Sidonius's Carm. 22:An Ecphrasis of Otium
At the center of Sidonius Apollinaris's Carm. 22 is a 100-verse ecphrasis of the castle of his patron, Pontius Leontius, in southern Gaul. As a poetical digression, the vivid description not only places the castle's architectural beauties before the reader's eyes but also reproduces the perception of timelessness characteristic of leisure (otium). Starting from a conception of otium as a chronotopos—that is, a phenomenon of space and time—I will analyze how the poet extends the use of the ecphrastic technique to achieve what could be called an "ecphrasis of otium."
In the twenty-second of his Carmina minora, the fifth-century bishop and poet Sidonius Apollinaris gives a detailed description of his patron Pontius Leontius's castle, situated in southern Gaul. A poetical "thank you" to his friend, the poem also reads as the textual equivalent of the splendid villa itself. As such, it is, just as the castle, designed for and by otium—leisure, which is its focal point and poetical leitmotiv. Indeed, the entirety of the poem, a complex construction draped around a central architectural ecphrasis of the villa, aims at reproducing the perception of wealth and idleness lived at the castle. For this, Sidonius not only recounts in minute detail the architecture, furnishing, and surroundings of the edifice—placing it, as it were, before the reader's eyes1—but also encloses the spectator into the perceived timelessness of otium. The multidimensionality of idleness, its spatio-temporality, has recently been explored in the volume Die Raumzeitlichkeit der Muße.2 We will follow the conception of otium proposed by Günter Figal, Hans W. Hubert, and Thomas Klinkert, where "the sequentiality of time gives way to the space with its order of parallel existence"3 in order to demonstrate, after [End Page 137] a brief overview of the text, how Sidonius proceeds in translating into poetry the wealthy idleness of the castle. The textual expression of otium, we will show, is intricately related to the digressing ecphrasis of the villa.
Framed by a prologue and epilogue in the form of a prose letter to the friend, the poem first addresses the visitor of the castle, struck dumb by jealousy at the sight, before invoking the muse Erato, to tell the origin of the burgus. After several verses, the background story sets in, showing the meeting of Apollo with Bacchus who is returning with his band from India to Thebes. Apollo stops his brother's train and begins to persuade him to desist from his original destination, Thebes, and to settle with him in the place, where, in the times of Sidonius, the castle of the Pontians will rise. After an ekphrasis topou (description of the landscape) of the merging of the two rivers Garonne and Dordogne, the description of the villa itself begins as a vaticinium ex eventu:4 "I seem to see the future that is in store for you, Castle."5 The ecphrasis covers roughly 100 verses up to line 220, where the poem returns to its background narrative, Bacchus's agreeing to Apollo's proposition to settle at the site of the burgus. Finally, in the concluding prose epilogue, the authorial persona wishes for his poem to be read in a non-sober state, defending nevertheless the length of his composition, referring to the Silvae of his model, Statius,6 and to Horace's Ars Poetica.
The poem's intricate composition finds its structural climax in the description of the villa, in which not only the splendor of the castle but also the ornatus of the Sidonian style gleam. Following in the footsteps of recent scholarship,7 I will suggest that the villa ecphrasis can be read as a rhetorical digressio giving room to the stylistic and architectural ornament as well as to the temporal otii abundantia, both key elements of the burgus itself. As such, the description on the textual level occupies the same alternative space as the castle itself. We will, furthermore, comment on some characteristics of Sidonian ecphrasis in order to show how, inside the digression, the spatial description is complemented by a temporal one, creating an infinite space of otium.
Digression as a Space of Leisure
In a recent publication, Carole Newlands holds up mora ("delay") as the "defining characteristic of the villa poem," referring to the prose letter prefacing Carm. 22, where the author describes his literary activity as moras nectere [End Page 138] ("weaving of delay"). She further argues that mora is to be read as a "quasi-technical term for an extended digression."8 Following this reading, I will suggest that the description of the villa can indeed be considered, in terms of structure, a deviation or a detour from the actual goal of the speech,9 setting the stage for the chronotope of otium.
