Accidental Adventures in Antiquity: The Works of Ausonius

For when the Emperor Octavianus was reigning, they [the Golden Age poets] vied with one another in presenting him with their works, and set no limit on to the number of the poems which they composed to his praise. You may be sure that though he may perhaps have admired these authors as much as I do you, he certainly did not have a greater personal affection for them.” – Emperor Theodosius I to Ausonius (according to the latter)

[Modern bust of Ausonius in Bordeaux by Bertrand Piéchaud)]

In October, my wife and I spent a week on the Massachusetts coast at Cape Cod and Provincetown, mainly as a quiet getaway to ease ourselves back into traveling after two years of pandemic moratoria on that. Particularly at the end of the tourist season, as it was, there isn’t an excessive amount to do in Provincetown, aside from eat, hop on at least one whale watch, and walk around the little shops (yes, we did the Pilgrim Tower, but it was really foggy that day, so the end result was about as anticlimactic as when I saw the Lantau Island Buddha in similar conditions).

[The fog made the Buddha beautifully surreal, but we could not see it from the distance illustrated in this photo]

Anyway, we love little shops and our goal was simply to relax, so we had a lovely time. And of course, I had to poke around a bookshop when given the opportunity—even though I sometimes find browsing in bookstores psychically overwhelming. There’s just so much to look at! Also, like many readers, I buy too many books as it is, so I have to exercise some restraint by at least generally purchasing books I specifically want and not picking up others willy-nilly. But the shop in Provincetown was small, so that cut down on the strain to my latent ADD, and its classical section—the genre I’m most likely to impulse buy something unread—was smaller still, so I was somewhat safe. Plus, I was on vacation, so I was primed to throw caution to the wind and pick up some nonsense.

Now, fortunately or unfortunately, depending on your point of view, I’ve reached the stage in my personal classical library that it’s harder to stumble on stuff I haven’t read or don’t own in an independent bookshop that doesn’t have a particular leaning in that direction. Indie shops always have their hobbyhorses, which makes each one unique (one of this gentleman’s was photography), and as mentioned, I buy enough books on the internet from indie sellers to feel like I know who the “big” classical players on the scene are in the US (and the UK, at this point). So my expectations were modest, and indeed, this shop had only a couple of shelves of inventory, and a lot of it was predictably numerous copies of Homer and the Aeneid. But we weren’t completely cast adrift, and I did scoop up a couple of things—namely, an 1883 printing of Bulfinch’s Mythology (which I’ve read, but didn’t own), a standard Penguin copy of Ab urbe condita (because I still need to actually read Livy), and the real coup of the trip, a reasonably priced Loeb edition.

For those of you not spending your time ordering rogue volumes of Cassius Dio from Italy, Harvard’s Loeb Classical Library editions retail new even on Amazon for about $30 for each palm-sized volume and their demand is high enough that even used copies still average around $20. This isn’t crazy if you’re just looking for the two volumes of Horace, but it becomes a serious financial investment when you want all eight volumes of Strabo’s Geography, or all ten volumes of Pliny’s Natural History. Though never fear, gentle readers—I’m a practiced online book bargain hunter and I’ve cobbled together both of those sets for less than asking price, and I’m planning to do a series of posts on both next year, gods willing…

However, neither of those are what I found in the Provincetown bookshop. What I instead found was the first volume (of two) of the works of Decimius Magnus Ausonius (c. 310-395 CE) for $15 and although I knew absolutely nothing about him or his oeuvre, the price was a steal so I took a leap of faith, thinking at the very least I could put my findings before all of you as I am now doing to justify it.

[Despite it not being, as I said, a particular area of interest/expertise, you can see that the owner had done his due diligence when he set the original price. Consider the markdown foreshadowing…]

As I would discover, Ausonius was a Gallo-Roman grammarian and rhetorician who lived in the 4th century CE. Despite his Latin name, his family was entirely of French extraction. His father, Julius Ausonius, was a respected physician from Bazas (in the modern Gironde region) (viii), and his mother, Aemilia Aeonia, was born in Aquitaine and was a descendant of the Aedui tribe, whose central patrimony had historically been roughly around modern Autun (3, n. 2). Ausonius himself would grow up in Bordeaux, until his education was placed in the hands of his maternal uncle, Aemilius Magnus Arborius, a professor at the University of Toulouse (Tolosa), around 320 CE. There he would study under his uncle until Arborius was tapped by the emperor, Constantine, to tutor his youngest son, Constans, in 328 (ix). Arborius had been friendly with the emperor’s brothers when they’d briefly lived in Toulouse, and this must have been how Constantinople knew of him (Ausonius: Parentalia, iii; Professors of Bordeaux, xvi). This presumably would also be the foundation of the Aemilio-Ausonian connections to the otherwise faraway locus of Roman imperial power.

