropriate perspective: not only will modern scholars and specialists of Virgil’s reception benefit greatly from this original work, but also non-academic readers will discover interesting aspects of a long undervalued field of ancient literature.

Prefaced by a short list of Abbreviations (XI-XII) and the Text Editions Used (XIII) the volume consists of an Introduction (XV-XXV) and five chapters, the first of which deals with patchwork technique and structure (1-30) while the other four are devoted to analysing the individual Virgilian centos (31-114). The Conclusion (115-117) summarizes the main results of the study. The Appendix reproduces the texts of the mythological and secular centos in some current modern editions, without textual alterations (119-152). The copious Notes (153-215), a full and thorough Bibliography (216-226), and an Index (227-231) conclude the volume.

In the introduction, after a brief statement about the main goals of his study and the importance of patchwork texts for Virgil’s reception as well as for reception and genre theory in Antiquity, M. explores the origins of Virgilian cento, “a counterpart of Homeric cento”. Examining ancient criticism of centonarian poetry, M. rightly suggests that Christian authors were mainly concerned over the risk of misinterpreting the holy texts (pp. XVI-XVII) and at the same time rejects some modern criticism as unjustified (p. XVII and nn. 21-22). M. links the composition of mythological and secular centos to the ancient rhetorical school, which used Virgil as an “open work”, imitating and recasting it for derivative and secondary compositions. M. supports his arguments with persuasive evidence from school exercises, mostly in prose, based on the imitation of Virgil’s works. As to paraphrases in verse or hexameter compositions, I would be more confident than M. about the possibility that verse exercises were practiced in the rhetorical schools in late antiquity.1 In addition to this, M. correctly stresses the connection between ex novo reworkings of Virgil and the common practice of quoting Virgil’s verses; he considers the “semantic modification of quoted Virgilian lines” as an important step toward the creation of patchwork poems. In this perspective M. convincingly interprets Encolpius’ cento in Petronius Sat. 132.11, Capitolinus’ account of Macrinus in the Historia Augusta, and some epitaphs as significant examples of inchoate centos (p. XXIV).2 By placing the composition of the Virgilian centos within the broader picture of rhetorical school practice in late antiquity and in conjunction with the act of quoting and transforming single lines of Virgil , M. shows how reusable Virgil’s poetry was. In the same way in which contemporary school teachers quoted Virgil and called on their students to rework Virgil in prose or verse exercises, the centonists “adopted a method of composition with a connection to how a wide range of Virgil’s ancient audience remade units of his poetry” (p. XXV).

In the first chapter (‘Playing with Poetry: Writing and Reading the Virgilian Centos’) M. carefully discusses cento poetics on the basis of the prefatory epistle in prose of Ausonius’ Cento Nuptialis, which is the only text from Antiquity to deal with the structure, aim and content of patchwork compositions.3 Ausonius used an “expressive and often figurative language”, defining his patchwork with terms such as ludus/lusus and ludere and then describing centos as light poetry, distinct from serious composition (for works written in leisure hours see pp. 5-6).4 Cento composition is compared to a puzzle or a literary game; the Virgilian verses become “manipulable game pieces” but, as M. correctly states, they can be handled only in accordance with previously imposed rules (M. calls the limited verbal space of patchwork composition a “closed field”). Furthermore, the connection between cento composition and ancient memory techniques (Ausonius praef. 3-4) suggests a “piecemeal approach” to Virgil’s poetry. Centonists memorized Virgil in parts or fragmented verses, and I agree with M.’s view that centonists relied on memory more than on continuous reading of a roll or a codex, though this latter possibility cannot totally be ruled out. Other mnemonic devices might have helped in reworking Virgil’s poems, such as compositio (“principle of segmented recollection”), episodic memory, object memory, characters, poetic formulae, overt and covert keywords, and sound. Finally, Ausonius’ description of his cento as a structura composed variis de locis sensibusque diversis ( praef. 21-22), recommends interpreting the patchwork poem as a recollection of Virgilian segments within a harmonic and well-balanced structure. M. opportunely mentions some of the semantic, stylistic, and syntactical changes which Virgilian lines were subjected to (pp. 20-23), once again showing how the process of recombining pieces of Virgil’s poetry resulted in different and disparate texts, in which “secondariness and originality, far from being antithetical, are complementary forces” (p. 23).

The analysis of Ausonius’ programmatic epistle brings up a discussion of intertextuality and allusiveness in the centos. This is the most interesting and original part of M.’s study. After pointing out the difference between intertextuality in mainstream poetry and in the centos, M. explores how allusiveness operated on macro- and microtextual levels. Whereas, on a macrotextual level, readers paid attention to plot developments, looking at the Virgilian verses in their original function and recognizing the fundamentality of “the alteration in the intertextual exchange”, on a microtextual level, audiences could “investigate the semantic distance, and in some cases the generic or parodic distance”, by contrasting the meaning of a specific Virgilian unit with the semantic change it undergoes within the new narrative of the cento. Two examples, taken from Alcesta 79 and Europa 2-3 (pp. 26-27) support M.’s arguments and confirm the reliability of intertextual approaches to centos based on a variety of interpretive options: M. rightly maintains that the “strength of centos” lies almost exclusively in the potential to produce “different responses to microtextual allusions” on the part of learned readers (p. 27). Although authorial intention cannot be excluded a priori, a careful examination of microtextual allusions in centos is more successful when we explore open ways of intertextual approach rather than searching for a previously established goal behind an allusion: M. dwells upon this point, stating that such variability of interpretations as may arise from intertextuality in centos reflects their richness and vitality and represents an important contribution to Virgil’s reception and to the literary culture of late Antiquity.(p. 30).