Different perspectives on the text reveal its "digressive" status: first of all, Sidonius calls on the muse to tell him about the origins of the castle, precisely because he already knows its splendor: "Reveal then, O Erato, the origin of the house, and declare what protecting spirit watches that home; for so great an edifice cannot lack divine guardian."10 Whereas the immediately following background story—or as Newlands puts it, the first "inset narrative"11—is indeed the aition requested by the poet, the castle's description itself, which is the second inset narrative, is not actually part of the first and, as such, is a structural digression. But even inside the second narrative, the description is digressive: starting from the announced ekphrasis topou ("I will tell you in what land we should make our joint habitation"),12 Apollo rapidly digresses into a sketch of the imagined future castle. The architectural ecphrasis, structural and stylistic centerpiece of the poem that it is, does not figure in any of the metapoetical announcements but is, in the Delian's suasoria as well as in the aition, a rhetorical amplificatio.
Likewise, the castle is a deviation in terms of geography, for Bacchus is encouraged to step away from his original path (flecte rotas) and settles down in Gaul.13 The burgus is therefore off the route as a rhetorical subject as well as geographically in relation to the whereabouts of the deities.
The villa, whose remote location hence finds its structural expression in the form of the digression, houses an endless abundance of architectural and artistic splendors conveyed in turn by the rich ornatus and intricate design of the text.14 We shall dwell a little upon this point and look closer into the poet's ecphrastic technique. The ecphrasis paints the castle as a complex of different buildings, rising from the river on a mountain, its most defining features being its enclosing walls, two baths, and two lofty towers. Not only is the villa [End Page 139] praised as perfectly fitted to its natural environment; with its architectural elements it also imitates the natural beauty of its site and connects nature and culture in various visual axes. As such, it is, as it were, the epitome of the otium villa. Additionally, the villa shields the harshness of nature, creating inside its walls a locus amoenus that lasts throughout the year. Indeed, the burgus does not lack any element of a bucolic idyll, for next to the burbling spring goats mingle in the laurel grove on the hill, around which the muses hover. The description of natural elements, especially the two rivers, complements the villa ecphrasis, to which we will now turn.
Maybe the most striking characteristic of the Sidonian description is its non-linear, fragmentary proceeding. Quintilian comments on this aspect of the ecphrastic technique stating that "the res is shown not as a whole but in its parts."15 Indeed, the poet indulges so much in the fragmentation of description that the text tends to be obscure.16 Unsurprisingly, the ecphrasis does not include the entirety of the villa but is limited to some representative rooms. The selection of places described seems to be oriented along the number two: two baths, two rooms with frescoes, two towers, two parts of the villa. The multiplication of the rooms, even by two, gives an impression of abundance and completeness. Characteristically, this effect is achieved by enumerations and lists which are also present in the poem: on several occasions, the description is expanded by catalogues, as for example the list of marbles in the baths (lines 138–41), the siege machines (lines 121–25) or the regions that fill the granaries (lines 171–78).
The technique that underlies these enumerations is the division of the whole into individual parts, which are then arranged in parallelisms or chiasms.17 In such passages, the recipient, losing the overview at the sheer abundance of elements, is unmoored from the descriptive frame so as to lose himself entirely in the one object before his eyes: over the few verses of the catalogue, the object—be it marble columns, granaries or battlements—absorbs all the attention of the spectator. It does not appear from afar and clearly but rather immense and detailed or, as Roberts puts it, examined as if "under a [End Page 140] microscope."18 This close-up view of the individual object which appears split up and multiplied adds to the vividness of the description suggesting at the same time its completeness.
As hubs of perception, these digressions are also the place where the rich style of Sidonian poetry unfolds: emerging from the framing ecphrasis, these excursus are, as we read in the prose epilogue, purpurei panni ("purple patches") as described by Horace in his Ars Poetica.19 Sidonius, however, changes Horace's caveat into a precept, defending his lavish and digressive style.20 These purple patches, strewn in the poem like flowers on a meadow, are the textual expression of its varied content, for the castle is a variegated work of art that cannot be taken in by the spectator in one glance but only fragmentarily and progressively. In the purpurei panni, the superficiality of the viewing gives way to a deeper, more intense look, in which the spectator is tied, only to be snatched from at once. Indeed, the description does not proceed in a linear, logical order but rather in an associative mode and from the perspective of the visitor: the descriptive gaze wanders with him through the rooms, creating an impression of immediateness of vision.21 Like the strolling viewer, the description wanders from room to room, exploring its immediate environment. The viewer-centered perspective makes it impossible to assemble an overall picture of the site.
