Johns Hopkins University Press
  • Veriora Nomina Camenarum:Erudition, Uncertainty, and Cognitive Displacement as Poetic Strategies in Sidonius Apollinaris

This essay examines a set of poetic strategies that create a peculiar tension in Sidonius's poetry. While displaying profound erudition, several poems skillfully undermine the impression that they are the predictable products of carefully mastered methods of composition. They self-consciously displace reader expectations by posing as something they are not, by referring to poems that were never written, or by obliquely delivering what they proclaim to reject. The first part discusses the programmatic statements at the beginning and at the end of Carm. 9 (the poem dedicated to Magnus Felix which opens the collection of the Carmina minora). The second and third parts examine the rhetorical structure of the recusationes in Carm. 9 as well as in Carm. 12 (a poem addressed to Catullinus), and the last part addresses Sidonius satirographus, mentioned in Ep. 1.11.8. This essay argues that the poetic strategies examined here do not aim to marginalize the poetry's content nor betray an extreme pessimism regarding poetry's ability to express something. Rather, they contribute to the creation of a poetic stance that goes beyond erudition and rational method and allows the reader to be surprised and unsettled.


Sidonius's poetry is steeped in the literary tradition; it is erudite and full of references to poetic models and precedents to the point that a cursory reading can yield the impression of dry and conventional products of a certain type of education.1 Only an attentive examination can reveal their sophistication and [End Page 44] originality. What is more, Sidonius's poems are often composed for specific occasions or in response to invitations extended by friends. This means that they fulfil determinate functions in the social environment of their author. They are deployed with a purpose, credited with a value, exchanged against other values, and judged by critical readers. This aspect of the poems as cultural capital is no doubt most evident in the panegyrics, but the so-called Carmina minora, especially the epithalamia, sometimes also respond to the requests of friends and reflect their place within a complex framework of reciprocal amicitia and caritas. Sidonius's poetry is therefore decidedly self-conscious in more than one way, as Henriette Harich-Schwarzbauer, Silvia Condorelli, and others have recently shown.2

Should we conclude from this that, for Sidonius, poetry is first of all a skill that can be acquired through diligent study? To put it in Horace's terms, does he favor ars over ingenium, knowledge and technique over talent and inspiration?3 Overall, the poems seem to point to a positive answer of this question. The fact that Sidonius is conversant with allegorical rationalizations of the Muses, the traditional goddesses of poetic inspiration, further contributes to this impression. A passage from Letter 5.2, which furnished the quotation in the title of this essay, is particularly explicit: it demystifies the ancient Muses by reducing them to the liberal arts and thus to rationally accessible knowledge. The letter mentions a book by the Neoplatonic philosopher Claudianus Mamertus (died around 473), which Sidonius describes in the following terms:

Mamertus Claudianus, the most expert philosopher among the Christians and the first of all savants Christian or otherwise, has taken pains to deck and embellish the three volumes of his notable work "On the nature of the soul" with all the members, joints, and parts of the philosophy he pursues, making it clear that the nine so-called Muses are branches of learning, not women. In his pages the vigilant reader will find the truer names of the Camenae, who themselves bring forth the appellations appropriate to them: for in that work grammar classifies, rhetoric declaims, arithmetic numbers, geometry measures, music poises, dialectic discusses, astronomy foretells, architecture builds, and metric regulates.4 [End Page 45]

The expression veriora nomina Camenarum associates the Muses in more than one way with education and knowledge. First, the comparative ueriora suggests that grammatica, oratoria, arithmetica, and so on—that is to say, the artes liberales—compete with and trump the traditional, less true names of the Muses as female beings, namely, Melpomene, Terpsichore, Erato, and the others, names that are associated with poetic inspiration. Sidonius thus claims to possess privileged, more reliable knowledge. Second, the "truer names" of the Muses are the ones of the ninefold educational curriculum, or the artes liberales. Hence, knowledge—human knowledge—designated by its proper names replaces the sister goddesses, disposers of divine inspiration. If Sidonius specifically rejects the idea that the Muses are "women" (feminas) rather than mentioning their alleged status as goddesses, he most likely has in mind earlier personifications of the artes in the form of the Muses, a rhetorical procedure in which the Muses are divested of their divinity but not of their female identity.5 The way Sidonius summarizes the matter, however, also deprives them of the latter by reducing them entirely to the canon of the liberal arts. All he retains is the performative nature of the artes. In fact, the (Greek) name of each discipline is translated into a Latin verb (diuidit, declamat, numerat, and so on), which indicates the action through which the so-called Muses or Camenae "generate" their proper, truer names: Grammatikē, for example, is called thus because grammar "classifies" (from Greek gramma, "line").6 This etymological reading of the nine names betrays a dynamic and performative conception of the artes which is actually well in line with other late antique accounts of both the artes and the Muses.7 Elsewhere Sidonius refers to the artes liberales as members or body parts of philosophy.8 This metaphor vaguely suggests a personification of philosophy—a pale substitute for [End Page 46] the loss of the Muses as goddesses or at least fully-fledged personifications of the artes.

