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The Augustinian Epic, Petrarch to Milton

The Augustinian Epic, Petrarch to Milton

by J. Christopher Warner

The Augustinian Epic, Petrarch to Milton rewrites the history of the Renaissance Vergilian epic by incorporating the neo-Latin side of the story alongside the vernacular one, revealing how epics spoke to each other "across the language gap" and together comprised a single, "Augustinian tradition" of epic poetry. Beginning with Petrarch's Africa,


The Augustinian Epic, Petrarch to Milton rewrites the history of the Renaissance Vergilian epic by incorporating the neo-Latin side of the story alongside the vernacular one, revealing how epics spoke to each other "across the language gap" and together comprised a single, "Augustinian tradition" of epic poetry. Beginning with Petrarch's Africa, Warner offers major new interpretations of Renaissance epics both famous and forgotten—from Milton's Paradise Lost to a Latin Christiad by his near-contemporary, Alexander Ross—thereby shedding new light on the development of the epic genre. For advanced undergraduate students, graduate students, and scholars in the fields of Italian, English, and Comparative literatures as well as the Classics and the history of religion and literature.

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The Augustinian Epic, Petrarch to Milton

Copyright © 2005

University of Michigan
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ISBN: 978-0-472-11518-1

Chapter One Petrarch's Culpa and the Allegory of the Africa


That Petrarch's Africa would pose challenging and interesting interpretive problems might seem, on its first encounter, an unlikely proposition. Its account of Scipio's victory over Hannibal follows Livy's narrative closely, and most of the details of Scipio's prophetic dream upon his landing in Africa come right out of the Somnium Scipionis fragment of Cicero's De republica (known to Petrarch and his contemporaries through the commentary on it by Macrobius). The Africa's references to the coming of Christ and the glory of Christian Rome have struck many readers as clumsy, too "forced," and no less distracting than Petrarch's trademark, hyperbolic encomiums to poetry and poets (his and himself especially). But most problematic of all is the Africa's depiction of its hero. Scipio seems merely to embody a catalog of pre-Christian virtues (which Petrarch lays on thickly indeed), and there is no escaping the now-embarrassing circumstance that Petrarch's celebration of Scipio's achievements recalls nostalgically Rome's imperial conquests and subjugation of "barbarian" peoples.

For all these reasons, the Africa is not widely read even in translation, and since even avid students of Renaissance epic are not likely to have read it recently, I will take a few paragraphs to summarize its action before explaining how we may recognize it as our foundational Augustinian epic. In book 1, we learn that Scipio has recently driven the Carthaginians out of Spain, but instead of returning directly to Italy to protect Rome from Hannibal's approaching army, Scipio has landed in Africa to prepare a siege of Carthage. In a revised version of Scipio Africanus the Younger's dream from the Somnium Scipionis, Scipio the Elder dreams that he meets the spirits of his father and uncle, both killed in battle, who recite the names of Roman heroes and, in book 2, inspire Scipio with a prophecy of his and Rome's future glory, although Scipio also learns that his ungrateful countrymen will spurn him in later years. His uncle brings Scipio up to the heavens to view the smallness of the world and pettiness of human affairs, but he nevertheless admonishes Scipio to remember that his destiny in this life is to earn honors for noble service in the current war to save his homeland. He also tells him to find some small consolation in the knowledge that his fame will endure for many centuries-thanks in part to the labors of a future "second Ennius," meaning Petrarch-and to enjoy much consolation in the prospect of eternal peace in the next life. In book 3, Scipio sends his friend and captain Laelius to persuade the African king Syphax to break his alliance with Carthage and join forces with Rome. Laelius is received by Syphax, delivers rich gifts, and recites the exploits of Roman heroes and former kings to demonstrate the nobility and manifest destiny of Mother Rome. At the king's request, he also tells of the rape of Lucretia and the expulsion of the Tarquins, "the cause of [Rome's] change of state" from kingdom to republic.

