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This webpage reproduces an article in the
Phoenix
Supplement to Vol. 1 (1947), pp36‑41

The text is in the public domain:
Canadian law provides copyright protection for 50 years after the death of the author;
Gilbert Norwood died in 1954.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though, please let me know!

p36 Rutilius Claudius Namatianus
Gilbert Norwood

In 410 A.D. Rome was taken by the Gothic chieftain, Alaric. Six years later Rutilius wrote a poem which includes an important, though mostly indirect, comment on that disaster. He was a wealthy and distinguished Gaul, long resident in Rome, who had recently been Prefect of the City. His De Reditu Suo narrated, with notable digressions and reflexions, the course of his journey to Southern Gaul, whither he was compelled to return because his estates had been ravaged by the invaders and his tenants needed help.a1 Of the original two books1 we possess nearly all first and a few dozen lines of the second — something over seven hundred lines, written in the elegiac metre. Brief as it is, the work teems with interest, topographical, personal, historical, religious, and literary.

He chose the sea-route, not the Via Aurelia, because the country had been wasted by "Getic bands." Accompanied by many friends, he went down to the port of Ostia, where contrary winds detained him for two weeks. Setting sail at length,º he was still a leisurely traveller, hugging the shore and landing frequently to pay visits. The coast apparently swarmed with friends of his who had filled the highest offices of State with unique competence, thereby earning Rutilius' extravagant eulogies and affection. But not only friends: even enemies, or almost anything, provided sufficient excuse, as when he tried to go ashore at the mouth of the Umbro becausea2 it possessed a tranquilla ripa (no doubt he was seasick). For once he failed to persuade his long-suffering crew.2 Usually he had better luck — a rustic festival in honour of Osiris, for example, and a refreshing brawl with a Jewish bailiff. Everywhere he used his eyes and imagination: we read of the salt-industry and the sluices for regulating the flow of sea-water over the salinae,3 of an island-monastery and of a staked-out channel4 which, except for the shouting, reminds one of the St. Lawrence below Montreal.

In Volaterranum, vero Vada nomine, tractum

Ingressus dubii tramitis alta lego.

Despectat prorae custos clavumque sequentem

Dirigit et puppim voce monente regit.

Incertos gemina discriminat arbore fauces

Defixasque offert limes uterque sudes. . . .

"Entering the region of Volaterra, rightly called The Shallows, I follow the doubtful channel's deeper part. At the bows a look-out man stares downwards, directing the obedient tiller and guiding our boat with warning shouts. A double line of trees marks the baffling passage: the boundary to right and left is shown by deep-hammered stakes."

p37 As an historical document this little poem has much value. The capture of Rome shocked the civilized world,5 but Rutilius's verses are the sole contemporary expression of the feelings that stirred the pagan nobility. From the champions of that religion which was fighting paganism we hear far more. Two Christian works, one of which stands high among the world's greatest books, were inspired by Alaric's achievement. Orosius undertook his history on purpose to prove that this calamity, attributed by the heathen to the spread of Christianity, was less overwhelming than they alleged, and that earlier misfortunes had far exceeded it. The same purpose underlies St. Augustine's City of God. At one point our author gives them remarkable support; despite his sorrow and indignation, he writes thus6 in the course of his passionate farewell to the City:

Percensere labor densis decora alta tropheis

Ut si quis stellas pernumerare velit.

Confunduntque vagos delubra micantia visus:

Ipsos crediderim sic habitare deos.

"It would be wearisome to tell over the crowded trophies on thy splendid eminences, as if one sought to count the stars. Thy glittering fanes dazzle my roving gaze: such, methinks, are the abodes of the gods themselves." This remark proves clearly that the great public buildings stood undamaged: otherwise he would certainly have inserted at least a phrase of lamentation.

No less striking is Rutilius' attack7 on the great Stilicho (lately dead), who had been the uncrowned emperor of the West and its surest defence. After describing the mountain-system of Italy and saluting that Providence which, even when Rome was yet unbuilt, had arranged for it a multiplex munimen, he suddenly bursts out:

Quo magis est facinus diri Stilichonis acerbum

Proditor arcani quod fuit imperii.

Romano generi dum nititur esse superstes,

Crudelis summis miscuit ima furor,

Dumque timet quicquid se fecerat ipse timeri,

Inmisit Latiae barbara tela neci . . .

