18.09.26, Juster, Elegies of Maximianus

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Dennis Trout

The Medieval Review 18.09.26

Juster, A.M. The Elegies of Maximianus. Philadelphia: The University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018. pp. ix, 223. ISBN: 978-0-8122-4979-8 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Dennis Trout
University of Missouri

Maximianus (if that is indeed his name) is an allusive (as in hard to pin down) poet. The name appears as that of the narrator (4.26) of a corpus of 686 lines (342 couplets) of Latin verse that is typically assigned to an early or mid-sixth century Ostrogothic context. Although some scholars are hesitant to acknowledge Maximianus as author as well as narrator, [1] that at least is now the convention. Most editors divide these 686 lines into six elegies of rather unequal length. The longest, Elegy 1, numbers 292 lines; the shortest, Elegy 6, comes in at a mere 12, virtually an epigram. Together they form a cycle that begins and ends with the narrator's querelae (complaints if not laments) about old age and loves lost or never won. So it is that Maximianus is typically read, when he is read at all, as classical love elegy's last gasp, the distant successor to a genre last seen in full in the age of Augustus (though still casting a few faint shadows into the fourth century of Ausonius). So it is, too, that Maximianus generally attracts more notice in surveys of elegy than in volumes on late antique literature. [2] This book should change that, bringing Maximianus new readers, especially those with rusty or early stage Latin but an ear for English verse.

Michael Roberts has been thinking about late Latin elegy and Maximianus for some time; the poet found a secure place in Robert's wide-ranging chapter on "Late Roman Elegy" in the Oxford Handbook of the Elegy (2010). His introduction here lays out what we can reasonably know about the poet and his poetry and constructs a sturdy framework for interpreting the poems themselves. If our poet's name is indeed Maximianus, then identification with a vir illustris of the same name present in Cassiodorus's Variae (1.21 and 4.22) is possible, a connection Roberts seems inclined to accept (1-2). Roberts also prefers a date in the "second quarter of the sixth century" or "the mid-sixth century" for the time of composition, based, first, upon a crucial internal reference to "Boethius" (3.47) and the elderly narrator's (ego) presentation of himself thereby as a young man in the 620s and, second, the narrator's memory of an embassy he undertook to Constantinople (5.1-4), perhaps in 534-535 (2-3). [3] But all of this, Roberts acknowledges, assumes that we accept the elegies as autobiographical. Whoever he was, the poet, let's call him Maximianus, was well educated in classical poetry, a claim richly illustrated by Juster's commentary. Robert's synopsis of the contents of the corpus isolates key themes: the indignities of living into old age, the gradual diminution of a gentleman's skills, and especially the fade out of sexual potency, all exacerbated by memories of former glories and conquests. Charting the progress of these themes across the poems (3-8), Roberts reveals the nuances and structural conceits that make this poetry worth the effort of taking seriously. Part of the pleasure derives from recognition of the poet's engagement in interesting ways with the classical elegists, especially Ovid of the Amores, who is both imitated and subverted. In the end, Roberts avows, Maximianus's persona is quite different from that adopted by Ovid, in part because of the perspective imparted by old age, in part because, like many late antique poets, Maximianus does not feel bound by generic restrictions. So Maximianus's elegies are spiced with satirical and comedic and didactic flavors (10-11). This "generic indeterminacy," Roberts observes, finally plays out as a hermeneutic mystery. Is the corpus meant as a cautionary expose of the "false pleasures of love" (11)? Does it send a covert Christian message? Is it at all serious moralizing or just good clean parodic fun (as epitomized by the graia puella's "funeral lament for Maximianus' moribund penis" in Elegy 5)? To be sure, these open ended interpretive challenges remain no small part of this poetry's "appeal" (12).

It is a notable feature of this volume that it includes (Appendix B) the texts and first English translations of the six poems that form the so-called Appendix Maximiani. Though these short pieces appear together with the Elegies in two manuscripts, their attribution to Maximianus is generally rejected. Nevertheless, they are not without interest for what they share with the Elegies and the light they shed upon Ostrogothic Italy. Other appendices present relevant excerpts from Cassiodorus (Var. 1.21) and Ennodius (Carm. 2.132 Hartel), an anonymous Carolingian imitatio, and the Middle English Le regret de Maximian (only the last two without English translations).