At the opening of book 4, Syphax agrees to the proposed alliance with Scipio against Hannibal and asks for a full account of the young Roman general. Laelius obliges, telling the story of Scipio's life up through the recent Spanish campaign and praising him for his many virtues of character. Book 5 then opens abruptly after a substantial lacuna, with Massinissa, Rome's other African ally, entering the defeated capital of Syphax's kingdom. As we know from Livy, during the interval that Petrarch has left unnarrated, Syphax had married the daughter of Hasdrubal, the leader of Carthage's troops in Spain, and reverted back to his old alliance. By the time of Massinissa's appearance in the poem, Syphax has been routed in battle and is a prisoner. At the opening of book 5, we meet Sophonisba, Syphax's queen, coming to the doorway of the palace to surrender herself to Massinissa. Overwhelmed by her beauty and by pity for her plight, Massinissa offers to be her protector and new husband, and they are married shortly afterward. Once Scipio hears of this, he confronts Massinissa with his trespass, lectures him on the dangers of unbridled passion, and demands that Sophonisba be relinquished to him for transport to Rome. Massinissa is persuaded to break off the hasty marriage, but he fulfills his promise to Sophonisba that she will not become Scipio's war prize, by arranging to have a cup of poison delivered to her tent. She drinks it, and in book 6, her spirit joins others in Hades who have died for love. Scipio is shocked by Massinissa's role in Sophonisba's suicide, but he consoles his heartbroken ally and then rallies him and the Roman troops to prepare for war against Hannibal, who has set sail from Italy to defend Carthage.

In book 7, Scipio agrees to meet Hannibal to hear his peace proposals, but Hannibal's attempts to cajole and dupe the young Roman general into breaking off his siege are ignored. Scipio will accept only total surrender. Since neither side flinches, the great enemies ready for battle; meanwhile, in the court of heaven, two matrons, young Rome and aged Carthage, plead their cases before Jupiter, whose verdict is that Rome must be victorious. The battle commences near the end of book 7, and the Carthaginians are swiftly defeated. Book 8 describes Hannibal's flight and Carthage's surrender. In the final book of the poem, Scipio returns to Rome, accompanied in his ship by Ennius, who tells him of his dream of Homer and his vision of a future poet-Petrarch again-who will immortalize Scipio and his deeds. The poem ends with Scipio's arrival at Rome and triumph on the steps of the Capitol. At his side is Ennius, "his temples likewise crowned" with laurel, "honored for his great learning and life-giving Poetry."

Whether one knows the Africa only on the basis of this plot summary or is well acquainted with the poem, it is probably just as startling to encounter the exuberant declaration of Giuseppe Toffanin, first published in 1933, that "the Africa remains ... the poem of Humanism par excellence, the great bridge flung to us across the pagan centuries by God." "The Africa," says Toffanin, is "the real Divine Comedy," the true "Christian sequel to the Aeneid." As we might expect, the initial critical reaction to Toffanin's grandiose assessment of Petrarch's epic was one of skepticism. Most scholars downplayed or rejected the Africa's potential to be read as Christian fable or allegory, instead arguing that it only praises the virtues of the perfect pre-Christian man, virtues that now may be hailed as universal because they are consistent with Christianity. In the same year that Toffanin's Storia dell'umanesimo appeared in English translation, for example, E. M. W. Tillyard asserted that "the principal importance of Africa ... is that it marks a complete transfer of the centre importance from the allegory to the heroic poem, from the theme of the soul's pilgrimage towards its heavenly home to that of the politics of the world" (1954, 190). Published eight years later, Aldo Bernardo's seminal monograph on Petrarch's epic faults earlier scholars for having largely "failed to grasp the significance of the fact that the Africa was, in effect, the first and perhaps last sincere attempt to write a purely classical epic since Virgil and Statius" (1962, 168). In Scipio, says Bernardo, "we have the portrayal of the humanistic ideal of the supreme man of action acknowledging beauty, art and refinement" (47); or as he puts it shortly after, "Petrarch was conceiving of Scipio as the most perfect exemplar of the cardinal virtues offered by antiquity" (54)-"prudence, temperance, fortitude, and justice" (63).

