publisher colophon
Reviewed by:
The Space That Remains: Reading Latin Poetry in Late Antiquity. Aaron Pelttari Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2014. Pp. xi + 190. ISBN 978–0-8014–5276–5.

These are exciting times to be reading late Latin poetry. Although it is a field that—in Anglophone scholarship, at least—has not always attracted the same level of attention as other areas of late antique studies, the last ten years have seen the publication of a number of important monographs on individual poets such as Prudentius, Claudian, and Venantius Fortunatus. In scope and methodology, however, Aaron Pelttari’s book is perhaps the most ambitious study of late antique Latin poetry since Roberts’s The Jeweled Style: Poetry and Poetics in Late Antiquity (Ithaca, 1989). Pelttari continues Roberts’s project of outlining the aesthetic trends that are characteristic of poetry in this period, and The Space That Remains offers an indication of how approaches to late antique poetics have developed in the generation after Roberts’s seminal work. Roberts was influenced by the Rezeptionästhetik of Jauss, and his attempts to explain late Latin poetry in terms of its own historical “horizon of expectations” can be seen as an early exercise in the hermeneutics of reception, which were to become increasingly prominent in the interpretation of Latin literature during the 1990s. Drawing on these ideas, Pelttari shows that late antique authors had their own theories of reception, and that the realization of meaning by the reader is a key theme of many late Latin texts.

The Space That Remains has four chapters, any one of which might have [End Page 292] been expanded into a monograph—or even, into several monographs—by a less inquisitive scholar than Pelttari. Although he takes his main examples from the poems of Ausonius, Prudentius, and Claudian, it is worth pointing out that his survey includes a range of other prose and verse authors from the fourth and early fifth centuries. In the first chapter, for instance, he provides an introduction to late antique interpretive practices by comparing the comments of Jerome and Augustine on the exegesis of Scripture to those of Macrobius on the exegesis of Virgil and Cicero. These are different spheres of activity, as Pelttari is careful to observe (43), and the comparison could have been reinforced with more detailed examination of the attitudes of Jerome and Augustine to the reading of Latin poetry. It is made clear nonetheless that these Christian writers held similar ideals to the pagan Macrobius of the “author-as-reader” (17) and of “writing as an act of reception” (32)—ideals that, Pelttari suggests, attest to a widespread view of reading as a “strong and influential act” (43) in Late Antiquity.

Pelttari’s interest in exegesis extends beyond late antiquity to the critical theory of the twentieth century. In his third chapter, he applies Umberto Eco’s category of opera aperta, works of art open to multiple interpretations, to late antique poems that display distinct “layers” of meaning: Optatianus Porfyrius’ figural poetry; Prudentius’ allegorical Psychomachia; and the Virgilian centos composed by Proba and Ausonius, among others. The second chapter treats the prefaces of Claudian, Prudentius, and Ausonius as “paratexts,” adopting Genette’s designation for the peripheral features that present a text to its reader (titles, indices, etc.). This willingness to take new approaches to late Latin poetry is refreshing, although the tendency to theoretical abstraction need not exclude consideration of the “social and material realities of reading,” which Pelttari leaves to one side after p. 8. The concept of the “paratext,” in particular, draws attention to the materiality of poetic texts. Pelttari stresses in his discussion that Augustan poets like Virgil, Horace, and Propertius avoided prefaces (49, 72), but without observing that their works do include sphragides, which as Peirano has now demonstrated (in L. Jansen [ed.], The Roman Paratext: Frame, Texts, Readers [Cambridge, 2014], 224–42), can also be seen as “paratexts” by ‘sealing’ a roll of papyrus and which perform similar functions to Pelttari’s late antique prefaces. In this case, it would be worthwhile to reflect on the significance of the presentation of later Latin poetry in the form of a codex, as opposed to the papyri that were used in the first century bc.

It is, perhaps, Pelttari’s enthusiasm for his material, and his desire to highlight its qualities, that leads him to overstate the differences between “classical” and “postclassical” poetry here and in his fourth chapter on late antique inter-textuality. In a bold attempt to rebrand what philologists of an earlier generation—such as Conte, whose comments on the quotation of Catullus 1.1 at Ausonius’s praef. 4.1–3 are cited on p. 149—have regarded as a sign of creative inertia in Late Antiquity, Pelttari claims that, unlike their “classical” predecessors, “postclassical” Latin poets tend to integrate phrases from other works of literature for variation, without evoking the contexts of those phrases. Borrowing from Roberts, he describes this as a “jeweled style of allusion” (138). Pelttari explains that, in referring to these as [End Page 293] “nonreferential” allusions, he does not mean that another reader would not be able to find some sort of reference to the context of their source texts, but rather that allusions of this type “leave their own referentiality undefined” (131). In a reader-based theory of intertextuality, however, no allusion, “classical” or “postclassical,” can ever define its own referentiality; it is up to the reader to determine how a reference works, even if it may seem to be self-evident. If a late antique poet had paraphrased the mannered lamentation of a personified lock of hair (Catul. 66.39) when describing the separation of an ancient hero from the shade of his former queen (Virg. Aen. 6.460), it would probably have to be classified as a “nonreferential” allusion. The only meaningful difference between “classical” and “postclassical” allusion is, in all likelihood, the reader’s assumptions about the intertextual capabilities of the author.

Pelttari’s sensitivity to the allusiveness of late Latin poetry is reflected in his title, which is a reference to the third book of Claudian’s De raptu Proserpinae (3.157). There the spatium relictum is the space left in Proserpina’s unfinished cosmic tapestry and found by her mother Ceres being filled in with a delicate spider’s web—a metaphor, Pelttari proposes (162–63), both for Claudian’s appropriation of previous epic poems, and for the reader’s role in filling in his text’s interpretive gaps. Readers who have a little more conviction in the powers of late Latin poets to engage with and transform their more admired predecessors—as Pelttari does here—may yet find new things to say about allusion in Late Antiquity. My criticisms are meant to show that Pelttari’s arguments, and his subject matter, are worth taking seriously. As much as this book looks back on how late antique Latin poetry has been read in the last twenty-five years, it also looks ahead to how Pelttari and others might read it in the next twenty-five. In that time, The Space That Remains will almost certainly come to be seen as another significant milestone in what is still an emerging field of study.

Ian Fielding
Exeter College, Oxford

Additional Information

Print ISSN
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.