The second chapter (‘Tragic Virgil. The Medea’) deals with Hosidius Geta’s Medea, the longest of the patchwork poems. Presumably composed in Africa around the first decade of the third century AD, this cento is the only patchwork composition in the form of tragedy. The main question is how Geta transformed Virgil’s epic into a dramatic structure. M. firstly examines the metrical patterns of the cento as well as the change of narrative modes in the transition from diegetic structures in Virgil’s poetry to mimetic ones in the cento. The multiple adaptation of Virgil’s lines to a tragic context, then, brings M. to consider how audiences interpreted such changes and, consequently, to discuss the generic status the Medea, which does not present features that would make a performance conceivable and, as M. argues, is likely to have been intended as a “recitation drama”. The transformation of epic into tragedy in Geta’s Medea is, in M’s view, a good example of the crossing of genres and permeability of poetic language in antiquity (see, for instance, the reuse of E. 1.1 on line 131 of the cento, p. 40). M. then turns his attention to the relationship between Geta and Ovid’s Heroides 12 (M. makes references to Ovid’s Metamorphoses 7.1-424 too) and Seneca’s Medea. The conventionality of tragic material on Medea and the loss of Ovid’s Medea, however, make it difficult to assess the real extent of the imitation in most cases (as M. himself admits): moreover, in passages such as Med. 104-106 (p. 42) or 313-314 (p. 45), not even verbal echoes are enough to prove deliberate imitation. More convincing is M.’s analysis of the use of Aeneid 4 in the cento (pp. 46-52). M. emphasises the tragic character of the Virgilian heroine, outlines the parallels between Medea and Dido in ancient and Renaissance literature, and finally discusses the two figures in conjunction while examining how individual units from Virgil’s epic were reused in the tragic cento. M.’s analysis results in a valuable reading of Geta’s tragedy as a text that brings out the tragic dimension of Aeneid 4, and in a deeper appreciation of the “rich intermingling of genres” which constitutes the peculiarity of ‘open’ texts like Virgilian centos.

In the third chapter (‘Virgil and the Everyday. The De Panificio and De Alea‘) M. focuses on the anonymous centos De Panificio and De Alea, preserved in the codex Salmasianus. The former is an eleven-line piece on breadmaking, the latter consists of 112 lines presumably on dicing. Their humble content makes them parodies. This assumption prompts a brief discussion of the connection between ancient literary parody and cento composition. Rejecting the opinion that centos are “parodic in nature”, M. equates parody with comic effect (the degradation of the source material is “a defining trait” of parody”; M. follows Rose, p. 188 and nn. 3-7)5 and maintains that the discrepancy between a cento and its source is a manifestation of ludism, rather than parody, which is characterised by lowering intent and humorous effect. Then, he proceeds to link the De Panificio and De Alea to ancient Virgilian parody (p. 59), suggesting that the act of deflating the model “to create comic doublets of it” gives a parodic purpose to both the centos. M. is generally correct in defining the two centos as parodies, but he seems to go too far when equating parody with degradation and, consequently, when distinguishing parody from ludism as a literary play. Ancient literary parody certainly produces comic effects; however, according to ancient sources such as Quintilian IO 9.2.35 (M. cites Quintilian IO 6.3.89 on wit only, p. 188 n. 7), parody basically consists of adapting stylistic or linguistic features of the model to a new context, without necessarily debasing the source material (Catullus’ poem 2, for instance, reworks linguistic features of the religious hymn without burlesque aims), and the comic effect is not the primary purpose. As a clear demarcation line between parody and ludism appears difficult to draw, I would not totally rule out the possibility of interpreting the mythological and secular Virgilian centos as ‘ancient parodies’.

M. compares the De Panificio to the pseudo-Virgilian Moretum and other traditional literary parodies: the poet, “engaging in light comic play with Virgil’s canonical poetry”, sets out not to attack Virgil but to offer a piece of entertaining poetry. More challenging is the obscurity of the De Alea. M.’s hypothesis that the cento describes dicing “as though it were a battle between epic combatants” is well supported by parallels in martial language (p. 66): the De Alea distorts Virgil in a very different way from the De Panificio and the battles described in the cento stand in contrast to those in Virgil’s epic, leading us to take the cento as a tongue-in-cheek rewriting of the Aeneid.