Despite these statements, Bernardo recognized that Petrarch's "ultimate goal" was not actually to write a "purely classical epic" but to strike "a compromise between the classical and the Christian conceptions of poetry" (43), with Scipio being "either the instrument of a Christian Providence or the unconscious follower of the three Christian virtues [i.e., faith, hope, and charity]" (63). Indeed, he notes also, Scipio's "ultimate exploit"-the defeat of Hannibal-"will be instrumental in making Rome both the City of Man and the City of God" (158-59), reflecting Petrarch's long obsession with reconciling not just classical and Christian poetics but classical culture with Christian faith. Ultimately, as so many scholars have stressed, this was a reconciliation that Petrarch could never realize. "Scipio summarizes in Latin a humanistic ideal whose counterpart Petrarch had tried all his life to define in Italian through the image of Laura," says Bernardo; but this ideal, rather than being a "concept of virtue that complements a concept of glory in a way that makes both acquire" Christian meaning, merely is one that attains "near-Christian hues" (64, my emphasis).

Other scholars who have likewise emphasized the strain of Petrarch's effort to reconcile his Christian faith with the study of pagan classics and the celebration of a pagan hero-most notably, Francisco Rico and Enrico Fenzi-have argued that the irresolvable paradox led eventually to Petrarch's "paralizzante senso d'inutilità" (Fenzi 1975, 85), a "paralysis" that made it impossible for him to complete the Africa. David Groves, for example (in an essay titled "Petrarch's Inability to Complete the Africa"), maintains that it is possible to examine "the structure of the work" in order to "suggest what some of the difficulties" were that "Petrarch was unable to overcome" (1975, 11). He concludes that "there are two reasons combining to paralyze Petrarch in his writing of the epic: the spiritual crisis made manifest in the Secretum; and the inability to harmonize satisfactorily different sources of inspiration [i.e., Christian and pagan] which result in different types of poetry" (18).

At this juncture, one might observe that in Petrarch's mind there need not have been any necessary conflict between the Africa's classical subject and its ostensible Christian aim. In the Secretum, it is true, Augustine admonishes Petrarch to "abandon Africa," to leave off chronicling "the deeds of the Romans"-yet Petrarch understood that "the deeds of the Romans" could and ought to inspire men to love heaven, according to Augustine's own words in The City of God. There we are told that "it was not only for the sake of rendering due reward to the citizens of Rome that her empire and glory were so greatly extended in the sight of men"; rather, "this was done for the advantage of citizens of the eternal City, during their pilgrimage here, so that they might diligently and soberly contemplate such examples, and see how great a love they owe to their supernal fatherland for the sake of life eternal, if an earthly city was so greatly loved by its citizens for the sake of merely human glory." Thus Petrarch could reasonably claim to be performing a service according to this formulation, by contributing, in his histories and Roman epic, to that stock of "examples" of virtuous pagan actions for Christian pilgrims to "soberly contemplate."

But Petrarch does not claim this. The Africa's justification resides instead in its Christian allegory, whose first clue is the poem's unfinished state. The Africa's apparent "abandonment," in other words, indicates a strategically advertised-rather than any actual-"paralysis" or "crisis" in Petrarch's soul. As Pier Paulo Vergerio and Hieronimo Squarzafico both point out in their biographies of the poet that prefaced most early editions of Petrarch's collected works, there is hardly anything missing that would interfere with the progress of the poem's narrative, even though whole segments of the Second Punic War are passed over. Echoing Vergerio, Squarzafico writes:

The published edition of the poem proves to be imperfect because the progression of its events does not proceed as the subject has them, for if the whole of the war is considered, we may perceive that much is wanting, such as the journey of Scipio from Spain to meet Syphax [etc.].... and besides this, neither the crossing of the army into Africa, nor the nighttime burning of Syphax's camp is explained, or how afterwards Syphax and Hasdrubal were beaten in battle; nor how at last the impious king was conquered and captured in his realm by Massinissa and Laelius: but all these things, as Vergerio writes, may be supplied by reason [by which Squarzafico means the memory of Livy's history that Petrarch's readers generally possessed].

