BMCR 2021.02.21

La letteratura tardolatina: un profilo storico (secoli III-VII d.C.)

, La letteratura tardolatina: un profilo storico (secoli III-VII d.C.). Studi Superiori, 1197. Roma: Carocci Editore, 2020. Pp. 287. ISBN 9788843099122. €24,00 (pb).

La letteratura tardolatina deftly surveys the panorama of late Latin literature in eleven concise chapters. The first five treat the third and fourth centuries; the final five cover the fifth, sixth, and early seventh. The pivotal sixth is claimed by Augustine, the only figure to command his own chapter. The architecture is premediated and its logic foundational to Fabio Gasti’s approach to the literary remains of the roughly four centuries separating the Severan-age grammarians, jurists, and antiquarians from Isidore of Seville, the latest author treated en route verso il medioevo. Gasti, professor in the department of Studi Umanistici at the University of Pavia and a prolific scholar of late antique literature, adamantly embeds his texts and writers within the milieu of their moment. To this end, he stages each half of this study with a chapter (1 and 7) highlighting the social, economic, political, and ideological forces that shaped the themes, stylistic features, and rhetorical schemes of each period’s prose and poetry. Consequently, his eye is out for the bedrock features that make the binary oppositions of pagan and Christian or Roman and barbarian distractions from the vital search for the essential filaments of common mentalità that underlie and belie such facile distinctions. Thus, although Gasti readily acknowledges Christianity’s remarkable change in fortune between the Severan and Theodosian periods, he prefers to draw attention to the attitudes and ideals shared, for example, by Symmachus and Ambrose, men conjoined by class, career, and educational curriculum but at loggerheads over the appropriate relations of cult and empire. In the same manner, he underscores how Cassiodorus’s history of the Amals, Isidore’s histories of the Goths, the Vandals, and the Sueves, and the Visigothic King Sisibut’s Carmen de luna together illustrate the cultural synthesis emerging in the età romanobarbarica. Shared literary agenda and sensibilities might now bridge social, political, and even ethnic divides.

For Gasti the hinge in late Latin literature’s historic profile, and the volume’s inflection point, is fixed in the early fifth century. The sack of Rome in the late summer of 410 changed the game irrevocably. In the century and a half leading up to that event most writers, however much they may have differed in formal religious outlook and affiliation, honored and accepted the ideal of Roma aeterna, a “myth” which made of the city both the virtual caput mundi and the symbolic center of Roman identity and destiny. Thereafter, increasingly and despite persistent recourse to the same classical authors whose works had underpinned earlier ideals of being Roman, a fissure gapped open between that idealized past and a coarser present conditioned by the geo-political realities of a world becoming post-Roman. It is Augustine, as the best known and most knowable figure of the period, who straddles this divide. In masterful summary, sifting through a vast and multiform oeuvre, Gasti sketches an Augustine on the cusp, absorbing and redirecting cultural heritage, acutely sensitive to the past but not confined by it, ever pushing beyond the imaginative borders that constrained others. Naturally, discussion of the City of God, a work provoked by the catastrophe of August 410, closes chapter six. Tellingly, that discussion ends by highlighting Augustine’s conversations therein with Sallust, Cicero, Varro, and Vergil. The City of God, Gasti observes, vast in its scope, is at once a synthesis and a bellwether. Thereafter, the past and the authors who gave meaning to the ancient idea of Rome would seldom be so alive. As the western empire came apart at the seams in the fifth century so, too, did Latin literature’s unity and cohesion. Regional assertions of cultural superiority and identity took the form of more mannered literary expression and, in the emerging regni romanobarbarici, projects often trended on the one hand toward encyclopedism and the compilation of compendia, the latter finding its logical culmination in Isidore’s Etymologies, and on the other towards the elaboration of Christian doctrine in treatises and letters of limited regional scope. Such was the fate of la cultura Latina senza Roma (166). Dissent on the particulars of Gasti’s profilo storico is inevitable, but any such objections are unlikely to diminish the accomplishment of scaffolding such an enormous and diverse body of literature within an overarching analytical frame.

The narrative just summarized wends its way through the fabric of Gasti’s study, making La letteratura tardolatina rather more than a handbook or manual. Yet, many readers are likely to approach it as just that, scanning the table of contents or rifling the index to zero in on specific authors and texts. Fair enough; and it is unlikely they will be disappointed. Gasti’s reach is wide, embracing Palladius’s Opus agriculturae and Endelechius’s De mortibus bovum as well as Sisibut’s poem on eclipses. The volume’s discussions of individual authors, with full sections devoted to most of the best-known names, are typically unencumbered by notes and historical sections are only lightly annotated. Compensation comes in the form of a nearly forty-page bibliography complied by Fabrizio Bordone, also of the University of Pavia. Bordone, for reasons of scale and economy, does not provide data on the critical editions, translations, and commentaries utilized but does refer readers to several key web sites that provide access to standard curated Latin texts, including the invaluable (and free) Musisque Deoque: A Digital Archive of Latin Poetry). Bordone’s bibliography, a selective list of secondary studies keyed to each subsection of the book, provides an extensive reading list that will serve well both scholars and students as a gateway to the rich and ever-growing body of literary and historical studies of an age now secure in its majority, a claim supported by this volume’s own encyclopedic pedigree.