A. M. Juster's texts, translations, and commentary are, of course, the heart of the volume. The former are facing; the commentary is collected at the end. Couplets (Latin and English) are separated by an extra space, which has the effect of highlighting the syntactic closure that characterizes Maximianus's couplets. The (uncapitalized and unpunctuated) text is essentially that of Richard Webster (Princeton 1900), which Juster emends here and there, with justifications provided in the commentary. Juster characterizes the translation as faithful but not literal and reproduces Maximianus's couplets in alternating lines of iambic hexameter and pentameter. The result is a translation at once rhythmic and readable, fluctuating in tone and register to capture Maximianus's swings through generic modes, from the colloquial to the (mock) lofty. The line-by-line commentary leans heavily on philology and the literary tradition--and assumes the reader's moderate control of Latin. It provides Juster welcome opportunities to nuance the translation by discussing the range of meaning of many Latin words and phrases, often so wide that English struggles to capture their full sense; to engage in conversation with previous commentaries; and to expose Maximianus's erudition by citing parallels in earlier Latin poets, from Ovid and Vergil to Ausonius and Claudian. It would now be unwise to read Maximianus without recourse to Juster's notes and without following up the leads they provide.

Happy solutions to the challenges of translating Maximianus's verses abound here, producing such sonorous examples as:

flammea dilexi modicumque tumentia labra

quae gustata mihi basia plena darent

I loved a bit of pout and sultry scarlet lips,

which, being tasted, gave me ample kisses (1.97-98).


missus ad eoas legati munere partes

tranquillum cunctis nectare pacis opus

dum studio gemini componere foedora regni

inveni cordis bella nefanda mei.

Dispatched for diplomatic service in the East

to close a quiet deal for worldwide peace

while I attempted forging ties between twin realms,

I came upon wars toxic to my heart (5.1-2).

Yet, on occasion the mark does seem to be missed (or at least the door to debate is kept ajar). For example, the rendering of

quin etiam virtus fulvo pretiosor (sic) auro

per quam praeclarum plus micat ingenium

Still, character is valued more than yellow gold,

for it outshines innate ability (1.19-20).

appears to dismiss the force of the prepositional phrase. Surely virtus is valued because "through it" a "noble nature" shines forth even more brightly (rather than because it outshines ingenium. So, too, in the penultimate couplet of the final poem of the Appendix Maximiani, De viridario:

ecce peregrini ludunt in gurgite pisces

miranturque novos perspicuosque lacus

Watch the fish frolic in an unfamiliar stream

and marvel at their newfound clear lagoons (Appendix B, 6.7-8).

The transfer of the adjective peregrini from pisces to gurgite dulls the edge of the couplet for in this short poem the protagonist is the country river, rustica lympha, whose waters experience the novelty of flowing through a cityscape and being diverted into a "pleasure garden." It is the fish that are foreign and unfamiliar to it.

Translators must be ever sensitive to a poet's larger purpose in order to catch and communicate a passage's more subtle hues. Here, too, Juster's achievement is significant, expressing Maximianus's nostalgia and complaints in language sometimes jaunty and sometimes bathetic. His renditions of the graia puella's parodic lament for Maximianus's flaccid mentula (5.87-104), so rich in double entendre and puns, and her subsequent mock-serious paean to carnal love (5.109-152), so reminiscent of Lucretius's hymn to Venus, are each a tour de force. In short, while here and there another translator might choose another path, Juster is almost without exception a surefooted guide.

Thanks to this volume Maximianus will surely gain readers. That is a good thing. There may actually be far more in these poems about the ills, woes, vanities, and humiliations of senectitude than the erotics of love, yet all these themes are handled with a wit and sympathy that eclipses the uncertainties surrounding the author's identity or the auto-biographical truths and fictions of his narratives. The elegies are also additional rich testimony to the literary culture and reading habits of the early sixth-century Italian elite and in this respect Maximianus is a poet to be set beside his contemporary Ennodius. Maximianus's verse, however, illuminates the landscape of Ostrogothic Italy from a fresh angle, one that skirts any overt reference to Christianity but nevertheless leaves readers guessing about Maximianus's moral purpose in this age of varied sentiments and doctrines. We owe a debt of gratitude to A.M. Juster for giving us a superb English translation supported by the first English commentary to appear in over a century.



1. E.g., Roger P.H. Green, "Latin love elegy in Late Antiquity: Maximianus," in The Cambridge Companion to Latin Love Elegy, ed. Thea S. Thorsen (Cambridge 2013), 264.

2. In addition to the chapters by R.P.H. Green and Michael Roberts in, respectively, The Cambridge Companion to Latin Love Elegy, ed. Thea S. Thorsen (Cambridge 2013) and Oxford Handbook of the Elegy, ed. Karen Weisman (2010), see also James Uden, "Love Elegies of Late Antiquity, in A Companion to Roman Love Elegy, ed. Barbara Gold (Wiley Blackwell 2012).

3. This roughly accords with Juster's conclusions in the opening section of the commentary (104-105): "My best guess is that Maximianus completed these elegies around 539 AD."

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