This does not mean, however, that the perception of the recipient is fragmented; on the contrary, the profusion of different stimuli in his direct environment takes him in completely, so that his gaze lingers from time to time on one object which reveals itself to him with all its parts in the form of a catalogue. The characteristic deixis of the style signals that the text aims more at reconstructing the viewer's perspective than at describing the edifice as a whole. This phenomenon finds expression in a witty formula at the end of the ecphrasis: "Close at hand rises the first—or last—of the towers."22 In this almost paradoxical phrase—either the first or the last—the relevance of the perspective is revealed, as it does not capture things in their actual [End Page 141] nature—that is objectively—but only subjectively.23 Any external perspective permitting an overview of the site is refused, and an internal perspective of total immersion in the environment is adapted. The description "loses the overview," has no orientation, no anchoring point, but proceeds arbitrarily, creating step by step its own universe. In this state of autoreferentiality, the directions are not absolute but relative to the standpoint of the viewer, wandering with his gaze. Therefore, no sense of hierarchy or order is conveyed to the reader, and the different objects appear randomly juxtaposed. The poet uses the fragmentary nature of ecphrastic description that proceeds in associative leaps and lingers on the many purple patches, producing in the reader a sense of completeness of the description that captures him with its colorful variety.
Sidonius transfers the loss of orientation and the one-dimensional distribution we have observed into the temporal level. Doing so, he implements the characteristic of the chronotope of otium, the loss of chronological sequentiality, by means of the ecphrastic technique. The complex aitiological frame narrative, depicting Apollo as the author of the villa description, is a key element. As a prophecy that has been dated back to before the occurrence of the event (vaticinium ex eventu), the construction requires three different time levels: the now in which Sidonius calls upon the muse to tell him the history of the castle; the mythical past, in which Apollo and Bacchus meet; and the future that the god sketches in his prophecy. However, these levels of time are, with the exception of the Sidonian now, neither strictly separated nor linearly arranged but, just as we have remarked in relation to the architectural description, are unorderly and ever changing. Inside this intricate framing time structure—the past as present for Apollo, the construction of the castle as past for the reader but future for Apollo, the present of Sidonius as future—the purple patches add to its complexity, weaving gazes back to the past and forward to an undefined future into the framing ecphrasis, narrated in present tense. Particularly illustrative of this phenomenon is an excursus on the granaries:
Higher up the granaries multiply with their long stretch of buildings and with produce within so abundant that even their vast space is cramped. Hither shall come as great a harvest as is reaped in Africa's warm fields or cultivated by the Calabrian or the brisk Apulian, as rich a crop as swells for the stacks of Leontini, or as Gargarus commits to its Lydian furrow, or as Attic Eleusis, [End Page 142] that worshipped Ceres with mystic dances, used to garner for her citizen Triptolemus, when long ago the tribes of mankind renounced the acorn and the golden age was perishing now that the golden grain was given.24
The present tense description of the edifice (desuper horrea crescunt) is followed by a short proposition in future tense (huc veniet), that in turn introduces four comparative clauses in present tense (quantum metit; quantum colit; quanta turgescit; quantum committunt). A last comparative clause is in the imperfect tense (quantum condebat, cum saecula fulva perirent), for the hyperbolical passage culminates in the activation of a myth-historical past that goes beyond even the mythical frame of the story. The historically realistic, even if hyperbolical, frame of the grain producers—the granaries will hold what is cultivated now and again and again—is broken by the reference to the vague myth-historical past. This is not so much an end in itself; rather, the glance in an undetermined, distant past is a means of embedding the castle into a mythical timelessness.
