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Poetics and Tradition in Terentianus Maurus (the Best Latin Poet You’re not Reading)

Tom Keeline

Washington University in St. Louis

Habent sua fata libelli: if you know anything of Terentianus Maurus (perh. late 2nd c. AD), it’s probably this half-line. Fate has not been kind to Terentianus’ three polymetric poems, De litteris, De syllabis, and De metris. Their titles reflect their content, the first two covering the pronunciation of letters and syllables, and the third discussing the details of a bewildering array of meters. The poems survived the Middle Ages in a single (now lost) manuscript, and they have never been much read. Beyond two philological commentaries (Beck 1993, Cignolo 2002), Terentianus has attracted almost no scholarly attention (honorable exceptions: Geer 1933, Sluiter and Schenkeveld 2017). A major history of Latin literature doesn’t even get his name right, calling him Terentius Maurus (Conte 1994: 611–12). Onomastic confusion aside, Conte’s assessment wouldn’t exactly send you running out to buy a copy of the work: “far from agreeable to read, on account of the extreme dryness of the subject.” But Terentianus Maurus is no mere versified compendium of technical lore: he is a literary artist. This artistry is especially evident in his preface (Ter. Maur. 1–84), where, mixing metrical panache (sotadaeans!) and sophisticated use of simile, he self-consciously situates his work within the genre of didactic poetry.

In his preface, Terentianus Maurus compares himself to a retired Olympic victor. Still looking for a challenge, the ex-athlete weaves a slender thread which he uses to pull a bucket out of a well—with his fingertips. His chest heaves, his legs tremble, sweat streams from his every pore, and he delights in his small-scale struggle. Terentianus claims that he too has retired from loftier poetry and turned instead to a narrow and untrodden path, one that might look easy but is in fact extraordinarily difficult. He stresses his exceptional care and his challenging material, and he scorns the common herd. This simile allows him to introduce his subject with a brilliant blend of self-deprecation and boasting.

Moreover, the simile allows Terentianus to enter into a didactic tradition stretching back through Vergil and Lucretius to Callimachus and Aratus: an elaborate recusatio; weaving and slender threads (leuem nectere lineam, 19; filo tenui, 25; angusto tenaculo, 29); narrow roads (parua uia, 47; angustam studii uiam, 55; callem tenuem, 56); avoidance of the common in pursuit of the recherché (ne contenta obuiis, 68; rimantem recondita, 69); deftness (subtiles, 70; gracili modo, 72) and care (callida cautio, 73); foot puns (dum certo gradimur pede, | ipsi ne trepident pedes, 79–80); flouting of popular opinion (pompae gloria uilis est, 84); maybe even an acrostic (NICA ~ νίκα, 15–18). And Terentianus Maurus doesn’t just parrot buzzwords from the poetic past; he refashions this intertextual tradition into his own poetry for his own ends.

Refined literary features like these are found throughout Terentianus Maurus’ poems. While he is indeed a grammarian, he is not “just” a grammarian: he is a poet, and well worth further study.

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