Episode 94: Ausonius

One of the later Latin poets of the Empire, Ausonius’ expansive body of work gives us a window into the changing world of fourth-century Roman culture.

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Ausonius and the Changing World of Rome’s Fourth Century

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Hello, and welcome to Literature and History. Episode 94: Ausonius. This program is on the Roman poet and academic Decimus Magnus Ausonius, who lived roughly from 310-395 CE and served in the court of Rome’s Valentinian Dynasty from the mid-360s until the mid-380s. Ausonius was well regarded during his own life and in the subsequent century. The son of a doctor, Ausonius took a scholarly path, developing an excellent reputation as a classroom instructor in his hometown of Burdigala, or modern day Bordeaux, France. Ausonius’ surviving corpus of work is expansive, including autobiographical pieces on his home and family, eulogies to his academic colleagues, praise poems dedicated to the Emperor, short poems and epigrams on an encyclopedia of subjects, from Homeric heroes to past Roman Emperors to Roman cities, and strange, unclassifiable pieces on classical themes. His most famous poem today is the “Moselle,” a long piece about the picturesque river that flows where modern day France, Luxemborg, and Germany all come together. Ausonius’ output, then, forms quite a diverse array of works, from formulaic pieces written within long established genres to more experimental and anomalous works. An author whose long life spanned Rome’s pivotal fourth century, and who knew some most powerful figures in the Roman world, Ausonius’ writings offer a window into a transformative period of European history.

Ausonius is not, however, particularly well known, even within the discipline of Classics. Like so many writers of Late Antiquity, Ausonius falls into a gap between Classics and Medieval Studies departments, between pagan and Christian, belonging neither to the Classical world that came before him, nor the Christian one that followed him. He was not, like Sophocles, at the helm of a city in the midst of an artistic renaissance, nor, like Ovid, attached to a broadly celebrated Roman emperor and Golden Age of literature. Ausonius’ imperial patrons were less famous and successful than Augustus – the founders of a short and rocky dynasty, and Ausonius lived and worked at the Roman Empire’s cloudy late afternoon, rather than its clear and bright morning, being insufficiently Christian for some, and insufficiently pagan for others. It is, however, precisely Ausonius’ marginality – his position as a person of letters squarely at the heart of Late Antiquity, that makes him a rather unique figure. Ausonius was, as we’ll see, comfortable within the new world of Nicene Christianity, its believers, and its aggressive clergy. But if respecting the growing power of Christianity was something Ausonius had learned to do, he seems to have been much more fluent and comfortable in the old toga of traditional Roman ideology, as Christianity is an exception, rather than a rule, in the writings that he left behind.

In today’s program, we’re dealing with both an author, and a period of Roman imperial history, that are slightly off the beaten path, and so I want to approach Ausonius from a very high level. First, we’ll consider Roman history during the lifespan of our author for today, who again lived from about 310-395. Then we’ll zoom in and talk about Ausonius himself – who he was and where he lived and worked. Finally, we’ll get into a detailed look at his poetry, exploring his more famous pieces and ending with an assessment of how the old Gallic poet and professor actually felt about the Empire’s new religion, as the Emperors themselves hopped onboard and at least one of Ausonius’ brighter pupils became an enthusiastic Christian convert. So let’s begin with a quick overview of the major historical events of the 300s, a century that began with Roman authorities persecuting Christians, and ended, to some extent, with Christian authorities holding power over Roman emperors. [music]

From Diocletian to Theodosius

Diocletien Vaux1

The emperor Diocletian’s reforms, over the course of the 290s instituted a tetrarchy that fell apart as soon as Diocletian himself left the scene.

Around the time of Ausonius’ father’s birth, one of Rome’s more famous rulers wrested control of the empire after a long period of chaos. This was Diocletian, and his years at the pinnacle of Roman power stretched from 284 until 305. Diocletian’s reign was a watershed moment in ancient history for many reasons. First, Diocletian’s ascension to power has traditionally marked the end of Rome’s third century crisis, and the beginning of Late Antiquity proper. Second, Diocletian was the last Roman Emperor associated with a major persecution of Christians before the Empire went Christian at the executive level during reign of Constantine the Great, from 306-337. Third, the emperor Diocletian famously divided the empire into four administrative districts in the year 293, having come to the decision that the thing was too big for one person to rule. Fourth, with this subdivision came new efforts at administrative standardization – efforts that were designed to extend a system of consistent laws and functionaries over the four new imperial districts. Fifth, and last, Diocletian’s reign saw the inception of what historians call the Dominate – an era of imperial rulers who abandoned the old Augustan pretensions of sustaining ancient republican norms on the surface, and instead expected to lord themselves over elaborate courts like kings or pharaohs, rather than appointed chief executives.

To turn to the subject of Diocletian dividing the empire into four, and enlarging the imperial bureaucracy, in time, rather than having an adhesive effect, Diocletian’s various reforms laid the paving stones for the Western Empire’s fragmentation, and the early Middle Ages. Breaking the empire into clusters of provinces, moving ever further from a centralized parliamentary structure and toward a quartet of regional autocracies, and creating new official appointments to deal with new administrative districts – the intention of all of this was a streamlined approach to controlling huge swathes of territory that each faced very different challenges. In the long run, however, more executives, each one untrammeled by the system of checks and balances that had characterized the Republic, meant more usurpations and succession disputes. Similarly, the creation of powerful new administrative positions – the vicarii, or Deputy Praetorian Prefects in charge of clusters of provinces, the dux – military commanders within provinces, and the comes – close companions of the imperial court – these imperially granted posts, in Latin based languages, later became vicars, dukes, and counts, the peerage systems of the Middle Ages having some of its earliest roots in the reforms that Diocletian and his colleagues set up in the 290s.

The next major Roman strongman after Diocletian was Constantine the Great. Constantine ruled from 306 until 337, and he came to power just a few years before Ausonius was born. His rise was bloody and in some ways ignominious, and his conversion to Christianity in 312 seems to have been the beginning of a long process – one that ended with his deathbed baptism in 337, rather than sudden and complete turnabout, like Saint Paul’s Damascus Road conversion in the Bible. Christianity clearly had its attractions to Constantine, who issued the Edict of Milan in 313, which formalized religious tolerance for Christianity throughout the Empire. And while the religion’s intrinsic appeal, and personal, genuine convictions were surely a part of Constantine’s attraction to the religion, the unifying capabilities of Christianity may also have drawn him toward it. As historian Roger Collins puts it, “In the more regulated and authoritarian state that had been created in the third century, the hierarchical structures and the Mediterranean-wide organization of the Church had much to offer the secular rulers of Europe.”1

Generally, over Ausonius’ teen years, Christianity was twining together with Rome’s executive offices. The poet was about fifteen during the First Council of Nicaea in 325, when the Nicene Creed formalized Trinitarian Christianity and a notion of Christ as co-eternal and consubstantial with Yahweh. Constantine the Great died in 337. And as Ausonius lived through his late twenties and his thirties, he saw the first Christian Emperor’s heirs vying for primacy with one another and with usurpers. One of Constantine’s sons, Constantius II, managed to die of natural causes in 361. His heir, Julian, or Julian the Apostate, ruled from the autumn of 361 until the summer of 363, when Julian died a casualty of a war with the Sasanians to the east. The poet Ausoninus saw, then, from a distance and during his early 50s, Rome’s final pagan emperor – Julian the Apostate comes down to us in the historical record not so much as a rabid sinner wanting to drag Rome toward hell and Satan, but instead an intellectual and historically informed leader hesitant about the relentless forward march toward religious uniformity. Julian, between 361 and 363, made a final backward push toward the old religious norms of the empire. But it was not to be.

When the Emperor Valentinian I assumed power in 364 along with his brother Valens, the two returned to the Constantinian agenda – Christians enjoyed a preferred status in imperial circles. Valentinian’s son Gratian, who later became Ausonius’ pupil, was brought up practicing the newly codified Nicene Christianity. Valentinian and his son Gratian didn’t have a relaxing time of it during the 360s or 370s – strife east of the Rhine kept them busy, and Valentinian died in 375 while negotiating with a barbarian tribe in modern day Hungary. Three years later, in 378, Valentinian’s brother Valens was killed in a battle with Gothic rebels at Adrianople, near where modern day Turkey, Bulgaria and Greece come together. Valentinian’s son Gratian, Ausonius’ student, rose to the purple in 367 at the age of eight under his father’s supervision, becoming full emperor of the west at the age of sixteen when his father passed away. Valentinian’s son-in-law, Theodosius, took control of the East after Valens died, eventually reigning from 379-395 and being effectively the most powerful figure in the Empire during his time on the throne.

The 360s and 70s were a turbulent epoch for Rome, especially in the north and northeastern provinces. But on February 27, 380, the joint Emperors Gratian, his brother, Valentinian II, and their brother-in-law, Theodosius were nonetheless sure about at least one thing. These three scions of Valentinian I all convened to issue the Edict of Thessalonica, which declared Nicene Christianity, specifically under Damasus, the current Pope of Rome and Peter, the current patriarch of Alexandria, as the official imperial religion, and they declared all other forms of Christianity heretical. All of the powerful men involved in issuing the Edict stood to gain from the arrangement, the shared power and resources that resulted offering the emperors ecclesiastical legitimacy and the churchmen imperial endorsement. But Thessalonica, where the agreement was made, however the Edict cemented its reputation as a city pivotal to Christian history, still had hard times ahead of it.

Two weeks’ march from Thessalonica was the battlefield of Adrianople, where Gratian and Valentinian II’s uncle Valens had been killed two years’ prior. And if one dark cloud hung over the heads of the Valentinian and Theodosian Dynasties, it was the slow press of Gothic immigrants from the northeast, and moreover the restless movement of populations descending from central and northeastern Europe and into the empire. The Edict of Thessalonica of 380 formalized the Empire as a Christian one, but of course, the old problems endemic to a sprawling and multiethnic empire were not instantly alleviated. Because ten years after the Edict of Thessalonica was passed, a riot broke out there in the year 390.

Ambrose bars the Emperor Theodosius from the cathedral in Milan in the wake of the Massacre of Thessalonica in this painting by Anthony van Dyck (1619-20).