Omnia Tartarei cessent tormenta Neronis:

Consumat Stygias tristior umbra faces.

Hic immortalem, mortalem perculit ille;

Hic mundi matrem, perculit ille suam.

"All the more hateful is the crime of fell Stilicho who betrayed an Empire guarded thus. His cruel frenzy wrought chaos as he strove to destroy all the Roman race except himself. Dreading whatever had made himself dreaded, he admitted barbarian swords to murder Italy. . . . Let hellish Nero have respite from every torment: let the flames of the pit concentrate upon a ghost more horrible! Nero smote but a mortal, his own p38mother: Stilicho smote an immortal, Mother of the world." This tirade compels unwilling admiration: in its rhetorical virtues and vices alike, it equals Claudian, perhaps even Lucan; the last four lines recall Dante's grim habit of consigning political enemies to Malebolge. Stilicho's method with the Goths was a continuation of the policy followed by another eminent statesman, the Emperor Theodosius. It is absurd for Rutilius to write as if he lived in the era of Augustus and Tiberius, when an unmistakable gulf separated Roman and barbarian: Stilicho himself was a Vandal.

An uncompromising pagan, Rutilius bitterly reviles both Jew and Christian. During one of his shore-excursions, he and his party came to loggerheads with the tenant of an estate whereon they had trespassed.8a3

The spot was under the management of a peevish Jew, one of those animals who hold aloof from civilized food. He wanted us to pay for 'bushes disturbed' and 'seaweed damaged'; he grew loud over the huge losses we had caused by drinking the water. We gave him back the abuse due to his disgusting tribe . . . whose dreary sabbath is their joy. . . . One day in seven is condemned to shameful sloth to commemorate by idleness a god fatigued. The further nonsense of these lying slaves not even children, I imagine, could be induced to believe. Oh that Judaea had never been conquered by Pompey's wars and the arms of Titus! The sore was cut out, but the contagion spreads only the further, and the vanquished tribe oppresses its conquerors.9

His hatred of Christianity, we can see, was equally fierce; but he does not make a frontal attack. The new religion had attained immense power. Fourteen years earlier, after a long struggle, it had won a momentous victory: despite the eloquence of Symmachus and the desperate resistance offered by a pagan majority in the Senate, Theodosius ordered that the statue and altar of Victory (regarded as the emblems of heathen ascendancy) should be removed from the Senate-chamber. Rutilius therefore does not venture to assail Christianity as a whole, but restricts his censure to what he thinks its most clearly objectionable feature. The traditional Roman insistence on good citizenship led both parties in this long and bitter controversy to emphasize especially the effect of Christianity upon the public welfare. Minucius Felix, probably the first to defend the faith in Latin, is at pains to prove that a Christian can be a sound citizen; both Orosius and St. Augustine write of this as vital. Rutilius fastens upon the most anti-social element in contemporary Christian life, monasticism. When he tells of a well-born young man who retired to Gorgon Island as a monk, he significantly says:10

Perditus hic vivo funere civis erat.

"Here a citizen was lost by death in life." A little earlier, his ship passed another island, Capraria, where dwelt a colony of monks; and he delivers himself thus:11 "They call themselves by the Greek name monachi" — solitaries — "because they wish to live aloof from watching eyes. In their p39dread of Fortune's harms, they fear her blessings. Who would seek misery, in order to avoid the chance of it? What infatuation of a perverted brain is so foolish as to shirk happiness because one fears sorrow?" Very damaging, no doubt, but very stilted. He does a hundred times better in the brilliant line that precedes all this:

Squalet lucifugis insula plena viris.

It is little use to translate this by "the island swarms with light-shunning men." The rare adjective lucifugis cannot but remind us of the place where Virgil12 uses it of beetles. The picture is vividly reinforced by squalet, which can be perfectly rendered only if we recall The Importance of Being Earnest: "Shropshire is positively honeycombed with curates." Little did Rutilius foresee that his poem would not have survived at all but for the monks of Bobbio!

