BMCR 2021.02.35

Kaiser Konstantin als Leser: Panegyrik, performance und Poetologie in den carmina Optatians

, Kaiser Konstantin als Leser: Panegyrik, performance und Poetologie in den carmina Optatians. Millennium-Studien, 77. Berlin; Boston: De Gruyter, 2020. Pp. 409. ISBN 9783110655322 €109,95.


The role of panegyric—and particularly Optatian’s panegyric—in studies of the Constantinian era seems to represent a disciplinary frontier or borderland.[1] Even among readers of late antique poetry, the study of Optatian is unusual due to the density of the wordplay and challenge of relating it to the events that occasioned it. The manuscript tradition of Optatian is complex and the chronology of the works in the collection uncertain. These very interpretative difficulties seem to form an appeal to a new group of readers: there is fluid interplay of text and image in the visual poetics of Optatian, particularly in the versus intexti method of creating a visual reading pathway through one poem to create another, embedded poem. Recent literary approaches to Optatian are beginning to make their way into books: Anna-Lena Körfer’s contribution takes its place as one of the first book-length analyses of Optatian’s carmina for a German-speaking readership.[2]

On the page before the introduction, a word square anacrostic appears, an immediate clue to the puzzling nature of this book and indeed, the work of reading the poet Optatian. The author’s note explains that the riddle arose in “creative exchange with the poems of Optatian,” and gives directions for solving it.  Much like a SATOR/ROTAS square or the graphical images of magical texts, the puzzle signals a new world of technical prowess, signs and sequences that enact a potential inherent in language.[3] The intrepid reader can attempt to solve the “GITTER” square (itself a paronomasia, as Gitter means “grid or lattice” and Optatian’s poems are called “Gittergedichte” or “grid poems” in German) or look in the back for the solution which Körfer has kindly provided.

The volume itself is a slightly revised version of the author’s 2018 dissertation at the Justus-Liebig-Universität, Gießen. During her work, the author participated in the 2015 Morphogrammata Workshop which brought together a number of scholars working on Optatian.[4] (Somewhat confusingly, it was hosted by the Morphomata-Kolleg, which continues to sponsor international crossdisciplinary work in the humanities).[5] The volume at hand partakes in and benefits from a marked upswing of scholarly interest in Optatian: there are several recent studies and the aforementioned volume. Notable in this new evaluation of Optatian is the work of the Morphogrammata editors, Johannes Wienand and Michael Squire, and also the pattern poetry work by contributors Jan Kwapisz and Giuseppe Pipitone inter alios.[6] Körfer’s work is explicitly and implicitly conversant with this new group of readers of Optatian, but also rests on earlier studies, such as those of Mieke Rühl and Maria Okáčová.[7] The identification of the “postmodern” qualities of late antique poetry, particularly in the case of Optatian, has been noted as early as Rühl’s and Okáčová’s works – in that it is atomistic, intertextual, and highly performative.[8]

As all partisans of Optatian point out, his work has been terribly maligned by earlier scholars as lacking in historical import for understanding the Constantinian era.[9] The recent direction of readership emphasizes the possibilities of reading Optatian against the backdrop of the Constantian era.[10] Körfer’s contribution to the discussion looks at the art of reading and panegyric and the performative dimensions of the text, identifying the role of the imperial subject as co-producer or collaborator in the panegyric and intricately examining the levels on which the carmina of Optatian operate.

The introduction (“Textures of the panegyrical in Late Antiquity,” 1-21) begins with the tetrarchic context of the Panegyrici Latini and situates the work of Optatian in the ancient and modern circles of readers and scholars of Late Antique panegyric. Körfer employs Ernst’s division of the poems into Gittergedichte (carmina cancellata), Umrissgedichte, and technopaigneia and looks at the value of a visual category of late antique style in approaching the aesthetic interpretation of Optatian’s work.[11] She asserts the intent to produce a philological and literary analysis of the carmina and the act of reading, with consideration of the imperial and courtly dimensions of panegyric.

The large first section of the monograph (“Foundations: Reading and Praising”: 22-147) begins with long methodological excursus into speech act theory, reader response criticism, and semiotic analysis and ends with the titular role of Constantine as reader and “co-producer” of the panegyrics addressed to him. The initial chapters frame theoretical concepts of the performative through a number of lenses and asserts a “synaesthetic program” of Optatian’s compositions. The critical itinerary wends its way through Austin, Butler, Saussure, as well as Iser, Barthes, and Eco, on the way to an elucidation of what is meant by performance, performativity, and performance, acts of reading and acts of writing, the semiotic dimensions of the text, and finally on reading as an act of co-creation. This methods discussion sets the stage for the final chapters on Constantine as reader and addressee of the poems, the strongest part of the section: “Emperor as Reader: Optatian’s Synaesthetic Poetology” (88-147).