Rationalizations of ancient divinities were particularly en vogue among philosophers, and the appropriation of the Muses as an initiation to philosophy goes right back to Plato's Phaedrus.9 However, it is not clear why Sidonius refers to this kind of interpretation of the Muses at all in this letter, for in reality it does not occur in Claudianus Mamertus's book. According to Danuta Shanzer, Sidonius was simply looking for "an inflated way of calling Claudianus's work learned."10 We may add that Sidonius not only places himself in a learned tradition that disposes of the mythic-cultic conception of the ancient divinities of inspiration in favor of their rational explanation as personified artes, but he goes even further by taking pains to eliminate also the idea of personification, along with the traditional names of the Muses.

This does not mean that the motifs of poetic inspiration and talent, free gifts of the Muses which they bestow on whom they please, are absent in Sidonius's poetry. But their role is less easy to grasp than that of their laborious counterpart, the cultural baggage acquired through a traditional education in the artes and in the poetic canon. The Muses are by no means expelled from Sidonius's poetic universe, and the topos of the invocation of the Muses occurs in numerous variations. Whether they speak or are silent, they are present, and their replacement by the artes in Letter 5.2 is only one facet among others. Of course, the Muses as divine sources of inspiration are no less part of that learned baggage than their rationalizations, and to play them out against each other would ultimately be misleading. A topos is per se conventional to some extent. This holds true also for the programmatic rejection of the Muses or their replacement through another source of inspiration, as for instance in Carm. 16, where the Holy Ghost is invoked.11 What is interesting in these cases is not just the identity of alternative sources of inspiration but also the ways in which the request for inspiration directs the attention of the reader towards the poetic process itself and to how the request is used to construct the authority of the poet's voice.

But in order to tackle the relationship between ars and ingenium in Sidonius's poetry, or between rational knowledge and skill on the one hand and talent and inspiration on the other, this essay will not concentrate on the [End Page 47] privileged authorial signposts of the invocation (or rejection) of the Muses, where the conditions of poetic performance and its legitimation are addressed explicitly. Instead another, somewhat vaguer and less openly programmatic, as well as less conventional, aspect seems more promising, namely, the complex interplay of what is said and what is not said in Sidonius's poetry. This line of enquiry will allow us to put into perspective the ostentatious display of culture and erudition in some of the poems and to draw attention to the ways in which culture and erudition are undermined and deflated. What we can glean from these instances of skepticism is a better understanding of how Sidonius carves out a space for his poetry beyond knowledge and skill, a space that is not occupied and determined by "Bildung," which in the present context can be defined as "the sum of what is considered worth knowing, of attitudes and of behaviors, whose transmission in written form is important to society."12 It is a space that allows for the unpredictable to occur.

The Carmina minora (9–24) as well as the Letters repeatedly refer to poems that have not been composed, that have been rejected, or that are otherwise absent. One could speak of a sort of phantom poetry, whose traces punctuate Sidonius's oeuvre. In what follows I would like to discuss some of the elements that suggest an imaginary and heterogeneous "corpus" of an absent-present poetry, namely the programmatic statements at the beginning and at the end of Carm. 9, that is, the poem dedicated to Magnus Felix which opens the collection of the Carmina minora (Part 1), and the rhetorical structure of the recusationes in Carm. 9 and in Carm. 12, which is addressed to Catullinus (Parts 2 and 3).13 The discussion will be complemented by a brief excursus on Sidonius satirographus, mentioned in Ep. 1.11.8 (Part 4). Further evidence for the motif of an absent-present poetry could be found for instance in Carm. 22, which is dominated by a long digression, or Ep. 9.13, which creatively engages with a request for symposiastic poetry made by Sidonius's friend Tonantius. The topos that silence is preferable to composing poetry is also relevant.14 But in the interest of conciseness this essay will focus on the aforementioned passages, which best exemplify Sidonius's poetics of uncertainty. [End Page 48]

My observations are partly anticipated in a still important contribution by F. E. Consolino on Sidonius's "mannerism," from 1974. Consolino demonstrates the central role of similitudo and praeteritio in Sidonius (and by praeteritio she designates what in modern terminology is usually called recusatio). She argues that for Sidonius, similitudo and praeteritio are no longer simply stylistic devices—that is, vehicles that convey a content—but that they themselves are the content of the poetry. She considers this development as typical of mannerism, that is, of a form that is emancipated from content. More recently, J. Hernández Lobato expanded on this approach, and while he eschews negative judgements, he goes even further in characterizing Sidonius's poetry as mere form without any content. While drawing on Consolino's observations, in what follows I would like not to play out form and content against each other but to shed light on the motif of an absent-present poetry, which encapsulates a poetics of uncertainty and cognitive displacement.


