BMCR 2022.11.07

The poetry of Ennodius: translated with an introduction and notes

, The poetry of Ennodius: translated with an introduction and notes. Routledge later Latin poetry. Abingdon; New York: Routledge, 2022. Pp. 284. ISBN 9781138777576. £120.00.

A strikingly colorful representative of the early sixth-century Italo-Roman aristocracy, Magnus Felix Ennodius (ca. 473-521) was fifteen years old when the Ostrogothic king Theoderic entered Italy in 489 to seize control from its Germanic caretaker Odoacer. A year later, following the death of an aunt who had taken him in when he was orphaned young, Ennodius joined the household of a wealthy Pavian family, betrothed it seems to one its daughters. By the time he was twenty, about the year 494, with order restored and Theoderic now ruling from Ravenna, Ennodious’s literary talents and social connections pulled him into orbit around Pavia’s influential bishop Epiphanius. He never quite spun free. The course of his career, hindsight shows, was set. He would move in the ecclesiastical circles of Pavia and Milan for the next three decades, ending his life as bishop of the late Epiphanius’s see, Pavia. That office, which he acquired about 507, had been preceded by a lengthy diaconate in Milan. Significantly for us, it was while serving the Milanese church and its bishop Laurentius, between about 497 and 513, that Ennodius composed almost all his surviving letters, vitae, speeches, and poems, some 470 documents that today comprise one of Ostrogothic Italy’s “great documentary corpora” (p. 1).

That corpus, thematically exuberant and stylistically intimidating, is as responsible for Ennodius’s academic misfortune as it is for any notoriety he now enjoys. Since the late nineteenth century, this complex, multi-form collection of texts has been ossified in two editions whose editors championed very different organizational schemes. In 1882 Wilhelm Hartel published his CSEL 6 edition of Ennodius, replicating the manufactured format devised by Jacques Sirmond in the early seventeenth century that assigned Ennodius’s individual works to four genre-based categories (nine “books” of letters, opuscula miscellanea, dictiones, and two “books” of carmina). Even though Hartel knew that Sirmond’s organizational structure strayed considerably from the general order of Ennodius’s works as they appear in the better manuscripts, he did not want to discommode readers familiar with Sirmond’s organization by introducing a new scheme and numeration system (xv).[1] Three years later, however, Frideric Vogel did just that. His MGH AA 7 edition of 1885 reproduced the manuscript order of Ennodius’s works, numbering them sequentially (I-CDLXX) and presenting an edition that arguably prioritized the compositional sequence of the texts. Consequently, in Vogel’s edition Ennodius’s “poems” exist scattered throughout the corpus. Since 1885, then, literary scholars and historians have generally been obliged to foreground one of these two citation systems while providing cross references to or concordances for the other. A situation clumsy at best. Nor has Ennodius’s ornate style and excessively mannered Latinity won him many appreciative readers. Perceived as an intentionally obfuscating (not to say pretentious) writer, Ennodius has garnered more scorn than praise from modern critics and even his supporters admit to the challenges he poses to translators. This background helps to explain both why we have waited so long for a complete English translation of Ennodius’s poetry and why we should be extremely grateful that Bret Mulligan has given us one.

Like other editors and translators, Mulligan faced upfront the challenge of how best to organize and present Ennodius’s poems for the purposes of his intended audience (23-4). Hartel’s two-book arrangement is prima facie inadequate because it fails to account for poems embedded in Ennodius’s letters, dictiones, and opuscula (and that thus appear apart from the poetry with which Sirmond and Hartel populated their two “books” of carmina). Simply following Vogel’s enumeration was an option, of course (and Mulligan does so within his individual sections), but exercising it would have yielded a verse collection with little obvious rhyme or reason. Consequently, The Poetry of Ennodius relies on a new ordering of Ennodius’s carmina that reshuffles “nearly 200 items” (13) into categories based on length, content, or stylistic criteria (e.g., the “Longer Poems,” “Hymns,” and “Epitaphs”). Nevertheless, it is quite easy to see where any piece falls in the architectures of Hartel and Vogel because cross-references signal each poem’s place in both those editions. Mulligan recognizes that the boundaries separating his categories are somewhat porous (24) but his scheme does yield coherent assemblies of poems (e.g., “Bishops of Milan” or “Ekphrastic Epigrams”) that reward being read as a group. Particularly intriguing when seen in this light, is the penultimate and “most populous” (17) category, “Skoptic Epigrams,” mocking and sardonic pieces that might seem more at home among the epigrams of Martial than those of a Milanese ecclesiastic.