The idea of Constantine as reader weaves in and out of the first section. While Korfer admits that not all of Optatian’s works were addressed to Constantine, she sees his innovation in his combination of “the praise of the Emperor with his intellectual abilities” and the presentation of a text that only fulfills its “panegyric potential” with his collaboration (Körfer, 23). Körfer’s claim of Constantine’s reading ability rests upon the uncertain letter exchange, variously identified as spurious or authentic, in which Optatian and Constantine exchange greetings and perhaps even poetry. Although it is unclear how many of the manifold levels of Optatian’s text Constantine might have been able to decipher, many of which rely on highly intertextual acts of reading and decoding, the letter exchange does raise the ante a bit in the identification of Constantine as a literate consumer of Optatian’s multilayered poems. The concluding chapter, “The Emperor as Cultured Reader and Companion to the Muses: Epist. Const., Epist. Porf.” examines the impact of the exchange of letters on the expectations of the co-production abilities of Constantine as imperial reader (124-147). Körfer follows Wienand in accepting the authenticity of the letter exchange and dating it to the period of 319-322.[12] She sees a lost letter, likely containing carmen 10, as the precursor to the Epistula Constantini, and then the Epistula Porfyri as an answer to the emperor’s letter. The section concludes with a reestablishment of the main points: the codex is essential as a medium of exchange, the Emperor is constructed as an active reader and participant in the panegyrical process, and the text presents layers of meaning that await active decoding.

The second section addresses the encoding and decoding of Optatian’s works: “Performative Reading Strategies in Optatian: Forms and Levels of Deciphering” (148-333). The methods of organization are threefold: reading as event, reading and fragmentation, reading alongside games and riddles. The chapters on reading as event (148-225) consider the poems in and around the vicennalia and poetic imagery of victory (cf. the summary of carmen 9, “Augustus victor und poeta victor,” with the versus intextus in the shape of a palm frond in the context of the largitiones of the emperor, 203-5). This section benefits from a discussion of the poet’s attempts to rehabilitate himself in the process of the gift (152-153). The chapters on reading as fragmentation (226-310) set up a dichotomy of unity and fragmentation in the carmina cancellata, cast the poems against the larger backdrop of fragmentation in late antique architecture and art, even bringing the discussion of the cardo-decumans and Roman planning into a discussion of quadratic models and modes of visually approaching the grid poems. The final chapters on reading as game and riddle (311-333) presents an engaging look at puzzles, board games, and wordplay and the work of Optatian in the context of these pursuits. The analysis concludes with a short recapitulation: “Summary: Strategies of the Performative in Optatian’s carmina” (334-340).

The appendices include transcriptions of the carmina figurata and quadrata and good color plates of the major manuscript examples. There are also numerous photographs and tables throughout the work. The visual element of the engagement with Optatian cannot be overstated — many of the poetic forms and formal elements are difficult to understand without reference to the imagery and coloration of the manuscript, and the depths of poetic analysis in recombinatory verse are deep indeed (e.g., the discussion of the reading permutations of carmen 25, 56-67).

Overall, this book is well constructed and surprisingly engaging on its main topics. Although attention to the framing of Optatian’s project and literary motivations for his work might have been useful at the beginning, the analytical sections of the work are deftly woven (and interwoven) with visual, textual, and almost cryptographical analyses. The book does not focus on the Emperor Constantine in any conventional sense, but rather on a textually produced and elicited Constantine whose co-constructive readership lies in the gap between letters and the poem collection commemorating his vicennalia, a recursive imperial cipher of mirror-reading strategies by a highly motivated poet. Most of the ancient citations are internal to Optatian and many of the scholarly citations are in conversation with the recent group of Optatian scholars. Nonetheless, the dimensions of analysis that Korfer brings to bear are skillful and enlightening, and the forays into the complexity of the poems and the enlivening of their textual-compositional angles and staging components are competently executed. In line with the reading as fragmentation approach, the volume reads as loosely framed, engaging set of literary excursus; its sections are squarely constructed and invite readers to delve into the intricacies of Optatian’s carmina and their imperial audience with an ample set of engagement strategies as puzzle keys.


[1] A lengthy discussion appears in Johannes Wienand, “Publilius Optatianus Porfyrius: The man and his book,” in Squire and Wienand (eds.), Morphogrammata, 121-163. See also Timothy Barnes, “Appendix C: The Panegyrici Latini and Constantine,” in Constantine: Dynasty, Power, and Religion in the Later Roman Empire, (Somerset: Wiley, 2013), 181-184.

