[image ALT: Much of my site will be useless to you if you've got the images turned off!]
mail: Bill Thayer 
[image ALT: Cliccare qui per una pagina di aiuto in Italiano.]

[Link to a series of help pages]
[Link to the next level up]
[Link to my homepage]

An article from the 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica, now in the public domain.
Any color photos are mine, © William P. Thayer.

Rutilius Namatianusa

Rutilius Namatianus Roman poet, flourished at the beginning of the 5th century A.D. He was the author of a Latin poem, De Reditu Suo, in elegiac metre, describing a coast voyage from Rome to Gaul in A.D. 416. The literary excellence of the work, and the flashes of light which it throws across a momentous but dark epoch of history, combine to give it exceptional importance among the relics of late Roman literature. The poem was in two books; the exordium of the first and the greater part of the second have been lost. What remains consists of about seven hundred lines.

The author is a native of S. Gaul (Toulouse or perhaps Poitiers), and belonged, like Sidonius, to one of the great governing families of the Gaulish provinces. His father, whom he calls Lachanius, had held high offices in Italy and at the imperial court, had been governor of Tuscia (Etruria and Umbria), then imperial treasurer (comes sacrarum largitionum), imperial recorder (quaestor), and governor of the capital itself (praefectus urbi). Rutilius boasts his career to have been no less distinguished than his father's, and particularly indicates that he had been secretary of state (magister officiorum) and governor of the capital (I. 157, 427, 467561). After reaching manhood, he passed through the tempestuous period between the death of Theodosius (395) and the fall of the usurper Attalus, which occurred near the date when his poem was written. He witnessed the chequered career of Stilicho as actual, though not titular, emperor of the West; he saw the hosts of Radagaisus rolled back from Italy, only to sweep over Gaul and Spain; the defeats and triumphs of Alaric; the three sieges and final sack of Rome, followed by the marvellous recovery of the city; Heraclian's vast armament dissipated; and the fall of seven pretenders to the Western diadem. Undoubtedly the sympathies of Rutilius were with those who during this period dissented from and, when they could, opposed the general tendencies of the imperial policy. We know from himself that he was the intimate of those who belonged to the circle of the great orator Symmachus — men who scouted Stilicho's compact with the Goths, and led the Roman senate to support the pretenders Eugenius and Attalus in the vain hope of reinstating the gods whom Julian had failed to save.

While making but few direct assertions about historical characters or events, the poem forces on us important conclusions concerning the politics and religion of the time. The attitude of the writer towards paganism is remarkable. The whole poem is intensely pagan, and is penetrated by the feeling that the world of literature and culture is and must remain pagan; that outside paganism lies a realm of barbarism. The poet wears an air of exalted superiority over the religious innovators of his day, and entertains a buoyant confidence that the future of the ancient gods of Rome will not belie their glorious past. Invective and apology he scorns alike, nor troubles himself to show, with Claudian, even a suppressed grief at the indignities put upon the old religion by the new. As a statesman, he is at pains to avoid offending those politic Christian senators over whom pride in their country had at least as great power as attachment to their new religion. Only once or twice does Rutilius speak directly of Christianity, and then only to attack the monks, whom the temporal authorities had hardly as yet recognized, and whom, indeed, only a short time before, a Christian emperor had forced by thousands into the ranks of his army. Judaism Rutilius could assail without wounding either pagans or Christians, but he intimates, not obscurely, that he hates it chiefly as the evil root whence the rank plant of Christianity had sprung.

We read in Gibbon that "Honorius excluded all persons who were adverse to the catholic church from holding any office in the state," that he "obstinately rejected the service of all those who dissented from his religion," and that "the law was applied in the utmost latitude and rigorously executed." Far different is the picture of political life impressed upon us by Rutilius. His voice is assuredly not that of a partisan of a discredited and overborne faction. We see by the aid of his poem a senate at Rome composed of past office-hollders, the majority of whom were certainly pagan still. We discern a Christian section whose Christianity was political rather than religious, who were Romans first and Christians afterwards, whom a new breeze in politics might easily have wafted back to the old religion. Between these two sections the broad old Roman toleration reigns. Some ecclesiastical historians have fondly imagined that after the sack of Rome the bishop Innocent returned to a position of predominance. No one who fairly reads Rutilius can cherish this idea. The air of the capital, perhaps even of Italy, was still charged with paganism. The court was far in advance of the people, and the persecuting laws were in large part incapable of execution.