After his uncle’s departure, Ausonius continued his studies at the university and was awarded the title of grammaticus in 334 and began teaching there himself. Around the same time, he married Attusia Lucana Sabina, a young woman from a respectable local family, and together they would have three known children: two sons, Ausonius (who died in infancy), and Hesperius; and an unnamed daughter (ibid). Sabina herself would die relatively young in 343, and Ausonius would later lament her passing at some length in his elegiac collection Parentalia, written thirty-six years later in 379, attesting that he never remarried (Parentalia, ix). This is a lovely sentiment, but as we’ll see later, Ausonius wasn’t exactly living like a monk after her death, either…

[Bust of Gratian]

Ausonius would remain in Toulouse at the university until 364, when the emperor Valentinian I, who maybe knew of him and his uncle through his years of serving in the armies of the Constantinian princes, summoned him to Constantinople to tutor his son, the future emperor Gratian (359-383 CE). Like many an imperial tutor before him, Ausonius became a significant member of his pupil’s inner circle, a position that only strengthened when Gratian ascended the throne. Ausonius and his family, for a mostly obscure provincial clan, would enjoy a meteoric rise in influence after this—Valentinian would make Ausonius a quaestor, and Gratian would make him praefectus praetorio of Gaul when he became emperor in 375. His ninety year old father, Julius, would be named Praefect of Illyricum (though this was likely an honorary title), and his son, Hesperius, would be named proconsul of Roman Africa the next year in 376. But perhaps most astonishingly, Ausonius would rise high enough to be awarded a consulship, still the empire’s most prestigious civic honor, in 379–a marker of the esteem he was held in by Gratian.

The good times in Constantinople for Ausonius would continue for another four years, until Gratian was assassinated during a revolt of the Army of Britain in 383, at which point he would retire to his French estates. He settled down into what he deemed his “nidus senectutis”—the nest of old age—where he would spend the last dozen years of his life writing the poetry and miscellaneous literary output that would become the legacy he would inflict on us, the yet-to-be-born of the world.

[We’ve made it through the history. Now it’s time for the shade!]

In his landmark work, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-1789), Edward Gibbon, at his cattiest, remarks that “the poetical fame of Ausonius condemns the taste of his age” (Chapter XXVII, n.1), and while I’m not exactly a cheerleader for Gibbon himself, I’m inclined to agree with him on this. Ausonius seems ready-made for the otherwise distasteful axiom “those who can’t, teach”—his poems are at best, derivative, and at worst, dull. But something must have shifted culturally in the fourteen hundred or so years between him and the modern era, because Ausonius was, as alluded by Gibbon, wildly popular in late antiquity. Contemporary orator Quintus Aurelius Symmachus (c. 345-402) thought Ausonius’ poems were at least equal with Virgil’s, and the future Catholic saint Paulinus of Nola (c. 354-431) doubted whether “Tully [the late antique/medieval name of Cicero] and Maro [Virgil] could have borne one yoke with [him]” (vii). Though, it should be noted that Symmachus was a political crony of Ausonius’ and Paulinus was a former student, which might account for the tenor of what I can only assure you is recklessly overblown praise. And while I certainly want my friends to talk me up as much as possible as a writer too, there’s a reason why most of you have heard of Virgil and Cicero, while I’ve had to spend a large chunk of this entry explaining who Ausonius is.

[Cicero can test the limits of my patience too, but even at his most stultifying he’s got more going for him stylistically than Ausonius]

The modern academic consensus is that Ausonius is easy to read, but boring to do so. His work is generally held as historically important, but of limited literary merit. For example, his writing contains some of the earliest references to large-scale viticulture in Bordeaux, for which the region would become synonymous down to the present day. But when he quotes Martial in his Nuptial Cento, he does so by using the line—“Lasciva est nobis pagina, vita proba” (“My page is naughty, but my life is clean”)—which is Martial (Epigrams, I.iv) paraphrasing Ovid (Tristia, 2.354) referencing Catullus (16.5-6), which in turn makes Ausonius’ own verse four layers deep in saying something others already said better. And that’s kind of the tenor of his whole body of work—see also his epigrams about the Iliad heroes (cribbing Homer) and the twelve Caesars (directly from Suetonius). And don’t get me wrong—I’m working from Suetonius myself—but if you’re going to use someone else’s base, you have to bring some kind of original take to the table to mask that and Ausonius just doesn’t have it.