The first point serves as an introduction and can be treated quite briefly. It concerns certain evident and often noted discrepancies in the programmatic statements at the beginning and at the end of Carm. 9, addressed to Magnus Felix, in relation to the actual corpus of the Carmina minora (9 through 24).15 Sidonius announces "bagatelles" (nugas, line 9), the fruit of adolescent play, bound not to withstand the judgement of the critics. The expression fascem / conflari inuidiae (lines 12–13) evokes the Ciceronian expressions faces invidiae, "flames of enmity," as well as conflare invidiam, "to kindle enmity," and thus conjures up the ideas of a conflagration and future oblivion: "Why do you demand that the thoughtless scribblings of your friend, broadcast in the frolicsome spirit of early youth, should be put into book-form, and thus a great bundle of enmity should suddenly be kindled and paper wasted at the same time?"16 Quite in line with this display of modesty, we learn at the end of the poem that the poet rarely puts anything down in writing: "As for these measures of my sadly barren muse, I rarely commit them to a papyrus-sheet, and then only to a short one, which would rightly be used for carrying [End Page 49] mackerel or pepper."17 But in reality the Carmina minora are of course neither the ill-considered attempts of a young and inexperienced poet, nor is the collection (or its single components, with the exceptions of the epigrams 18–21) particularly short. It would be a mistake to take the information on the date, elaboration, and length of the collection at face value. Nugae, iocus iuuentae, libellus, and rara breuisque charta are typical elements of a neoteric vocabulary, and the tight connection of Carm. 9 with Catullus's dedicatory poem to Nepos has already been discussed by Consolino and others.18 The neoteric language is not to be mistaken with an objective description but must be read as a value judgement. Just as with the neoterics, the apparent vilification of one's own poetry betrays in reality a self-confident pose. Among the topoi of modesty belongs furthermore the request by a third party to publish the poems, a request which the poet fulfills obediently.19 These topoi announce, in fact, a refined and elaborate poetry.

As we will see (below, Part 4), the phantom of a frivolous adolescent poetry which is after all absent from Sidonius's oeuvre can be glimpsed elsewhere too in his corpus. What remains to be explained regarding Carm. 9, especially in comparison with Catullus, is its remarkable length. It seems that this poetry blatantly pretends to be something it is not.20 Starting with the versified epistolary address to Felix, Carm. 9 breaches established formal patterns, mixes literary genres, and undermines expectations, creating the overall impression of a certain subversiveness which is only reinforced in the lines that follow. Generic and stylistic assemblages have long been recognized as typical of late antique prose and poetry.21 The present contribution attempts to refine this insight by showing what type of rhetorical strategies create contradictory expectations on the part of the reader.


The extraordinary length of Carm. 9 leads to the second point, the rhetorical structure of the recusatio, which merits a more detailed discussion. As we [End Page 50] saw, the opening of Carm. 9 announces "bagatelles" (line 9). These seem to necessitate a warning to the addressee: "But first I declare to you what jolts you are going to suffer here as you read" (sed ante testor, / lector quas patieris hic salebras).22

Salebra designates the unevenness of a road or a terrain—a pothole or a bump.23 The word is already used by Cicero and Martial as part of the common locomotive imagery for literary style: Cicero writes that "Herodotus flows without any bumps,"24 and Martial comments on poems which "tumble over potholes and huge rocks."25 The adverb "here" (hic) must necessarily refer to the aforementioned "bagatelles" (nugas), now collected in a volume.

But the promise to record the potholes and bumps which will shake the reader thoroughly on his journey through the nugae does not seem to be kept in the continuation of the poem. For what follows is a catalogue of over 300 lines containing erudite subjects—geography, history, myth—which will not be treated, and poets who will not serve as models for Sidonius.26 This recusatio starts right away at line 16 with Non nos and following (the change to the first person plural signals the transition to a more elevated style27): the poet does not tread on an "old trodden path" (16), he does not sing of distant peoples or lands.28 But over the next 300 lines, which are a vast elaboration of the agger vetustus mentioned in line 16, the reader waits in vain for an announcement of what will be sung instead.