Chariot racing was the heart of urban pop culture throughout many of the late Empire’s cities. In Thessalonica, in 390, a celebrity charioteer was arrested for some sort of crime against the local authorities – possibly moonlighting as a male prostitute. Following the charioteer’s arrest, a riot broke out in Thessalonica, and a garrison commander, possibly a recently appointed Gothic one, along with a number of his troops were killed. An imperial retaliation followed, although the sources are inconsistent on exactly how it happened. The eastern Emperor Theodosius directed a reprisal, and as many as thousands of chariot racing fans in Thessalonica were slaughtered in a general massacre. Whatever exactly happened, and however exactly Theodosius was involved, sources record the Massacre of Thessalonica as a punishment far too severe, and too general, for the specific crime that warranted it. However, the Massacre of Thessalonica is famous not so much for being a record of a severe imperial persecution of civilian unrest as it is for what happened afterward.

According to several different ancient sources, Ambrose, the Bishop of Milan – then the capital of the Western Empire – chastened the Emperor Theodosius, refusing him communion until Theodosius had repented. Sources record Theodosius attending services without his imperial robes and spending the late summer and autumn barred from the Eucharist, only being allowed communion once again at Christmas.2 These sources admittedly have a strong Christian bias, and are invested in the notion of a penitent emperor chastened by a powerful bishop, but if there is even a grain of truth in the story, the final decade of the 300s may have been the very years when powerful churchmen and papal officials began openly pursuing parity with Roman emperors.3 Our author for this episode, Ausonius, is thought to have died shortly after 390, and the news of a Christian bishop chastening a Roman Emperor may have been one of the final and strangest things the old poet heard before he died of natural causes in his mid-80s.

There are two broad takeaways we should retain from this quick overview of fourth-century Roman history as Ausonius knew it. First, when Ausonius was born, in roughly 310, Christians lived and died at the mercy of Roman imperial administrations. When he passed away, some time in the 390s, Roman imperial administrations were beginning to operate at the mercy of Christian officials. And the second takeaway is that the fourth century – especially the second half of the fourth century – was the period during which populations from central and Eastern Europe began to migrate in enormous numbers into the Empire, and various poor policy decisions, greedy provincial officials, and general prejudice encouraged these barbarians to identify with their tribes and kinship networks, rather than assimilating into the Empire. Ausonius lived to see all of this happening, and in fact, during his time in the imperial court between roughly 364 and 383, he had front row seats. So, now that we’ve brushed up on pivotal historical events of Rome’s critical fourth century, let’s zoom in to Ausonius himself, and learn a bit more about our author for today. [music]

Ausonius: His Life and Times

Ausonius was born around 310 CE. His roots were in the southwest of modern day France – his father from the town of Bazas, about 30 miles southeast of Bordeaux, and Ausonius himself having spent most of his life and career in Burdigala, again modern day Bordeaux. Bordeaux had been ruled by Romans for three and a half centuries by that point, and Bordeaux’s position at the center of a tin and lead and wine market made it the center of Roman Aquitaine. Ausonius, then, is technically speaking our first French poet in this podcast, and like other provincial writers we’ve met in our show, Ausonius’ talents and the course of his career eventually brought him into contact with Rome’s emperor the imperial court. But let’s start at the beginning, with the poet’s childhood.

What we know about Ausonius has been extracted from his poetry. Ausonius himself tells us that his father was an extremely respected physician, but also a working man who kept a low profile, somewhere between wealthy and needy. The poet writes that his father lived a very moderate lifestyle, steered clear of lawsuits, scandals, public unrest, and revelry.4 The writer’s mother seems to have come from more blue blooded stock, though in a poem about her that Ausonius left behind, the qualities that he praises are those expected of a traditional Roman mother. In an elegy to his mother, Ausonius writes, “In you was found every virtue of a duteous wife, chastity renowned, hands busy spinning wool, truth to your bridal vows, pains to bring up your children: sedate were you yet friendly, sober yet bright.”5 Ausonius, who led a scholarly life at the highest levels of the fourth-century Roman Empire, began his education at Bordeaux. He spent his teenage years in school at Bordeaux under the care of his maternal uncle, until this uncle, himself a scholar of great repute, was summoned in 328 all the way over to Constantinople to serve as the teacher of Constantine’s sons.

In roughly the year 334, Ausonius began teaching at the University of Bordeaux. He was also married to a local aristocratic heiress. Her name was Sabina, and with her, Ausonius had three children. The oldest, a boy, died in infancy, but the younger two, a boy and a girl, both grew up. As Ausonius began his early career as a new father, his wife Sabina passed away of unknown causes. The poet never remarried. Ausonius wrote affectionately of his wife 36 years after her death, emphasizing that while she had an aristocratic background and came from the stock of senators, it was her good life that gave Sabina her true nobility.6 She died at the age of 27, and in an elegy to her, Ausonius wrote that though losing her was something from which he never recovered, she at least left two children behind, who had been allowed to flourish.

Following his wife’s death, for about thirty years, Ausonius poured himself into classroom teaching in Bordeaux. In about 364, when the poet was an established scholar in his mid-50s, he had evidently acquired an excellent academic reputation, as he was summoned by the Emperor Valentinian I to teach Valentinian’s son, the future Emperor Gratian. The Western Empire’s capital, at this point, was in Mediolanum, or modern day Milan, roughly at the same latitude as Bordeaux in northern Italy, and Ausonius began teaching Gratian there when Gratian was a young child – just five or six years old. We can imagine that transitioning from being a full-fledged university professor in his hometown to tutoring a child in the imperial palace was a jarring career move, but Ausonius’ new position came with certain perks. One of these perks was adventure. Between 368 and 369, Ausonius joined the emperor Valentinian I and his son Gratian on a campaign up in modern day Germany. While the campaign was hardly a war to end all wars in the region, it was a successful military operation, and from it, the middle aged poet ended up receiving a barbarian slave girl as a present, whom he wrote about reverently in his poetry.

The 370s saw Ausonius ascending from the professoriate class, and climbing some rungs of the old Roman cursus honorum. In 375, he became a quaestor. When Ausonius’ pupil, the Emperor Gratian, ascended to the throne in the same year, the emperor showered high profile positions on Ausonius and his family, Ausonius’ 90-year-old father becoming a prefect, and the poet’s son being made a proconsul and later prefect in important areas of the empire. Ausonius himself poet was made a de facto administrator of the Gallic provinces in 378, at about the age of 68, and in 379, he was made a consul, the highest rank that a civilian outside of the imperial family could attain.

Ausonius’ career path is something rather novel in terms of what we’ve seen in Ancient Rome’s authors. An established academic in the Gallic Provinces, Ausonius’ high profile imperial appointments, which happened during his 50s and 60s, took place on the basis of his skill as a classroom instructor. Two centuries before Ausonius was born, the satirist Juvenal decried Roman civilization in that its writers and teachers could barely feed themselves, whereas its charioteers and courtesans lived in decadent luxury. But Ausonius, on the contrary, who by all rights seems to have been a sober and serious professor, reached the highest echelons of power and influence that a civilian could in the Empire without breaking any laws.

Unfortunately, in the year 383, during Ausonius’ early 70s, the normal course of usurpations that characterized the late empire jeopardized the poet’s family fortunes. Ausonius’ student, the Emperor Gratian was murdered by the general Magnus Maximus, the Valentinian Dynasty falling into strife in the west between 383 and 93 as Valentinian I’s son-in-law, Theodosius I, dealt with multiple upstart imperial regimes. As a side note, we met this Magnus Maximus in the previous episode – he was the short-termed western emperor who has the dubious legacy of overseeing the first state-sanctioned execution of Christians by Christians in the year 386. Anyway, chaos at the executive level of the Western Empire thwarted Ausonius’ safe tenure in the court in the 380s, and the poet retired to his estate in Bordeaux, where he continued producing poetry. It’s generally believed that he died of natural causes in the early 390s, having made to the ripe old age of 83 or 84.

Now, Ausonius, as I said before, left behind quite a bit of work. A recent Routledge edition lists not 27 poems, in total, but 27 different categories of poems, and this is quite a big corpus of writings for a relatively obscure pagan author. There are liabilities to leaving so much work behind – in Ausonius’ case, we have everything from moving, lyrical, literary works on the one hand, and then cloying praises of emperors and ephemeral odds and ends on the other, suggesting not so much an enigmatic genius as a professional writer, a career-minded academic, and a family man – in all ways a person who didn’t always get it right, but was hardworking and talented and likeable enough to be worth regularly inviting over for lunch. A poem Ausonius wrote in perhaps 383 or 384 shows many of his qualities simultaneously – the poet, then in his early seventies, was bidding goodbye to his son at a moment of extreme uncertainty, as Gratian, Ausonius’ young pupil and probably dear friend, had just been murdered in a coup. The poem, which is called Pater Ad Filium, or “A Father to His Son,” addresses Ausonius’ son as the younger man floats away on a boat. Ausonius wrote,
Already [over] the sluggish surface of [the river the boat] had borne [you] forward, O my son, and from the kisses and embraces of [your] weeping sire the envious stream had parted [you]. Alone! though compassed with a throng of friends, I was alone and offered yearning prayers for that fleeting craft; alone, though still I saw you, my child, and grudged the hasty speed of the swift [oars] plying against the stream. . .Forlorn I pace the empty, lonely shores. Now I strike down the sprouting willow-shoots, now I crush beds of turf and [over] green sedge I poise my slippery footsteps on the pebbles strewn beneath. So the first day passed away, so the second reached its end, so the two nights which wheeled revolving after each, so others: and the whole year for me will so pass by until [your] destiny gives [you back to me].7
This is Ausonius the poet in a nutshell – fallible, vulnerable, frequently autobiographical, and enamored with precious details – whether details from the world around him, or from the curio cabinet of pagan antiquity. So now that we know a bit about Ausonius’ life, and some of the fourth century as he knew it, let’s jump right into his works. We’ll begin, in a practical manner, with a poem called the “Moselle,” a piece which, though Ausonius might not have intended it, became the most well-known of all his writings. [music]

Ausonius’ “Moselle”

