BMCR 2022.02.25

A literary commentary on Panegyrici Latini VI (7)

, A literary commentary on Panegyrici Latini VI (7): an oration delivered before the Emperor Constantine in Trier, ca. AD 310. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2021. Pp. 406. ISBN 9781107123694 $130.00.

The volume under review, a “part of the Panegyrici Latini Project” (p. i), is a splendid contribution to the specifically literary study and reevaluation of late Latin literature, both prose and poetry, now (finally) gathering steam. (The Project is housed at the universities of St. Andrews, under Roger Rees, and Liverpool, under Bruce Gibson.) Although the effort began long ago (note especially Michael Roberts), traditional and still current prejudice on the part of most classicists against late Latin literature as “unclassical” has impeded understanding it on its own terms. Why is it so different from the literature of the golden, or even the silver age? Indeed it is, but so what? Mere labels, such as ‘decline’ or ‘degeneracy’, have no explanatory or characterizing value and are much too moralizing. These works could properly be mined for historical purposes, but to consider them as literature? Not! Or at least not as anything but trash. (The exceptions have been Ammianus and, oddly enough, Christian poets such as Prudentius, but also Claudian, hailed as at least a semi-classical poet.)

The encomiastic genre, so unsuited to modern tastes, has been a chief victim of this scorn. We like vituperation, but praise? Oh, no, no, no! One may cite how Vergil was almost turned into an anti-Augustan (see W. R. Johnson, Darkness Visible [1979], for instance). To critique power is fine, to praise it is not. (Invective has been more popular than praise among contemporary students of ancient literature.) We live in a different world from the ancient Greeks and Romans, who were much more attuned to the threats against stability and peace that they faced in their everyday lives than we are, and for obvious reasons. We are, for the most part, rather complacent. One might ask whether current political trends may lead to reconsideration on our part. And in addition to our dislike of encomium, there is the matter of rhetoric. Rhetoric is bad; it is false, pretentious and pernicious. (Again, the ancients thought differently.) If panegyric is a product of the rhetorical schools, as it was, then it may be promptly dismissed from further consideration, as literature at least, or as a positive influence on literature. Enough diatribe! Clearly, the present writer waxes hot on the subject, but this is not the place  to indulge in autobiography.

The above was written in part to foreshadow the delight with which this reviewer greeted the publication of this book and the chance to review it. Not just because it is a literary (and of course a rhetorical) commentary, but because it is such a fine one. Ware calmly makes the case for a reconsideration of Latin prose panegyric as literature, not with my heat, but simply by means of a display of massive learning and sensitive literary judgment.

Now for the boring, but necessary, part of the review. The book’s contents are comprised of Acknowledgments, a list of Abbreviations and Conventions, and then an Introduction divided into two parts: Part I: the Panegyrici Latini, which is subdivided into Manuscript and Commentary Tradition, the Speeches, the Collection, the Epideictic Tradition, Language and Style (including Intertextuality), and Part II: PL VI(7). Part II itself is subdivided into Constantine: the Background, the Historical Context, the Coming Age of Constantine (further divided into Constantine and Maximian; Constantine and Constantius; Constantine, seuerus et mitis; Constantine, Augustus and Apollo; Constantine and the Later Panegyrics; Time and Place, Speaker and Audience; and lastly, Structure. The Introduction is then followed by the Text and Translation and the Commentary.  The volume concludes with a Bibliography, a General Index and an Index Locorum. There are true footnotes (and as is increasingly uncommon, a bibliography. The Press is to be commended.)

It may be seen that, although this is a literary commentary, Ware does not scant history or the social and political context of the speech, neither here nor in the commentary. The last section of part II of the Introduction, Structure, itself structures the commentary, since each identified section of the speech is given an initial summary in the commentary, which is then followed by the customary discussion of chapter and verse. The text is that of Mynors unaltered, with a severely, but intelligently and usefully, reduced apparatus. Ware makes no pretense of offering a new critical edition of the text.

Given the primary aim of the book and the interests of this reader, the best and most novel sections of the introduction are “The Epideictic Tradition” (pp. 17-26) and “Language ad Style” (pp. 26-35). My only complaint is that both could have been longer and richer.

Ware is bang on when she begins the former with a quotation from Laurent Pernot, “every encomium is at once a literary work, a moral problem, and a social rite” (p. 17). Pernot might have added ‘also a political statement.’ ‘Propaganda’, which is sometimes mentioned in this context, does not seem to this reader to be a useful conceptual term, as it is too ridden with modern connotations. Encomiasts are preaching to the choir and often to very limited subsections of the general population, sometimes even just to the imperial court. We have no evidence that panegyric texts were widely distributed after the occasion of delivery.

Ware stresses the importance of epideictic oratory, a branch of rhetoric much despised by moderns, in the ancient world generally and not just in late antiquity, and its usefulness on many different types of occasions (p. 19), although she might have asked why it became so much more prominent in late antiquity. Again, modern disgust is irrelevant. We should try first to understand ancient people, their needs and their socio-literary productions in their own terms and according to their own values, not ours.

