As a sexually explicit epithalamium constructed from a patchwork of Vergilian verses, Ausonius’s Cento Nuptialis represents a complex poetic that straddles the barriers between writer and reader in late antiquity. Ausonius draws a parallel between himself and Vergil (as well as his text and the Vergilian corpus) in sexual and military terms that deconstruct textual authority. Although Adams, Pollmann, and McGill discuss some of the intertextual play in which Ausonius engages, I argue that, through allusive repurposing of Vergil, Ausonius not only interacts with Vergil poetically, but confirms and reinvigorates the reception and memory of Vergil in late antiquity. (See Hinds and Martindale for intertext and reception, respectively.)
The Vergilian cento, as an exhibition of the centonist’s mastery over the hypotext, casts the author as both reader and (re)writer of Vergil, and, as I argue, Ausonius frames his relationship to Vergil in terms of domination. Within the cento, Ausonius aligns himself with the dominating bridegroom and Vergil with the passive bride, although, in the cento’s prose epistolary frame, he displays deference to the dignitas of Vergilian verse and worries about making parthenius Vergil impudens. The intercourse between the centonist and the hypotext’s author is portrayed as a shockingly violent, plundering assault. When the cento’s bride entreats her groom to delay her deflowering, Ausonius duplicates the Aeneid’s depiction of the defeated Turnus pleading for mercy. Through intertextual play, Ausonius assigns himself both the roles of the despoiling bridegroom and of the conquering Aeneas, while Vergil plays the role of the virgin bride and the subjugated Turnus. Writing is both sex and war, and the later poet must dominate his predecessors.
However, as I demonstrate, Ausonius problematizes this representation of the centonist’s power over the hypotext. Ausonius makes clear in his prose that Vergil, although not the active partner in the cento’s production, is not stripped of his textual authority. Ausonius argues that his critics should forgive his playful ribaldry because, after all, the text is de Vergilio and, therefore, blameless. Despite his rape at the hands of Ausonius, Vergil remains an authoritative figure and, in fact, maintains so much power over his text that he becomes the primary champion of the vulnerable cento, while Ausonius appears on the margins, as a mere reader of Vergil, just like everyone else. Vergil’s “maidenly” sensibilities may recoil from the cento’s themes, but his literary reputation remains intact.
I resolve these seemingly inconsistent portrayals of the power relationship between Ausonius and Vergil by framing the cento in its cultural and historical context. I argue that Ausonius’s manipulation of Vergil’s poetry, despite its rough and ravaging nature, corresponds to prevalent methods of establishing and remembering literary authority in late antiquity. As a late antique reader of Vergil, Ausonius was part of a literary society that deconstructed Vergil as an integral part of scholarship. The practices of memorizing Vergilian verses piecemeal, constructing grammars and commentaries, and collecting cacemphata help the reader remember Vergil, while simultaneously splintering his verse into increasingly smaller membra. Ausonius’s cento, although it portrays such dismantling as molestation, confirms and enacts the memory of Vergil by compelling the reader to participate in the intertextual exchange between the cento’s use of these membra and their context within the hypotext. For example, in quoting the phrase “non iniussa cano” (CN 10), Ausonius references not only Vergil’s recusatio in Eclogues VI.9, but also evokes the better-known usage of the same verb in the Aeneid’s first line, recalling multiple Vergilian passages for the reader simultaneously.
The late antique reader would have recognized Ausonius’s cento as both a virtuosic display of memory and an act of poetic creation that strengthened Vergil’s authority, rather than devaluing his verse, through its ribaldry. The reuse of Vergilian verse in the Cento Nuptialis of Ausonius does not function as obliteration of Vergil, but rather as recognition of and evidence for the poetic and cultural worth of Vergil and his poetry in late antiquity.