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In Rome at the Agon Capitolinus in 94 CE, Q. Sulpicius Maximus delivered an extempore poem in 43 Greek hexameters, comprising the speech delivered by Zeus to chastise Helios for lending his chariot to Phaethon (IG 14.2012 = IGRRP 1.350). Then he died, aged eleven years, five months, twelve days, and his grief-stricken parents had the poem inscribed on his funerary altar. Maximus did not win a prize, but nevertheless, quite apart from his youth, the quality of his entry so impressed the judges that he received honorable mention: fauorem quem ob teneram aetatem excitauerat in admirationem ingenio suo perduxit et cum honore discessit, according to his epitaph (CIL 6.33976 = ILS 5177). Granted, his parents may be unreliable witnesses to the reaction prompted by his poem; but it is worth asking what a contemporary audience might have found admirable in it, and who that audience was.

When Maximus’ poem was discovered in Rome in 1871, the Italian reception was enthusiastic (Visconti 1871; Lanciani 1893), although many scholars of other nationalities expressed bitter disappointment from the outset (Henzen 1871; Kaibel 1878; Lattimore 1942; Vérilhac 1978), while some managed simply to damn it with faint praise (Lafaye 1883; Nelson 1903; Diggle 1970). More constructive approaches have since prevailed, with the recognition that the poem was both modeled upon the progymnasmata and ethopoeia of contemporary rhetorical education (Fernández Delgado and Ureña Bracero 1991) and also influenced by literary treatments—in both Greek and Latin—of the myth of Phaethon (Döpp 1996; Bernsdorff 1997). This paper turns away from the judgments of posterity back to the contemporary reception, in an attempt to understand the appeal of Maximus’ poem to its ancient audience.

Maximus’ theme is a canonical example of “disaster literature,” deploying pathos and tragic diction in the manner of popular descriptions of cities sacked and razed in war or landscapes ravaged by natural catastrophe. It matches the contemporary taste for epideictic performance. Its Homeric building blocks, coming straight out of the classrooms that have yielded the school papyri of Roman Egypt, must have been recognizable to his contemporaries from their own school exercises. His poem controls the internal motivation necessary to represent a two-sided conversation as a monologue, as is immediately apparent from a comparison with Lucian’s dialogue between Zeus and Helios at Dialogi deorum 24(25). It has a clear moralizing message and strong authoritarian overtones, both features consonant with the climate under Domitian. It is metrically competent, even recherché; and, above all, it is the product of a highly prized capacity for extemporization.

The most immediate analogy is with the Siluae of Statius (Hardie 1983), poems that also originated as extempore performance and frequently employ the ventriloquism of speeches. It may be true that the Agon Capitolinus attracted mainly freedmen and the socially ambitious sub-élite, who were impervious to the stigma of public performance that afflicted the upper classes (White 1998); but, even if they did not stoop to enter poetry competitions, the tastes displayed by Pliny’s literary friends, almost the exact contemporaries of Maximus (Guillemin 1929; Gibson and Morello 2012), provide a useful foil for the Flavian aesthetic represented by his juvenile chef d’oeuvre. Domitian himself presided at the Agon (Suet. Dom. 4.4); does Maximus’ modest success reflect his verdict?

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