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Imitation and Emulation in Gregory of Nazianzus’ “On his own affairs”

Peter O'Connell

University of Georgia

This paper investigates how Gregory of Nazianzus imitates and responds to the Greek poetic tradition in “On his own affairs” (2.1.1), an autobiographical poem of 634 hexameters. Famous in the Byzantine tradition for his elegant Greek and defense of Trinitarian orthodoxy, Gregory (329-389) was also one of the most prolific poets of late antiquity. The Suda knows of nearly 30,000 verses, more than 18,000 of which survive. Gregory writes in traditional meters and dialects, and he frequently alludes to earlier poetry, especially Homer. Sykes (13) compares Gregory’s Poemata Arcana to sixteenth-century English satire, which “seemed to glory in its own derivativeness.” Scholars have been mining Gregory’s poetry for Classical fragments since the nineteenth century, but we have only recently started to study its “derivative” relationship to the Greek poetic tradition from a literary perspective (e.g., Demoen, Hawkins, Milovanović, Whitby). Simelidis’ recent commentary, for instance, has examined Gregory’s close engagement with Callimachus. This paper examines two representative passages of “On his own affairs,” lines 55-58 and 177-184. Gregory models the first after passages of Homer and Oppian and the second primarily after an epigram attributed to Plato (AP 670). By imitating, reacting to, and competing with earlier authors, Gregory situates his Christian poetry within a continuous tradition of poetic reinvention dating back to Homer. His references are more than a display of cultural allegiance. For readers who share Gregory’s intimate familiarity with Greek literature, they give depth and nuance to his poetry.

Here, I briefly address lines 55-58 as an example of my argument. Gregory describes the allure of the devil, comparing him to the baited hook that brings death to fish [ἰχθύσι κῆρα φέρῃσιν], who unknowingly “swallow their own fate” [σφέτερον μόρον ἀμφιχανόντες]. The simile imitates the one in Iliad 24.80-82 where Iris descending to the depths of the sea is compared to the weight on a fishing-line that brings death to fish [ἐπ᾿ ἰχθύσι κῆρα φέρουσα]. Gregory’s simile, which focuses on the deception of the lure, is more elaborate than its Iliadic model, which focuses on the speed of the weight. In making deception the central element, Gregory relies on Oppian, Halieutika 4.227-229, which describes how the fish known as the kossyphos swallows its own fate [ὃν μόρον ἀμφιχανών] when it mistakenly thinks a shrimp used for bait is an invader coming to steal one of its many wives. Gregory borrows both wording and lesson from Oppian. His readers should not be like this silly fish – greedy, impulsive, and easily fooled. Instead, they should be on guard against the devil and his wiles.

While Gregory delights in derivativeness, one could ask whether his sources add enough to “On his own affairs” to make discovering them worthwhile. The simile of foolish people devouring their death like fish devour baited hooks is striking even for someone who hasn’t read Homer, never mind Oppian. To ask what the references add to “On his own affairs,” however, is to miss a central aspect of Gregory’s poetics. “On his own affairs” is not devotional poetry with traditional flourishes. Its essence is what Longinus describes as “imitation and emulation of the great prose writers and poets of the past” (13.2, cf. Porter 67-68). Such emulation is innovative and even competitive. While casual readers can perhaps appreciate Gregory’s imagery and take his moral message to heart, only a learned audience will have the time and the ability to admire how Gregory reconfigures the language and concepts of Homer and Oppian into something new, namely a striking, almost metaphysical conceit. Like Callimachus, Gregory has written a learned poem for a learned audience. Lines 177-184 further demonstrate this point, as Gregory reflects on his brother Caesarius’s death with language and imagery taken from the Pseudo-Platonic epigram, Homer, and, perhaps, the Old Testament Book of Sirach. Gregory’s models temper the bleakness of Caesarius’ death with heroic overtones and a hint of divine support amid human treachery.

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Late Antique Literary Developments

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