Only in line 318 does the series of negations end, and the first person plural nos, characteristic of the recusatio but abandoned after line 16, reoccurs only at this point. But instead of finally offering a clearer idea of the potholes that await the reader, the poet suggests only that he seldom writes down anything, and if he does, only what fits in a short roll—claims which [End Page 51] have already been refuted by the intervening 300 lines. So we are back with the neoteric topoi, now enriched with the image of expensive perfumes of which the roll on which the poems have been written down is not worthy.29 By contrast, nothing is added about the content of said little poems.30 We only get further hints as to their neoteric character and inspiration, and both the precious balms known as preservatives and the phoenix (326) wryly evoke the poetry's longevity. In line 329, the poet entreats the addressee tongue-in-cheek to protect his "crime" (facinus), but at the end of the poem, potential critique on the part of cultivated readers is deflated, for "no one knows as much as he does not know" (tanta / nullus scit, mihi crede, quanta nescit).31

Does this mean that Sidonius ultimately fails to deliver what he had announced—that is, to testify to the unevenness of his poetry? This is the line of argument taken for instance by Consolino, Hernández Lobato, and Schmitzer, who interpret the resulting gap, or "Leerstelle," in various ways: Hernández Lobato reads it as an expression of an extreme pessimism in regard to the capability of language to communicate, while Consolino draws conclusions regarding the personality of the author, who on her reading hides behind the literary tradition.32

Of course, the image of the potholes can also be taken to mean that the list of the countless things that are rejected describes the bumpy path of the poem ex negativo, in the sense that the path will be uneven precisely because a well-known heroic subject matter and famous poetic models are missing. However, the established rhetorical pattern of the recusatio works against this reading, and in particular the protracted anaphora of non hic … non hic …, which echoes hic in line 15 in each instance, suggests that in line with the normal structure of the recusatio, a positive account of what type of subject matter the poetry embraces will follow at last.

It seems more likely, then, that the enumeration of so many rejected subjects is itself the new and jolty route to which Sidonius wants to bear witness. In other words, not the absence of history, myth, and famous poetic models is responsible for rugged verses but rather their lengthy enumeration—never mind the repeated negations! If this is correct, what is new (note lines 16–18) in this poetic journey is not the content but its skillful and erudite arrangement, combined with its tongue-in-cheek rejection which, given the [End Page 52] extraordinary length and elaborateness of the catalogue, is impossible to take at face value and which contributes first of all to the impression of a poetry that is negated and absent but realized and present at the same time.33 The anticipated "potholes" could then be read as an expression of false modesty, just like the word nugas, or else as a token of an amused distance towards the conventional pattern of the recusatio, whose inherent ambivalence—the poet pronounces what he refuses to pronounce—is taken to extremes through the prodigious length of the exercise.34

As far as I can see, Schmitzer's reading comes closest to the one proposed here, though he emphasizes the absence of a positive program.35 But, after all, it is not surprising if following the list of rejected subjects we do not find a clear-cut alternative poetic program. This vagueness is quite in line with the nature of nugae, and one could say that, at least here, brevity is respected. And even if the final part of the poem, starting from nos in line 318, cannot be read as a positive account of said potholes, the idea of a gap or void ("Leerstelle") might be slightly exaggerated. For what is at stake here is the value of the poetry and its reception by future readers. In other words, the poetry itself is the topic in this last section of the poem.36 The long passage in between is instead the bumpy journey which is announced in lines 14 and 15 and which is thus situated as much inside as outside the collection of the nugae—inside because hic in line 15 clearly refers to the libellus; outside because of the negations. This ambivalence is typical of Sidonius. At the end of this poem, in which the poet demonstrates his impressive command of the literary tradition and his formal mastery, the reader is uncertain as to what has been asserted and what has been negated. The reader no longer knows what has been said and what has not.

This cognitive displacement is perfectly in line with the gnomic maxim of the last two lines, namely, that ignorance is always greater than knowledge. This maxim must be read in its context; it is the poet's answer to his imaginary learned critics (it would be wrong to take it absolutely, as Hernández [End Page 53] Lobato does, who sees in it the total negation of the possibility of knowledge—in fact it is merely a quantitative relativization of knowledge compared to ignorance).37 At the end of this long poem steeped in culture, the value of knowledge based on a traditional education is put into question—not in favor of a higher or more reliable source of inspiration but simply on account of its narrow limits (this is, perhaps, also one of the ways in which the word nugae at the beginning of the poem should be understood.) But we should not overlook that the gnomic statement is strategically positioned in order to obviate potential critique. This move betrays the undiminished self-confidence of a poet who is able to impress with his knowledge and mastery of the poetic tradition, even as he distances himself from it.

In the light of this sophisticated balancing act it seems unduly reductive to read the poem as a mere display of virtuosity, endowed with a certain exchange value within its social environment but ultimately deprived of content, as Consolino and Hernández Lobato tend to do. It cannot suffice either to conclude, based on the corpus of the Carmina minora, that traditional mythic subjects are not eliminated but still have (or have again) their accustomed place.38 Ultimately, what is at stake is not the content of the poetry, for traditional culture and erudition have long been accepted and integrated into the late antique Christian universe. In this connection it is important to note that, for example, the so-called Antipodes (line 19) and other foreign peoples are subject matters that lie wholly outside a pagan-Christian divide, and that the catalogue of rejected poets (lines 211–317) also contains Christians (lines 274–317 list late antique authors, some of whom were Sidonius's own contemporaries). The rhetorical repudiation of traditional subject matters and poetic models in Carm. 9 is as little motivated by Christian beliefs as the imaginary critique of erudite readers. It is true that a god (masculine singular) is mentioned: "For what god will ever grant to my scorned sheet even the small boon of sniffing pleasant scents (etc.)?"39 Of course, the implicit answer is: "None, let alone the Christian god!" Nevertheless, Carm. 9 should not be taken as a swan song on a poetry that is doomed in a changed cultural and religious context (a reading which might get support from line 335, where theta stands for thanatos, or the menace of a death sentence). For why should we take the vilification of the poetic collection—a leitmotiv even at the beginning of Carm. 9—suddenly at face value here? [End Page 54]