The fourth chapter (‘ Omnia Iam Vulgata ? Approaches to the Mythological Centos’) deals with the mythological centos ( Hippodamia, Iudicium Paridis, Narcissus, Hercules et Antaeus, Progne et Philomela, Europa, Alcesta), all preserved in the codex Salmasianus (and presumably written in Africa: pp. 72-73). The mythological themes are all traditional, or, in Virgil’s definition, omnia iam vulgata ( Georgics 3.4); M. points out content and stylistic features of each of these centos, especially focusing on the originality they present by comparison with other patchwork and literary poems. Particularly interesting is the interpretation of the Narcissus as mainly built on the imago-theme and in constant allusion to Ovid’s poetry. Equally noteworthy is M.’s suggestion that the Hippodamia, which relates a mythological story rejected by Virgil in the above-mentioned preface of G. 3, is a deliberate polemical response to Virgil’s criticism (the topic is treated as if it were a high epic theme). The Alcesta, “the most lucid of all the patchwork poems”, is usefully compared to the Alcestis Barcinonensis; moreover, the reuse of units in Aeneid 4 , which recalls Geta’s Medea, allows M. to investigate the multiple ways in which readers could interpret the relationship between Alcesta and Dido (pp. 89-91). Thus, far from being a repetition of trite material, the mythological centos appear strikingly original, challenging spectators to find different approaches and responses to macrotextual and microtextual allusions: picking up the initial reference to Virgil’s lines, M. concludes that “when it comes to the mythological centos, omnia non vulgata” (p. 91).

Ausonius’ Cento Nuptialis and Luxurius’ Epithalamium Fridi are the subject of the last chapter (‘Wedding, Sex, and “Virgil the Maiden”. The Cento Nuptialis and the Epithalamium Fridi“). After describing the circumstances in which the poems were written — e.g. it is plausible that Ausonius’ cento, written for the wedding of Gratian and Constantia, daughter of Constantius II was intended as a “playful literary contest” with the emperor Valentinian, who had composed a nuptial cento of his own — M. carefully examines the centos in connection with the epithalamial tradition. Ausonius’ cento is filled with conventional themes belonging to the tradition of epithalamial poems: similarly, Luxurius owes a great deal to Statius’ nuptial poems, in particular Silv. 1.2. The obscenities in the final scenes (CN 101-131 and EF 61-66), strongly criticized by modern scholars, are here reassessed in a new and more pertinent perspective. Besides suggesting the possibility of imitation of Ausonius by Luxurius, M. argues that the sex scenes are part of an authorial strategy, meant to reveal not only the poets’ ludic skills but also the parodic intent which is hidden behind the description of sex, without implying a voluntary act of deflating or lampooning the source. In order to support his arguments, M. analyses the prose apology following the obscene passage in Ausonius’ cento (108ff.), in which he claims that Virgil too composed obscene verses (A. 8. 404-406 and G. 3. 123-127); although Ausonius comes across as a ‘cacemphatist’, obtrectator, in his attempt to uncover obscenity within Virgil’s works, hostility towards Virgil is unlikely to be at work there. Sexuality, then, is justified through the polysemous function of Virgil’s language: besides adapting the sexual meaning of some Virgilian lines to the epithalamic context (M. recalls in particular the cave scene in Aeneid 4 and the eroticism of youthful death), the patchwork poets transform the original semantics of Virgilian units within a new sexual context, reshaping Virgil’s poetry through obscenity and creating “subtler intertextual relationships” which offer room for different “hermeneutic choices”.

Originally constructed, the book goes through the complexity of Virgil’s reception in the ancient centos with sound criticism, constantly stimulating the interest of the reader by connecting the adaptation of Virgil’s lines to important issues, such as ludism, the crossing of genres, parody, and intertextuality in late antiquity. M. opens a new way for the correct understanding of one of the more intricate and fascinating aspects of ancient Latin literature; the whole corpus of Virgilian centos becomes a starting point for deeper insight into the beauty and richness of late poetry, too often dismissed on the basis of conventional (if not questionable) definitions of ‘classical’ poetry.


1. The very examples of declamations in verse, like AL 8 SB and Dracontius Rom. 4 and 5, cited by M. (p. 158 n. 35), might support the hypothesis of versifying activities in rhetorical schools.

2. M. follows up a suggestion by Richard J. Tarrant, “Aspects of Virgil’s Reception in Antiquity” in The Cambridge Companion to Virgil, ed. Charles Martindale, Cambridge 1997, 59 (p. 161 n. 66).

3. A discussion of cento practice as described in Ausonius’ Cento Nuptialis (with emphasis on cento’s paradoxes) is found in Karla Pollmann, “Sex and Salvation in the Virgilian Cento of the Fourth Century” in Romane Memento. Virgil in the Fourth Century, ed. Roger Rees, London 2004, 79-96.

4. For light verses as “cultured play” and “harmless fun” in Pliny the Younger see p. 5; on Pliny’s reflection on otium see Eleanor Winsor Leach, “Otium as Luxuria: Economy of Status in the Younger Pliny’s Letters” in Re-imagining Pliny the Younger, eds. Ruth Morello and Roy K. Gibson, “Arethusa” 36, 2, Spring 2003, 147-165 (not cited by M.).

5. Margaret A. Rose, Parody: Ancient, Modern, and Post-Modern, Cambridge 1993.