BMCR 2021.12.03

Die ‘Carmina christiana’ des Dracontius: kritischer Kommentar

, Die 'Carmina christiana' des Dracontius: kritischer Kommentar. Untersuchungen zur antiken Literatur und Geschichte, Band 133. Berlin; Boston: De Gruyter, 2019. Pp. ix, 222. ISBN 9783110648348 €79,95.

Table of Contents

[The reviewer sincerely apologizes for the tardiness of this review.]

The volume under review is part of a larger project undertaken by Zwierlein to replace the 1905 Monumenta Germaniae Historica and 1914 Teubner texts of the late-antique poet Dracontius by Friedrich Vollmer with new editions of both the so-called ‘carmina profana’ and the ‘carmina christiana’; Zwierlein’s carmina profana edition, prolegomena, and critical commentary appeared in 2017.[1] Zwierlein explains in the introduction to this commentary on the Christian poems (De laudibus Dei I-III, Satisfactio) that he was unable to complete the collation of manuscripts and preparation of the edition, so is entrusting this task to Rainer Jakobi, professor at Halle (p. V). We will have to wait until this project is finished in order to judge the new text against Vollmer’s, and to discover how many of Zwierlein’s interventions and suggestions Jakobi has taken up after re-examining the manuscripts. For the time being, it is worth contextualizing Zwierlein’s project on the carmina christiana, and giving an indication of his achievements so far.

Dracontius, who lived under Vandal rule in Carthage in the second half of the fifth century A.D., was both an advocate and vir clarissimus. A popular poet in the Middle Ages—he was known to Aldhelm and Bede, among others—he had an extensive knowledge of both Classical and Christian sources. Though 20th century handbooks tend to critique Dracontius’s style, prosody, or lack of focus, more recently he has been valued for the force of feeling in his poetry, particularly in his reflections on God’s mercy composed while in prison during the reign of King Gunthamund (A.D. 484-496). Zwierlein explains in his commentary on the secular poems that he did not choose Dracontius at random, but for two main reasons.[2] First, he quotes Hudson-Williams to the effect that Dracontius is in need of an editor prepared to contradict the manuscripts when necessary, i.e. to correct corruptions in the text. One can imagine why such a project would be appealing to Zwierlein, known for his fresh edition of Seneca’s tragedies, as well as for his contributions to studies of Plautus and Terence, among many other subjects. A second reason is more personal—that Zwierlein, a longtime professor at Bonn, is building on the research of several 19th century Bonn philologists, among them Friedrich von Duhn, Franz Bücheler, and Hermann Usener. Added to this is the fact that several others involved in the present project completed doctoral dissertations in Bonn, including Jakobi and Marcus Deufert.

The present book contains a brief introduction, followed by three chapters on each of the three books of the De laudibus Dei (3-73; 74-118; 119-179), one on the Satisfactio (183-199), and then a bibliography and indices (201-222). The bibliography, while brief, is excellent, although Zwierlein does not make mention here of Katharina Pohl’s new edited volume (Dichtung zwischen Römern und Vandalen: Tradition, Transformation und Innovation in den Werken des Dracontius; Franz Steiner Verlag, 2019), which appeared almost simultaneously and contains the most extensive bibliography on Dracontius to date.

Zwierlein’s approach is to cite a few lines of Dracontius, with a translation and/or paraphrase, and then explain why and how the text should be corrected; often Zwierlein also simply explains what the text means in order to justify leaving it as it is. He makes frequent use of English translations by Irwin (De laudibus Dei 1), Bresnahan (De laudibus Dei 2), and Margaret (Satisfactio), as well as the French translations by Camus and Moussy; he is less enthusiastic about the Italian translation of Corsaro, which he says often deviates far from the Latin. The size and style of the individual comments vary widely: a comment on 1.207, 213-215 on the creation of the sun, moon, and stars runs for some 7.5 pages (25-33), for example, while a comment on 1.323 takes up one page (47). It is difficult to summarize distinguishing features of Zwierlein’s approach, given the number of comments, and their specific nature. Nevertheless, some light can be shed on his manifold contributions so far by giving a few examples:

