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“How many mouths could tell ...?” An Epigram by the Empress Eudocia and Cento Poetics

Timo Christian

This paper investigates the literary techniques of an epigrammatic text by the Empress Eudocia that was found in the baths of Hammat Gader (SEG 35:1502; first edition: Green/Tsafrir 1982). The bath complex, one of the most celebrated in Late Antiquity, second only to Baiae, was visited by the Empress around the middle of the 5th century. The epigram consists of 16 lines and tells of the miraculous healing powers and the elaborate canal system of the baths.

A noteworthy feature of the text is its use of Homeric language which is consistent with its ascription to Eudocia who we know to have been a composer of Homeric centos, and previous scholarship on the epigram has centered on identifying the Homeric models (Green/Tsafrir 1982; Busch 1999). Far from being a “collage” of Homeric phrases, however, the epigram reflects upon its literary form and merges pagan and Christian traditions of literature. It is thus a perhaps unexpected witness to the continuation of Hellenistic poetics and erudition into Late Antiquity.

As Mark Usher has recently shown, Eudocia’s Homerocentones are not mere “stitchings”; they contain complex intertextual references which put the Homeric text (along with its long history of interpretation) in dialogue with the Christian narrative of the New Testament (Usher 1998). A similar strategy of marrying pagan verse with Christian content can be shown to be at work in Eudocia’s epigram: to appreciate it, we must not only look to the Homeric models, but also to the interpretative traditions employed in later Homerizing epic and above all, in Eudocia’s Homerocentones. To give an example: The description of the four fountains of the bath complex (7-9) recalls (as has been noted) the cave of Calypso (Od. 5, 70f.), but in the Homerocentones (30f. Usher) the same Homeric lines are used to describe the four rivers of paradise (cf. Gen. 2, 10-14). It seems plausible, then, to suggest that the Homeric reference in the epigram also recalls the Genesis passage and thus highlights the paradise-like qualities of the bath complex.

What is more, the reference to the flowing waters of the bath complex gave rise to a self-conscious placement of Eudocia’s poem in the poetical tradition. The apostrophe of the Klibanos, the source of the baths praised in the epigram, as “new Ocean” (4) is, as I suggest, an allusion to Homer the poet, who is the “Ocean”, that is, the source for all poetry to come after him (for this topos cf. Brink 1972). Furthermore, the complexity of the canal system of the baths - through the use of window-allusions - becomes a model for the ramified channels through which literary tradition flows. This poetological reading is strengthened by further analogies between form, content, and archaeological context. Eudocia’s poem, then, not only employs a sophisticated reworking of literary tradition, it also self-reflexively comments upon this very technique. In this respect, the epigram may contribute to elucidate the poetics of the Homerocentones and of cento poems in general.

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Reception, Transmission, and Translation in Later Antiquity

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