More relevant than a supposed Christian subtext is the vocabulary of learning and knowing, which characterizes the final lines of the poem. Sidonius calls himself a "fellow student" of the addressee, Felix (condiscipuli at line 330), and Felix's brother Probus is a "pinnacle of erudition" (doctrinae columen, at 333). Line 337 mentions "scholars" (doctis), line 344 an "overly expert person" (nimis peritus), line 345 brings in the notion of truth (uerum), and line 346 those of knowing and not knowing (scit / nescit).

So, the framework for this poem consists in the shared educational and cultural background of Sidonius and his readers. Specifically Christian elements do not come into play. However, education is not an absolute standard either: one can be too educated or refined (nimis peritus, at line 344), and one can overestimate one's knowledge, not only with regards to its quantity, but also its value and usefulness. For after all, the epistemological displacement of the reader does not stem from too little or too much knowledge but from the performative strategies of the poem, which cannot be met by any factual knowledge. In this way, the poem ultimately demonstrates the inadequacy of knowledge as a criterion for judging and appreciating poetry. The ideal of education is severely undercut, and what seems at first glance to be a reliable basis for literary activity, both in terms of its production and its reception, is revealed as an uncertain and wobbly point of reference. Culture and erudition may enable one to appreciate the rich texture of poetic allusions, but performatively the poem goes beyond this dimension and problematizes the very conditions and modalities of making a poetic utterance, which include more than just knowledge and skill.

So, Sidonius is not a poet who has nothing left to say beyond the conventional, and Carm. 9 is not the result of poetic bankruptcy in the face of a new age. Rather, for all its learning it claims a space for poetry that eludes the sole standards of culture and erudition.

Venus, Lover of Fescennines

A glance at a second example of a recusatio, Carm. 12, may underpin this reading, in addition to preparing the last section of this essay.40 Like Carm. 9, Carm. 12, which is much shorter and more lighthearted, is self-reflexive. The two poems have in common a question in the opening part directed to the addressee (here, Catullinus), who demands something from the poet, here, a [End Page 55] wedding song: "Why—even supposing I had the skill—do you bid me compose a song dedicated to Venus the lover of Fescennine mirth?"41

The reasons that motivate this question here are different from those in Carm. 9—not the seemingly questionable quality of the poetry and the anticipated critique but circumstances which make it impossible to compose poetry on certain topics, such as the goddess of love. The responsibility for these circumstances lies with the barbaric and uncouth Burgundians, as lines 3–7 suggest and the rest of the poem spells out:

Do you want me to tell you what wrecks all poetry? Driven away by barbarian thrumming the Muse has spurned the six-footed exercise ever since she beheld these patrons seven feet high. I am fain to call your eyes and ears happy, happy too your nose, for you don't have a reek of garlic and foul onions discharged upon you at early morn from ten breakfasts, and you are not invaded even before dawn, like an old grandfather or a foster-father, by a crowd of giants so many and so big that not even the kitchen of Alcinous could support them. But already my Muse is silent and draws rein after only a few jesting hendecasyllables, lest anyone should call even these lines satire.42

The form differs too from Carm. 9, and the pattern of the recusatio is not nearly as explicit.43 Kurt Smolak argues that the mention of hexameters in line 10 (senipedem stilum) refers to the requested (and refused) epithalamium, which in Late Antiquity almost always occurs in this meter. He goes even further in suggesting that the refusal to compose a wedding song could be owed to a mixed marriage of a German with a Roman woman, adducing the exact metrical correspondence of senipedem and septipedes (line 11) in support of this reading, as well as a more explicit parallel for such a critique in Sulpicius Lupercus.44

I would like to complement these observations with another one, which focuses on Fescenninicolae in line 2, "who loves Fescennine verses," a rare word consisting of six syllables. The Fescennini versus are traditionally associated with weddings, just like the epithalamium, but the tone is bawdy and ribald.45 [End Page 56] These connotations are sometimes absent, for example in Claudian's Fescennina on Honorius and Maria.46 But traditionally they are typical of Fescennine verses, and thus the badinage of Sidonius's Carm. 12 is after all not so far away from a wedding song dedicated to Venus, "lover of Fescennine verses," even though it may not have been what the addressee had wished for. To be sure, Venus is not mentioned after line 2 of Carm. 12, but the nature of Fescennine verses is fully realized. In a way, then, Carm. 12 is precisely what it claims not to be. If this is correct, the reader experiences a similar cognitive displacement as in Carm. 9.

