BMCR 2024.07.16

An anthology of neo-Latin poetry by classical scholars

, , , , An anthology of neo-Latin poetry by classical scholars. Bloomsbury neo-Latin series. Early modern texts and anthologies. New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2024. Pp. 344. ISBN 9781350379442.


[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]


This book collects verse by classical scholars from the 15th to the 19th centuries. Each chapter gives a brief introduction, identifying the author or authors and the circumstances of the poems’ creation, followed by a bibliography including the source for the Latin text. The poems themselves follow, with facing English translation and then notes, which might call attention to intertextual references or identify contemporaries named or alluded to in the text. Some of the longer poems are given only as excerpts. There are epigrams, congratulatory poems, birthday poems, and even an epyllion adapted from Pliny the Younger. The scholarly poets include Julius Caesar Scaliger, Jean Dorat, and Aldus Manutius; the last chapter gives a poem by Giovanni Pascoli, a bit of a ringer in this group as he was primarily a poet and only secondarily a scholar and professor. The poems are generally good, and the book should appeal to those interested in the history of scholarship or in Neo-Latin verse, or to teachers looking for something different to present to students.

The book’s introduction, by Stephen Harrison, starts with a brief overview of “the interdependence and interaction of scholarship and poetry” (1) from the Hellenistic period to the Renaissance. The scholar-poets in this book belong to a tradition that goes back at least to Callimachus, taking in Cicero, Seneca, Boethius, and Petrarch — and, as Harrison points out, “it is still a living tradition, though a rare one” (6).

The original contexts of the poems vary: some come from poetry collections, some are attached to other texts in various ways. Among the poets represented here, Aldus, Scaliger, Dousa, and Pascoli published books of poetry. Poems by Dorat and by Duport were collected and published by others, Dorat’s students and, for Duport, the Cambridge University printer. Vettori’s poems, on the other hand, were never published. We have them in a manuscript assembled by a descendant of the poet in 1729, almost 150 years after Vettori’s death.

Several groups of poems are paratexts included with scholarly works, typically dedications or introductions, not all written by the authors of the books in question. The poems in the first chapter come from Niccolò Perotti’s Cornu Copiae seu linguae latinae Commentarii (first edition 1489), a usage manual for Latin that, in later editions, is “increasingly used as a dictionary of Latin” (10). The prefatory poems from successive editions trumpet the editors’ corrections to the text, including discoveries of new pages from Perotti’s manuscript and significant improvements to the index. Trine Arlund Hass introduces us to Birgitte Thott (ch. 12), a Danish scholar who translated Seneca’s philosophical works. The tabula gratulatoria at the start of her 1658 translation of the Moral Epistles and other works includes poems and prose in Latin, German, and Danish by contemporary scholars, almost all male except for Anna Maria van Schurman. The Latin poems marvel at a noblewoman with so much learning and erudition, comparing her to Minerva or the Muses. Finally, the paratexts to Antonio de Nebrija’s grammars are his own work, one poem (with his own brief commentary) called “ad artem suam auctor,” prefaced to his Introductiones Latinae, and another called “Antonius ad lectorem, de litteris graecis,” four elegiac couplets suggesting that, although it is hard to learn Greek, a student of Latin should know the rudiments.

Some of the poems in this collection come from commentaries. Paolo Marsi wrote a genathliacon for Rome, about which Raphael Schwitter says “the circumstances of its transmission are rather peculiar” (39). A reference to it a few years after Marsi’s death shows that at least some contemporaries knew the poem, but no copy has survived. All we have are several quotations in Marsi’s own commentaries, on Lucan and, primarily, on Ovid’s Fasti, amounting to over 330 total lines. Schwitter argues that this poem is both a verse commentary on Ovid and an expansion, including material that Ovid has omitted (40). The longest quotation traces the ancestry of Romulus from Jupiter through Dardanus, Aeneas, and Numitor, and Schwitter gives us about 270 lines of this passage.

Perhaps the most unexpected poem in the collection comes from Gesner’s commentary on Pliny’s letters. It was originally a New Year’s present for a friend, and Gesner also included it in a collection of his verse later. It is a verse re-telling of the story of the dolphin in Pliny 9.33, in 128 hexameter lines. Pliny himself says that the story is materiam veram sed simillima fictae, dignamque isto laetissimo altissimo planeque poetico ingenio (9.33.1) and, as Manuwald puts it, “Gesner takes up this suggestion” (295). Gesner offers the poem to his friend and patron Friedrich Gotthilf Marschall genannt Greiff with the playful suggestion that it is a fish to play in the new ponds and fountains on his estate, and closes with the idea that the Camenae will preserve the memory both of the dolphin and of Marschall. Gesner follows Pliny’s narrative but uses epic language, frequently quoting or adapting lines from Vergil. It is a charming, graceful poem.

