- Genres Rediscovered: Studies in Latin Miniature Epic, Love Elegy, and Epigram of the Romano-Barbaric Age by Anna Maria Wasyl
Studies of Late Antique Latin poetics tend to be focused on particular authors, so Anna Maria Wasyl is to be thanked for her broader account of genres “re-discovered” in the fifth and sixth centuries a.d. All of the poets she examines in this book, though largely unfamiliar to those who work on Classical Latin, are well worth getting to know. She deals first with Dracontius, the lawyer-poeta of Vandal Africa, whose epyllia recast traditional myths in forms reminiscent both of classical drama and courtroom oratory. Next treated is Maximianus, elegist of Ostrogothic Italy, whose autobiographical narrative of erotic misadventure offers, as Wasyl says, “‘Augustan’ elegy and the ‘Augustan’ eros rethought and rewritten in the Christian era” (135). Finally, she examines the ironicizing and self-deprecating poet Luxorius, who revives Martialian epigram for an educated milieu in Vandal Africa. In between, there are shorter sections on the anonymous epyllion Aegritudo Perdicae, the epigrams of Ennodius, and the sequence of epigrams of single authorship at Anthologia Latina 90–197R. Throughout, the poetry of the period is treated, in Wasyl’s evocative phrase, as “an intellectual adventure” (7), an intricate and pleasurable game for an elite readership fully versed in classical codes.
Wasyl is a sure guide through the material. She offers a summary of each poet’s works, highlighting in particular the authors’ own programmatic statements about their genre. She devotes detailed attention to certain issues of form; her account of the history of the epyllion as a generic category (13–29) and her concise overview of the Roman epigram (165–70) will be instructive for Latinists of all periods. She is respectful and clear in setting out the terms of textual and interpretive debates, though one wishes at times that she had taken a firmer line herself on controversial issues (such as the ostensibly scurrilous representation of the philosopher Boethius in Maximianus’ third elegy, 142–45). The bibliography is thorough, and admirably incorporates Polish and Spanish as well as French, German, Italian, and English scholarship, but it is also frustratingly organized into some fifteen separate sections, which can lead to hunting around for references. In sum, those seeking an introduction to these poets and the current state of scholarship on them could do no better than consult Wasyl’s work. Translations of the cited passages of Latin would have increased the book’s usefulness for students.
As an original contribution to scholarship more broadly on Late Antique genre and intertextuality, the book is less satisfactory. The three genres—epyl-lion, elegy, and epigram—are treated separately as independent strands of literary history, so there is little sense of how they might interrelate, even though Wasyl’s individual analyses do offer the possibility of interconnection (there is a strong preference among these poets for impotent or ineffectual central male figures, for example). Moreover, to speak of Ovid as the “first inspiration” and “root cause” of Maximianus’s elegies (126) is seriously to undersell a poet whom Wasyl herself praises for his startling originality and subtlety. Indeed, throughout the book, the constant search for classical sources and comparison with classical texts tends to undermine the wider claim for the idiosyncrasy of Late Antique poetry. The author assures us early on that this poetry is “perfectly able to render the tensions and dilemmas of its time” (9). Yet, in her conclusion, Wasyl writes [End Page 301] of the “proper, i.e., diachronic” (253) approach to literary history, and her phrasing is telling. For its (diachronic) observations on how the classical epyllion, elegy, and epigram developed and changed in late antiquity, Genres Rediscovered is certainly a valuable study. On the uniqueness of Late Antique poetics and its responsiveness to its contemporary context, more work remains to be done. [End Page 302]