Ausonius’ “Moselle” is his most famous poem. In nearly 500 lines of hexameter, the poet draws a portrait of the Moselle River, a tributary of the Rhine that meanders through the northeastern part of present day France, through Metz, and forms part of the eastern border with Luxemborg before plunging northeast into Germany to join the Rhine about 50 miles south of Cologne. The Moselle River, even during Ausonius’ time, ran through cultivated lands – he writes early in the poem that even the steep hillsides around the river were thick with farms and vineyards. Let’s hear a description of the river from toward the beginning of this poem – this is the Deborah Warren free verse translation, published by Routledge in 2017.
[Y]our grassy banks, bountiful green river.
You carry ships like the sea lanes of the ocean;
flowing, but with the glassy depth of a lake;
you rival brooks in your rippling restlessness;
you’re purer than water drunk from ice-cold springs;
only you are all of them: brook, river,
spring, lake, ocean with its repeated tides.
You slip along on your unruffled path,
unhindered by breaths of wind or hidden rocks:
no gurgling shallows churn you into rapids;
no obstacles check you – jutting up midstream
to mar your justly celebrated beauty. (26-38)8
The Moselle, Ausonius writes, is neither too fast, nor too slow – even its sluggish sections aren’t polluted by weeds or choked with sediments. Sounding like European romanticism would thirteen hundred years later, Ausonius writes that while aristocrats might line their hallways with exotic tiles and expensive paneling, such finery was all inferior to the more permanent and timeless beauty of the river. Just to give you more of an idea of the opening of this poem, here’s a quote from an older prose translation.
Thou [, Moselle River,] through thy smooth surface showest all the treasures of thy crystal depths – a river keeping naught concealed: and as the calm air lies clear and open to our gaze, and the stilled winds do not forbid the sight to travel through the void, so, if our gaze penetrates thy gulfs, we behold things. . .far below, and the recesses of thy secret depth lie open. . .thy flood moves softly and thy waters limpid-gliding reveal in azure light shapes scattered here and there: how the furrowed sand is rippled by the light current, how the bowed water-grasses quiver in thy green bed: down beneath their native streams the tossing plants endure the water’s buffeting, pebbles gleam and are hid, and gravel picks out patches of green moss.9

The river, Ausonius writes, was no mere emptiness of clear water and aquatic plants – the Moselle River was also filled with shoals of fish. Fish swam in the open blue water – they nudged their way through sandy bottoms in the shallows, salmon swam along the stream’s center, their tails rippling the surface of the water from underneath. Alongside these, other fish filled the Moselle – trout, mullet, river perch, pike, and gudgeon. Ausonius spends a good deal of time extolling a large species of catfish called the sheatfish – he writes in the Warren translation, in lines addressed to this catfish, “But when you glide a smooth course in the stream, / the green banks, the blue throngs of swimming fish, / the flowing waters honor you; the billows / surge at your passage, the far waves wash the edge” (140-143). That may be the most laudatory quartet of verses on a catfish in all literature, by the way.


A stretch of the Moselle near Toul.

The river and its environs, we learn as this poem continues, were not only home to underwater life. The river was also home to human inhabitants. Farmers worked vineyards all the way up to the riverbanks – boatmen carrying cargo paddled by and exchanged brouhaha with the winegrowers along the shore. Satyrs and nymphs, in the shallows, flirted and trounced with one another, unseen by human eyes. Where such hidden beings cavorted, human observers only saw the river – silver and holding the reflection of shady embankments, as though the water itself were made of moving canopies of leaves. Such reflections were dizzying at certain hours, blending into the shade beneath overhanging foliage, and youths and maidens alike could lose themselves in the contemplation of their images moving in the water below them.

Life along the river, however, wasn’t all timeless tranquility. Fishermen scooped nets full of fish up from the shallows over the gunwales of their boats. Others sat on river bends with greenwood poles, their sinkers and hooks dangling below their cork floats, pulling unsuspecting prey up from the water to choke to death in the sudden brightness of the shore, their little gills faltering like blacksmiths’ bellows. Yet notwithstanding the human harvesting of fish from the depths, Ausonius writes, the Moselle River was far more tranquil than far off straits and ocean channels where more consequential strife unfolded. In the river valleys of the Moselle, harsh winds could not intrude too much, the opposing banks approached one another like handshakes, and sheltered springs and coves offered all of the delights of far off and better known waterways of Greece.

Ausonius writes that he is now older, and that though he’s been a consul, his praises are meager. He closes the poem with the lines, “if any praise should favor my trifling poem, / if these lines merit wasting leisure on, / you’ll be on men’s lips, adorned in happy verse: / lakes, living springs, blue oceans know of you; / and ancient groves. . .Noble in your blue pools and sounding torrents” (474-8, 482). And that’s the end of the “Moselle,” which, though it may not at all have been his intention, in posterity became Ausonius’ most famous poem.

The “Moselle” is a memorable work in the annals of Latin poetry. It wasn’t unprecedented – we see the same loving attention paid to the minutiae of the physical world in Statius’ Silvae three centuries before Ausonius, and in Virgil’s Georgics a century before that. Still, these poems – poems which extolled the beauties of the physical and non-human world in all of their precious specificity certainly call to mind the European romanticism of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The valorization of nature over civilization – one of romanticism’s central themes – comes across emphatically midway through the “Moselle.” Ausonius tells us that aristocratic estates might deck themselves out with finery from far away, but that the shortsighted regimes and bankrupt heirs who fund such compounds are transient and of no consequence in comparison to the greater and more unchanging beauties of the Moselle and its river valleys. Whatever subsequent authors took from the “Moselle,” its influence shows up several different European writers of the eighth and ninth centuries, in descriptions of scenic lakes and monastic gardens and other tranquil settings.10 We’ll come back to this poem a little later in the show – for now, let’s move forward and explore some of Ausonius’ other writings. [music]

Ausonius’ Epigrams

Beyond the “Moselle,” another famous swath of Ausonius’ poetry is his epigrams. Epigrams, a fixture of ancient Mediterranean poetry since the first century BCE, had begun as inscriptions on statues and sanctuaries. As they became removed from their material context, they were often deployed in praises for patrons, and came to a crescendo in Latin with the work of Martial in the two decades before 100 CE. By Ausonius’ time, then, the epigram was an age-old form of very short poetry in Latin. If one feature unifies the epigram – including Ausonius’ own epigrams, it is that epigrams, short as they are, often have surprising endings – funny ones, frequently, but also profound endings, perplexing endings, or even erotic and disgusting endings. The best epigrams seem to have made their way into Roman popular culture in the form of graffiti and colloquialisms, having in concision and transplantability what they lacked in depth and thoroughness, like today’s memes and tweets.

111 epigrams from Ausonius survive, and they run the range between moralistic pronouncements to jokes to praises of emperors to vulgar aspersions, eulogies, pithy remarks about gods, short reflections on myths, mockeries of professions, and folkloric tales told in a few lines to illustrate a truism. On the whole, the poems more often than not steer toward humor or at least dry irony in their final lines. While it would be silly to go through all 111 here, let me give you a general idea of the contents of Ausonius’ epigrams, these energetic short Latin poems done in the same decades that Christianity was consolidating its hold on Roman thrones.

In one of Ausonius’ epigrams – one titled “On the worth of this manuscript,” he offers a general overview of the collection’s contents. Ausonius says of his epigrams “You can read this in your free time – in an evening, / I’ve mixed light and serious, whatever you feel like: / Life’s not one color, nor are you my only reader; / any page has its time” (Epi 25.1-4). And indeed across the 111 epigrams included, we find a mixture of all sorts of pieces, from the gravely moralistic to the gross and comedic, and everything in between. Since we’ve just come from the “Moselle,” let’s begin by considering some of Ausonius’ more grave and serious epigrams.

Adolphe Giraudon, Vénus de Milo (musée du Louvre) 01

The Venus de Milo. Ausonius is fascinated with statues in his Epigrams, his poems on the subject occasionally pondering how artwork can be more real than life itself.

Ausonious worked in the court of Valentinian and his son Gratian, and so, like all poets with imperial patrons, it was his duty to write poems praising them and celebrating their various features. Ausonius’ epigrams include a set of six poems (26-31) in a row on these two emperors, praising Valentinian and Gratian, meditating on the source of the Danube and hoping for Roman fortune in a campaign against the Goths and at one point praising Gratian’s hunting skills. These are formulaic little pieces, but producing them certainly would have been a part of Ausonius’ career. Not all of the non-comedic pieces in the epigrams have to do with Roman emperors, though. A few poems – ones that sound like early Ovid, discuss the speaker’s romances – his hope for the right kind of girlfriend and his negotiations with deities who ruled over mortal love (34, 56, 88-91). On this same general theme, several epigrams are directed toward his wife Sabina (40, 53-5), showing earnest devotion in spite of the more bawdy and irreverent pieces that surround them. Other non-comedic poems offer moralistic advice on themes like humility (2), repaying favors quickly (16-17), or, in other cases still, are fairly stock short pieces involving mythological figures like Narcissus (99-101), Hylas (97-8) Hermione (96) and Daphne (104).

Somewhere in between comedic and serious are a number of epigrams Ausonius wrote about various professions. Three poems in the collection make fun of contemporary doctors (4, 80, 81), a funny detail to ponder, since this was Ausonius’ father’s profession. Elsewhere, a cynic philosopher gets a bit of mockery in a pair of poems (46-7), as do a dumb scribe (36-7), an ignorant grammarian (6-7), and a rhetorician named Rufus, evidently a stiff and unexpressive person if he actually existed, is in six different epigrams compared to a statue (8-13). Now, statues, in fact, come up very often in the epigrams – statues were where epigrams had come from, after all, but a total of 22 of the 111 epigrams involve statues.11 We hear of statues to Metanoia (33), Dionysus (48-9), Corydon (50), Sappho (51),Venus (52, 67), Niobe (63), and more – a slurry of tableaus in which, very often, the issue of visual verisimilitude or representation through art is brought up. Venus, for instance, sees a statue of herself and remarks on how lifelike it is, and learns of how it was made.