Chapter 10 discusses two of the poems embedded in John Barclay’s novel Argenis, published posthumously in 1621, showing their connections with the Thebaid of Statius, on which Barclay had written a commentary. Parkes points out that “one value of approaching the Argenis through the lens of Barclay’s scholarship is that it allows explication of parts of the novel” (213), and that the novel shows “a more sophisticated and sensitive response to the Thebaid than is evident in the largely pedagogical notes of Barclay’s commentary” (214). The poems discussed are an ecphrasis of a bracelet, in elegiac couplets, re-working the description of Harmonia’s cursed necklace in Thebaid book 2, and a passage in iambic trimeters purporting to be from a play that a character in the novel watches, taking up the moment in Thebaid book 4 when Eryphile receives the necklace.

The remaining chapter (the ninth) brings together two sets of supplements to Cicero’s translation of Aratus. In 1579 Jan Kochanowski published an edition of Cicero’s version, filled in with his own translation from the Greek; he did not hesitate “to rewrite entire hexameters by Cicero in order to make them more consistent with the Greek model” (190). In 1600, another fleshed-out Aratea appeared, this one by Hugo Grotius in an edition including not only Cicero’s version but those of Avienus and Germanicus, the latter drawing on a previously unknown manuscript. Pellacani gives us lines 19–48 of Aratus, in Greek and English, and the versions by Kochanowski and Grotius. Only about 15 lines survive from Cicero’s translation of this part of the poem; Pellacani prints Cicero in roman and the Renaissance supplements in italics so a reader can tell them apart — a typographical convenience neither Kochanowski nor Grotius chooses to offer.

In addition to Gesner’s Plinian epyllion, I was struck by Dorat’s imitation of Pindar, his fourth ode, addressed to Ronsard. Ronsard had written some French odes loosely modelled on Pindar, and Dorat replies with an imitation of Olympian 2, in the same meter. As Harrison observes, the Renaissance understanding of Pindar’s meter is not the modern one (151), so Dorat’s lines don’t exactly match up with the cola of a modern edition; moreover, the meter of this poem is unlike anything else in Pindar,[1] nor did any classical Latin poet attempt it. Dorat sets himself a difficult task and he succeeds admirably.

While almost all of the poets collected here date from the Renaissance, the final chapter treats a poem by the 19th-century poet and teacher Giovanni Pascoli. Few Anglophone scholars have done very much with Pascoli’s Latin verse, which deserves to be better known. The text treated here is Reditus Augusti, dramatizing the return of Augustus to Rome in 24 bce, based on Horace Odes 3.14. Like many of Pascoli’s Latin narratives, this poem tells the story that underlies a familiar classical text, in this case showing us how Horace experienced the day of Augustus’s return and sat down to write about it.

To sum up, the collection is varied, with some excellent poems that give us a look at how some of our long-ago colleagues spent their leisure time. The translations are clear and accurate and the notes fill in the background a reader might need; they are not intended to be grammatical comments for students, who can use the translations if necessary. The bibliographies to each chapter are full and helpful. The book could be a gentle introduction to Renaissance scholarship or to Neo-Latin poetry. For a reader who is already acquainted with one or both of those areas, it is simply a fun read.


Authors and Titles

Stephen J. Harrison, Introduction: The Neo-Latin Poetry of European Classical Scholars.

Marianne Pade, Poems on Printed Books: The Case of Niccolò Perotti’s (1430–1480) Cornu Copiae.

Raphael Schwitter, The Natalis of Paolo Marsi (1440–1484).

William M. Barton, The Verses of Antonio de Nebrija (1444–1522) on the Philologist’s Work and the Place of Greek.

Oren Margolis, Aldus Manutius (c. 1450–1515), Musarum panagyris and Other Early Poems.

Bobby Xinyue, An Elegiac Poem by Julius Caesar Scaliger (1484–1558) on Sickness and Healing.

Agnese D’Angelo, Two Poems by Piero Vettori (1499–1585).

Stephen J. Harrison, Jean Dorat (1508–1588): The Latin Lyrics of a Greek Professor.

David Andrew Porter, Janus Dousa (1545–1604): The Satires of a Dutch Scholar.

Daniele Pellacani, Editing Cicero (and Translating Aratus) in Sixteenth-Century Europe: Jan Kochanowski (1579) and Hugo Grotius (1600).

Ruth Parkes, John Barclay (1582–1621): The Argenis as a Statian Scholar’s Novel.

Thomas Matthew Vozar, Spare Muses: Epigrams by the Cambridge Don James Duport (1606–1679).

Trine Arlund Hass, Writing a Woman Scholar: Poems around Birgitte Thott (1610–1662).

Gesine Manuwald, The Plinian Dolphin: Johann Matthias Gesner (1691–1761), Carmina.

Francesco Citti, Giovanni Pascoli (1855–1912), Reditus Augusti, an Horatian Mime.



[1] Harrison helpfully refers the reader to Willcock’s commentary for metrical analysis, but the reference is missing from the chapter’s bibliography. It is in the Cambridge Greek and Latin Classics series (Cambridge: 1995).