Less complex on the structural level but just as intricate on the conceptual level is the passage describing the different frescoes in the peristyle depicting scenes of the Mithridatic wars, from whose eponymous antagonist, Mithridates VI of Pontus, the name of the house of the Pontii derives. They form, as it were, a conceptual spiral: in a mise en abîme—that is, an aition within the aition—Apollo, looking into the future, describes what the Pontii, tracing back their origins, will use as ornament for their villa.25 Yet again, the conceptual play of gazes backward and forward leaves the reader with a sense of total disorientation on the temporal level. Since there is no longer an order in (the structure of) time, the scene becomes a-chronological. Not only does this correspond to our spatio-temporal conception of otium but also to the actual experience of free time: real leisure does not know boundaries, and free time is truly free of the pressure of time.26
In these examples, the state of disorientation is restricted to the purple patches but is not valid for the framing ecphrasis. For the most part, the temporal levels in the framing description of the castle are in a clear order: the architectonical and artistic elements are described in the present tense, the [End Page 143] description of the villa's future inhabitants in the future tense.27 Beginning with line 213, however, this clear separation is suspended, when Apollo imagines himself with Bacchus at the future burgus:
Often-times on its far-seen roof will I sit and view that mountain beloved by my muses and by the goats; I will walk amid those laurel boughs, and there I shall believe that the timorous Daphne trusts me … The wine store and the larder are fragrant with mingled delights. This place will see much of you, my brother.28
The god projects himself into the imagined future in which he himself will already have settled on the mountains, a future which is at the same time the present of the recipient, to whom the castle is an artistic refuge: the actual and the narrated presents merge. Particularly meaningful are in this regard the lines 215 and 216, for they represent in nuce the technique that underlies the aition of the castle, namely circular reasoning: the laurel grove on the slopes of the mountain seems to Delos to be the place where he can win over the nymph Daphne. However, the laurel, which marks the presence of Apollo at the burgus as its genius loci, has only become to be the god's insignia because the desired nymph fled from him. The simultaneous presence of Daphne and laurel, whose author is Apollo himself, is logically impossible. This hysteronproteron, logically and temporally the wrong result, is indeed what underlies the entirety of the castle's aition.
This point becomes even more salient in the last verses of the poem, when the gods decide to make the castle their new home: "Let Naxus no longer seek the one or Cirrha the other, but rather let the Castle be our goal, to give delight for evermore."29 What is decisive for the gods to settle in Gaul is not so much the site itself but the castle (burgus petatur), even though it has not yet been built. At this point we must recall the author's initial call to the muse to tell him of the castle's origin.30 [End Page 144]
Apollo and Bacchus have not only enriched the landscape with their bounty (there is wine and laurel in abundance) but have also laid the foundations for the castle. However, in the fiction of the poem, the gods seek this site precisely because there will be a burgus that will be perpetuo placitura through them as genii. The hysteron-proteron composition of the aition blends the temporal and logical connections into indistinctiveness. The recipient has, yet again, no more anchoring point but instead finds himself, because the times are in an autoreferential circle, in an a-temporal space.
As noted with respect to the spatial orientation, which loses its footing because of the ever changing, moving viewer-perspective, the constant change of tense and the blending of the temporal and logical order give the recipient the impression of being in a timeless space in which the castle gives eternal pleasure. Complementing the associative proceeding of the ecphrasis on a chronological level, the perception of a-temporality can be read as a poetic expression of leisure the burgus not only yields in abundance but equally forever (perpetuo placitura).31
Otiositates at the Castle
For Sidonius, Pontius's castle is a downright stronghold of leisure, without pressure of time, nor blocking borders. Indeed, otium not only informs the text insofar as it could be considered its focal point; it also shapes the life at the burgus. Consequently, there is no mention of any labor in the ecphrasis of the castle. This absence is indeed salient, for it is certain that the villa is not a merely representative edifice but is sustained by agricultural activity such as the cultivation of grain and viticulture. However, neither of these labors are mentioned; rather, the castle is gifted with its ubertas, be it by the provinces that fill the granaries, or by Bacchus himself, filling the cellars. The only explicitly stated activity is weaving (at lines 192–99), which is, as it were, the female counterpart to composing verses and as such not a negotium but an important part of otium. Furthermore, it can be pointed out that the gods on their digression are likewise idle: for at the castle, Apollo and Bacchus are no longer dei involved in martial action but peaceful genii loci enriching the land with their bounties.32 And indeed, Delos explicitly cautions his friend to lay off immoral Thebes, where blasphemers, yet to be punished, await.33 The burgus therefore is also to the gods a place of leisure, where they can indulge [End Page 145] in their true calling—Bacchus as wine and Apollo and the muses as poetic inspiration.