The longest connected sequence of epigrams in the collection involves precisely this issue – how lifelike art can be. This sequence, running through eight poems, is about a brass heifer, made by a famous Athenian sculptor, in all likelihood an actual sculpture that existed. This astonishing brass heifer, Ausonius records, was so realistic that herdsmen thought it was real, and calves wanted to drink from it. The ranchers who saw it thought it was from a herd and that it had gone astray. On the subject of this amazingly lifelike statue, Ausonius writes, “to fashion [such a heifer] as if alive is more / than to fashion her alive: it’s not god’s works / that are extraordinary, but the artist’s” (Epi 71.3-5). That statement is at odds with the romantic nature painting of the Moselle – the long poem about the river we read earlier sounds quite a bit like European romanticism, but Ausonius’ contrasting statement that art is a higher labor than nature is more in line with the French decadent movement. Capable of shifting from Rousseau to Baudelaire, then Ausonius was also capable shifting in a third direction, and that was toward the trenches of scatological Latin short poetry – the entertainingly gross depths of Catullus and those who followed him. And a quick warning – some strong adult content will follow in the next couple of minutes.

A few early epigrams in Ausonius’ collection wouldn’t feel too out of place in the erotic chapters of Chaucer or Boccaccio – Ausonius writes racy verses about an adulteress (3), and then an adulterer (45), and a short narrative about an old suitor unsuccessfully trying to court a younger woman (38). Then come pieces that sound a little more like the Roman Latin smut we’d expect from a Petronius or an Apuleius. Ausonius tosses in a riddle involving an all-male threesome, the puzzle of which is to figure out who penetrated whom (59). A story involving Pythagoras involves the ancient sage – who allegedly believed in reincarnation – proclaiming that a man who sodomized boys would be reincarnated as a dung beetle (77). Ausonius mocks a man for shaving off all of his pubic hair, insinuating that he will attract very strange sexual partners by doing so (93). Elsewhere, a portrait of a lewd woman indicates that she enjoyed all possible forms of pleasure and stimulation once her undergarments came off (79). And after a brief description of how the deity Castor enjoyed performing oral sex on his wife (78), Ausonius lets loose in a connected series of six poems (82-7) on a lusty man named Eunus, who evidently favored the same practice. A series of puns involving the Greek letters Psi, Delta, and Lambda parallel the labi and clitoris – and in the poem – and I don’t quite know how else to say this, Ausonius mocks Eunus for using his tongue, rather than his penis to pleasure women – in the pun we learn that Eunus got confused by the other letters. Eunus should have focused on the letter Iota – the same as our capital I, a symbol in the poem for the penis, rather than Delta and Psi, associated with the clitoris. An aversion to giving oral sex as something that defiled one’s mouth, regardless of gender, seems to have been common in antiquity, and so in the sequence of poems Ausonius is assuming that oral sex is a taboo and gross practice.

So that was a general summary of the 111 poems in Ausonius’ epigrams, which, as you’ve seen, vary widely in tone and content. While that detailed account of the smuttier parts of the collection will probably be a bit much for some listeners, I included the details to emphasize that throughout the late fourth century and long after, Latin poetry still had plenty of spice. So, we’ve seen the romantic Ausonius, celebrating the beauties of a European river. We’ve seen the decadent Ausonius, praising artistic constructs over the raw materials of nature. And we’ve just seen a third Ausonius – the profane Latin poet, slinging libel onto the page and mocking people, in obscene detail, for their unconventional sexual appetites. Let’s move on, now, and look at another body of Ausonius’ poems. [music]

Ausonius’ Autobiographical Works

Thus far in this episode, we’ve covered two of Ausonius’ most famous pieces – the “Moselle” and his Epigrams. These two poems, as we’ve seen, give us an idea of the poet’s range – he could write reverently of natural wonders, and he could sling aspersions with the very best of his Latin predecessors. While the poems we’ve covered so far offer us a sense of Ausonius’ poetry, they don’t especially give us much information about the poet himself – who he was, and what kind of a life he led. To learn a bit more about this later Latin poet – his outlook, vocation, and daily life, let’s look at some more of his work.

Ausonius left behind part of a collection called the Ephemeris. This collection chronicles the daily life of the poet, though only the morning and late evening parts survive, and it gives us a sense of an industrious, socially engaged writer running a household as well as keeping up with his literary and social duties. Ausonius begins the collection by telling his servant to arise and not be such a lazybones – to bring him water and slippers. After morning prayers and miscellaneous other daily chores, Ausonius works to get lunch ready – five guests are coming, after all, and the cook needs to make the meal while the house’s errand boy and servant dash around the neighborhood and alerts the guests that it’s time to eat. Once the day winds down (and by the way a large section of the manuscript is missing), Ausonius has a young man take down his thoughts. This amanuensis is remarkably talented – he seems almost to be able to take the poet’s thoughts down before the even occur to him – but before he expounds too lengthily on the subject, Ausonius turns in for the night.

While the Ephemeris collection gives a loose outline of the poet’s daily life, the considerably longer Commemoratio professorum, translated in a recent edition as The Professors of Bordeaux, offers a glimpse of Ausonius’ professional environment. This collection is a set of seventeen or so elegies to academics and teachers Ausonius knew and worked with over the course of his career. While the poet’s Epigrams, which we looked at a moment ago, could certainly be harsh and vulgar in its assessment of its subjects, Ausonius’ elegies of his fellow academics in the Gallic provinces are, generally, gentle and forgiving.

Ausonius compares some of his professional colleagues to famous orators and rhetoricians of legend (1,13). Some of the brightest intellectuals he eulogizes died young, and he laments their early passings (3, 6). As for others, he either barely knew them because he was so much younger than them, or cherished the short time he had with them (4,15). Ausonius writes that some of his Gallic colleagues weren’t exactly unimpeachable in their intellect or their conduct, but that they were overall still good people he was glad to know (9, 17, 23). Ausonius tries not to let personal bias get in the way of leaving behind decent records of scholars he’s commemorating – for instance the poet writes that his own nephew, while showing promise, didn’t pan out as a very steady scholar (11). In contrast, Ausonius tells us that his rival for a scholarly chair in Toulouse deserved the position and was both wealthy and honored at the time of his passing (17). Just to give you a sense of how these short elegies sound, let me read you nine lines from Ausonius’ tribute to his colleague Nepotianus, a grammarian and rhetorician like Ausonius himself was trained to be. Ausonius describes his colleague, in the Routledge Deborah Warren translation, as
Old with a young heart, witty, kind, whose mind,
dipped in much honey with no gall,
imparted nothing bitter in your whole life,
Nepotianus, comfort to my heart,
partaking as much in games as serious work. . .
honest and modest, moderate, thrifty, abstemious,
eloquent, in style yielding place to no orator. . .
No one gave counsel with so pure a heart
or hid confidences with deeper secrecy. (Prof 15.1-5,8-9,15-6)
It’s quite a nice tribute, and really, pretty representative of the sixteen other pieces in the collection. Anyone who’s logged time in academia can understand a general theme in Ausonius’ Commemoratio professorum – that even though he doesn’t agree with every faculty member he meets, he overall respects them as part of a shared professional society. While Ausonius is sometimes a bit reserved in his remarks toward this or that professor or teacher he mentions, he never lets loose the kind of harsh Roman slander that he shows himself capable of elsewhere in his poetry. Ausonius’ collection The Professors of Bordeaux, then, offers a portrait of the poet’s career – a career in which protocol and professionalism smoothed over the occasional personal differences.

In addition to his collection of tribute pieces written to the scholars and instructors of his hometown, Ausonius left some other work behind that offers snapshots into his life. Ausonius’ short collection of love poems, On Bissula, is addressed to his friend Paulus. Its subject is a slave girl whom Ausonius was given. Bissula was part of the Alemanni tribe, a barbarian population seated in the southern part of modern day Germany around Munich and Augsburg and up against the northern foothills of the central Alps. Between 365 and 375, the emperors Valentinian and Gratian – Ausonius’ patrons, were fighting this group due to its westward pushes over the Rhine and into the Gallic provinces. At some point, perhaps a retaliatory campaign in 368, Valentinian I, his son Gratian – still a young child at that point, and Ausonius himself marched troops east of the Rhine, the campaign culminating in a large battle in the western portion of the Alemanni’s home territory.12 The Romans won. A temporary peace was brokered, but when Alemanni began attacking new Roman fortifications east of the Rhine, and the war continued for some time. While 368 didn’t mark the end of the war with the Alemanni, then, a population of slaves from barbarian territories were captured and disseminated among the greater empire. One of these was Bissula, likely a young woman at the time, whom Valentinian I gave to the 55 or 60 year old Ausonius as a gift.

Ausonius, if his poetry is any indication, didn’t simply see Bissula as hired labor. She became the object of the poet’s lust, and perhaps, his love and affection as well. The sequence of poems he wrote for the barbarian girl depicts her as proud, exotic and magnificent, her phenotype defying Roman standards of beauty. Let’s look at Ausonius’ sequence On Bissula for a moment – while its depiction of a slaveowner’s lust for his slave girl is not appealing, it’s still interesting from a historical perspective, in that the poems capture a cultured Roman’s perspective on a person from the unknown inland territories of Europe.

The collection, addressing Ausonius’ friend Paulus in its opening two sentences, describes itself as an inconsequential bundle of poems, sent only by request. Ausonius writes that the poems were done to pass the time in idleness, and their subject is a certain girl from the south-central part of modern-day Germany. He recommends having a few drinks before reading the collection, and then begins, offering information about Bissula’s biography.

Bissula, Ausonius writes, is from the chilly territories east of the Rhine, such that the slave girl knew the source of the Danube. Ausonius depicts her as “a captive slave, but freed, she dominates – / the delight of him whose war-booty she was. . .she’s changed by Roman comforts only so far / that she remains German in face, blue eyes, gold hair” (III.3-4,8-9). Ausonius lavishes praises On Bissula, calling her his “love, delight, desire, pleasure” (IV.1), but also emphasizing that he is her master (IV.5) as well as her lover. Her looks, according to Ausonius, were such that they could not be delineated using normal Roman techniques with wax or paint – new materials would have to be found in order to portray her – materials that could encompass a wider array of colors. Whatever the exact relationship between Ausonius and his young slave girl actually was, the sequence On Bissula shows a speaker thoroughly taken with a beautiful young addressee.