His views on religion were by no means only negative. The pleasant allusion13 to a rustic festival in Osiris' honour suggests that he approved the Eastern cults which had long ago found new homes in the West. But vastly more important and precious to him was that splendid goddess upon whom he and his class lavished their sincerest love — Rome herself. Few things are more frequent in Tacitus (for example) than the signs of a genuine and widespread emperor-worship — a custom astonishing to us, but natural in Romans of that and succeeding generations, owing to their political temper and their terrible experiences. Rome had been by turns the scourge and the saviour of Europe, Asia, and Africa. She had become the only Power in which men could whole-heartedly believe, and in time they grew to feel for her awe and worship as well as fear and admiration. Hence the worship of the Emperor, as her living symbol and representative. But between the time of Tacitus and the fifth century a spiritual change occurred: the idea of Rome was elevated, etherealized: she was adored less as the symbol of irresistible force than as the Queen of civilization, the Giver of enlightenment and happiness. It is thus that Rutilius loves and praises her. By far the finest and best-known lines of the poem belong to that noble apostrophe14 which he utters as he leaves Rome for the port of Ostia.

Hearken, thou beauteous Queen of the world that is thine own, Rome that hast won thy way to the starry heaven! Hearken, O Mother of men, Mother of gods, thou whose shrines bring us close to the sky. . . . Sooner shall accursèd oblivion blot out the sun than thy glory shall fade from my heart. Far as the sun pours his beams, far as the billows of encircling Ocean, dost thou extend thy bounties. Phoebus himself, the all-embracing, is but thy courier: within thy realm his coursers ascend and sink. . . . Thou hast made one country for nations far-sundered; under thy sceptre defeat has turned to blessing even against men's will. . . . The former world is now thy City.15 That thou rulest is much: that thou deservest to rule is more. . . .16 The ages that await thee shall meet no limits as long as earth endures and the sky holds its stars aloft. That which destroys other empires is to thee a renewal of life: the secret of new birth is the power to grow by reverses.

p40 The lines just cited are noble indeed, but the whole speech is much longer, containing a good deal of conventional, if not hackneyed, stuff — the allusions to Brennus, Pyrrhus, and Hannibal, for instance. Such writing at once recalls Ovid's inferior work. Immense harm was done to Roman poetry by the craze for rhetoric, which began to work thereon under Augustus and continued so long as there was any classical or pseudo-classical poetry to infect. Of that corruption Ovid was both the inaugurator and the victim: for, unlike Virgil, he failed to keep rhetoric under control. The results were at first superb, above all in Lucan; but even he shows how quickly rhetoric can run to seed. Examples of this degeneracy can be found in our extracts from Rutilius.

Another Ovidian fault is trivial cleverness — banality of thought combined with astonishing virtuosity in word-manipulation, analogous to modern feat of balancing a billiard-cue on one's chin. Ovid's finest effort of the kind occurs in the place17 where he thinks fit to tell us that a particular wave is the tenth, and contrives to fill a whole pentameter with that numeral:

Posterior nono est, undecimoque prior.

Rutilius never sinks so low, certainly;b but he is often enough guilty of padding; and he gives us one dextrous bit of arithmetic in verse.18 Unlike Ovid's absurd wave, it is extremely useful: caring naught for the baffled rage of researchers, Rutilius coolly tells us the exact date of his poem. Rome need not fear "the fatal distaffs"

Quamvis sedecies denis et mille peractis

Annus praeterea iam tibi nonus eat —

"though, after thou hast lived through sixteen times ten plus a thousand years, an additional ninth year is now passing over thee." Work this out, accept the Varronian date for the first year of Rome — that is, what we call 754 B.C. — and you arrive at 416 A.D. Other prosaic passages are his excuse19 for omitting the nomen20 of the new Praefectus Urbis because it will not go into elegiacs:

Hic praefecturam sacrae cognoscimus urbis

Delatam meritis, dulcis amice, tuis.

Optarem verum complecti carmine nomen,

Sed quosdam refugit regula dura pedes,

and his apology21 for a digression —

Sed deverticulo fuimus fortasse loquaces,

which sounds particularly feeble after his eruption concerning Stilicho.

