BMCR 2024.04.07

Maximianus’ Elegies: love elegy grew old

, Maximianus' Elegies: love elegy grew old. Beiträge zur Altertumskunde, 406. Berlin: De Gruyter, 2022. Pp. viii, 246. ISBN 9783110770377.



The six elegies of the late-antique poet Maximianus are a challenging and largely underappreciated collection that nevertheless offer readers several attractive points of entry. They are the last erotic elegies to have survived from the Roman world — and really the only ones after the Augustan elegists, whom Maximianus constantly and skilfully adapts, along with material from pretty much every ancient literary genre. They are written by an enigmatic figure who seems to have moved in elite circles, as a friend of Boethius (who in Elegy 3 acts as a kind of praeceptor amoris to Maximianus) and an ambassador sent to Constantinople by the Ostrogoths (in Elegy 5). Beginning in the High Middle Ages, Maximianus’ poems were included along with works like Claudian’s De Raptu Proserpinae and Statius’ Achilleid in a compilation of school texts called the Liber Catonianus. And in the Renaissance, the Venetian Pomponius Gauricus boldly published Maximianus’ poems as a supposed fourth book of Cornelius Gallus’ Amores, written in Egypt just before that poet’s death (this forgery was helped by the fact that Maximianus has a puella in Elegy 2 named Lycoris, but hurt by the fact that Maximianus names himself — as Maximianus — in Elegy 4). Most importantly, readers turning to Maximianus with Ovid and the other Augustan elegists in mind will immediately be confronted by a striking character: a lover grown old, bitterly complaining of that fact, and waiting for an end that comes too slow (non sum qui fueram: periit pars maxima nostri, “I’m not who I once was: the greatest part of me has perished”, El. 1.5).

All of these aspects, and others, are treated by Vasileios Pappas in Maximianus’ Elegies: Love Elegy Grew Old. Pappas is confidently familiar with the growing body of scholarship on Maximianus and engages productively in existing debates about various issues. After a useful Introduction, Pappas proceeds with a close reading of Maximianus’ six elegies (one poem per chapter), followed by a brief Epilogue. This poem-by-poem structure would seem particularly useful for readers hoping to become better acquainted with Maximianus, and indeed in each chapter Pappas offers a variety of stimulating observations on issues such as intertextuality, generic interplay, intratextuality, and the poems’ various characters. Unfortunately, the primary focus of every chapter, which rapidly begins to grate on at least this reader, is a relentless metapoetic reading of each poem. Every single puella that Maximianus encounters turns out to be Elegy herself in disguise, which may well be true. But more frustratingly, far too many words in the poems that Pappas encounters turn out to be part of a “hidden metapoetic discourse”, a phrase whose recurrence I began to dread.

The overall metapoetic reading that Pappas offers seems likely enough: Maximianus is a member of an aging culture (the Western Roman world) with an aging literature (here specifically, Roman elegy), and he explores this in the character of an aging elegiac poet. But in trying to bend as many lines as possible into the service of his hidden metapoetic discourse, Pappas frequently challenges the credulity of his reader. For instance, in the short Elegy 6, Maximianus tells his aetas verbosa (“verbose (old) age”) that it has gone on long enough about its shame and defects (1-4), observes that everyone — young, old, rich, poor — must die (5-8), argues that we should therefore hurry down the well-trodden road to death (9-10), and concludes with a somewhat ambiguous couplet that may evoke Ovid’s anticipation of poetic immortality in Amores 1.15 or may lament Maximianus’ erectile dysfunction (the subject of the brilliant Elegy 5).Pappas’ metapoetic reading of this elegy begins plausibly enough, with Maximianus’ defective and chatty old age representing the aged, flawed elegiac genre. But Pappas then suggests that lines 3-4 are a metapoetic comment on the Callimachaean nature of elegy, marshaling as evidence merely Maximianus’ use of the words leviter (“lightly”), which Pappas equates to Callimachus’ Mousa leptaleē (“delicate Muse”), and indignum … pudorem (“unworthy modesty”), which Pappas argues recalls the “unworthy hair” (indignos capillos) of the personified elegy in Ovid’s Amores 3.9.3. Readers unconvinced by this will be no more persuaded by the suggestion that the rich and poor who are equally fated to die in line 8 represent the genres of epic and elegy, which both must end at some point. Pappas returns to Callimachus with the “well-trodden road” (attritum iter) to death in lines 10, which he suggests contrasts with the “untrodden roads” (keleuthous atriptous, Aet. fr. 1.27-8 Pfeiffer) that Apollo urges Callimachus to follow. The correspondence seems possible, but credulity is again strained by Pappas’ reading of festino gressu vincere (“endure [the well-trodden road] with rapid steps”): “in a metapoetic light, it seems that Maximianus means that the poets must outmanoeuver or beat … the epic road by moving swiftly …, i.e. with the quick movement of the elegiac metre, since the word gressus can be interpreted as a metrical foot” (p. 184).

This is all most unfortunate, not only because Maximianus deserves to be read, but because metapoetic readings of Latin poetry are becoming increasingly common and persuasive, as scholars realize the pervasiveness of poetic self-consciousness in Roman literature of all periods. Furthermore, Maximianus wrote in an age that was particularly interested in allegorical approaches to pagan mythology and literature (texts such as Fulgentius’ Mythologiae and allegorical Expositio of the Aeneid, Martianus Capella’s De nuptiis Philologiae et Mercurii, various passages in Servius’ commentaries on Virgil, or the slightly later Etymologies of Isidore of Seville). An interesting study could be written about Maximianus’ place in these traditions, but that study is not to be found in Pappas’ volume. Rather, Pappas presumes that the validity of his metapoetic readings are more or less self-evident, and self-evidently interesting. Unconvinced of the former proposition, I could not be convinced of the latter. Other readers may have more patience for Pappas’ approach; those who do not will nevertheless find the elements of an interesting introduction to Maximianus scattered throughout a lamentably frustrating volume.