So, thus far in our look at Ausonius’ poems, we’ve seen his famous “Moselle,” which lovingly describes a river in all of its minute beauties. We’ve taken a look at his diverse Epigrams, which range from the ideologically inquisitive to the filthy and slanderous. And just now, we’ve dipped a bit more into his autobiographical pieces – the Ephemeris, a sequence about the poet’s daily life; the Professors of Bordeaux, a collection dedicated to Ausonius’ academic colleagues; and the series On Bissula, written about his infatuation with a recently acquired slave girl. What we’ve read from Ausonius up to this point has had some genuinely beautiful and clever moments, from gentle water grass billowing in sandy riverbeds to tender elegies to long lost coworkers; from perceptive statements about art and reality to moralizing epigrams on how to live and be a good person. What we’ve seen so far, in short, has been the vigorous continuation of various Latin literary traditions that appear on the historical record in the last generation of the Roman Republic – roughly 400 years prior to Ausonius. Ausonius, then, worked to master and perpetuate the inveterate forms of Latin poetry – the epigram, the autobiographical lyric, the elegy, and so on. And while he certainly had roots in the ancient literary past, some aspects of Ausonius’ writings are colored by the cultural forces of the fourth century. [music]

Ausonius’ Panegyrics

Part of the climate that produced Ausonius’ poetry was the court culture surrounding emperors after Diocletian. Various emperors leading up to the fourth century – Domitian, for instance, and Severus and Caracalla, had abandoned any semblance of congeniality with the Senate and they ruled, pure and simple, as military dictators. Others, among them Nero, Commodus, and Elagabalus, had dismissed conventional Roman values and expected worshipful approval of everything they said and did, no matter how malevolent, selfish, or taboo. But the fourth century brought with it a general turn, in ceremony and courtly customs, toward the extreme veneration of Roman emperors, and soon, a whole new style of offering praises to the imperial family. Let’s look at two different panegyrics – or praise pieces – that Ausonius wrote for the Emperor Gratian. The first is a piece of gratitude in which Ausonius thanks Gratian for appointing him to a consulship. Here it is, in the Hugh Evelyn White translation:
Is there any place, I say, which does not thrill and fire me with a sense of your bounty? There is no place, I say, Most Gracious Emperor, but stamps my consciousness with the wondrous image of your most worshipful majesty; not the Court, which was so formidable when you succeeded, and which you have made so agreeable; not the forum and basilicas, which once reechoed with legal business, but now with the taking of vows for your well-being – for under your rule who is there whose property is not secure? – ; not the Senate-house, [how] happy in that business of passing resolutions in your honour as formerly gloomy and troubled with complaints; not the public highways where the sight of so many joyous faces suffers no one to be alone in showing delight; not the universal privacy of the home. The very bed, destined for our repose, is made more restful as we reflect upon your benefits: slumber, which blots out everything, nevertheless presents your picture to our gaze.13
Ausonius, in this praise piece, does not mince his words. The overall emphasis is that Gratian improved all aspects of Roman life, from public buildings to the Senate house itself to public roadways, to such an extent that the poet found himself thinking about Gratian even in bed, the emperor having even made sleep itself safer and more cherished. Obviously, Ausonius is laying it on thick, in ways that we’ve seen Horace and Virgil and Ovid applauding Augustus. Effusive praises were simply part of the patronage system – our irreverent age cringes at these kinds of poetic tributes, but such tributes were part of how ancient artists paid their bills.

The panegyric we heard above is certainly a gushing, extravagant one, and a useful example of how Roman emperors of the fourth century seem to have expected ever more lavish ceremonies and speechifying from those around them.14 But a different panegyric that Ausonius wrote is a much more specific marker of the later fourth century that produced it. The subject of this second praise poem isn’t just Gratian alone – but instead Gratian, his father Valentinian, and his brother Valentinian II – Ausonius, in about 375, described these three emperors as:
Object of our faith, Three, yet One in source, sure hope of our salvation! Grant pardon and bestow on me the gift of life for which I yearn, if I embrace this diversity of Persons united in their powers. . .Even on this earth below we behold an image of this mystery, where is the Emperor, the father, begetter of twin Emperors, who in his sacred majesty embraces his brother and his son, sharing one realm with them, yet not dividing it, alone holding all though he has all distributed. These, then, we pray, who, though three, flourish as one in natural ties, these mild rulers of the earth and instruments of Heaven, claim them for thine own in presence of thine eternal Father, O Christ most merciful. (Per 2.24)15
Now that particular praise poem, unlike the previous one, would not be found in a Roman court prior to the fourth century. It is not only a Christian poem, but a Nicene Christian poem, its explicit trinitarianism in line with the newly minted Nicene Creed, in which Arian doctrines – which denied the divinity of Christ – had been rejected back in 325. And Ausonius’ distinctly Christian praise poem to Gratian takes us to one of the major issues surrounding the poet. Was Ausonius a Christian? Did he know enough to pass as one in imperial circles, but otherwise go about his old pagan ways? Or was it something in between?

The answer to these questions, as we’ll see, is that Ausonius seems to have been perfectly comfortable in both worlds – to perhaps have some genuine Christian convictions, but at the same time, to overall feel more fluent and comfortable in the older and more pluralistic world of Roman polytheism. So, now that we have a sense of Ausonius’ identity, and the general oeuvre of works he left behind, let’s get more specific. Let’s delve into his works and try to get a sense of his religious outlook – in a word, how the educated old Gallic polytheist reconciled his academic training with the teenage emperors, power mongering bishops, and novel religious creeds he found pervading the Roman capital when he arrived there in the 360s. [music]

The Nuptial Cento

At some point in the 360s or 370s, Ausonius wrote a poem called the Nuptial Cento. You probably know that nuptial means “related to weddings,” but “cento” is a less familiar word. A “cento” is a literary work made up purely of quotations from other works, like a patchwork quilt Ausonius’ Nuptial Cento was evidently a submission to a contest – a submission that Valentinian I had asked Ausonius to undertake. It was a tricky affair, because Valentinian himself had entered into the contest, and so Ausonius couldn’t really win straight out, nor, for his own reputation as a poet, lose to a non-professional. His compromise, as we’ll see in a moment, resulted in an unconventional, graphic, disturbing wedding poem. First of all, Ausonius’ poem fittingly begins with eleven lines of praise to the Valentinian dynasty’s military prowess before launching into its central subject – the wedding celebration.

Aeneas and Turnus

Luca Giordano’s Aeneas and Turnus (17th century). Ausonius’ Nuptial Cento cobbles together lines from battle scenes in the Aeneid to tell a memorably grotesque story about a wedding night.

The wedding celebration begins, in Ausonius’ poem, inoffensively enough – with a feast, after which there was wine and music. Once the party was quite well underway, the bride emerged, fitly clad in wedding finery all embroidered with gold threads, admired by everyone in the assembly. From the opposite side of the room came the groom, fresh-faced as the morning star rising from the ocean. Little boys approached and brought gifts to the bride and groom, including eight young slaves, and then three more – a girl with twin babies. With the gifts given, the married couple were then taken to the threshold of their bedchamber, where a sacred wedding song was sung.

When the young couple went to bed together afterward, the groom was eager to consummate the marriage, but the bride not so much, and a sex scene follows. I should say – something that might charitably be called a sex scene follows. In a long sequence of lines that very often doesn’t get translated at all, Ausonius depicts sex between bride and groom as a sickening, monstrous, violent process.16 The idea behind the sex scene is a general “love is war” theme. And in Latin, in Ausonius’ generation, the most famous poetic war story was Virgil’s Aeneid. What the heart of Ausonius’ wedding poem is, then, is a disgusting, graphic sex scene in which various components of sexual intercourse are described with no fewer than 34 allusions to gory parts of the Aeneid.17 The act of intercourse is depicted as a spear tossed into a wound, with the bride dying and trying to rise up three different times, as the groom grimly thrusts away. The groom’s penis is depicted as a hideous, giant monster; the bride’s vagina is depicted as a stinking crevice. At the end of the encounter, Ausonius writes, in lines that I’ve had to have help translating because Latinists have been indisposed to do so, that “bride and groom wearily finished, soaked with sweat, gasping with bad breath and thirsty, and colorless slime dripped from her crotch.”18 Gross and unconventional as this sex scene is, even its final lines are woven with dutiful allusions to Virgil. And Ausonius certainly realizes that he’s written something rather foul, because after the grotesque, martial sex scene, Ausonius treats his reader to an exceedingly pedantic conclusion in which fourteen allusions are scattered across just a few sentences so as to prove that reputable authors of antiquity since Plato have freely dealt with adult themes, and so it’s okay for him to, as well.

Out of context, we might read Ausonius’ famous Nuptial Cento as little more than a later Latin poet throwing his hat into the grossness contest that had been going on since at least the time of Catullus over 400 years prior. But considering the composition date of Ausonius’ poem, its graphic, and almost sinister depiction of sexual intercourse can also be read as a budding Christian’s contribution to Latin love poetry. This is, at first glance, a strange thing to think about. The love elegists Ausonius knew – Ovid and Propertius, wrote about male sexual conquests with gusto. Horace mentioned love affairs gone awry with little self consciousness, and Catullus gleefully chronicled having sex with males and females alike. In contrast, Pauline theology (1 Thess 4.3-5, 1 Cor 6:18, 1 Cor 7.38) recommended chastity for spiritual wellness, and more generally Christians of Ausonius’ generation, including ones we have met in our show thus far, were headed in the exact opposite direction. Ausonius’ Nuptial Cento, then, with its depiction of a bride’s loss of virginity as a violent, mutually defiling process, might be a very rare example of a later Latin poet stretched between two worlds. The traditional wedding poem was an invitation for a poet to celebrate the earthly union of a pair of lovers and to define them as children who will soon become parents themselves. Perhaps, though, as an incipient Christian – or at least a man writing poems that a Christian emperor would read – a part of Ausonius couldn’t quite write nuptial poetry in this old tradition, and instead chose to depict sex as animalistic at best, and at worst, violent and putrid.

