The Last Epic of Antiquity: Generic Continuity and Innovation in the Vita Sancti Martini of Venantius Fortunatus
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The Last Epic of Antiquity:
Generic Continuity and Innovation in the Vita Sancti Martini of Venantius Fortunatus*

The poet Venantius Fortunatus has been described as the last poet of antiquity and the first of the Middle Ages (Bernt 118). He was educated in the schools of Ravenna, where he received the literary education traditional in late antiquity. In 566, however, he moved from his native land to the proto-medieval kingdoms of Merovingian Gaul, where he employed his poetic skills in the service of kings, nobles, and bishops of sixth-century Francia. Many of his poems are short, epigram-like compositions in the service of his new patrons. The chief exception is the Vita Sancti Martini (VSM), a narrative poem in four books of dactylic hexameters, 2243 lines in all, recounting the adventures of a Christian hero, the apostle of Gaul.1 [End Page 257]

In meter, scope, and mode of representation the VSM conforms to the expectations of epic. Written in the mid-570s (completed between September 573 and April 576), the poem relies on prose narratives of Sulpicius Severus, the Life of Martin and the Dialogues (2 and 3), for its content. It represents for Fortunatus a rare foray into hexameters (only four other poems in his large corpus are in that meter).2 Accompanying the poem are a dedicatory letter to Bishop Gregory of Tours and a metrically distinct preface, in the manner of late antique epic, attributing its composition to the commands (imperia, 30) of Radegund and Agnes, respectively founder and abbess of the convent of the Holy Cross at Poitiers, with which Fortunatus had close connections.3 The work, with its praise of Hilary of Poitiers (1.123–45), as well as of Martin, was well suited to both its audiences but, unlike much of Fortunatus poetry, its subject does not depend on any particular occasion and is not specific to a particular addressee. In its level of intent the poem is clearly distinct from the majority of Fortunatus poetry.

An epic, then, to all appearances, but not one that reads at all like the more familiar texts from the Augustan, Neronian, or Flavian periods. In this paper I will try to outline the development of the hagiographical epic the subgenre in which Fortunatus is writing and will link it to developments in Latin hexameter narrative poetry, both sacred and secular, in late antiquity; I will identify other features of the poem that, I believe, reflect Fortunatus generic aspirations; and finally I will isolate qualities of the poem that set it apart from its predecessors and represent Fortunatus particular contribution to the hagiographical epic.

In speaking of genre in the context of late antiquity I find Jauss approach, developed for medieval literature, most helpful. Instead of positing stable generic laws, Jauss emphasizes the diachronic evolution of genres. For him the history of literary genres [is] a temporal process of the continual founding and altering of horizons [of expectations] (Jauss 94). A new text evokes for the reader (listener) the horizon of expectations and rules of the game familiar to him from earlier texts, which as such can then be varied, extended, corrected, but also transformed, crossed out, or simply reproduced (Jauss 88). Genres are constituted by a combination of formal and thematic elements. As codified discursive norms, genres perpetuate distinctive takes on the world according to [End Page 258] their established systems of representation. They may originally arise to fulfill specific cultic, religious, and/or social functions or needs, but are liable to a process of gradual literarization.4 In the case of epic in late antiquity it is worth noting that a diachronic development of new epic forms the panegyrical epic, the biblical epic, and the hagiographical epic coexists with continued composition in more traditional forms, such as the mythical epic. (Claudian s de Raptu Proserpinae is more traditional in subject matter than his other long poems that combine epic narrative with panegyric or invective.)

Returning to Fortunatus: he begins his Life of Martin with an account of his literary forbears.5 They are exclusively Christian (VSM 1.10–25):

Quae conversatus dederat (sc. Christus) miracula terrismulta, evangelici reserante volumine libri...