Archive for December 16th, 2018

Maximianus dropped down the memory hole – but now he’s back in time for the holidays.

Sunday, December 16th, 2018
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Bravo, Mike Juster!

A few days ago, we wrote about a new translation of Theophrastus. Today we write about another ancient you may not have heard of: Maximianus, the last breath from Roman poetry. The complete Elegies of Maximianus is newly translated into English by A.M. Juster (we’ve written about him here). John Talbot’s review appears in The Weekly Standard – one of the few print venues left for those writing about books (and who wish to be paid decently for it), and it’s now about to go belly-up.

An excerpt:

The very last great moment in all of ancient literature comes as a surprise twist—a single line of Latin poetry that transforms a bawdy comic scene into a strange, tragic vision of the end of the cosmos. There then follow just 54 more lines of verse, after which Roman poetry itself comes to an end. You’d think that this last remarkable flicker from the ashes of antiquity would be famous. But both the author, the 6th-century Roman poet known to us as Maximianus, and his Elegies—just 686 lines of verse traditionally divided into six interrelated poems—have dropped almost completely from memory. Who has even heard of him?

This needs to change, starting with the remarkable passage I mentioned. The scene: Our poet, Maximianus, on a diplomatic mission from Italy to Byzantium, finds himself alone with a bright young Greek thing. He falls for her, and she’s willing, but he is not the young stallion he once was. When she bewails his repeated failure to rise to the occasion, he naturally takes it personally. Whereupon she delivers a startling retort: Nescis / Non fleo privatum set generale chaos. That is (in my own translation): “You’ve missed the point. It’s not your particular condition I’m bewailing—it’s the progressive dissolution of the universe as a whole.” What for Maximianus is simply one humiliating instance of later-life detumescence is, for the rather more alert and intelligent girl, something else altogether: a moral and intellectual apprehension of universal entropy. From the failure of Maximianus’ virility she generalizes on a cosmic scale and goes on to envision, in a speech that reads like a bleak parody of Lucretius, the eventual extinction of “the human race, the herds, the birds, the beasts / and everything that breathes throughout the world,” all of which depend on the procreative impulse.

Her sudden realization surprises her as much as it does us. It’s the moment when youth comes “for the first time,” as one critic puts it, “face to face with…the blankness of annihilation.” Yet this stark vision arises from a low comic situation, and that’s a key to its power. I doubt that Maximianus is a greater writer than Swift or even Samuel Beckett, but the satire is Swiftian and the Greek girl’s laconic observation, compacting mundane human irritation with cosmic existential despair, could have been uttered by an Estragon or Vladimir.

Read the whole thing here.