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Anchoring Epic: Vergilian Quotations in Paulinus’ Epic on John and the Christian Tradition

Roald Dijkstra

Paulinus of Nola (354-431) was one of the leading Christian poets of the late fourth century literary revival in the Roman Empire. Several of the carmina he wrote in his first period of literary activity were small Biblical epics, including his carmen 6 on John the Baptist. In order to make this epyllion a success, Paulinus had to anchor it both in the classical and Christian tradition of epic poetry. His use of classical quotations shows how he found a way to do so.

Paulinus’ main example was Vergil, the most popular poet of late antiquity. However, a Christian poet could not ignore the developments in Christian poetry. Biblical epic had been introduced by the Spanish presbyter Juvencus (Euangeliorum libri quattuor). Shortly after him, Proba wrote a Vergilian cento (Cento Probae), using Vergilian style for Biblical content. Paulinus’ birthday poems for his favourite saint Felix prove that he was well aware of his audience (Trout). Therefore, he must have been aware of the fact that there were two models for Christian epic now: both the classical tradition of Vergil and the recently emerged Christian tradition of epics based on the Bible. Paulinus had to relate to both of them to make his innovation – a small scale Biblical epic devoted to one story from the New Testament – a success. Carmen 6 is a programmatic poem for Paulinus on a poetic as well as a more personal level: it defends the writing of Christian poetry in the prologue (Witke) and it is devoted to John, the Biblical example par excellence for late antique ascetics.

In this paper it is shown that Paulinus consciously referred to both traditions of epic writing in his poem on John the Baptist (carmen 6), both by referring to Juvencus (Flury) and Vergil (Prete). Among other things, Paulinus used references to Vergil’s description of the Golden Age in his account of John (Trout). The focus in this paper is on the use of classical quotations and references to specific passages, especially from Vergil. Verses 27-107, 139-275 and 303-314 of Carmen 6 specifically treat the life of John the Baptist (mainly found in Lucas 1 and 3,1-7). This story was purposefully included by Juvencus in his Biblical epic, since he generally followed the gospel of Matthew: in his first book he versifies the story of John in verses 1-51 (analysed in relation to Paulinus by Nazarro), 105-132 and 409-420.  In Proba’s cento, which was much too small to treat all Biblical themes, the story was also included (verses 388-401).

Occasionally, the two traditions come together in a most remarkable way in Paulinus: in 6,233 Paulinus refers to Juvencus’ treatment of the food of John in the desert (Eu. 1,325) and Georgics 2,460, which describes the happiness of the life of peasants, in one verse. In the same passage, Vergil describes young people satisfied with austerity (2,472), which seems an adequate parallel for the young John the Baptist.

It is shown how Paulinus employed quotations for his own purposes and how he found his own way in his treatment of the story. In doing so, he managed to stick to his literary aspirations without falling short of Biblical faithfulness.

Session/Panel Title

Traditions of Antiquity in the Post-Classical World: Religious, Ethnographic, and Political Representation in the Poetic Works of Paulinus of Nola, Claudian, and George of Pisidia

Session/Paper Number


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