1. In De laudibus Dei 1.92-3, Dracontius says that God does not deny pardon to anyone who asks him (‘Non negat Omnipotens veniam cuicumque roganti’, 92); the text then proceeds ‘supplicium cum saepe vetet, licet inde minetur / omnibus…‘ (93-94). Irwin rendered the beginning of line 93 as ‘for He often forbids punishment…’, a phrasing that Zwierlein critiques; he is also dissatisfied with Camus’ ‘il s’oppose souvent au supplice’. Zwierlein considers the Latin (cf. pp. 5-6): the vetet was suggested by Bücheler, while Arevalo had suggested neget, and manuscripts offer nitet or vitet. Zwierlein says he at first wished to support a reading of monet, but eventually abandoned this. In the end, he sides with Hudson-Williams, along with Vollmer in his 1905 index, that an indicative verb is necessary; he supports tenet. Following Hudson-Williams, he explains that this accords with usages by Cicero and Ovid in which tenere means retinere. The issue of how to interpret the cum saepe still remains, which Zwierlein clarifies in a footnote. He quotes Hudson-Williams as understanding this in light of Vergil Aeneid 1.148f and 8.353, with the meaning ‘when as often’. Zwierlein seems open to this, but also says that it is not decisively certain, given the amount of times that Dracontius arbitrarily (‘willkürlich’) elects to place an indicative or a subjunctive verb after a cum. He suggests that the cum saepe in line 93 may in fact harmonize with the cuicumque in line 92. For the passage, then, Zwierlein’s rendering would be: ‘The All-Powerful accordingly grants pardon to the person who asks him, in such a way that he restrains punishment [in this case], even if he threatens all with this punishment’ (Zwierlein: ‘Der Allmächtige gewährt demnach einem jeden, der ihn bittet, Nachsicht dergestalt, daß er die Strafe zurückhält, selbst wenn er mit dieser Strafe (inde) alle bedroht,’ p. 6). Zwierlein’s observations on this passage, in general, are persuasive and well-argued. His citation of Genesis 18:22ff, however, in which God insists he will refrain from destroying the city of Sodom for the sake of even ten righteous persons, seemed to me to be unnecessarily introduced.

2. Zwierlein comments on De laudibus Dei 1.278-279, where Dracontius is describing God’s creation of land animals (p. 39). The text says that the innocence of sheep is destined to suffer harm from wolves (‘simplicitas ovium fraudem passura luporum’, 278) and that the running deer feared the barking Molossians (‘et raucos timuit discurrens damma molossos’, 279). In dealing with line 279, Vollmer in his 1905 edition had printed raudos instead of raucos, based on a manuscript reading, and seeing this as a syncopated form of ravidos (i.e. rabidos, deriving from rabire). Zwierlein notes, nonetheless, that Ilse Reineke in her article on raudus in the Thesaurus Linguae Latinae rejected Vollmer’s reading. To this, Zwierlein adds that Dracontius uses raucus three times elsewhere in Romulea 7 and 8. Moreover, it appears that Odo von Magdeburg, a 13th century author, redeployed Dracontius’ line 1.279 in his poem Ernestus, with the phrasing ‘rauco latratu . . . molossos‘ (2, 138ff). The latter point may well be pushing at the boundaries of what one considers admissible evidence, given the nearly seven-century gap in time; nonetheless, Zwierlein’s comment is persuasive overall, and demonstrates the range of evidence that he takes into account, including palaeographic and lexicographic considerations.