"And besides," Squarzafico concludes, "these other things which reveal the work not to have been completed, the half-lines and imperfect meter, they are as frequent in our Maro." By this point, Squarzafico implies-wittingly or not-that incompleteness is one feature of Vergilian imitation.

As for the most glaring lacunae, such as that between books 4 and 5 (which skips over all the events listed by Squarzafico as "wanting"), I would direct us back to Francisco Rico's casual suggestion that we should understand by these "imperfections" that Petrarch "did just what Augustine admonishes Francis to do" in the Secretum; that is, Petrarch eventually abandoned the poem rather than further risk endangering his soul-and the evidence of this decision is there for all to see. So, characteristically, Petrarch means to have his cake and eat it too: the poem is unfinished, but it is not too unfinished. Yet the implications of Rico's insight, which he leaves unpursued in his own study, are still to be articulated. If, in part, the Africa is supposed to be taken as Petrarch's belated acceptance of Augustine's counsel, a confession of his sin and testimony of his penitence, then it is worth asking in what other ways, besides its unfinished state, the poem reflects Petrarch's effort to compose an Augustinian epic. The lacuna between books 4 and 5, I will argue, as much as it is a gap that leaves out Livy's history, is also one that allows Petrarch's readers to glimpse that Christian meaning behind the poem's classical narrative.

At the end of book 4, Laelius is describing to King Syphax the aftermath of Scipio's successful siege of the Spanish city of Cartagena, established by Hasdrubal and named by him after "great Carthage" (4.260-62; 353-55). Laelius praises his general for having taken special care to assure the women of the city that they would be safe from sexual assault by his soldiers. Scipio had ordered the women to be set apart from the other prisoners, indoors and out of sight, "because seducing eyes insult modesty and the bloom of a chaste face is plucked by gazes" (quod lumina blanda pudori / Insultant, castique oculis flos carpitur oris [4.382-83; 514-16]). Then, in the very last lines of the book, Laelius marvels specifically at Scipio's self-discipline when confronted by the temptation of female beauty.

Proh, superi, mortali in pectore quanta Maiestas! spectate senem iuvenilibus annis. Nam simul etatis stimulos formeque virentis Blanditias perferre grave est. (4.385-88)

[Ah, what majesty, gods, in this mortal breast! Behold maturity at a young age! For to endure both the incitements of youth and the allure of blooming beauty is very hard. (519-22)]

Abruptly, book 4 ends and book 5 opens with another hero "at a young age," Scipio's African ally Massinissa, entering the defeated city of Cirta. He immediately encounters there Syphax's beautiful queen, Sophonisba. Petrarch emphasizes her beauty in this passage and the sexual attraction that beholding her excites.

Ille nec ethereis unquam superandus ab astris Nec Phebea foret veritus certamina vultus Iudice sub iusto. Stabat candore nivali Frons alto miranda Iovi, multumque sorori Zelotipe metuenda magis quam pellicis ulla Forma viro dilecta vago. (5.20-25)

[Her face, unsurpassed by the stars of heaven, would not fear Phoebus in a contest under the eyes of a just judge. Her brow, white as snow, stood a wonder to high Jove, and to his jealous sister a source of much greater fear than any mistress's beauty prized by her errant husband. (27-34)]


Excerpted from The Augustinian Epic, Petrarch to Milton by J. CHRISTOPHER WARNER
Copyright © 2005 by University of Michigan . Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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