Other valuable points may be mentioned. “Some moral dimension… cannot be denied. The possession of virtues was the foundation of praise and an emperor’s achievements were extolled not in their own right but because they illustrated his possession of a desirable quality” (p. 21). “That an emperor would accept the advice of a panegyrist seems unlikely, but the panegyric’s moral dimension depended not on teaching or even persuasion but on the presentation of common moral ground” (p. 22). (The italics are those of the reviewer.) This idea could have been developed further. Panegyrics were expressions of Romanitas, not because the auditors needed a reminder of what that was, but, especially in late antiquity, because it was under potential threat from internal and external sources One does not have to use the word ‘crisis’, but ‘jitters’ might not be inappropriate. (This idea demands much further elaboration, but here is not the place for it.) And who better to praise as the foundation and preserver of order, of security, of stability, than the emperor? As long as he possessed the imperial virtues that assured good and stable rule. This is evoked by at least one emperor’s carriage in public, “holding himself as if his head were in a vice, looking straight ahead, never rubbing his face or moving his hands” (p. 23, describing Constantius II; Amm. 16.10.9-10): a living tableau of rock-like firmness and resolve.

“Language and Style” (including a subsection, “Intertextuality”) offers a basic summary of the topics stated. The language is classicizing (Cicero and Fronto are cited as models), enriched with words drawn from the poetic register (p. 27; cf. pp. 29 and 30) which is characteristic of Late Latin prose. “The tone is varied through apostrophe, prosopopoeia and personification. Similes and metaphors abound and superabundance appears to be a deliberate technique” (p. 28). All of which reinforces the semi-poetic quality of this prose. Vividness is the goal, in order to gain and keep the attention of the audience. Public speeches in all of antiquity were entertainment, whatever their more serious purposes. Ware makes reference to such important rhetorical influences as progymnasmata (a term not included in the index), controversiae, etc. (p. 31), although there is more to be said.

“Intertextuality” takes up not only allusions to earlier prose authors (especially Cicero), but also to the standard poets such as Vergil. Ennius, primus or summus poeta (p. 33 and note) is a surprising addition to the list of favorites, as is his supremacy; Vergil is only magnus. In questioning what were the sources of these allusions, Ware might have mentioned the possible use of florilegia. “The most important intertextual models for the panegyrists are the earlier works in the collection” of Panegyrici Latini (p. 33). Ware is comprehensive but succinct. This reader would have liked more here, but further detail is reserved for the commentary.

The translation of Mynors’ text is fluent and accurate. I shall not list any quibbles. Ware’s interpretation and choices are always sound. Space permits one brief example, taken from the exordium, which is typically the most rhetorically and syntactically complex section of a work in Greco-Roman prose literature.

1.3 Huc accedit quod iam satis multi sunt qui me putant nimium multa dicturum, idque, ut arbitror, non ex ingenio meo, quod mediocre est, sed ex laudum tuarum copia metiuntur. Quorum ego exspectationem inuitus licet fallam breuitate dicendi. Reuera enim cogitaueram plura quae dicerem, sed malo orationem meam <breuem esse> quam respui.

Furthermore, there are already many enough who think that I am going to say too much, reckoning not by my skill, which is moderate, but by the abundance of material in your honor. Albeit unwillingly, I will cheat their expectations with the brevity of my speech. For indeed, my intention was to say more, but I would prefer my oration to be terse than tedious.

Note the idiomatic English and the nice alliteration at the end.

Ware comments: (I shall omit the intertextual reference to other panegyrics and authors, which are many. Rather than cite stray comments I shall quote nearly the whole, to give the reader a better sense of what Ware chooses to discuss.)

  multi sunt: … A good attendance is a point of pride… The orator presents himself as continually aware of what criticisms his audience or fellow orators could make about his speech and turns these imaginary challenges into part of his delivery….

  satis multi… nimium multa: Word play. On nimium as ‘extravagant’, see note on 23.3.

  laudum tuarum copia: Cf. satis multinimium multa. For the trope of superabundant material…, [cf.] Men. Rhet.…; as a theme of the proem, [cf.]…, although the orator here does not amplify the subject with comparisons. The orator will return to this theme in the last line… [of the speech].

  Quorum ego… dicendi: The short sentence echoes the speaker’s intention. It is a humorous and skillful contrast to the long and convoluted first sentence [of the speech] and demonstrates that the orator’s claim of mediocrity was unfounded. In rhetorical manuals, jokes are considered part of the iudicem attentum parareformula (Quint. …, [etc.]).

  exspectationem… fallam: … The orator returns to this at the end of the speech, hoping that the professional success of his children and protégés will make amends for his own performance… in his speech (23.2).

  inuitus.. licet: Cf. …

  breuitate dicendi: … will be picked up by breuitate percurram (7.1). Both promises are fulfilled as the orator covers a relatively small amount… [of Constantine’s biography]. Breuitas is part of the orator’s arsenal…; and is an effective tool for dealing with a tired audience… The orators were alert to the possibility of wearying the emperor…: presenting familiar material meant that the audience was critical only of the delivery…; on an author’s fear of boredom, [cf.]…

  breuem esse: [a brief discussion of the supplement].

  malo quam… respui: Cf. … For the metaphor of rejecting a taste, [cf.]… On rejecting a thought, [cf.]… For the orator’s preference, cf. … Pliny, in an imagined dialogue, discusses the preference for a brief speech (…).

My praise of this volume may seem extravagant, but it is not, not at all. The work is a milestone in the literary study of late Latin prose. I may conclude by repeating that I should have wished the book longer and certainly not shorter. May it, having set such a high standard, be the harbinger of many more such splendid volumes in the aforementioned Panegyrici Latini Project.