3. Turning to Zwierlein’s comments on book 2 of De laudibus Dei, let us examine his comment on lines 170-175 (p. 85). Here Dracontius describes the people of Israel crossing the Red Sea, and being saved from the Egyptians (who drown). The text says that the one who was a source of fear, i.e. the Egyptians, is wept for, due to such a disaster (‘tali sub clade doletur / qui fuit ante metus’, lines 172-3). Following Moussy, Zwierlein argues that Hudson-Williams’ objections against the transmitted doletur are not persuasive. Though it is true, Zwierlein says, that in 2.801ff the Israelites praise God for the drowning of the Egyptians, this does not prevent Dracontius from characterizing the same people here as showing sympathy with the Egyptian victims in the face of such a catastrophe. Zwierlein compares their emotional state to Hilary of Poitiers’ description of Jesus’ tears shed over the fate of Jerusalem (a parallel I find interesting, but I am, as above, unpersuaded by its relevance; Zwierlein simply says, ‘Zu vergleichen ist…’, 85).

4. In book 3, we see how the carmina christiana of Dracontius can include pagan themes. In 3.285-290, Dracontius discusses Leonidas and his 300 Spartans, who ambushed the camp of Xerxes in the night (cf. pp. 145-146). A massacre ensues, in which friend is indistinguishable from foe. The text says that while the father is thought to be safe in the dark of night (‘dum pater obscura defendi nocte putatur’, line 289), he lies fallen, killed by the affection of his son (‘sic ibi procubuit nati pietate peremptus’, 290). Zwierlein comments that since the publication of Arevalo’s 1791 edition, the beginning of verse 290 has been altered from the text as it appeared in manuscript B (sic ubi) to sic ibi. Zwierlein says he could not find a satisfying way to understand this passage, but Deufert suggested that Zwierlein’s correction of ictus procubuit was inaccurate. Deufert referred to his commentary on Lucretius’ De rerum natura, where at several points, there is a temporal ibi paired with a simul atque, cum, and ubi. Thus Zwierlein is able to understand the passage as communicating‘while the son thinks he is doing something good, even then he commits a terrible crime’.

5. Finally, an example from the Satisfactio. On p. 183, Zwierlein examines lines 37-40, which deal with Nebuchadnezzar and Zechariah. Nebuchadnezzar is said, in the text, to have wandered through meadows, and fed on evil grasses (‘erravit per prata vagus mala gramina pastus’, 37). Zwierlein is dissatisfied by the mala gramina phrase, which Moussy renders as ‘herbes nocives’. He first quotes Daniel 4:13ff, showing that Nebuchadnezzar fed on pabulum and faenum, and thus not on anything bad or poisonous. Zwierlein rejects Vollmer’s and Moussy’s attempts to suggest that Dracontius is imitating Vergil or Ovid here: instead, he claims that the text should read male gramina pastus, that is, Nebuchadnezzar fed on plants in a pitiful or shameful manner (male). Zwierlein then cites two quotes from Martial (a poet Dracontius knew; 9.88.4, male pastus aper; and 11.18.12, male pascit), and points out that Dracontius elsewhere uses the adverb male 16 times in total. For such reasons, he supports correcting the text. These are good arguments to me.

I have tried to choose examples that show the depth of Zwierlein’s knowledge, and the liveliness of his mind at work. Zwierlein has not only made many stimulating suggestions to a future text, but explained how Dracontius may have used sources such as Apponius or Zeno of Verona (cf. pp. 20-24, 128-129). In summary, Zwierlein has provided a rich seam of material for anyone working on Dracontius’s Christian poems, and a book which for the moment engages fruitfully with Vollmer’s and any other of the more recent editions.


[1] Zwierlein, Die ‘Carmina Profana’ des Dracontius: Prolegomena und kritischer Kommentar zur Editio Teubneriana. Mit einem Anhang: Dracontius und die ‘Aegritudo Perdicae’ (2017) and Zwierlein, Blossius Aemilius Dracontius: Carmina Profana (2017) and see BMCR review of Zwierlein’s edition by Scafoglio, BMCR 2018.09.30.

[2] Cf. pp. VI-XI of the carmina profana kritischer Kommentar.