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Farewells and Returns
Ausonius and Paulinus of Nola
In A.D. 389 the wealthy senatorial Gallo-Roman landowner, and former consul, Meropius Pontius Paulinus left Gaul to live on his wife Therasia's estates in Spain. On Christmas Day 394 Paulinus was ordained a priest in Barcelona and sold off his and his wife's properties. In the following year he and Therasia moved from Spain to Campania, to the shrine of St. Felix in Cimitile, the necropolis of Nola. Here Paulinus (the future Saint Paulinus of Nola) spent the rest of his life, embellishing the shrine, developing the pilgrimage cult of the saint, and engaging in correspondence with leading figures in the late fourth- and early fifth-century church.
Between Paulinus's departure to Spain and his ordination as a priest he continued a correspondence with his friend and former teacher Decimus Magnus Ausonius, forty years his senior. Ausonius was another leading Gallo-Roman grandee, a one-time consul, and a professor of grammar and rhetoric in Bordeaux who had been tutor to the future emperor Gratian. Ausonius is the author of a substantial surviving corpus of poetry, on a range of subjects, in which he self-consciously displays his learning and draws on the wealth of the classical tradition of Latin and Greek poetry. There survive four earlier letters to Paulinus, in a mixture of prose and verse, fragments of what will have been a more extensive series of exchanges between the two men, friendly but competitive performances of an elite late antique literary culture. In one letter (Ep. 17 Green), for example, Ausonius registers his reactions to Paulinus's versification of Suetonius's lost work On Kings, and in another (Ep.19) he thanks Paulinus for the gift of some gourmet fish sauce, acknowledges a poem sent for comment, and reciprocates with some playful iambics, dispatched as an earnest of some weightier heroic hexameters to follow. The attention to form is typical of Ausonius's poetic production as a whole, symptomatic of what is often seen as a late antique playfulness or worse — what Antonio La Penna, in a particularly jaundiced view, once labeled the "reign of futility" of post-Antonine Latin poetry.
Very different, or so it would seem, are the verse letters exchanged between the two men in the early 390s A.D. Ausonius, in his three surviving letters (in hexameters), accuses Paulinus of neglecting the duties (officia) of friendship, of being forgetful, of lacking pietas, and of casting off the yoke (iugum) that had previously joined the figurative "father" and "son" in their shared life of a literary and cultural amicitia (friendship). Ausonius calls on Paulinus to return, return to the Muses and return to be with Ausonius in Aquitaine. Paulinus, in his two letters in response (in a variety of meters — elegiac, iambic, hexameter), rebuts the charges of forgetfulness and impietas, but is unbending in his dedication to his new life in Christ, in a more dedicated and austere practice of his Christianity. He rejects the Muses and Apollo, inspired as he now is by a greater god. He now has his heart set on a new, celestial, fatherland, and is absorbed with thoughts not of a journey to his native Bordeaux, but of the posthumous journey of his soul to the Christian heaven.
Paulinus's renunciation of his wealthy lifestyle and his self-devotion to the service of Saint Felix represent a famous episode in what could be seen as a clash of cultures in late antiquity. Paulinus's postconversion poetic correspondence with Ausonius has enjoyed a privileged status in scholarship on both Ausonius and Paulinus. It has every appearance of being an iconic moment in the history of the encounter of an uncompromising Christianity with the culture and values of classical antiquity. Furthermore, the two letters of Paulinus are, in the words of Catherine Conybeare, "one of the first extant literary accounts of personal conversion." The correspondence is not, however, a record of a late antique clash between paganism and Christianity. There is no doubt that Ausonius was a Christian. If he was not, he would hardly have fooled Paulinus with an opportunistic prayer to God the Father and God the Son for his friend's return in the last of his surviving letters to Paulinus (Ep. 24.104–6 Green). Paulinus would also have seen through Ausonius's insertion of a crowded village church into his painting of an Aquitanian locus amoenus to which he hoped to lure back Paulinus (Ep. 24.86 Green).
Admittedly that is the only instance of the word ecclesia in Ausonius's oeuvre. But what we are dealing with is a matter of cultural rather than ideological or theological choice, a self-conscious practice of literature within a classical tradition. This may also be true of other poets of the late fourth and early fifth centuries: the jury is still out in the case of Claudian, who, as successful panegyrist of Christian emperors, it is hard to believe was a committed anti-Christian; and the discovery of a new fragment of Rutilius Namatianus's On His Return (a eulogy of the patrician Constantius, a devout Christian) has shaken the widely held view that he at least was unambiguously a pagan. The distinction in this respect between the poetry of Ausonius and of (postconversion) Paulinus is that between works written entirely, or almost entirely, within a pre-Christian classical tradition, works that are often self-consciously classicizing, in short what may be labeled "classical"— or "traditional" — poetry, and works on explicitly Christian themes, or, in short, "Christian poetry." This is a distinction that may be generalized to much of the poetry that will concern me in this book. Many of the texts in the category of "Christian poetry" are explicit in their attacks on, or criticism of, pagan religion and pagan culture and literature. At the same time almost all of this body of poetry is deeply embedded within the non-Christian traditions of ancient literature; criticism of pagan culture is often constructed as imitation through opposition, or Kontrastimitation, of a kind that may be difficult to distinguish from the emulative and agonistic practices of pre-Christian poetry. Conversely, the question may be raised as to whether "traditional poetry" is open to the occasional inclusion of Christian subject-matter, or, more generally, shows the imprint of Christian patterns of thought or imagery.
