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Argento auroque coruscis scripta notis: Optatianic reflections on the ‘jeweled style’

Michael Squire

King's College London

This paper re-evaluates Michael Roberts’ landmark The Jeweled Style through the lens of one particular
early fourth-century poet: Publilius Optatianus Porfyrius – or ‘Optatian’ for short. Optatian’s Latin
poetry received only passing mention in Roberts’ monograph (Roberts 1989: 58). But if the poems
epitomize some of Roberts’ larger claims about ‘poetry and poetics in late antiquity’, the corpus also
helps us to re-evaluate those arguments on the book’s thirtieth anniversary – indeed, to push them in
new, intermedial and cross-disciplinary directions.

The work of Optatian still remains remarkably little known in classicist circles, especially in
Anglophone contexts. According to one scholar, Optatian’s poems ‘do not merit discussion’
(Courtney 1990: 5); in the words of another, Optatian ‘témoigne de la décadence d’un art et d’une
culture’ (Bardon 1975: 453). Thanks to a major commentary (Polara 1973), the poet received a slightly
warmer treatment in the years immediately before Roberts’ book (e.g. Doria 1979; Levitan 1985). Even
among those who have championed Optatian’s work, however, the poems have been associated with
‘una especie de autoerotismo masturbatorio’ (González Iglesias 2000: 362) – ‘competent verse for the
most part, but repetitive and very tired’ (Levitan 1985: 246). In recent years, and over the last halfdecade
in particular, there has been a marked shift in critical opinion (e.g. Ernst 1991; Bruhat 1999;
Rühl 2006; Hernández Lobato 2012: 307–11, 471–9; Pelttari 2014: 75–84; Squire 2016; Squire and
Wienand eds. 2017): Optatian’s materialist aesthetic concerns – and the remarkably complex figurepoems
(carmina cancellata) that result – have sparked new research at the interface between late-antique
visual and literary culture, at once championing and challenging aspects of Roberts’ monograph.

The paper begins by showcasing the work of Optatian through a Robertsian lens. Just as these
works switch between visual and verbal modes, it demonstrates, so they oscillate between Latin and
Greek linguistic systems, as indeed between differently charged semantic frameworks. From a Jeweled
Style perspective, Optatian’s poems might be said to literalize – through the very form of the physically
adorned page – a lettered late-antique concern with the metapoetics of colour, ornament and pattern
(‘written in letters glistening in silver and gold’, as my title’s soundbite puts it). Indeed, Optatian
delighted in the conceit that his works are not only ‘paintings’, but also mosaics – tessellated creations
crafted from the adorned elementa of individual letters, words and phrases.

If Optatian’s oeuvre in one sense champions the agenda of The Jeweled Style, however, it also
invites us to rethink certain aspects of the book thirty years on. The paper ends with three closing
reflections. First, Optatian’s combined literary and visual output suggests that we need to go still
further in approaching late-antique aesthetics in intermedial terms: the very form of this picture-poetry
challenges the residual scholarly tendency, still deeply entrenched, to approach ‘late-antique visual
culture’ in isolation from ‘late-antique poetry’ (and vice versa). Second, and by extension, Optatian’s
intricately textured creations speak volumes about fourth-century ideas of spoliation – that is, of a
shared visual and literary aesthetic of recycling not only an established canon of earlier precedents, but
also the tessellated units of the work at hand. Third, and perhaps most controversially, I argue that
this corpus flies in the face of a long-standing (and deeply problematic) scholarly tendency to segregate
‘Christian’ and ‘pagan’ cultural outlooks in the early fourth century. Ultimately, I suggest, Optatian’s
deeply ludic and self-referential poems reflect the deeply syncretic outlooks of the age: the very
instability of Optatian’s self-styled signa – oscillating between words and images, as indeed between
different languages and between symbolic and literal realms of meaning – figure a reader-/viewership
that slips and slides between different cultural, philosophical and theological perspectives.
 

Session/Panel Title

Thirty Years of the Jeweled Style: Reassessing Late Antique Poetry

Session/Paper Number

46.2

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