His long-form poem, Mosella, about the Moselle River in modern northeastern France/Luxembourg/western Germany, is usually singled out as his most lyrical piece and is probably the closest he comes to aping the pastoral style of Virgil. The poem probably recounts things Ausonius saw during the time he spent on the German campaigns of 368–9 with Valentinian and Gratian, and traces the army’s route along the river from where it meets the Rhine between Bingen and Neumagen. Indeed, the Roman highway that linked Bingen with Trier would be known through the medieval period as the Via Ausonia, seemingly for our erstwhile, maligned poet. But unless lists of every species of fish in the Moselle entice you poetically, again even with Mosella, Ausonius’ most valuable contributions are historical in nature. He describes a water mill capable of sawing marble on one of the river’s tributaries (“….renowned is Celbis for glorious fish, and that other, as he turns his mill-stones in furious revolutions and drives the shrieking saws through smooth blocks of marble, hears from either bank a ceaseless din…”), which is a helpful footnote for historians tracking the development of Roman technology through the provinces of the period, if not a thrilling piece of literature.

But don’t worry, Ausonius got more out of the Germanic Wars than just sightseeing and creative inspiration—as an intimate of the emperor’s heir, he also got a share in the war booty. Regrettably, that was literal “war booty” in the form of a young Suebae woman named Bissula, who was given to Ausonius as a captive slave. By her master’s assessment very beautiful, Bissula also became the subject of several short, unserious titular poems by Ausonius, where he mostly bemoans how the imperious Bissula “rules her master’s house” (III, 5-6), and by implication, Ausonius’ heart. Whether or not Ausonius really loved Bissula is open to interpretation, but the same poem also admits that he made her a freedwoman almost as soon as he was given her (III, 8), which does count for something, I suppose. If I sound a little skeptical, it’s simply that even if Ausonius cared for Bissula, his trumpeted, extended widower-hood reminds us that he didn’t love her enough to marry her, presumably because of her inferior social standing. It also makes one quirk one’s eyebrow when he bemoans his virtuous loneliness in his elegy to his dead wife. But alas, such is the world of Roman men of standing. Either way, Bissula deserves some credit for wrangling him, because if the indolent griping about the way his people wait in him hand and foot in his poem Ephemeris (translated to The Daily Round) is anything to go on, Ausonius was also a typical Roman man of standing around the house, i.e., he was kind of a lot to deal with.

[Modern sculpture of Ausonius in Milan, presumably erected by the city for ranking it (#7) higher than Athens (#15) in a “Most Important Cities” series of epigrams, the Ordo Urbium Nobilium]

As previously alluded to by me a couple of times in this entry, Ausonius’ Parentalia is probably the other of his better-known pieces—a series of elegies on the various dead members of his extended family whom he seeks to honor in verse for the Roman festival of the ancestral dead. Again, mostly what one learns is that Ausonius’ relatives are all mostly as boring as he is; solid, responsible citizens leading sober, quiet lives in the provinces. The men hold respectable, though generally not lofty, official posts (save for his uncle Arborius), and the women are dutiful wool-spinners who are blandly attractive and competently take care of things at home. If Karl Marx had a time machine and had invented the bourgeois fifteen hundred years earlier, the Aemilio-Ausonians would have been the poster children.

Though it should be noted that the only thing worse than his family is the similar-style poem Ausonius wrote for his work friends, the Commemoratio professorum Burdigalensium (The Professors of Bordeaux). The professors are tedious beyond belief; at least the monotony of his family’s story is broken up by the occasional freak death (his grandson Pastor was accidentally killed by a falling roof tile) or iconoclast relative. My favorite family rebel of Ausonius’ is one of his maternal aunts. His elegy title names her Aemilia Hilaria (“Hilaria” being a feminization of the Latin hilarus and the Greek hilarós, meaning “cheerful”) but in the poem he admits that in life she was actually called the masculinized Aemilia Hilarius by the family “because, bright and cheerful after the fashion of a boy, you made without pretense the very picture of a lad” (VI, 3-5). But it wasn’t just Aemilia Hilarius’ manner that was masculine—Ausonius recounts that she “ever hated [her] female sex” (VI, 7) and spent her sixty-three year life in “consecrated maidenhood” (VI, 8-10) “busied in the art of healing, like a man” (VI, 6). Forget the French professor who became a Roman consul—I want to know more about his norm-defying doctor aunt who managed to get everyone in 4th century provincial France to accept her personal and professional decisions to the point that her well-connected nephew was perfectly comfortable publicly eulogizing her. There’s someone who should be defining the tastes of an age!

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