This impression is further reinforced by the last three verses of the poem. The mockery is attenuated and presented as mere joking (iocata at line 21), mere banter in hendecasyllables—that is, not in hexameters, which is the meter not only of epithalamia but also of satire. The poem thus clearly distances itself from the last-mentioned genre, satire, all the while using a tone that comes close to it. In other words, this poem claims to be neither a conventional wedding song nor a satire, but in some oblique way it is both.

Sidonius Satirographus

As Ep. 1.11 shows, it was not without consequences to poke fun at contemporaries in a satire; hence the explicit dissociation from this genre in Carm. 12. The beginning of the letter to Montius reads as follows:

You ask me, my most eloquent friend, now that you mean to visit your countrymen the Sequani, to send you some satire or other, if I have finished it. Now I am much surprised that you have made such a request; for it is not decent of you so quickly to believe the worst of a friend's character. So you supposed, did you, that I was likely, after reaching such an age and retiring from active life, to spend pains upon a literary effort which in my young days, when I was in the government service, it would have been audacious for me to have composed and dangerous for me to have published?47

The letter refers to rumors according to which Sidonius was composing satires, rumors which apparently Montius found credible. Sidonius, however, chides his friend for making such an assumption, suggesting that there is no point in engaging now in something that was dangerous for him when he was [End Page 57] young. As Helga Köhler notes, he seems to imply that satire belongs to the active life, not to the otium of retirement.48 But she observes furthermore that his rejection of this genre is strictly formal, for the letter itself can be read as a satire of sorts, albeit in prose.49

In the continuation of this rather long letter Sidonius reports how he reacted to the same rumor at a banquet with the emperor Majorian. The emperor himself brought up the charge, but he granted Sidonius special permission to compose a satire about the authors of the rumor if he presented his request to do so in extemporaneous verse. Sidonius meets the challenge brilliantly with an improvised elegiac distich. However, he gives in to the plea of the slanderer who was also present and promises not to pen the satire he was just granted permission to compose.50 So, this letter is about a satire that was never written. But it is also about the circumstances surrounding this unwritten satire, which bestowed some glory on Sidonius, if we believe his own testimony. The letter functions as a placeholder of sorts for the inexistent satire in verses; the text in front of our eyes tells of another text, which is absent. This creates a tension which is typical of Sidonius.


Sidonius is well aware of Horace's ideal of the unity of a poem as set out at the beginning of the Ars Poetica; he refers to it on two occasions.51 But just like Horace himself, who puts the elaborate image of a hybrid creature at the beginning of his Ars and thus demonstrates his license to go counter to his own precepts, Sidonius claims Horace's authority while not exactly following his suggestions à la lettre.52

This essay has attempted to show that the tension between said and unsaid, between the poems that have been composed and those that have not, manifests itself in various guises in Sidonius's oeuvre. This tension amounts neither to a total eclipse of the poetry's content nor to an extreme pessimism regarding poetry's ability to express something. Rather, it contributes to creating a poetic stance that is not the predictable product of the poet's doctrina but claims a space for itself that is beyond learning and rational method. [End Page 58]

Karin Schlapbach
Université de Fribourg


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. I would like to thank the anonymous reader for numerous helpful observations, as well as the organizers of the Basel conference for their kind invitation and all participants for the fruitful discussions on Sidonius.

1. For a quick overview of late nineteenth–and twentieth–century condemnations of Sidonius's style, see Van Waarden 2013, 5, to which one might add the scathing remarks of Sidonius's translator for the Loeb series, Anderson 1936, 1: liii–lvii, as well as the examples in Harich–Schwarzbauer 2014, 134–36.

2. See, for instance, Harich–Schwarzbauer 2014, 140; Condorelli 2013, 112. Condorelli 2008, 186–87 places great emphasis on the occasion to which the poems are tied.

3. Condorelli 2013, 111 note 2 rightly draws attention to the word officina, which appears in Ep. 4.8.5, along with lima, a Horatian word (Ars P. 291). For Horace's influence on Sidonius, see below. The learned and elaborate character of Sidonius's works is noted by Mratschek in this volume.

4. Sid. Ap. Ep. 5.2.1: Librum de statu animae … Mamertus Claudianus … totis sectatae philosophiae membris artibus partibusque comere et excolere curavit, novem quas vocant Musas disciplinas aperiens esse, non feminas. Namque in paginis eius vigilax lector inveniet veriora nomina Camenarum, quae propriam de se sibi pariunt nuncupationem. Illic enim et grammatica dividit et oratoria declamat et arithmetica numerat et geometrica metitur et musica ponderat et dialectica disputat et astrologia praenoscit et architectonica struit et metrica modulatur. The text quoted is that of Loyen 1960–1970; translations of Sidonius are based on Anderson 1980–1984, with small modifications.