As a valuable primary source for the social, literary, political, and ecclesiastical history of Ostrogothic Italy, Ennodius’s dossier rivals the Variae of Cassiodorus (which have only recently received their first complete English translation).[2] Ennodius’s corpus has often been mined to such ends. What is clear however, especially from the evidence of Vogel’s edition, is that historical and biographical matters, such as the Laurentian schism in Rome or Ennodius’s prickly relations with Boethius, are seldom illuminated by a single Ennodian literary form. This means that to some degree segregation of the poems extracts them from their compositional and immediate matrices; verse is just one of several literary modes employed across Ennodius’s conversational threads. Mulligan acknowledges this as one of the drawbacks of isolating the poetry from Ennodius’s other writings, but also notes that the existence of what appears to be a collection-prefatory poem (187 V = 2.66 H = 1 M) suggests that Ennodius himself once envisioned an edition of his own verse (18-19). In compensation, Mulligan uses the book’s ninety-one pages of end notes to situate each poem with respect to its historical, literary, and textual features and to reference the growing body of secondary literature on Ennodius and his oeuvre.

The guidelines of Routledge’s Later Latin Poetry series, edited by Joseph Pucci, have partially shaped the volume: expected are information on the poet’s life and times, attention to metrics and editorial details, contextualizing endnotes, and translations that are accessible and, to the degree possible, line-by-line, facilitating comparison of the English and Latin by those who have access to the latter. All these criteria are admirably met. Moreover, despite the parameters of the series and the challenges of taming Ennodius’s “bracing flexibility of morphology, semantics, and syntax” (21), The Poetry of Ennodius does well what it set out to do, offering nearly a hundred pages of highly readable English poetry. This happy situation is owed to Mulligan’s commitment to crafting translations in verse capable of tracking the conservative and “rigid” (27) quality of Ennodius’s lines. A section of the introduction (27-34) deftly summarizes Ennodius’s metrical choices—which encompass a range of meters but favor the elegiac couplets and dactylic hexameters that together represent three-quarters of his lines—and explains the rational behind employing, for example, the Alexandrine “12-beat iambic line” with its strong mid-verse caesura (29) to replicate Ennodius’s hexameters and a ten-beat iambic pentameter for reproducing the second line of the Ennodian couplet. The results are verses, often sonorous, that repay reading aloud.[3]

The Poetry of Ennodius is the product of extensive labor and hard-earned insights. It is worthy of the poet it engages and should serve him well, bringing Ennodius’s verse before new audiences and offering relief to those tasked with untangling his knotty Latin lines. Only in fourteen instances does Mulligan prefer an alternative to Vogel’s text (p. 34). His lexical and stylistic choices are by and large clever and informed by sympathy for the times (and often brought a smile to this reader’s face). Translation is an art with nearly endless possibilities; this volume is consistent and true to its principles. Thanks to Mulligan (later) late Latin verse is better positioned to claim its place in surveys of Latin poetry and seminars on late antiquity, and Ennodius better positioned to overcome the obstacles of editing and reading that have often left his poetry stranded on the verge.



[1] Notably, the Budé edition of Ennodius’s letters underway by Stéphane Gioanni (Paris, 2006-) retains the Sirmondian nine-book scheme. See further Stephanie Kennell, “The Letter Collection of Ennodius of Pavia,” in Late Antique Letter Collections: A Critical Introduction and Reference Guide, ed. Cristiana Sogno, Bradley K. Storin, and Edward J. Watts (Oakland: University of California Press, 2017), 369-83.

[2] Bjornlie, Shane M. Cassiodorus: The Variae. The Complete Translation (Oakland: University of California Press, 2019).

[3] Compare Scott McGill’s similar success with employing lines of “unrhymed iambic pentameter” to translate Juvencus’s hexametrical Evangeliorum libri quattuor for the same series: S. McGill, Juvencus’ Four Books of the Gospels (London and New York: Routledge, 2016).