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How to Bejewel a Cento (Eudocia the Magpie)

Francesca Middleton

Cambridge University

“Whatever the motivation and function of Christian poetry, its expression does not depend on exclusively Christian considerations.” Roberts (1989:123).

The Jeweled Style rests on the premise that late antiquity was a coherent cultural moment, not the scene of tension between discrete classical and Christian ways of life. Certainly, the complex range of identities available to those living in late antiquity is now a central theme of scholarship on the era (eg. Sandwell 2007, Cameron 2011, Shorrock 2011), and the quotation above now seems an obvious statement. We may suggest that early Christian poets mobilised the classical tradition to suit their contemporary aims and we may counter Roberts’ undoubtedly true claim with a question – why?

As Roberts makes clear (1989:123-131), numerous Christian writers worried over the use of classical style, and Augustine not least discusses in detail how Ciceronian rhetoric might be employed for Christian good. Some scholars argue that Christian cento was produced to similarly repackage the Christian message into literature that was educationally beneficial and aesthetically pleasing (Sandnes 2011:65-106). This genre is taken to absolutely represent ‘the jeweled style’ (Roberts 1989:57-58), and in this paper I discuss the Greek poet Eudocia’s use of Homeric fragments in the Homerocentones. This is a significant test case for Roberts’ claims, as it also responds to the question of whether we may recognise ‘the jeweled style’ in Greek literature of late antiquity, which is often described in terms of its glittering ποικιλία (eg. Vian 1994:86, Bär 2012:460).

In the spirit of Roberts’ discussion, I argue that we should not insist that the style of Homer was thought ‘better’ (or worse) than the gospels, but we should, contra Roberts, appreciate readers’ sense of difference between these two traditions, and how their use depends on Christian concerns. Homer’s poetry was figured as seductive and Siren-like throughout late antiquity (most concisely in AP 9.522), and Eudocia’s poetry challenges the reader to see beyond these charms in order to access a narrative of the gospels, this act of reading both measuring and celebrating the reader’s faith.

Focusing on the meeting between Jesus and the Samaritan woman (Homerocentones 1046-1152/1053-1160 [Schembra/Usher]; John 4:4-42), this paper discusses the Homerocentones’ famously concentrated use of Odysseus’ interactions with Nausicaa and Penelope. Appreciating how these characters become negative female role-models in the Homerocentones allows for discussion of the mechanics and cultural implications inherent within Eudocia’s ‘manipulation of contrasting compositional units’ (Roberts 1989:58).

Session/Panel Title

Thirty Years of the Jeweled Style: Reassessing Late Antique Poetry

Session/Paper Number


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