5. See Shanzer 2005, 89, who argues (84–97) that it was Varro who first personified the artes—the canonical ones plus medicine and architecture—as the nine Muses. We know for sure that Sidonius did not come up with this idea himself (as Köhler 2014, 147 note 1 suggests); echoes of it can be found, for instance, in Apul. Flor. 20, or Max. Tyr. Dissertationes 10.9. See further Hadot 1984, 92–93 and 98–99. On the letter exchange between Sidonius and Claudianus Mamertus, see Gerth 2013, 171–83.

6. Only oratoria has a Latin name, a fact which suggests how fully Sidonius has absorbed and appropriated rhetoric. On dividit, see Onorato 2016, 237–38, who sees in this activity ("dihairesis") a fundamental principle of Sidonius's poetics.

8. Sid. Ap. Carm. 14.2 and 22.3.

9. Pl. Phdr. 259d. Other relevant mentions of the Muses in Plato include Rep. 8.548b; Ti. 47d; Cra. 406a; Phd. 61a. See Dillon 2014; Murray 2004.

10. Shanzer 2005, 89; she assumes that Sidonius had not even read the book in question, although Claudianus dedicated it to him.

11. Sid. Ap. Carm. 16.5, with Amherdt 2014 and Hernández Lobato 2014. The absence of the Muses is praised in Sid. Ap. Ep.–103; see Condorelli 2013, 130, and more generally Deproost 1998; Schlapbach 2014, as well as the introduction to this volume.

12. "Bildung wird in diesem Zusammenhang verstanden als die Summe von Wissenswertem, von Einstellungen und Verhaltensweisen, deren schriftliche Übermittlung der Gesellschaft wichtig ist" (Gerth 2013, 2).

13. The present discussion does not extend to poems that once existed but were not transmitted but rather focuses exclusively on the literary strategy of evoking poems or types of poetry that are not realized, rejected, or are absent in some other way.

14. For the motif of silence, see Mratschek in this volume, who argues that "muteness and failure of divine inspiration" have a precise function in the enunciation of Sidonius's poetic program. The present contribution focuses not on silence but on the literary strategies that evoke and at the same time suppress a poetry that is thus both present and absent.

15. On the original shape of the collection introduced by Sid. Ap. Carm. 9, see Schetter 1992; on Felix, see PLRE 2: 463–64, "Magnus Felix 21"; Kaufmann 1995, 306–8.

16. Sid. Ap. Carm. 9.9–13: Quid nugas temerarias amici, / sparsit quas tenerae iocus iuventae, / in formam redigi iubes libelli, / ingentem simul et repente fascem / conflari invidiae et perire char-tam? Compare Cic. Mil. 98 (faces invidiae); see also Plin. Ep. 4.9.3; Cic. Cat. 1.9.23 (conflare … invidiam); Cic. Cael. 12.29. For Consolino 1974, 426, the twofold sense of conflare ("to increase; to kindle") gives way to a "baroque" image; for Santelia 1998, 231, the image anticipates the collection's oblivion.

17. Sid. Ap. Carm. 9.318–20: Nos valde sterilis modos Camenae / rarae credimus hos brevique chartae, / quae scombros merito piperque portet.

18. Consolino 1974, 423–32; Condorelli 2008, 85–86; Hernández Lobato 2010, 104–5 and 121–22; Schmitzer 2015, 78–79, who emphasizes the absence of brevitas. Further Catullan echoes include the poems as wrapping material (Catull. 95.8; compare Horace, Ep. 2.1.269–70; Persius 1.43; Martial 3.50.9, 4.86.8); for Sidonius's reception of Martial, see Wolff 2014; Condorelli 2008, 85–92. Nostrae … nugae describes Sidonius's poetry also in Sid. Ap. Carm. 8.3.

19. Sid. Ap. Carm. 9.9–13. For the topoi of modesty, see Condorelli 2013, 115–16; Consolino 1974, 430; for the implicit claim to aesthetic superiority in Sid. Ap. Carm. 9, see Schmitzer 2015, 88.

21. See Fontaine 1977 and, more recently, Pollmann 2017, 31–36.

22. Sid. Ap. Carm. 9.14–15.

23. See also Sid. Ap. Carm. 14.1: "Thus I have abandoned the melting tones of the nuptial song and trailed my pen over the roughest and most stony teachings of philosophy" (omissa itaque epithalamii teneritudine per asperrimas philosophiae et salebrosissimas regulas stilum traxi), with Condorelli 2008, 90–92.

24. Cic. Or. 12.39: Herodotus sine ullis salebris fluit. See also Cic. Fin. 5.84: "the speech gets stuck on a bump" (oratio … haeret in salebra).