[2] Ulrich Ernst, Visuelle Poesie : Historische Dokumentation Theoretischer Zeugnisse, Band 1: Von Der Antike Bis Zum Barock (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2012) is an important predecessor but not one which has Optatian as a sole focus. For the emphasis on Constantine as reader, one might well consider Aaron Pelttari’s The Space That Remains: Reading Latin Poetry in Late Antiquity (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2014) as an important interpretative precursor to this work. Indeed, it is cited frequently, particularly in the application of Umberto Eco’s idea of the “open text” to Optatian’s writings.

[3] The Sator square was frequently combined with other palindromes and graphical images of magical texts. For an example from the Coptic tradition, see the 2019 blog post by Korshi Dosoo on P. CtYBR 1792 , “A Coptic Magical Christmas” from the Coptic Magical Papyri site at the University of Würzburg.  A discussion of imagery in magical texts appears in Raquel Martín Hernández, “Reading the Magical Drawings in the Greek Magical Papyri,” in Paul Schubert (ed.), Actes Du 26e Congrès International De Papyrologie : Genève, 16-21 Août 2010 (Geneva: Librairie Droz, 2012), 491-498.

[4] The contributions were collected and published in Michael Squire and Johannes Wienand (eds.), Morphogrammata, the Lettered Art of Optatian: Figuring Cultural Transformations in the Age of Constantine(Paderborn: Wilhelm Fink, 2017).

[5] The Morphomata-Kollege website can be found here.

[6] See Jan Kwapisz, The Paradigm of Simias: Essays on Poetic Eccentricity, (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2019) and also his earlier work on technopaegnia, The Greek Figure Poems, (Leuven: Peeters, 2013). See also Giuseppe Pipitone, Dalla figura all’interpretazione: scoli a Optaziano Porfirio, (Napoli: Loffredo, 2012). For an evaluation of the panegyrical content contrasted with the metrical inventiveness, see Pipitone: “Il “panegirico di Costantino” di Optaziano Porfirio,” Cuadernos Medievales 19 (2015): 18-35.

[7] In the mid-2000s, Maria Okáčová published “Publilius Optatianus Porfyrius: Characteristic features of late ancient figurative poetics,” SPFB (klas) 12 (2007): 57-71, and “The aural-visual ‘symbiosis’ in the poetry of Publilius Optatianus Porfyrius: towards the disentanglement of the mystery of late-ancient expansive gridverse,” in Jana Nechutová and Irena Radova (eds.): Laetae segestes. Griechische und lateinische Studien an der Masaryk Universität und Universität Wien (Brno: Masarykova univerzita, 2006), 41-50. Meike Rühl published “Panegyrik im Quadrat: Optatian und die intermedialen Tendenzen des spätantiken Herrscherbildes,” Millennium 3 (2006): 75-101 and also contributed “Vielschichtige Palimpseste : Optatians Gedichte und die Mëglichkeiten individueller Lektüren” to the recent Morphogrammata volume (227-256).

[8] For a useful survey of recent scholarship with postmodern approaches, see here Michael Squire, “POP Art: The Optical Poetics of Publilius Optatianus Porfyrius“ in Jaś Elsner and Jesús Hernández Lobato, The Poetics of Late Latin Literature, (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2017), 27 n. 12.

[9] Squire points out Optatian’s omission from many classical handbooks and dearth of modern studies with the notable exception of Giovanni Polara’s works: Ricerche sulla tradizione manoscritta di Publilio Optaziano Porfirio(Salerno: Libreria Internazionale, 1971) and Publilius Optatianus Porfyrius. Carmi (Turin: Unione Tipografico-Editrice Torinese, 2004 rev. ed.), “POP Art,” 25 n.2.

[10] Notable examples include Wienand, “The making of an imperial dynasty: Optatianʼs carmina figurata and the development of the Constantinian domus divina (317–326 AD),” GIF 3 (2012): 225-265, which evaluates the formation of the Constantinan dynasty through the lens of Optatian’s carmina, and Squire, “‘How to read a Roman portrait’? Optatian Porfyry, Constantine and the vultus Augusti,” PBSR 84 (2016): 179-240, in which the visual value of Optatian’s work for decoding imperial portraiture is substantially reimagined.

[11] Ulrich Ernst, Carmen Figuratum: Geschichte Des Figurengedichts von den antiken Ursprüngen bis zum Ausgang des Mittelalters. (Köln: Böhlau, 1991).

[12] Wienand,“Publilius Optatianus Porfyrius,” 148-155.