The exchange of letters between Ausonius and Paulinus performs the self-positionings of their authors as they seek respectively to reinforce an identity as a cultivated man of letters, in the case of Ausonius, and, in the case of Paulinus, to set a distance between that identity, as previously performed in correspondence in prose and verse with Ausonius on literary and worldly matters, and a new self-definition. In this chapter I will deploy a selective close reading of these letters with the aim of bringing out some of the larger issues and questions that will occupy me in this book. I will be attentive to both continuity and contrast. This is a dichotomy that is strategically built into Paulinus's replies to Ausonius's letters, as he attempts to give reassurances that the two men are as close friends as ever they were, at the same time as he reinforces his decision to draw a clear line between his former way of life and his new life in Christ. In the wider perspective, how different and how similar are the traditional poetry and the Christian poetry of late antiquity?
At the beginning of Epistle 21 Ausonius appeals to the notions of officium, "duty," and pietas, untranslatable but meaning something like "dutiful respect," in order to prompt Paulinus into a reply: "But no page repays my pious dutifulness" (21.3 officium sed nulla pium mihi pagina reddit). Ausonius returns to the charge of impietas at the end of the letter: "Who then has persuaded you to keep silent so long? May that impious person not be able to make any use of their voice" (62–63 quis tamen iste tibi tam longa silentia suasit? | impius ut nullos hic uocem uertat in usus). These are traditional values of amicitia, "friendship," in the Roman world; Ausonius has particularly in mind Ovid's appeals to them in the complaints of his exilic poetry. They are terms that undergo a transvaluation in Paulinus's newworld, where secular friendship is replaced by a spiritalis amicitia, a spiritual friendship between humans that is based on a transcendent love of Christ, caritas Christi. This final, transcendental, transformation of the ideal of amicitia awaits the conclusion of Paulinus's second letter (Poem 11). In the meantime, he will answer the charge of impietas by appealing to a different set of values. By definition, he says, to be a Christian is to be pious, and therefore Ausonius's charge must drop away: "How can piety be lacking in a Christian? Being a Christian is the reciprocal guarantee of piety, and the mark of an impious man is to be not subject to Christ" (Poem 10.85–88 pietas abesse christiano qui potest? | namque argumentum mutuum est | pietatis esse christianum, et impii | non esse Christo subditum). Therefore it is God's will that Paulinus should show pietas toward his figurative "father" (90) Ausonius.
A few lines later Paulinus gently implies a forgiving criticism of a traditional model of a pietas that can coexist with, indeed be the source of, anger: "But why do I absent myself from you for so long? This is your reproachful question, your angry reaction prompted by piety" (Poem 10.97–98 sed cur remotus tamdiu degam arguis | pioque motu irasceris). The most famous example of pietas-fueled anger is the ending of Virgil's Aeneid, where Aeneas's sense of pietas toward the dead Pallas and Pallas's father, Evander, moves him to kill Turnus in an uncontrollable fit of anger. For another "epic" ending, but one in which, through a Christian transvaluation of pagan models, pietas overcomes ira, take the account of the Crucifixion in Sedulius's Carmen paschale (5.182–86), a biblical epic of the second quarter of the fifth century, on the miracles and passions of Christ:
protinus in patuli suspensus culmine ligni,
religione pia mutans discriminis iram,
pax crucis ipse fuit, uiolentaque robora membris illustrans propriis poenam uestiuit honore suppliciumque dedit signum magis esse salutis.
Suspended forthwith from the top of the spreading wood, transforming with the piety of religion the anger that led to the moment of crisis, He himself was the peace of the cross, and adorning the violent timber with His own limbs He clothed his penalty with glory and turned His punishment rather into a sign of salvation.