25. Mart. 11.2.7, 11.90.2. See Wolff 2014, 96; Condorelli 2009, 91–92.

26. Sid. Ap. Carm. 9.16–317. The list contains "historical topics" (Mratschek 2013, 251) in the widest sense, including those found in heroic epic and in periegeseis. See Schmitzer 2015, 79–89 for a discussion.

28. Of course, the rejection of the agger vetustus, another component of locomotive metapoetic imagery, is itself conventional: Consolino 1974, 433 points to Stat. Silv.2.7.48–51 ("let others follow the well–worn tracks of the poets" [alii … / trita vatibus orbita sequantur]). It recurs in Sid. Ap. Carm. 24.5, the propempticon to the book: "do not tread the old road" (antiquus tibi nec teratur agger); see Santelia 2002, 66.

29. Sid. Ap. Carm. 9.318–28.

30. Schmitzer 2015, 86–87. A similar eclipse of subject matter can be observed in Sid. Ap. Carm. 3; see Consolino 1974, 439–41.

31. Sid. Ap. Carm. 9.345–46.

33. Gerbrandy 2013, 73 notes that "[w]hat Sidonius excels in is recycling the tradition."

34. The inherent ambivalence of the recusatio, which leads into "a hermeneutic dilemma," is well described by Schmitzer 2015, 87. See also Hernández Lobato 2010, 124.

35. Schmitzer 2015, 87 (and see also 90) concludes that the poem aims to show that myth is still an acceptable subject matter in fifth-century Gaul, while Consolino 1974, 451 argues that the praeteritio is a mere pretext to mention topics that are perfectly exchangeable and are not the focus of interest. With slightly different emphasis, the present contribution proposes to read the paradoxical recusatio in terms of a poetics of uncertainty.

36. Similarly Consolino 1974, 458–59, who extends this interpretation to the whole of Sid. Ap. Carm. 9 and deduces Sidonius's "mannerism" from it.

37. Hernández Lobato 2010, 127. Hernández Lobato's view is criticized also by Mratschek in this volume.

38. Egelhaaf–Gaiser 2010, 257 rightly points out that there is no longer a divide between pagan and Christian literature in terms of content.

39. Sid. Ap. Carm. 9.321–22: Nam quisnam deus hoc dabit reiectae, / ut vel suscipiens bonos odores

40. On Sid. Ap. Carm. 12, see the fuller discussion by Mratschek in this volume, who foregrounds the political and polemical thrust of the poem; Blänsdorf 1993, Halsall 2002, Smolak 2008; Henke 2008, 159–65. The literariness of Sidonius's representation of "barbarian" neighbours is emphasized by Gerth 2013, 200–219, who notes that Sidonius generally does not attribute them any responsibility for the decline of Roman culture (219).

41. Sid. Ap. Carm. 12.1–2: Quid me, etsi valeam, parare carmen / Fescenninicolae iubes Diones; compare with Sid. Ap. Carm. 9.9–11.

42. Sid. Ap. Carm. 12.8–22: Vis dicam tibi quid poema frangat? / Ex hoc barbaricis abacta plectris / spernit senipedem stilum Thalia / ex quo septipedes videt patronos. / Felices oculos tuos et aures / felicemque libet vocare nasum, / cui non allia sordidumque cepe / ructant mane novo decem apparatus, / quem non ut vetulum patris parentem / nutricisque virum die nec orto / tot tantique petunt simul Gigantes, / quot vix Alcinoi culina ferret. / Sed iam Musa tacet tenetque habenas / paucis hendecasyllabis iocata, / ne quisquam satiram vel hos vocaret.

43. Smolak 2008, 48 compares the recusatio of Sid. Ap. Carm. 12 with Hor. Carm. 4.1 and 4.15.

44. Smolak 2008, 49. Differently, Mratschek in this volume reads the mention of hexameters as an allusion to "heavyweight Burgundian epic poetry."

45. As illustrated in Catull. 61.119–48.

46. Claud. Fescinn. 11–14.

47. Sid. Ap. Ep. 1.11.1: Petis tibi, vir disertissime, Sequanos tuos expetituro satiram nescio quam, si sit a nobis perscripta, transmitti. Quod quidem te postulasse demiror; non enim sanctum est, ut de moribus amici cito perperam sentias. Huic eram themati scilicet incubaturus id iam agens otii idque habens aevi, quod iuvenem militantemque dictasse praesumptiosum fuisset, publicasse autem periculosum?

49. Köhler 1995, 291. The fluid contours of satura in Late Antiquity are discussed by Blänsdorf 1993.

50. For a discussion of the whole affair see Harries 1994, 93–95; see also Mratschek and Schwitter in this volume.

51. Hor. Ars P. 14–16 is quoted in Sid. Ap. Carm. 22.6, and Ars P. 21–22 is quoted in the final sentence of Sid. Ap. Ep. 9.16.

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