Sunday 1 March 2020

Prose rhythm and an emendation in a Donatist martyr act

Following on from last weekend’s post on the Te deum, I offer another example of how important prose rhythm is in understanding late Latin texts – and also how neglected. The following passage is one which I would not normally have read. The Donatist schism polarised north African Christianity long after the Great Persecution initiated by Diocletian in 303, and was still the most important feature of the religious landscape of Latin north Africa in the age of Augustine, a century and more afterwards. However historically important they may be, I must admit that Christian heresies and schisms somehow do not capture my interest, and that the details tend to slip my mind soon after taking them in. The passage I shall discuss was sneaked into my awareness through appearing on the handout at a splendid talk given by Neil McLynn at the Oxford Late Roman seminar a couple of weeks ago.

In the year 347, the arrival in Africa of two imperial notarii, Macarius and Paulus, precipitated violent disagreements after a period in which the Donatists had largely been left alone. Marculus was a Donatist bishop who went with others to protest, was arrested, tortured, and eventually executed by being hurled off a cliff on 29 November 347. Others questioned the facts (Augustine thought Marculus had jumped), but such is the account of the Passio benedicti martyris Marculi. The Passio’s survival was doubtless aided by the fact that readers did not know that it was a Donatist text. After all, they Donatists did not call themselves by that name, and their rivals, whom we call catholics, they named traditores, translatable as traitors but in fact alluding to the claim that they had handed over scriptures to the persecutors. The Passio is an artful and well written text, but little attention has been paid to it: the text of Jean-Louis Maier in Le dossier du Donatisme (Berlin 1987-9), 1.275-291, is confessedly taken over from Migne’s text in Patrologia Latina 8.760-766, which is itself more or less taken over from Mabillon’s Analecta vetera vol. 4 (1685), 105-115.

The passage in question (Passio Marculi 3.10) is printed in the editions more or less as follows:

Ecce subito de Constantis regis tyrannica domo et de palatii eius arce pollutum Macarianae persecutionis murmur increpuit. et duabus bestiis ad Africam missis, eodem scilicet Macario et Paulo, exsecrandum prorsus et dirum ecclesiae certamen indictum est; ut populus Christianus ad unitatem cum traditoribus faciendam nudatis militum gladiis et draconum praesentibus signis et tubarum uocibus cogeretur.

[I have made a couple of corrections: Mabillon and Migne have unionem rather than unitatem, against the consensus of the manuscripts* and Latin idiom, and somehow Migne and Maier have managed to change Mabillon’s tubarum, which is also in the manuscripts, to turbarum.]

Behold, suddenly from the tyrannical home of Constans the king and from the citadel of his palace, the polluted rumblings of the Macarian persecution sounded forth, and through the sending to Africa of two wild beasts, namely the same Macarius and Paulus, an altogether damnable and ominous war was declared on the church, with the aim that the Christian people should be compelled to unity with the betrayers, while the soldiers’ swords were drawn, the dragon standards present, and to the sound of the war-trumpets.

It immediately struck me that the passage was written with attention to both accentual and metrical prose rhythm – and almost as instantly that there was a problem. In what follows as in last week’s post, I = cursus planus, II = cursus tardus, III = cursus velox, x = absence of cursus; C = cretic (long short long), S = spondee (long long), T = tribrach (short short short), D = ditrochee (long short long short):

Ecce subito de Constantis regis tyrannica domo                                I
et de palatii eius arce                                                                          x
pollutum Macarianae persecutionis murmur increpuit.                      II, CT
Et duabus bestiis ad Africam missis                                                   I, CS
(eodem scilicet Macario et Paulo)                                                      ? (quasi CS if elision)†
exsecrandum prorsus et dirum ecclesiae certamen indictum est,       I (CS if elision)/ II (CC)†
ut populus Christianus ad unitatem cum traditoribus faciendam       III
nudatis militum gladiis                                                                       II, CT
et draconum praesentibus signis                                                         I, CS
et tubarum uocibus cogeretur.                                                            III, CD

The clausulation is very regular and even two cases where standard metrical clausulae are missing --tyrānnĭcā dŏ, tradi-tōrĭbūs făcĭēndăm -- are close to the cretic spondee and cretic ditrochee rhythms respectively, and both maintain cursus. The exception comes in the second line. We should correct to read:

Ecce subito de Constantis regis tyrannica domo                                I
et de palatii eius arce polluta                                                              I, CS
Macarianae persecutionis murmur increpuit.                                     II, CT

Behold, suddenly from the tyrannical home of Constans the king and from the polluted citadel of his palace, the rumblings of the Macarian persecution sounded forth…

And instantly, we find that two other problems are solved: there is now parallelism with the first clause (adjective, genitive and noun) and in the following clause an illogical combination of adjective and noun (polluted murmuring?) no longer challenges translators. Nor is the corruption a difficult one, with a following m encouraging dittography and the potential for an a written with a gap at the top in early Carolingian script (a bit like cc) to be misread as a u.

In the first place, this should remind us that schismatic Christians were just as capable of writing in elaborate rhythmical art-prose as others, and that it is really is a very widespread feature of later Latin literature. Secondly, it is striking that the Passio Marculi lacks a modern critical edition – and it is far from alone in texts from late antiquity in that fact. And indeed, it is one of many texts written in clausulated prose whose editors did their job either without a knowledge of prose rhythm or without an appreciation of its relevance to their task. Over a century after the rediscovery of Latin prose rhythm, there must be many thousands of corrections to be made in Latin literary and subliterary texts on that basis.

*Manuscripts: I have not had time to investigate fully, but with the help of H. Deleheye, ‘Domnus Marculus’, AB 53 (1935), 81-89, I know of four manuscripts, of which three are digitised:
-Paris, BNF, Lat. 5643, 35r-44r, considered 11th-century by the library, and as a/the source of the editio princeps
-Paris, BNF, Lat. 12612, 79v-83v, 14th century, formerly Corbie and cited as such in Migne
-Zürich, Zentralbibliothek, C.10.i, 243v-246r (9th century, now kept long-term in Sankt Gallen, where it originates)
-Brussels 9289, 106-107v

†Elision: it would take an analysis of the whole work to decide whether to elide indictum est and Macario et or to maintain the hiatus. In the latter case, elision would not quite create a cretic spondee clausula as the second syllable of Macarius is short, but this is a nuance of which fourth century Latin-speakers probably would not have been aware.