Thursday, 19 May 2011

Eduard Norden on Rutilius Namatianus

From E. Norden, Die römische Literatur, mit Anhang: Die lateinische Literatur im Übergang vom Altertum zum Mittelalter (sixth edition, 1961), 113-114.

In the year 408 the emperor Honorius permitted the execution of his First Minister and General, Stilicho, to whom he owed everything. Then the Visigoths, who no longer needed to tremble before this great military leader, broke into Italy and plundered Rome (410). The threatened catastrophe was deferred by Alaric’s death. Honorius gave Alaric’s successor Athaulf southern Gaul and northern Spain as a prize in order to save Italy. The Goths retreated pillaging to the land that had been delivered to them. The successor of Athaulf (died 415), Wallia, became the real founder of the Gothic state, based around Toulouse and in Spain, and joined in a loose federal relationship with the Roman empire. During these events there lived in Rome an aristocrat, Rutilius Namatianus, who deserves to be made known to a wider audience. He was from southern Gaul, but lived in Rome, where he held the highest offices of state; whether he was of the old belief or a Christian cannot be said with certainty, but his sentiments were notably patriotic. In autumn 416 he left Rome to look after his Gallic possessions, which were endangered by the aforementioned plundering of the Goths. When he had returned home, he described his journey in a long poem in elegiac metre. The fact that it has only survived incomplete must be considered a great loss, as it is an extremely important piece of writing in terms of cultural history, and also a notable achievement poetically. The language and metre are of a purity which even his contemporary Claudian did not reach, to say nothing of the Gallic poets of that time. Apart from the poet’s decided aptitude for portraying landscape and people vividly, what attracts us is his amiable, strongly personal manner. He lives and moves in the mighty memories of Rome. In his beautiful song in praise of the city, with which he opens his poem, he has the skill to enrich the rhetorical schema lyrically through personal touches, and thus transfers the warmth of his feeling to the reader; he promises the Regina mundi eternal life, even though she has been desecrated by the Goths. He shortens the wait at Ostia, from where he wanted to begin his northwards coastal journey, by gazing towards the distant city: Odysseus had yearned to recognize his home from rising smoke; he recognizes Rome from the brightness that hangs over the seven hills, since in Rome the sun had shined on him and there the day was clearer than elsewhere; with eyes not dry he bids farewell. The romantic tones of the modern traveller to Rome are heard in his verses, a brightness mixed with melancholy which contrasts refreshingly with the delusive belief with which the medieval pilgrim shyly wandered through the holy places following by a fantasy guide to Rome, the so-called book of mirabilia. Of high religious-historical interest are the attacks on Jews and monks, with whom he came into contact on his journey. The Jewish leaseholder of a villa (on the coast opposite Elba) where they had had to land, raised a huge complaint for the downtrodden grass in the park and begrudged them drinking water; so they then bombard him with curses; it is one of the most unrestrained expressions of anti-Semitism in antiquity since Juvenal, whom Roman aristocrats greatly enjoyed reading. The journey past a monastery (on a little island between Corsica and Elba) gives the poet occasion for an invective against the monks, the men who fled the light, who found joy in filth and misanthropy; that Christians too could thus abuse monasticism is elsewhere attest. There follows besides a second assault full of bitterness when he sails past another monastery. Through such passages the poet is able to draw in the reader and to raise his poem above the coincidental and personal. Earnest and full of feeling, this last poem stands on the grave of ancient culture.

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