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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 Some of the material is, unsurprisingly, outdated, since the study of the Later Roman Empire has not stood still since the volume was first published in 1971.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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Why Late Antiquity?

So, as it turns out, I am on the way to being a scholar of that growing and ever-more-popular field ‘Late Antiquity.’ As a previous post makes clear, I am especially interested in the Later Roman Empire. As the wee bio on this blog shows, my research lies in the letters of Pope Leo I (‘the Great’).

At one level, it is entirely unsurprising and quite natural that I have chosen to study Late Antiquity. I have two degrees in Classics yet spent much of my childhood and teenage years invested in various aspects of the Mediaeval world, from knights and Crusades to Vikings and epic poems to King Arthur and St. Francis. Late Antiquity is the period that bridges my personal and scholarly interests. No shock that I have landed here, then!

But as a scholar, I evidently need something more than, ‘It’s cool,’ or, ‘Latin is pretty sweet,’ to keep me interested for an extended period of time. The subterranean causes of this scholarly interest are hinted at in this passage from Peter Brown, Authority and the Sacred:

Yet it would be unhelpful to ask which part of the Calendar [of 354] was ‘real’ and which an empty shell, maintained only by unthinking tradition. The more we look at such art, the more we are impressed by the way in which the parts that we tend to keep in separate compartments, by labelling them ‘classical’, even ‘pagan’, as distinct from ‘Christian’, form a coherent whole; they sidle up to each other, under the subeterranean attraction of deep homologies. The classical and Christian elements are not simply incompatible, nor can their relative degree of presence or absence be taken as an indicator of a process of Christianisation … the classical elements have been redeployed. (pp. 12-13)

It is this redeployment of the classical inheritance in Late Antiquity that most interests me. One of Leo’s early modern editors referred to this pope as being ecclesiasticae dictionis Tullius — a Cicero of ecclesiastical oratory. If he is correct, how is Leo Cicero? What things does Leo do that Cicero did? How classical is his oratory — style, Latinity, ornament, composition, etc?

When I look at Leo’s letters, how do they reflect their classical heritage? What is there of Pliny and Cicero and Seneca in Leonine epistolary? And yet, because his redeployment is explicitly Christian, what is there of St Paul in these letters? More to the point, of St Ambrose, St Jerome, and St Augustine?

This redeployment of the classical heritage within the shifting world of Late Antiquity is a fascinating study. We can see it in the use made by Christian Platonists (there’s even an interesting 19th-century volume, The Christian Platonists of Alexandria by Charles Bigg as well as the more recent study by Henry Chadwick, Early Christian Thought and the Classical Tradition). Or what about the shade of the Stoa in which, no doubt, early asceticism spent some time?

The gods become the planets, and the planets take on astrological significance, such that they are syncretised into the Mediaeval worldview, and poetry is written about and to them, roles are given them, personifying them as if they were actually the pagan gods. But given the Mediaeval penchant for allegory, the planets are probably not even allegories for gods nor for astrology but for something else (on the planets, see C S Lewis, The Discarded Image).

Oh, yes. Allegory. Here the Christians of Late Antiquity take up with vigour, most famously in Origen in the 200s but also in Ambrose in the 300s, the allegorising of religious texts, something done by Philo, by the Platonists, by the pagan readers of Homer. I had a professor who scorned the mediaeval monastic culture of allegory; she imagined that they produced these (often admittedly bad) allegories as a way to justify reading things like Ovid. Yet allegory is helplessly classical, part of the Hellenistic heritage she was allegedly a specialist of.

Art historians could go on about art, no doubt. So also architecture historians. And legal historians. And so forth.

To close: I was almost a Virgilian. I love Virgil. I think he is one of the most fantastic poets of the ancient world. One studies Virgil because Virgil is intrinsically interesting as a poet. He does lovely things with words, with metre, with symbol, with images, with narratology.

One also studies Virgil because of his own redeployment of the classical heritage, the redeployment in the Aeneid of classical Homer, Hellenistic Apollonius, Roman Ennius — elsewhere of Hellenistic Theocritus. He takes these poetic epic traditions and refracts them through the lens not only of his own history but of his own self and poetic ambitions. And thus produces for us amazing epic and pastoral poetry.

Late Antiquity — Christian Late Antiquity — gives us Prudentius. Prudentius takes the Latin epic tradition of Virgil and does all the sames sorts of things as Virgil had done with his tradition, and part of his redeployment is a specifically Christian redeployment of the material. I could do so many of the same things with Prudentius as with Virgil, only the playing field is a lot less crowded.