The composition of poetry, a constitutive part of the bucolically idle idyll that the castle and its surrounding landscape form, has no explicit mention inside the ecphrasis.34 Nevertheless, not only is poetry, personified in Apollo, a constant presence; it is also the actual author of the castle. For when Apollo, god of poetry and patron of the burgus, projects himself in the tower room looking at the mountain, which is now a new Helicon and Parnassus (233), home of the muses, and imagines himself through a poetical fiction to be in a happy liaison with the nymph, it becomes clear that the muses and the mountain inspired the textual creation of the villa itself. Indeed, the image of Sidonius, sitting in the same room and looking out at the landscape, comes to mind: for him, the beauty of the landscape inspires the composition of this very carmen.35
The mountain as stronghold of the muses is the basis for the castle that is built after, but it is not equal to it. On the one hand, the mountain's nature needs no artificial embellishment: "This needs no embellishment, for Nature has given it beauty. It seems good to me that there no counterfeiting should seem good; no artificial splendor there …"36 And on the other hand, the castle's artificial attributes are just what characterizes it: "… the towers will soar beyond earth's atmosphere; thus on their summits shall rest, shining with a common radiance, the two lights of Stateliness and Succour."37 The natural amoenitas of the landscape generates the poetical, artificial splendor of the edifice, embodied by Apollo and the muses that inhabit the castle. Side by side, mountain and castle represent different stages of poetic inspiration: whilst the landscape inspired Apollo to create the villa, the villa itself inspired Sidonius's very poem. As a rhetorical digression of the god's speech, the castle is in fact a mere poetical edifice. Likewise, Sidonius creates the burgus through writing, explicitly stating in the prologue: "I have made 'The Castle' my own" (burgum tuam … meam feci). We are then once again confronted with a case of circular argumentation, for the stay in the castle is, on the one hand, what inspires the composition of the text, and the burgus itself, on the other hand, even in its aition, is a poetical construction.
Leisure and poetical inspiration are reified in the ideal otium villa that is the castle. The poem's space, just as the castle's, is the digression in which they [End Page 146] can claim all the poetical license required for the expression of their abundant décor and copious free time. Together with the digressively lavish description of the villa, the usually ancillary otium becomes, for the mora of the poem, its main subject. That the poem is indeed the poetical expression of leisure par excellence becomes even clearer when the author requests, in the epilogue, his poem not be read in the absence of Bacchus: this way, the poetical burgus is sure to be in its natural environment, a locus amoenus merry with wine.
Pontius Leontius's castle, celebrated by Sidonius in Carm. 22, is the otium villa par excellence, boasting natural as well as architectural beauty, poetical inspiration, and leisure in abundance. As such, it is an alternative space, far away from the hustle of the cities and the pressure of negotium. The text, signifying as a gift-poem the castle itself (burgum tuam … meam feci), expresses the remoteness of the site by its structural digressiveness. Proclaiming itself to be nothing more than a mere mora ("delay"), the poem does not claim anything further than entirely engaging its recipient during an hour of leisure. Indeed, as a "delay," the text is itself the free time it describes. Located at the very center of several inset narratives, the ecphrasis, rich in the characteristic late antique style, is not only a description of objects, vividly depicting the different natural and artificial splendors of the edifice, but also a temporal one: for otium is a spatio-temporal phenomenon that absorbs the idler fully. What Figal and others identify as the state of idleness—a "lingering" or "pausing" (which leads us back to the Sidonian mora) and an "unconstrained presence" in which "the sequentiality of time gives way to the space with its spatial order of parallel existence"38—is translated by the poet into an extended ecphrasis. In order to reproduce the energeia, not only of the beauty of the artefacts but also of the liberty of free-time, the text uses the ecphrastic technique, wandering with the viewer's gaze randomly from object to object, leaving the recipient overwhelmed with impressions and in a state of utter disorientation. At the same time, just as a geographical anchoring point is denied, the different levels of time activated in the descriptive passage, as well as in the framing narratives, appear unorderly and blurred. This juxtaposition of different times inspires in the recipient a sense of a-temporality. Sidonius uses the established ecphrastic technique of overwhelmed disorientation to paint his picture of otium. [End Page 147]
5. Sid. Ap. Carm. 22.126: Cernere iam videor quae sint tibi, Burge, futura. Text and translations are quoted, with some alterations, from the Loeb edition of Anderson 1936–1965.