Obtrusive learning had long marked Latin poetry. Rutilius, though not a slave to the habit of "allusions," obeys it too often. A story about a plague of mice brings in the war between the Pygmies and the Cranes;22 the isthmus of Mt. Argentarius must be compared with the Corinthian p41isthmus;23 the quarrelsome Jew is fiercer than Antiphates,24 the Laestrygonian giant who devoured one of Ulysses' shipmates; monks suffer from black spleen because Homer attributes to bile the despair of Bellerophon;25 and so forth. Nevertheless, convention and bookishness only half conceal a real poet. J. S. Reid has well said26 that in passing from Rutilius to Sidonius we leave the region of Latin poetry for the region of Latin verse. Rutilius was saved, partly by fundamental seriousness, and still more by closeness of observation. It was just because poets had ceased to look at things for themselves that they were content to see them through Virgil's eyes or Ovid's or Lucan's. Independence of thought and vision produces, among other good things, independence of style. Some examples already given prove this. Now and again we fancy we see Rutilius hesitate between following his predecessors and taking his own way. Here is a passage27 where he does both. First the ghost of Ovid speaks. "Our holiday from the ship we spend in the neighbouring woods and hunting offers us pleasant exercise. The steward, our host, provides gear for the chase, and hounds skilled to detect the lair by its scent. Our ambush and the loose-knotted cunning of our nets start the quarry, and a boar falls, terrible for the lightning-thrust of its tusk — a boar that Meleager's muscles would fear to approach, that would burst the hold of Amphitryon's son." The Hunting of the Calydonian Boar, Meleager and Hercules, all worked into one couplet! Splendid! Now Rutilius puts in a little of his own — something heard and seen, not read about. "Then the horn leaps among the hills that wait to give echo, and song makes our quarry light as we carry it home." In a moment we have come from legendary sinews to a real hunt, a real tramp homewards.

If his description28 of the harbour at Centumcellae recalls Virgil himself for an instant, that is due not to imitation or literary reminiscence, but simply to the power of relishing attractive detail:

Nec posuisse satis laxo navalia portu:

Ne vaga vel tutas ventilet aura rates,

Interior medias sinus invitatus in aedes

Instabilem fixis aera nescit aquis.

"They were not content to lay out docks in the open harbour: lest a random breeze should rock the ships even in safety, the creek is invited to wind inwards amidst the houses, and its waters lie calm, forgetting all movements of the air." But in another couplet29 we find surely the most delicately beautiful of all:

Solvimus aurorae dubio, quo tempore primum

Agnosci patitur redditus arva color.

"In the faint dawn we stood out to sea, at the hour when first you can make out the fields as their hues com back to them."


The Author's Notes:

1 II.9: opuscula bina.

2 I.337‑42.

3 I.475‑90.

4 I.453 ff.

5 For instance, St. Jerome in far-off Bethlehem. "When the rumour of the fall of Rome reached him, he broke off his Commentary on Ezekiel; his voice was choked with sobs as he thought of the capture of the great city: capitur urbs quae totum cepit orbem." Dill, Roman Society in the Last Century of the Western Empire (Macmillan and Co., 1905), 306.

6 I.93‑6.

7 II.41‑60.

8 I.377‑98.

9 I.398: victoresque suos natio victa premit — an imitation (in wording, not sense) of Horace, Epistles, II.I.156, Graecia capta ferum victorem cepit.

10 I.518.

11 I.439‑46.

12 Georgics IV.243: lucifugis congesta cubilia blattis.

13 I.373‑6.

14 I.47‑164.

15 The famous line (v. 66): Urbem fecisti quod prius orbis erat.

16 Quod regnas minus est quam quod regnare mereris (v. 91).

17 Tristia, I.II.50.

18 I.135 f.

19 I.417 f.; cf. Horace, Satires I.V.87; oppidulo, quod versu dicere non est.

20 Rutilius does manage to get the cognomen Rufius into his next couplet.

21 II.61.

22 I.287‑92.

23 I.315‑20.

24 I.382.

25 I.449 f. (untrue: see Iliad, VI.200 f.).

26 Encyclopaedia Britannica, ed. XI.

27 I.621‑30.

28 I.243‑6.

29 I.217 f.


Thayer's Notes:

a1 a2 a3 Although each is plausible, none of these statements can be supported by the strict text of Rutilius.

b I never thought I'd defend the turgid and overblown practices of Late Antique poetry, but there's a first time for everything. The fact is, though, that once you have a system of prosody in which certain phrases are outright forbidden — as are no doubt most long Latin numbers — well then, if you must express a number in verse, you will be absolutely forced into these convolutions. Everybody faced the same problem, and pretty much everybody adopted the same solution: here, for example, a curate in a remote area of medieval Umbria, who surely had no desire to rival Ovid.

In the case at hand Rutilius has actually done very well: I'll argue that in the way he piles those numbers up he has given them a certain force and majesty that in themselves convey his message.


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Page updated: 29 Aug 07