Through the paradoxes of the cross, by the agency of religiopia anger is metamorphosed (mutans) into peace, humiliating poena is dressed up as glory, and the death penalty, supplicium, becomes the sign of salvation, salus. Christ on the cross asks the Father to forgive those who crucify him ("for they know not what they do," Luke 23:34). Sedulius's biblical epic stands near the beginning of a long tradition of correcting pagan epic values that will be summed up by Milton in the prologue to book 9 of Paradise Lost. Milton rejects the traditional "arguments" of "the wrath | Of stern Achilles on his foe pursued | Thrice fugitive about Troy wall; or rage | Of Turnus for Lavinia disespoused" (14–17), and prefers as "subject for heroic song" (25) "the better fortitude | Of patience and heroic martyrdom" (31–32). Paulinus, for his part, turns away Ausonius's "pious anger" with a request for forgiveness for himself, whose love for Ausonius is constant (101 ignosce amanti). In the matter of officium and pietas, Paulinus's strategy is to reconcile traditional with Christian values, and at the same time to transform them. He is more radical in the matter of salus, as he responds to Ausonius's manipulation of the epistolary convention of conveying greetings, salus, "salutation." Ausonius complains that he has received no letter (Ep. 21.4 Green) "writing propitious words at the head of sheets that bring greeting" (fausta salutigeris ascribens orsa libellis). Even enemies exchange greetings, he says: "But foe from foe receives greeting in barbarous language, and 'hail' is heard in the midst of war" (7–8 hostis ab hoste tamen per barbara uerba salutem | accipit et "salue" mediis interuenit armis). Ausonius alludes to Ovid, Heroides 4, where Phaedra complains to Hippolytus that even enemies receive and look at missives from enemies (6 inspicit acceptas hostis ab hoste notas). This is one of a number of allusions by both Ausonius and Paulinus to Ovid's epistolary works, both the letters from exile and, as here, the Heroides, letters of mythological heroines. Ausonius's complaints (Ep. 21.1, questus;22.1, querimonia) are tinged with the elegiac and the erotic.
Paulinus's response to the complaint of the lack of a greeting is twofold. Firstly, in the elegiac preface to Poem 10 he fulfils his duty to offer greeting, but only after playing Ausonius's own game of using the plaintive language of Ovidian epistolography: it has been four years since he received a letter from Ausonius, "[four years] during which not a letter has reached me from your mouth, not a line have I seen written by your hand" (3–4 ex quo nulla tuo mihi littera uenit ab ore, | nulla tua uidi scripta notata manu), echoing the language of the opening of Heroides 3 (1–2 quam legis, a rapta Briseide littera uenit | uix bene barbarica Graeca notata manu). The choice of elegiac couplets for the first part of this threefold letter may indeed be determined in part by a wish to write a specifically Ovidian kind of letter, acknowledging Ausonius's own allusion to the Heroides. Here, at least, is a kind of responsion, or echoing, to answer Ausonius's complaint (Ep. 21.9–25 Green) that the natural world and the world of pagan religious ritual are full of an echoing responsiveness, in which Paulinus alone refuses to participate: "Even rocks respond to a man, and words return when they are struck back from caves, and the image of a voice returns from the woods" (9–10respondent et saxa homini, et percussus ab antris | sermo redit, redit et nemorum uocalis imago).
Echo, and Narcissus, figure in epigrams in Ausonius and the Anthologia Latina, obvious subjects for what is often seen as a late antique predilection for the paradoxical (see chapter 6), for which the revived genre of epigram provides a convenient vehicle. But figures of reflection and echo, of desiring reflection and desiring echo, may have a particular appeal for late antique poets as they contemplate the relations between their own productions and those of a classical past.
In Poem 10 Paulinus echoes Ausonius closely at line 5, salutifero ... libello, "letter bearing greetings," lightly varying Ausonius's salutigeris ... libellis(Ep. 21.4). Having done their duty, the elegiacs withdraw: "The elegies now give their greeting, and having greeted you, now that they have made a beginning, a first step, for the others, they fall silent" (17–18 nunc elegi saluere iubent, dictaque salute, | ut fecere aliis orsa gradumque, silent). This is a pregnant silence: what is left unspoken is that this is an end to this kind of poetic responsion, communication of the traditional kind, as shared by the two men in the past. The dialogue will continue, but it will not be business as usual — on that silence will fall.
One of the differences relates specifically to the word salus. Here we might suspect that Ausonius's use of Ovidian allusion offers Paulinus an avenue that the former had not intended. Heroides 4, the letter of Phaedra to Hippolytus to which Ausonius had alluded, begins with a typically Ovidian play on words: "With wishes for the welfare which she herself, unless you give it to her, will ever lack, the Cretan maid greets the hero whose mother was an Amazon" (1–2 Quam nisi tu dederis, caritura est ipsa, salutem | mittit Amazonio Cressa puella uiro). Here salus is both "greeting" and literally, "welfare, health." Paulinus takes the Ovidian licence of revalorizing the epistolary cliché, but the kind of salus he is interested in is that of the soul, not of the body —"salvation." In the iambics Paulinus attacks the sophists, rhetors, and poets, who fill men's hearts with false vanities and "bring nothing that might bestow salvation" (41 nihil ferentes, ut salutem conferant): only God is truly salutifer.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Classicism and Christianity in Late Antique Latin Poetry"
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