8. Newlands 2017, 182. The author draws on the characterization of the Nemean episode in Stat. Theb. 4.646–7.104 as morae staged by Bacchus (Theb. 4.677: "I shall weave delay through mischief" [nectam fraude moras]). It has been shown that this extensive digression is closely linked to (the poetics of) the Silvae (for example, Brown 1994).
9. On (rhetorical) digression, see, for example, Sabry 1992; Härter 2000.
10. Sid. Ap. Carm. 22.20–21: Pande igitur causas, Erato, laribusque sit ede / quis genius; tantum non est sine praesule culmen.
12. Sid. Ap. Carm. 22.100: Dicam qua pariter sedem tellure locemus.
13. Sid. Ap. Carm. 22.89.
15. Quint. Inst. 9.2.40: Res … ostenditur nec universa sed per partis.
16. Some elements of the description cannot be understood. For example, it is not clear whether the marble-inscribed plate at lines 142–43 is located in the baths or the main house. Equally obscure is the architecture of the peristyle and the order of the images. See Delhey 2012.
18. See Quint. Inst. 8.3.68: "[…] if you illuminate everything that was contained by one word (si aperias haec quae verbo uno inclusa erant)." See also 8.3.70: "It is less to say the whole than to say everything" (minus est tamen totum dicere quam omnia). Pathos can be augmented by describing a scene in minute detail. In Sidonius's case, the detailed account may not increase the reader's emotions but does put him right in the middle of the scene.
19. Hor. Ars P. 14–19.
21. The immediateness is expressed by the repeated use of deictic particles over lines 146–212: for example, hinc (163, 164); hic (158, 167); desuper (169).
22. Sid. Ap. Carm. 22.211: Comminus erigitur vel prima vel extima turris.
24. Sid. Ap. Carm. 22.169–78: Desuper in longum porrectis horrea tectis / crescunt atque amplis angustant fructibus aedes. / Huc veniet calidis quantum metit Africa terris, / quantum vel Calaber, quantum colit Apulus acer, / quanta Leontino turgescit messis acervo, / quantum Mygdonio committunt Gargara sulco / quantum, quae tacitis Cererem venerata choreis / Attica Triptolemo civi condebat Eleusin / cum populis hominum glandem linquentibus olim / fulva fruge data iam saecula fulva perirent.
25. Sid. Ap. Carm. 22. 159–68.
27. In the present tense: "the house rises" (domus surgunt, 127); "a colonnade soars" (assurgit porticus, 150); or "the portico is exposed" (porticus patet, 179). In the future tense: "Paulinus Pontius shall surround" (Paulinus Pontius olim … abiet, 118); "the masters of the house will be wont" (mos erit dominis, 212). The commentary of Delhey 2012 on lines 126–211 remarks on the separation of future and present tense.
28. Sid. Ap. Carm. 22.213–20: Huius conspicuo residens in culmine saepe / dilectum nostris Musis simul atque capelli / aspiciam montem; lauri spatiabor in istis / frondibus, hic trepidam credam mihi credere Daphnen / … / deliciis redolent iunctis apotheca penusque; / hic multus tu, frater, eris.
29. Sid. Ap. Carm. 22.234–35: Non istum Naxus, non istum Cirrha requirat, / sed mage perpetuo burgus placitura petatur.
30. Sid. Ap. Carm. 22.20–21.
31. Klinkert 2016, 98 notes the uncertain structure of both space and time in the arcadian chronotope. Newlands 2017, 183 mentions the "temporary stopping of time" the villa of the poem represents but does not establish a connection between mora and otium.
32. For the motive of the belligerent deity become peaceful, see Stat. Silv.3.1.
34. This is surprising insofar as Sidonius's model Statius mentions poetry and philosophy repeatedly as activities in country homes. See, for example, Stat. Silv. 1.3, 2.2.
35. On the relationship of Apollo and the poet in Sidonius, see Stähle in this volume.
36. Sid. Ap. Carm. 22.224–26: Non eget hic cultu, dedit huic natura decorum / nil fictum placuisse placet, non pompa per artem / ulla …
37. Sid. Ap. Carm. 22.119–21: … celsae transmittent aera turres / quarum culminibus sedeant commune micantes / pompa vel auxilium.