Tag Archives: ausonius

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 Some of the material is, unsurprisingly, outdated, since the study of the Later Roman Empire has not stood still since the volume was first published in 1971.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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Ausonius vs the Romantics

Ausonius (Vol. 1)Ausonius by Ausonius

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Ausonius (d. AD 395) is not necessarily the best regarded of ancient poets — but his contemporaries really liked him. In his introduction to this edition/translation, H G Evelyn White at least gives Ausonius’ poetry that much. Not much more, mind you. But that much. Evelyn White writes:

‘As poetry, in any high or imaginative sense of the word, the great mass of his verse is negligible.’ (vii)

On the fact that Ausonius wrote a poem about the number three: ‘…so trivial a theme is no subject for poetry at all…’ (xvi) — and then Evelyn White praises Ausonius’ versification.

The Vergilian Cento is referred to as ‘literary outrage’ (xvii).

A final example from Evelyn White gives us an idea of why Ausonius and his style of poetry are so lowly regarded today, say that Ausonius was ‘insensible, broadly speaking, to sentiment and unappreciative of the human sympathy which should pervade true poetry’ (xxvii).

Now, I come not to praise Ausonius, nor to bury him. Nevertheless, Ausonius’ lack of respect in the modern age drives principally from the Romantic movement, and not that his subject matter can be quite dull or that a lot of his poems are simply neat tricks in verse that would probably amuse a native Latin-speaker more than they do any of us. This vision of poetry is not that it is a question of setting out in verse form one’s content but that it is the setting forth in verse one’s soul — that the subject of poetry is, in fact, the subject. This sort of criticism, for example, led one critic to refer to the scientific/philosophical passages in Dante as ‘pure prose’.

That is to say, Ausonius is not, by Romantic definitions, a ‘true poet’. He lacks true sentiment in what he does. For Ausonius, verse is a place to play, to delight in the titillation of the ear, to display his knowledge and erudition, to set forth pieces in various metres on various subjects. As to whether any real sentiment lies behind it — well, who cares?

The result is poetry that I think almost all modern readers would suffer through to a great degree. I admire Ausonius. I think some of his poetic experiments, such as the Technopaignion, where he ends each line of verse with a monosyllable, are amusing and would require enormous skill — even the Virgilian Cento, a patchwork of lines from Virgil, is the work of a person steeped in poetic metre. A lot of it, however, is unstimulating to the modern mind and ear. Perhaps if I were a Latin-speaker born, the rhythm and cadence of the verse would grab me more. Nonetheless, I do not say he is no true poet, and I do not think he is a bad poet. I think his is a style unsuited to our age and certainly unsuited to translation into English — you cannot translate hexameters and you cannot translate aural tricks.

I do recommend to today’s reader from the selections here in vol 1: ‘The Daily Round’ (it is what it says), various of the personal poems, the ‘Parentalia’ which recounts his deceased family members, the ‘Mosella’ which is regarded as his best (I say begin with this one, it is magnificent!), and ‘The Order of Famous Cities’. Various others are amusing, but I fear that reading an entire volume of Ausonius would be tedious for most. If you enjoy those I recommend, take a dip into some of the others…

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Discover the Fourth Century: Politics

LII Constantius I Chlorus

Constantius I, father of Constantine; photo by GZakky on Flickr

Now, what to say about the politics from Constantine to Honorius and Arcadius? (Since we already discussed Diocletian with the third century.) For the first portion of Constantine’s reign, there were civil wars until 312 when he defeated his western rival Maxentius at the Milvian Bridge (it was around this time that Constantine had his conversion to the god of the Christians), thus becoming sole emperor of the West. In 324, he defeated his eastern colleague Licinius (allegedly over persecution of Christians) and become sole emperor of the whole Roman world.

Let us remember that the whole Roman world, the empire, at this time stretched from Britain to Spain and North Africa, across to Mesopotamia and down the Nile. There were Black Sea provinces. There was influence in Armenia. Despite the images people like to paint of Roman hegemony after the 200s, the recovery of Diocletian and Constantine meant that Rome maintained and stabilised her territorial possessions.

Constantinian baths at Trier

Constantine had spent much of his earlier career based in Trier on the Moselle (a river which immortalised by Ausonius in this poem). In 330, he rededicated Byzantium on the Bosporus in the East as Constantinople — destined to be the New Rome and a Christian capital. Upon his death in 337, there was a bit of a bloodbath (see R W Burgess, ‘The Summer of Blood’). His son Constans ruled from the West until 350, and Constantius II ruled the East, then the whole thing, until 361. Constantius, as you learn in Ammianus, had a few bloodthirsty caesars co-rule with him. He was succeeded by the ‘pagan’ Julian the Apostate (would have called himself a Hellene), himself an orator, poet, and philosopher, who did to the Christians what Constantine and Constantius had done to the Graeco-Roman polytheists. He died on campaign against Persia in 363 (see my post on Julian in Ammianus).

Then came Jovian, hailed by the army in Persia. He lasted nary a year and was succeeded by Valentinian I (r. 364-375) who elevated his brother Valens as co-emperor (r. 364-378). Valentinian’s son Gratian (d. 383) was elevated in 367 and Valentinian II (d. 392) upon Valentinian I’s death in 375. 378-395 saw the reign of Theodosius I ‘the Great’.

Upon Theodosius’ death, the empire was finally and enduringly split between East and West, his son Honorius taking the West (r. 393-423) and his other son Arcadius the East (r. 395-408).

Those, in brief, are the emperors of the fourth century.

If this isn’t Valens, it’s Honorius.

Throughout these reigns there was ongoing warfare and military posting along the Rhine. As well, Goths were interested in crossing the Danube. They were settled on Roman territory in 376, but, rather than treat them well and integrate them into society, relations between the Romans and Goths deteriorated to the point where the Goths decided it was in their best interests first to plunder, and then to engage the Romans in battle. The most famous of these battles was near Adrianople in Thrace (Edirne, modern European Turkey, near Greece & Bulgaria) in 378, where the Emperor Valens was slain.

War with Persia was also intermittent. As I mentioned in the post about the third century, Persia had re-emerged as a major power in the East under the Sassanian dynasty, taking the Emperor Valerian captive in 260. Despite a treaty made in 363 after Julian’s disastrous campaign, the Persians found pretext to invade Rome, claiming the Romans had violated the treaty. Before I start sounding like a Roman talking of ‘typical’ Persian ‘duplicity’, I can well imagine the Romans having broken the treaty if it had been in their interest and they had had a pretext. Theodosius I and Shapur III signed a peace treaty in 384 that would last until 421.

Coin of Magnus Maximus

It wouldn’t be the Roman Empire without a few usurpers, either, though. The most famous of these is Magnus Maximus, a Spanish general posted in Britain who rebelled against the Emperor Gratian in 383. (Sorry that he’s not actually British.) In 384, Theodosius I agreed to give him command of Britain. However, in 387 he wanted more than he already had, so he invaded Italy. In 388, Theodosius¬† defeated him at the Battle of the Save. I would say that Maximus was more tolerated than fully integrated into the imperial system. Northern Gaul was often a troublesome place, and local aristocrats had previously, and would again in the future, taken the power of command into their own hands.

I feel that this has been far too cursory a treatment of fourth-century politics, but I also don’t want to go on too much. My apologies for this. I hope, however, when combined with the prior post on religion and literature and the upcoming post on art, it will help give you a feel for the fourth century and the people who inhabited it.