Friday, June 29, 2007

Aulus Gellius and the Preservation of Archaic Latin Poetry

In the eyes of most classicists today the chief merit of Aulus Gellius, a Latin author of the Second Century AD, lies in the many fragments of lost authors he preserves, especially older Latin poets. Now I find Gellius an immensely charming and interesting writer myself, and I feel that one need not find historical excuses to read him and enjoy him. Yet apparently he was not oblivious of his role as a preserver of antiquities, for he writes in Noctes Atticae I.24.1:

Trium poetarum inlustrium epigrammata, Cn. Naevii, Plauti, M. Pacuvii, quae ipsi fecerunt et incidenda sepulcro suo reliquerunt, nobilitatis eorum gratia et venustatis scribenda in his commentariis esse duxi.

“I have judged that the epigrams of three famous poets, Cnaeus Naevius, Plautus, and Marcus Pacuvius, which they wrote and left to be engraved on their tombs, ought to be written down in my commentaries by reason of the excellence and antiquity of their authors.”

Now it may be that “gratia venustatis” merely reminds us that Gellius prefers old things to new ones, and that he would hardly record the epitaphs of his contemporaries; yet he must surely be thinking also of readers like himself, who, although they matched Gellius in their wide-ranging interest, yet might not be willing to take the same effort to track down these older writers. And if we prefer the more archaic meaning (never out of the question with Gellius) of “nobilitas,” that of famousness rather than excellence, then it becomes even more likely that our author had some thought of historical preservation when he wrote this.

The first epitaph is that of Cnaeus Naevius, an author of comedy, tragedy, and even epic in the later third and early second centuries BC; Gellius says that it is full of Campanian arrogance.

inmortales mortales si foret fas flere,
flerent divae Camenae Naevium poetam.
itaque postquam est Orcho traditus thesauro,
obliti sunt Romae loquier lingua Latina.

If it be right for Gods to weep for Men,
Let th’holy Muses weep for Naevius then,
For after Orcus gained him for her treasure
The men at Rome forgot their Latin measure.

Gellius doubts whether the second one, attributed to the famous comic playwright Plautus, may have in fact been an invention of Marcus Varro, a distinguished Roman scholar of the first century BC, for his De Poetis “On Poets.”

postquam est mortem aptus Plautus, Comoedia luget,
scaena est deserta, dein Risus, Ludus Iocusque
et Numeri innumeri simul omnes conlacrimarunt.

Comedy mourned when that her Plautus died:
The stage was empty, Smile and Joke both cried,
And countless others still lie weeping by her side.

The last epitaph is that of Marcus Pacuvius, a dramatist and painter of the second century BC, whose tragedies were much admired by Cicero and his contemporaries. Gellius describes this epitaph as “most modest, most clean, and worthy of his most elegant gravity.”

Adulescens, tam etsi properas, hoc te saxulum
Rogat ut te aspicias, deinde quod scriptum est, legas.
Hic sunt poetae Pacuvii Marci sita
Ossa. Hoc volebam, nescius ne esses. Vale.

Although you rush, young man, this stone will plead
“Look to yourself, and what is written, read.”
Here Pacuvius’ poet’s bones do dwell.
This only would I have you know. Farewell.

I confess that I had quite a bit of trouble translating the last epigram, and I fear I have left it little of its “elegantissima gravitas.” I have drawn out the meaning in the last line especially, which is far more subtle in the Latin, literally, “I wanted this, that you would not be ignorant.”

In Naevius’ epitaph, the last line literally means “Those at Rome have forgotten to speak with a/the Latin tongue.”

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Thoughts on Matthew 1 and Joseph

Having been very anxious after I decided to take up blogging how to begin, it occurred to me that some thoughts I had written down at the outset of another of my summer projects, reading the Gospel of Matthew in Greek, were wholly appropriate, proper to a beginning in context and content, however much they may want for eloquence and insight.

In reading the first chapter of Matthew I was struck at what the specific mission given to Joseph by the angel was; it was to name Jesus. This task is twice balanced with Mary’s role, which is to bear a son (verse 21 “τεξεται δε υιον και καλεσεις το ονομα αυτου Ιησουν…” and verse 25ετεκεν υιον και εκαλεσεν το ονομα αυτου Ιησουν.”) In this seemingly simple, and, as I recall the many Advent sermons I have heard, seemingly often overlooked task Joseph becomes the first person to proclaim the Gospel standing at the heart of the New Testament, indeed, of all scripture, that God is with us and is our savior from sin. This the angel makes clear: “you will name him Jesus because he will save his people from their sins.” (verse 21). And the name Jesus means “Yahweh saves,” that the God of Israel saves. Thus, in saying that his name will be Jesus because he will save his people from their sins, the angel has hinted, if darkly, that the child bearing this name will be the God of Israel. The angel makes this clearer when he offers Joseph the words of Isaiah “they will call his name Emmanuel, God-With-Us.” (verse 23). When Joseph, with a single act of obedience, names his child Jesus, he has proclaimed, albeit to a world (himself probably included) which cannot fully understand, the very core of the Gospel; he has said “this child, born of a young woman, I name God Saves, for this child will save his people from their sins; and in him will Isaiah’s prophecy be fulfilled, for he will be called God-With-Us.” To those of us who have the whole story, the meaning is obvious; to Joseph it must have appeared wondrous and cloudy. Yet Joseph preached the Gospel and confessed the glory of God’s great act without knowing he did so, and by his obedience and not so much his knowledge became a sure instrument in the hand of God to his glory.