It’s hard to pin down the poet’s religious sensibilities from the Nuptial Cento alone. But a second poem, similar to the notoriously gross Nuptial Cento, also seems poised between a traditional Roman theology and the newer ideology of Christianity. This second poem is called Cupid Crucified. Consider that title for a moment – Cupid Crucified – and now, let’s learn about the poem. [music]

Cupid Crucified

At some point, during his time in the city that’s now called Trier, Ausonius saw a painting in someone’s dining room. It was a painting of Cupid being crucified by vengeful lovers, and the wall art inspired Ausonius to write about it. The scene of Ausonious’ poem is a place described in Virgil’s Aeneid – a lightless grove of trees in the underworld where lakes and streams ran with dark, soundless water. The grove was full of women – heroines from famous Mediterranean myths and poems who had been done wrong by their lovers – women like Semele, whom Zeus had raped and burned alive; Hero, who’d lost her lover Leander when he drowned, and Phaedra, who’d loved her stepson Hippolytus. Thisbe was there, who’d lost her lover Pyramus, Ariadne, who’d lost Theseus; and the great Dido, who had loved and lost Aeneas, and many more.

These lovelorn women held two things in common – their distraught cries for lost lovers, and their scorn for the deity Cupid. Cupid, in fact, at that moment, had made the mistake of trespassing into the dark wood where forlorn lovers were kept in the underworld, and just as the god realized his wings didn’t work in Hades, he was seized by embittered prisoners there. With no trial or defense, Cupid was brought to a myrtle and chained to the tree. Ausonius writes that Cupid was
Hanged on its high branch,
chained, hands behind his back, feet bound,
they grant the weeping Cupid no lesser sentence.
Love, accused, is condemned with no trial or judge.
Each, eager to absolve herself of blame,
shifts her own guilt into another’s crime.
All, blaming him, argue the indications
for his justifiable killing. (59-66)
The lovelorn dread confronted the god of love with a wide array of weapons and implements of punishment. They pricked Cupid’s skin with prods, and he bled. When his mother Venus arrived, rather than rescuing her son, she fell in with those attacking him, smashing him with her wreath of roses and causing more of his blood to spill.

Before the violence could claim Cupid’s life, however, his assailants withdrew their attacks, and Venus did, too. The slighted lovers blamed their heartbreaks and their solitude on fate, rather than the god who had almost been their victim, and we learn, in the poem’s closing lines, that it was just a dream – a nightmare from which Cupid later awoke.

So that’s Ausonius’ poem Cupid Crucified. As with the previous poem – the Nuptial Cento, it’s certainly not an explicitly Christian piece. Like so many classical poets, Ausonius cavorts through his lines with a catalog of pedantic allusions, but they are allusions to prior Greek and Latin authors – Ovid, Virgil, Euripides, Aeschylus, and so on. They are not, certainly, allusions to, say, Genesis or the Book of Samuel. But still, the main theme of a poem – a divine sacrifice via crucifixion for the expiation of sins – does have a discernibly Christian bent. Cupid is no villain in the poem, but instead vulnerable, and while he is frequently the most irritating figure in classical mythology, one does feel a little bad for him as his assailants prepare to torture him to death.

Ausonius’ two poems the Nuptial Cento and Cupid Crucified, then, show a well-bred Roman author who had perhaps absorbed enough Christian ideas that these ideas had altered the way he was thinking about the Ancient Mediterranean literature that had come before him. The carnal enjoyments of a new marriage could not be celebrated with such brazen delight with fourth-century Christianity’s popular texts on asceticism and chastity being all the rage. Violence inflicted against deities, while Homer and Ovid had depicted it unsparingly, wasn’t quite so amusing as it once had been, following the tragic Gospel narratives. But in considering the Nuptial Cento and Cupid Crucified, we’re really ignoring the obvious place to look if we want to learn about Ausonius’ Christianity, and this is a correspondence between the poet and one of his students. That student in question was Paulinus of Nola, another native of Bordeaux, about a generation younger than Ausonius. Let’s consider this correspondence – letters exchanged sometime in the 380s or even early 390s, in which Ausonius, an old professor from Bordeaux, tried to keep up with his onetime pupil. [music]

Ausonius’ Correspondence with Paulinus of Nola

Linzer Dom - Fenster - Paulinus von Nola

A window featuring Paulinus of Nola in Linz (Northern Austria). Ausonius kept up a correspondence with his former pupil Paulinus later in life, though the letters reveal Paulinus’ disdain for his old instructor’s lack of Christian zeal. Photo by Wolfgang Sauber.

Paulinus of Nola, or Saint Paulinus of Nola was once again a generation younger than Ausonius, and is another major Latin poet of the later Roman Empire. Born in the 350s, Paulinus had a smooth career up until the early 380s, ascending to the position of consul. When the Emperor Gratian was murdered in the midst of a rebellion in 383, Paulinus’ career changed course, and he converted to Christianity, thereafter becoming a bishop in the Diocese of Nola, near Naples, after living in modern day Spain for a while with his wife. Our main subject from the previous show, Saint Martin of Tours, was allegedly instrumental in Paulinus’ conversion – a turning point in the younger man’s life after his pagan education and career up to that point. Ausonius, once again, had been Paulinus’ teacher in Bourdeaux, and the later correspondence with the old poet and the zealous young Christian convert shows two generations of Latin writers keeping in touch over the course of the sweeping changes taking place in the Western Empire. Paulinus was an important victory for his generation’s proselytizers. Lavishly wealthy, and known for donations to prominent dioceses, Paulinus of Nola was likely one of the intended targets of Saint Augustine’s Confessions, as Paulinus was in touch with one of Augustine’s North African friends.19 By the year 400, then, Paulinus of Nola had positioned himself as a benefactor of Christian institutions and theologians, and as we read his correspondence with Ausonius, we can gathers that the Christian convert considered his unconverted teacher to be the relic of a past age.

The first letter in the correspondence shows Ausonius deferring to his younger contemporary’s fame – Paulinus evidently enjoyed special esteem in Rome. Ausonius writes that though he’s older, Paulinus nonetheless surpasses him in notoriety. Ausonius later thanks his fellow poet for gifts and sends back a clever poem of praise. As the correspondence lengthens, however, it becomes clear that an emotional distance grew between the two writers. Ausonius accuses Paulinus of abandoning his “friends without a cause, deserting [your] town and, perchance, the native fashion of [your] dress and speech, [you] who now dwell. . .among new friends, whom the extent of a wide province parts from me.”20 Paulinus, we learn, has gone to Spain, following his conversion to Christianity, and in the midst of their correspondence, Ausonius writes a distinctly Christian appeal to his fellow poet and one-time pupil.
But why weave I such sad refrain in mournful verse, why does my heart not turn to nobler prayers? Far be that fear! Sure is my confidence that, if the Father and the Son of God accept the reverent words of those who seek, [you can] be restored at my prayer, that I may weep not for a home scattered and ravaged, for the realm rent in pieces between a hundred owners, once Paulinus’s.21
This appeal, also, received no reply, and Ausonius urged his acquaintance to get back to him – even if he had to do it by cipher or disappearing ink. Ausonius wrote another letter – this one chastising Paulinus for not replying to him. In Ausonius’ ardent request for at least some sort of a reply, he emphasizes that of all the things out there in nature, his friend Paulinus is the most silent of all, and supports his claim with a pedantic catalog of all the things out there in the world that have been making noise while his friend, by contrast, has been silent. Ausonius writes to Paulinus,
Even rocks make answer to mankind and speech beating back from caves returns, returns too the vocal mimicry of the woods; cliffs by the sea-shore cry out, streams utter their murmurs, the hedges, whereon bees of Hybla feed, are ever whispering. Reed-grown banks also have their tuneful [memories], and the pine’s foliage in trembling accents talks with its beloved winds. So oft as the light eastern breeze leans on the shrill-voiced leaves, strains of Dindymus respond to the grove of Gargara. Nature made nothing dumb. Birds of the air and four-footed beasts are not mute, even the serpent has its own hissing note, and the herds of the deep sigh with faint semblance of a voice. Cymbals give loud at a clash, stages at beat of bounding feet, the taught skins of hollow drums give back a booming; Mareotic sistra raise rattling din in Isis’ honour nor does Dodona’s brazen tinkling cease as oft as the lavers at the clappers’ measured stroke obediently reply with rhythmic beat.22
This passage has allusions to Virgil’s Eclogues, and next, a city in western Anatolia where noisy rites to the goddess Cybele were held, then a lake near Alexandria, Egypt, and then a sacred oak grove on the Greek mainland, as though Ausonius is trying to squeeze all sides of the Mediterranean into a single plea for a response. Eventually, it seems, the response from Paulinus came. In his reply, Ausonius’ friend Paulinus said that though he’d been quiet, his devotion to Ausonius was unbroken. With a dearth of the sorts of poetic allusions Ausonius sprays all over his poetry, Paulinus simply says, “[M]y household has honoured and honours thee, and in love for thee we are as agreed together as our hearts are linked together in worship of Christ.”23 He says he’ll always be in fellowship with Ausonius, adding that when they die, their God will unite their souls in the afterlife.

Paulinus didn’t end his correspondence with his teacher Ausonius with this assurance, but continued to write back to him. And in Paulinus’ responses back, we notice that the younger Latin poet had become a much firmer and more exclusive Christian than his teacher, if Ausonius had any Christianity in him at all. While Ausonius’ style, like that of so many predecessors in Latin lyric poetry, is thickly embroidered with allusions, his student Paulinus seems to have increasingly abandoned literary name dropping in favor of a simpler style. In another reply back to Ausonius, we may learn why this is. Young Paulinus, explaining his change in style, tells Ausonius,
Hearts consecrate[d] to Christ give refusal to [Rome’s goddesses], are closed to Apollo. Once there was this accord [between you and I], equals in zeal but not in power – to call forth deaf Apollo from his Delphic cave, to invoke the Muses as divine, to seek from groves or hills the gift of utterance by the god’s gift bestowed. Now ’tis another force governs my heart, a greater God, who demands another mode of life, claiming for himself from man the gift he gave, that we may live for the Father of life. To spend time on empty things, whether in pastime or pursuit, and on literature full of idle tales, he forbids.24
These words begin a long letter from Paulinus that swears off pagan literature and learning for the sake of the religion to which Paulinus had converted. We don’t know exactly how Ausonius responded to his former pupil’s evangelical zeal, but Ausonius seems not to have been entirely happy about it. The next letter in the correspondence is once again from the student, rather than the teacher, and in it, Paulinus says he’s not coming back to Bordeaux – especially since Ausonius is still praying to the old Roman gods and still invoking the muses – all beings that are just made up. Paulinus tells his old teacher to pray to Christ if Ausonius wants him to return, and Paulinus says he’s not the same person he once was – his whole nature has changed, and he has a new mind altogether – one that’s come from the Christian God. Paulinus writes that his new religion makes him incapable of doubting it, and, while certainly confident about his faith, he spends several pages justifying his Christianity to Ausonius.