Perhaps the most interesting lines in the whole poem are those in which Rutilius assails the memory of "dire Stilicho," as he names him. Stilicho, "fearing to suffer all that had caused himself to be feared," annihilated those defences of Alps and Apennines which the provident gods had interposed between the barbarians and the Eternal City, and planted the cruel Goths, his "skin-clad" minions, in the very sanctuary of the empire. His wile was wickeder than the wile of the Trojan horse, than the wile of Althaea or of Scylla. May Nero rest from all the torments of the damned, that they may seize on Stilicho; for Nero smote his own mother, but Stilicho the mother of the world!

We shall not err in supposing that we have here (what we find nowhere else) an authentic expression of the feeling entertained by a majority of the Roman senate concerning Stilicho. He had but imitated the policy of Theodosius with regard to the barbarians; but even that great emperor had met with passive opposition from the old Roman families. The relations, however, between Alaric and Stilicho had been closer and more mysterious than those between Alaric and Theodosius, and men who had seen Stilicho surrounded by his body-guard of Goths not unnaturally looked on the Goths who assailed Rome as Stilicho's avengers. It is noteworthy that Rutilius speaks of the crime of Stilicho in terms far different from those used by Orosius and the historians of the lower empire. They believed that Stilicho was plotting to make his son emperor, and that he called in the Goths in order to climb higher. Rutilius holds that he used the barbarians merely to save himself from impending ruin. The Christian historians assert that Stilicho designed to restore paganism. To Rutilius he is the most uncompromising foe of paganism. His crowning sin (recorded by the poet alone) was the destruction of the Sibylline books — a sin worthy of one who had decked his wife in the spoils of Victory, the goddess who had for centuries presided over the deliberations of the senate. This crime of Stilicho alone is sufficient in the eyes of Rutilius to account for the disasters that afterwards befell the city, just as Merobaudes, a generation or two later, traced the miseries of his own day to the overthrow of the ancient rites of Vesta.

With regard to the form of the poem, Rutilius handles the elegiac couplet with great metrical purity and freedom, and betrays many signs of long study in the elegiac poetry of the Augustan era. The Latin is unusually clean for the times, and is generally fairly classical both in vocabulary and construction. The taste of Rutilius, too, is comparatively pure. If he lacks the genius of Claudian, he also lacks his overloaded gaudiness and his large exaggeration, and the directness of Rutilius shines by comparison with the laboured complexity of Ausonius. It is common to call Claudian the last of the Roman poets. That title might fairly be claimed for Rutilius, unless it be reserved for Merobaudes. At any rate, in passing from Rutilius to Sidonius no reader can fail to feel that he has left the region of Latin poetry for the region of Latin verse.

Of the many interesting details of the poem we can only mention a few. At the outset we have an almost dithyrambic address to the goddess Roma, whose glory has ever shone the brighter for disaster, and who will rise once more in her might and confound her barbarian foes. The poet shows as deep a consciousness as any modern historian that the grandest achievement of Rome was the spread of law. Next we get incidental but not unimportant references to the destruction of roads and property wrought by the Goths, to the state of the havens at the mouths of the Tiber, and the general decay of nearly all the old commercial ports on the coast. Most of these were as desolate then as now. Rutilius even exaggerates the desolation of the once important city of Cosa in Etruria, whose walls have scarcely changed from that day to ours. The port that served Pisae, almost alone of all those visited by Rutilius, seems to have retained its prosperity, and to have foreshadowed the subsequent greatness of that city. At one point on the coast the villagers everywhere were "soothing their wearied hearts with holy merriment," and were celebrating the festival of Osiris.

Authorities. All existing MSS. of Rutilius are later than 1494, and are copies from a lost copy of an ancient MS. once at the monastery of Bobio,º which disappeared about 1700. The editio princeps is that by I. B. Pius (Bologna, 1520), and the principal editions since have been those by Barth (1623), P. Burman (1731, in his edition of the minor Latin poets), Wernsdorf (1778, part of a similar collection), Zumpt (1840), and the critical edition by Lucian Müller (Teubner, Leipzig, 1870), and another by Vessereau (1904); also an annotated edition by Keene, with a translation by G. F. Savage-Armstrong (1906). Müller writes the poet's name as Claudius Rutilius Namatianus, instead of the usual Rutilius Claudius Namatianus; but if the identification of the poet's father with the Claudius mentioned in the Theodosian Code (2, 4, 5) be correct, Müller is probably wrong. Rutilius receives more or less attention from all writers on the history or literature of the times, but a lucid chapter in Beugnot, Histoire de la destruction du Paganisme en Occident (1835), may be especially mentioned, and one in Pichon's Derniers écrivains profanes (1906).

[J. S. R.]

Thayer's Note:

a The poet's surviving work is onsite, in the original Latin as well as an English translation; including the editor's introduction to him, later in date, somewhat more detailed, and with a better bibliography.

[image ALT: Valid HTML 4.01.]

Page updated: 26 Apr 17