John Barclay's Neo-Latin romance, first published in 1621 and shortly thereafter translated into English, French, German, Spanish, Dutch, and Italian, is among other things a fascinating document of a marriage between the language of the Republic of Letters and the dreams of Romance, celebrated at a moment in the early seventeenth century when national literatures and polities were longing for a end to the religious and secular struggles of the previous century. Its author (1582–1621) is described in a distich accompanying his portrait in the second edition as "Scottish by lineage, French by birth . . . the man who teaches Rome to speak the Roman tongue." Indeed, Barclay's controversial internationalism ranged from a decade at James's court, where he composed a Latin Carmen Gratulatorium concerning the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 to a surprising move a decade later to Rome, where he was to die under circumstances his English friends would understandably find suspicious.
Barclay's romance recalls Sidney's Arcadia or Wroth's Urania in its mixture of narrative prose and lyric intervals, of political discourse, historical allegory, and drawn-out erotic quests. Menander, King of Sicily, is, like Sidney's Basilius, an inadequate ruler, and the works end with marriages that promise a stronger and healthier state. What is unusual in Barclay is the frequent transparency of the allegory, as well as its casual alternation between thinly-disguised portraits of the French court and even more thinly-disguised allusions to Barclay and his friends [End Page 697] in Rome. At one point, in fact, Barclay as the poet Nicopompus proposes to write a romance concerning the events and issues he has been witnessing. Argenis, Meleander's daughter, has been taken as the daughter Henry III failed to have, or as the editors suggest a "proto-Marianne, the symbol of state power" (46), or, as Joseph IJsewijn has proposed in what remains the principal study of the work to date (Humanistica Lovaniensia, 1983), an anagram for the regina who can resolve all discord. It seems of particular interest that in the opening lines of the work, Barclay sets his fiction in Greek Sicily at a time when "the world as yet had not bowed to the Roman sceptre, nor the wide ocean stooped to the Tiber" (103). Only at the very end do we learn that one of Argenis's competing suitors,Archombrotus, is really her half-brother, the son of Meleander from a youthful liaison with Anna, sister of the Queen of Mauritania. Hence she is free to marry Poliarchus, King of France, who in turn offers his new friend his own sister in marriage. The work concludes with a union of nations and indeed continents: as the name of Anna recalls the sister of Dido, we can see that Barclay is in fact undoing the epic of Rome that Virgil had composed after Actium, when the defeat of Antony and his African queen had led to the Augustan age and its consequences.
We must be grateful, first, to have a carefully edited version of the Latin text — available free of charge, incidentally, to those readers with more Latin than money, on the editors' respective academic home pages, www.csus.edu/indiv/rileymt/Argenis/Table_of_Contents_Argenis.html and www.uky.edu/AS/Classics/retiarius/argenis — along with an English translation on facing pages. The latter, it should be noted — despite the rather misleading phrase "translated by" on the title page — is an edition of Kingesmill Long's version of 1625. Here too there is cause to be grateful, since we are reminded thereby that this was a work that cried out for, and received, vernacular translations in its own time; Long's was the better of the two published versions it received in England, though we may regret that fire claimed the "three books [out of Barclay's...