As it stands, the correspondence between Ausonius and his student Paulinus of Nola is somewhat of a sad one to read in its entirety. From elsewhere in Ausonius’ corpus of works, we know that he took Christianity seriously. At one point, Ausonius resolved, “I must pray to God and the son / of the highest God, his majesty / divine united, of one substance, / with the holy spirit” (Eph 2.10-16).25 Elsewhere Ausonius praised the Christian God, saying of this deity that “[You] bestow upon mankind the gentle warnings of the Law together with the holy Prophets” (Per 2.6).26 But Ausonius’ Christianity, unlike Paulinus of Nola’s, was more of a part time affair. Scholar Hugh Evelyn-White, on the subject of Ausonius’ religious beliefs, writes “Conventional by nature, [Ausonius] accepted Christianity as the established religion, becoming a half-believer in his casual creed: it is not in the least likely that he ever set himself to realize either Christianity or Paganism.”27 Lacking, then, Paulinus’ newfound zeal, but at the same time finding Christianity perfectly interoperable with the Roman Empire’s many religions, Ausonius may simply have not been a very religious person.

If there is a unifying quality in his multifarious body of surviving works, we might say that it is simply a love for details, and for particulars. From Catullus onward, Latin poetry displayed a passion for allusions – allusions which allowed writers to demonstrate how learned they were while also showing respect for the manifold literary and intellectual traditions that came before them. Catullus’ famous longer poems, Virgil’s Georgics, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Statius’ Thebaid – these milestones of earlier Latin literature are tapestries of new poetry woven with threads of the past – works neither antique nor contemporary, but written in the slow time of literature’s gradual evolution beneath the pens of countless writers and technicians. Ausonius, like John Milton and T.S. Eliot later would, took an academic path into literature, and his fluency in the works that had come before him should come as no surprise. But Ausonius’ affection for details ranges beyond the literary ones. In the 380s, when Paulinus of Nola was in his 40s, hurling himself headlong into Nicene Christianity, Ausonius was in his 70s – after the death of Gratian, at least, a retiring provincial gentleman content to rest on his laurels. At this point, Ausonius wrote of his estate,
I keep in tillage two hundred acres: a hundred more are grown with vines, and half as much is pasture. My woodland is more than twice as much as my pasture, vineyard and tilth together: of husbandmen I have neither too many nor too few. A spring is near my house and a small well, besides the unsullied river, which on its tides bears me by boat from home and back again. I have always fruits in store. . .This my estate lies not far from the town, nor yet hard by the town, to rid me of its crowds while reaping its advantages. And so, whenever satiety moves me to change my seat, I pass from one to the other, and enjoy country and town by turns. (Per 1.17-29)28
The details here are expansive – woods and vineyards, a spring and little well, a boat and a personal waterway, and a home neither urban nor rural. Ausonius, then, writing to Paulinus of Nola while the older poet was in his mid-70s, was perhaps not only ambivalent about Christianity. Ausonius was simply at a different moment of his life – an old imperial aristocrat, reposing at the end of his career and relishing the small beauties of his country estate, while young Paulinus, armored in his newfound religious convictions, went off to try and eliminate poverty and convert the entire world to Nicene Christianity. While the two had clearly enjoyed a friendship in Bordeaux when Ausonius was a professor there, over the 380s and 390s, they seem to have had increasingly less and less to talk about.

Indeed, young Paulinus of Nola found kinship in a younger generation – in Saint Ambrose, the bishop of Milan who became his teacher there in the 380s. Paulinus, finding his old Gallic professor Ausonius outmoded, kept up enthusiastic correspondences with Jerome and Augustine, who were roughly his same age. In the years between the passage of the Edict of Thessalonica in 380 and the death of Augustine in 430, with the coming of the Latin church doctors Ambrose, Jerome and Augustine, Christianity as we now know it finally emerged out of the competing sectarian energies that had characterized the religion’s first few centuries. Ausonius himself, a little bit too old, too content, and too steeped in Greco-Roman traditions to hurl himself into the new order of Nicene Christianity, died in the 390s, having lived a long life that allowed him to witness the most consequential change in Roman life that had taken place since the fall of the Republic four centuries prior. [music]

The Altar of Victory and End of the Fourth Century

The historian Edward Gibbon, considering Ausonius’ positive reputation in antiquity, witheringly concluded that “The poetical fame of Ausonius condemns the taste of his age.”29 It is a severe criticism – of not just a person, but an entire historical period. In Gibbon’s narrative of decline and fall, there was little room for the various rich gradients that lay between a hardy pagan republic and what Gibbon perceived to be a decadent late Christian Empire. And Gibbon’s assessment may have had long term consequences. Today, those of us who are interested in reading Ausonius in English have one modern translation – the Routledge Deborah Warren translation I’ve quoted from occasionally in this program, and a more comprehensive double volume edition published in 1919 and 1921 – one that, as was commonly done in turn-of-the-century publications of ancient Latin poetry, leaves the naughty bits untranslated. And even the editor behind this comprehensive older edition – Hugh Evelyn White – is iffy about Ausonius, telling us upfront that “As poetry, in any high or imaginative sense of the word, the great mass of his [work] is negligible,” a statement not quite as harsh as Edward Gibbon’s, but one bent on making it clear that Ausonius was no Virgil or Ovid, just as Gratian’s Rome was not Augustus’.30

Virgil Reading the Aeneid

Jean-Baptiste Wicar’s Virgil Reading the Aeneid to Augustus (1790-3). It has been common in Classics as a discipline to dismiss later Latin poets as mediocre lackeys to shortlived emperors, and instead to heap praises on the Augustan Age.

Today, it’s out of fashion to claim that this author’s work is timelessly brilliant, while that other author’s work is competent, but mediocre. Literary criticism has replaced the loosely defined aesthetic merits of works with other criteria, the result being that our discipline is no longer a churchlike reverence for the artistry of ageless masters, but instead a multi-pronged investigation into all sorts of parameters of the literary past, artistry by all means still included. While revisionist approaches certainly encourage fairer and more extensive treatment of obscurer writers like Ausonius, they also encourage fairer and more extensive treatment of canonically central authors. Virgil, after all, wrote some pretty bad slush in the Georgics, just as Ovid indulges in a few too many nesting doll story structures in the Metamorphoses, just as Shakespeare, as would any writer as prolific as he was, left behind some duds. If you’re listening to a long podcast episode on Decimus Magnus Ausonius, I suspect none of this is news to you, but the point is that Ausonius’ poetry, regardless of how it matches up to the writers who came before him, still gives us a broad, colorful window into Rome’s fourth century.

Knowing just the sparse historical outlines of fourth-century European history, it’s easy to understand that this was a century both Christian and pagan – a century with the progressive evangelical zeal of Saint Ambrose, and the conservative polytheist traditionalism of the Emperor Julian the Apostate. The ambitious power players of this culture war, an educated elite with vested interests in one side or the other, engaged in high profile scuffles while the theologically indifferent lived out their lives. Ausonius, if his poetry is any indication, seems to have been one of the latter. The Gallic poet would have only heard from a distance about Ambrose, patriarch of the Roman capital of Milan, chastening the Emperor Theodosius in 390 for the Massacre of Thessalonica. But Ausonius was a part of the Valentinian court during one of the most famous controversies of the fourth century – a controversy with which we can close out today’s show.

There was a famous statue in the Roman senate house – the senate house in the city of Rome, and not the newer capital of Milan. This was the Altar of Victory, a statue that had been in the city of Rome since the 200s BCE. A sculpture of a winged figure – the deity Nike, or goddess of Victory – the Altar of Victory had been initially taken during Rome’s wars with Magna Graecian colonies, a symbol of Rome’s early martial triumphs. The Altar was brought into the Senate House by Augustus after the Battle of Actium, at once a symbol of Augustus’ victory over all other contestants for the throne, and at once, paradoxically, a head nod to the city’s republican past. The Altar of Victory remained in the senate for nearly 400 years, a mainstay of what Roman power brokers saw when they came and went from the legislature. Roman historians, among them Suetonius and Herodian, record a custom of senators making offerings of incense and wine upon entering the senate chamber, in deference to a sculpture that had been a part of Rome’s republic and its empire, and that symbolized its long, diverse, victorious history.


An Augustan Age coin thought to depict the Senate House’s Altar of Victory, which disappeared from history during the late fourth century.

In the mid-fourth century, as powerful churchmen allied their interests with those of Roman emperors, the age old Altar of Victory became a flashpoint of a generation’s culture wars. First, Constantine the Great’s middle son, Constantius II, the only of the three boys to live past the age of 30, set his crosshairs on the statue. Constantius II, over the course of his career, due to some combination of personal conviction and pressure from Christian church officials, was drawn to legislation that favored Christianity in various ways. And Constantius II removed the Altar of Victory from the senate house in 357 CE. It was the first time in 386 years that the statue had left the building. Several years later, though, during the reign of Julian the Apostate in the early 360s, the altar was carted back into the senate house, marking Julian’s attempt to return the empire to its pre-Christian norms. There it stayed through nearly two bumpy decades of the Valentinian dynasty, until Ausonius’ pupil Gratian, in 382, ordered it removed once more. The Edict of Thessalonica had passed, after all, and Pope Damasus, along with Ambrose, the increasingly forceful bishop of Milan, were looking favorably on Gratian’s various closures of pagan temples and confiscations of the property and money of those who practiced other religions.

