The Last Poets of Imperial Rome, trans. Harold Isbell

The Last Poets of Imperial RomeThe Last Poets of Imperial Rome by Harold Isbell
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

My star rating is based on the readability of the translation and selection here given, not on accuracy; I have not compared the texts with the Latin, so I cannot say how well Isbell translated on that count. However, the translations are very readable, verse renderings of some of the most important Latin poems of Late Antiquity, so straightaway I want to recommend this book; anything that can promote the final years of Roman rule as more than mere ‘decline’ or the beginning of a ‘Dark Age’ is welcome.

After a general introduction to the period and the poetry, Isbell gives us a series of poems from the 200s all the way, oddly, to Alcuin. Each poet/poem is given his/its own introduction as well. Some of the material is, unsurprisingly, outdated, since the study of the Later Roman Empire has not stood still since the volume was first published in 1971. However, this anthology is recent enough that Isbell doesn’t scorn the poets and poetry of the age, which is refreshing.

The works contained herein are:

Nemesianus (c. 283-4): ‘The Hunt’ (Cynegetica)
Anon., 3rd/4th c: ‘The Night Watch of Venus’ (Pervigilium Veneris)
Ausonius (310-395): ‘Bissula’, ‘Mosella’, and ‘The Crucifixion of Cupid’ (Cupido Cruciator)
Anon., 4th c.: ‘On the Freshly Blooming Roses’ (De rosis nascentibus)
Claudian (370-405): ‘The Rape of Proserpine’ (De raptu Proserpinae) and ‘Epithalamium for Honorius Augustus and Maria, Daughter of Stilicho’ (Epithalamium de nuptiis Honorii Augusti)
Prudentius (348-405): ‘Praefatio’, ‘Psychomachia’, ‘Cathemerinon’, and ‘Epilogus’ (Isbell notes that this last is not likely by Prudentius)
Rutilius Claudius Namatianus: ‘Concerning His Return’ (De reditu suo) from 416
Paulinus of Pella (376-459): ‘Thanksgiving’ (Eucharisticos)
Boethius (480-524): a selection from The Consolation of Philosophy, Book 3, about Orpheus and Eurydice
Columba (521-597): ‘In Praise of the Father’ (Altus Prosator)
Alcuin (735-804): ‘The Dispute Between Winter and Spring’ (Conflictus Veris et Hiemis)

The volume closes with a ‘Glossary and Index of Names’.

As I say, this covers most of the major Latin poets and poems of the era. It thus serves as a good introduction to the work of the period, and I would encourage the reader who enjoys any of these poets to seek out their wider works if they exist; most of them can be found in the Loeb Classical Library.

One final thought: if this were to be reissued, I would like to see the final three poets cut (as much as I like them all, and as much as I could see a case made for Boethius) and have Sidonius added as well as one hymn from St Ambrose — maybe also something from Paulinus of Nola. That would give us a better selection and restrict all of our poets to Imperial Rome as the title claims.

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