Gratian was assassinated in the summer of 383. The next year, the praetorian prefect of Rome, a man named Quintus Aurelius Symmachus, sought once more to bring the Altar of Victory back into the senate house. Petitioning Gratian’s younger brother – this was the 13-year-old Emperor Valentinian II – the prefect Symmachus asked if the altar might be brought once more into the Roman senate. The senators, a hodgepodge of theologically diverse Romans perhaps like Ausonius himself, gave their approval. But the days of imperial tradition and religious pluralism were ending. Ambrose, again Bishop of Milan, in an astonishing display of ecclesiastical power, was able to override the Roman senate with a single threat to the latest boy Emperor to wear the purple. Ambrose made it clear to young Valentinian the II, in the year 384, that if the Altar of Victory were returned to the Roman senate house, “You will come to the church – and your bishop will not be there.”31

The successful intervention on Ambrose’s part surely inspired the bishop’s censure of Theodosius I just a few years later, after the Massacre of Thessalonica mentioned at the outset of this show. These two instances of ecclesiastical intervention on imperial affairs – instances which took place in the 380s and the 390s – are often recounted in histories dealing with Late Antiquity. These decades, as we’ve discussed before, were the decades that church and state fused. Goths may have sacked the city of Rome in 410, but by then, men of the cloth were already successfully manipulating the empire’s politicians and youthful caesars out in the open, and swelling church coffers as a result. And far below the lofty negotiations between ambitious bishops and one hand, and the newly minted emperors of the Constantinian, Valentinian, and Theodosian dynasties on the other, were Romans largely lost to history, like Ausonius.

We began our journey into Ausonius’ poetry with his poem the “Moselle” – that celebratory hexameter piece dedicated to a river. It is a beautiful poem from an understudied epoch of European literature, and as we heard earlier, it had a modest but sturdy influence on nature writing in poetry several centuries after Ausonius lived. The “Moselle” lingers on details we might expect a poem about a river to linger on – pebbles in sunlit water, tendrils of grass moving in the slight currents of shallow coves, foliage reflected on the stillness of the surface – the poem sounds like Wordsworth or Emerson from time to time. But a long section of the “Moselle” celebrates a catfish – a large species of bottom feeder endemic to waterways in that part of Europe, busying itself along the riverbed and sometimes leaving mysterious wakes from underneath the deeper parts of the river’s channels.

A moment ago, we heard Edward Gibbon proclaiming that “The poetical fame of Ausonius condemns the taste of his age.” Well, maybe. The Gallic professor and imperial tutor doesn’t seem to have attempted any literary works of great length or ambition. But in a way, Ausonius couldn’t have done so. Hexameter epics, for instance, were products of a bygone age, and imperial patrons, following Diocletian and Constantine I, at least, didn’t tend to live long enough to set up patronage systems that allowed gaggles of artists to gather around them. The fourth century was a time of cultural transition, with temples closing down, new religious coalitions gathering power, and storied old statues being carted out of public buildings and hidden away. Had Ausonius gone full bore into Christianity, we might have a different set of works from him, perhaps a Roman Paradise Lost or Divine Comedy – a Christian epic inflected with pagan myth and history. But Ausonius, neither Christian, nor even really pagan, but just a working professional, and he left no such thing behind. Instead, his works are perfectly evocative of his place and time – a myth of Cupid that has ties to the Gospel stories; a wedding celebration erudite in classical allusion but squeamish about celebrating sexual intercourse; a love poem to a barbarian girl whose presence Ausonius did not know heralded so many other immigrants from beyond the Rhine and Danube; a correspondence with a fervent young Christian and former protégée, whose religious ardor Ausonius did not, ultimately, share. When the game of fourth century Roman history was up, the power players all had something that Ausonius lacked. Constantine, and Julian the Apostate, and Theodosius, together with the Latin church doctors Ambrose, Jerome, and Augustine – these men shared a ferocious ambition and a desire to compel the world to conform to their image of it. Ausonius, on the other hand, appears to have been content to participate in the long game of literary history, to help his students flourish as a classroom instructor, to enjoy the fruits of various imperial posts, and later, fade into a comfortable retirement. And while Ausonius will probably never be a household name, he invites us to remember that beneath the combative kings and bishops of Late Antiquity were perhaps several centuries of people like him, neither Christian, nor pagan; neither ruthlessly ambitious, nor sluggish and complacent; formidable, yet largely powerless beneath the newly cemented dyad of church and state. [music]

Moving on to Rutilius Namatianus

In the next program, we’re going to move onto Ausonius’ younger Gallic contemporary, a poet named Rutilius Namatianus. Rutilius, who lived from about 370 until some time after 417, had front row seats for a sequence of events that hobbled and ultimately destroyed the western Roman empire – namely, the Visigothic invasions of Italy and Gaul and the associated sack of Rome in 410, and the great migration of barbarian populations across the Rhine in 406-407 into Gaul – a migration that would prove to be permanent. While Rutilius only left behind one poem, a piece called On His Return, it’s a poem that gives us a window into an entire generation’s experience. Written after Rutilius served as the mayor of Rome while Rome was picking itself back up after being sacked, On His Return chronicles the poet’s journey up the northwestern Italian coast toward Gaul in the autumn of 417. What makes the poem especially memorable is that Rutilius is unclear as to whether or not he has any home to return to, as, in a blinding sequence of events that took place in just a decade and a half, Italy and the Gallic provinces had been nearly overrun. So next time, we’ll talk about these events, studying Rutilius’ life alongside that of his near contemporary Alaric the Visigoth, and we’ll learn about the great invasions that nearly ended the western empire in the opening decade of the 400s, and one poet’s reaction to them. Thanks for listening to Literature and History. There’s a quiz on this program in the episode details of your podcast app if you want to review what you’ve learned. For you Patreon supporters, I’ve recorded an 1891 American short story called “The Revolt of ‘Mother’” by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman. It’s a famous and often anthologized sample of what we call American regionalist fiction, which is what I did my doctoral work on – fiction about country life that’s sometimes quaint, sometimes funny, and sometimes very dark – and “The Revolt of ‘Mother’” is all three of these at once. It’s a great short story, and I did a lot of work on Freeman in grad school, so I hope you’ll check it out. For everybody, I have a song coming up – stick around if you want to hear it, and otherwise, see you next time.

Still listening? Well, I got to thinking about those Late Antique panegyrics, or praise poems. After the emperor Domitian made the office of emperor into a sort of pharaonic cult, decking himself out in lavish garments and meeting supplicants on a literal throne, Roman emperors of Late Antiquity began sopping up praise poems left and right. We don’t really have an equivalent of that in my culture – modern America is a bit more hardheaded and irreverent, and our evaluations of our chief executives are, if not altogether negative, at least meticulously critical. So I decided I’d write a panegyric to a U.S. president – any, hypothetical U.S. president, democrat or republican – it doesn’t matter – modeling how our rather iconoclastic age might lavish praises on a president at the end of that president’s term. This one’s called “Panegyric to a President” – I hope it’s fun, and as I’ve said several times in recent episodes, thanks for taking this ride with me through some of the obscurer byways of Late Antiquity.

[“Panegyric to a President” Song]


1.^ Collins, Roger. Early Medieval Europe 300-1000. Macmillan International, 2010, p. 15.

2.^ Sources on this event are widely divergent, considering the ecclesiastical politics involved – I am following the general summary in Collins, Roger. Early Medieval Europe 300-1000. Macmillan International, 2010, p. 67.

3.^ Ambrose had also allegedly locked horns with the queen regent Justina back in 379 due to Justina’s friendliness with Arianism.

4.^ See Epicedion in Patrem in Ausonius. Ausonius I. Translated by White, Hugh Evelyn. William Heinemann, 1919, pp. 43-7.

5.^ Parentalia (2.3-6).

6.^ Parentalia (9.5-6).

7.^ The poem is numbered XX in Ausonius II. Translated by White, Hugh Evelyn. Heinemann, 1921, p. 67.

8.^ Printed in Warren, Deborah, ed. Ausonius: Moselle, Epigrams, and Other Poems. Routledge, 2017, pp. 19-20.

9.^ Ausonius. Ausonius I. Translated by White, Hugh Evelyn. William Heinemann, 1919, p. 229.

10.^ See Warren (2017), p. 13.

11.^ These being 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 32, 33, 42, 48, 49, 50, 51, 52, 63, 67, 68, 69, 70, 71, 72, 73, 74, and 75.

12.^ See Warren (2017), p. 5 for the probable date of Bissula’s capture.

13.^ White (1921), p. 222.

14.^ Sabine MacCormack’s Art and Ceremony in Late Antiquity (University of California Press, 1981), with its careful look at adventus, consecratio, and accession, explores the changing norms of imperial court culture during the period.

15.^ Printed in White (1919), p. 37.

16.^ This is numbered as VII in White (1919). Inexplicably, Deborah Warren chooses not to translate this unique portion of the Cento in her otherwise excellent recent collection. White (1919) of course skips translating scabrous Latin as a matter of course.

17.^ See White (1919), pp. 388-9.

18.^ The Latin is “iamque fere spatio extreme fessique sub ipsam / finem adventabant: tum creber anhelitus artus / aridaque ora quatit, sudor fluid undique rivis, / labitur exanguis, destillat ab inguine virus.”

19.^ See Chadwick, Henry. “Introduction.” Printed in Augustine. Confessions. Oxford University Press, 1991, pp. xii-xiii.

20.^ White (1921), p. 105.

21.^ White (1921), p. 109.

22.^ White (1921) pp. 113, 15.

23.^ White (1921), p. 121.

24.^ White (1921), pp. 125,7.

25.^ Warren (2017), p. 62.

26.^ White (1919), p. 34.

27.^ White (1919), p. xiv.

28.^ White (1919), p. 35.

29.^ Gibbon, Edward. The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Delmarva, 2013. Kindle Edition, Location 32306.

30.^ White, Hugh Evelyn. “Introduction.” Printed in Ausonius. Ausonius I. Translated by White, Hugh Evelyn. William Heinemann, 1919, p. vii.

31.^ Printed in Collins (1991), p. 66.