Jan/Feb 2019  •   Reviews & Interviews

"A. M. Juster" should be all that needs saying

Review by Gilbert Wesley Purdy

The Elegies of Maximianus.
A. M. Juster, translator.
University of Pennsylvania Press. 2018. 240 pp.
ISBN 978-0-8122-4979-8.

Robinson Ellis informs us that a young student from Gifoni, Salerno (some say Naples), Pomponio Gaurico, and fellow student from Venice, Giovanni Battista Ramusio, came across a manuscript of elegies that caught their eyes around the year 1500. Certain details of the texts suggested to them that they might be the famous lost elegies of the poet Virgil's friend Gallus.

While, in the future, the two would write highly competent works of their own, in the fields of sculpture and geography respectively, in 1500 they were not up to the task of assessing the manuscript. Not only that, they intentionally removed a distich containing the name "Maximianus," from the text, before publishing it as Cornelii Galli Fragmenta (Fragments from Cornelius Gallus). Still, 500 and more years later they are accused by many of having fraudulently ascribed the book to the vastly more popular Gallus in order to enhance their reputations.

Regardless that the elegies had first been published in 1473, in Utrecht, under the name Maximianus, the news of the discovered elegies by Gallus was so welcome that the poems were published under Gallus's name for well over 50 years. From that point to the early 19th century, it was published under the name "Gallus" by most publishers and "Maximianus" by the more discriminating.

Since the matter of author was finally resolved, in the 19th century, other issues have found their way to the fore. Firstly, just who was the Maximianus of The Elegies of Maximianus? Secondly, when did he live and write?

What little evidence there is on either count is weak and circumstantial. At the end of 200 years, A. M. Juster has thrown in his lot with a new theory that a decree, by Theoderic, king of Italy from 493–526 CE, mentioning a Maximianus, may have referred to our poet. One of the elegies also seems to support the the timeframe by the fact that the poet mentions that Boethius was his mentor. The philosopher Boethius died in 524. The pieces fit.

All of this taking place in the early 6th century, however, there were bound to be many gaps in the history of almost anyone by almost any name. Theoderic kept his capitol in Ravenna, Italy. He mentioned a Maximianus in a decree directing that he should lead a building project. Theoderic's great building project gave us the historic buildings of his royal capitol, Ravenna, Italy. He built his palace and famous mausoleum there, the churches of San Vitale and of Christ the Redeemer (the present day Basilica of Sant'Apollinare Nuovo), rebuilt the crumbling Roman infrastructure and much more.

We know nothing more of any Maximianus, however, until 20 years after Theoderic's death. In 1546, a Maximianus was named Bishop of Ravenna. Strangely, he was some 47 years old and had never been a priest. Of those 47 years we would seem to know nothing.

We do not know how long he had been a Deacon. The office could have been bestowed upon him shortly before in order to qualify him for selection to the office of Bishop. It was a common enough practice. He would then have been a layman until he was 47 years old—well along in years for the times—having already been able to have lived a life of some wealth and education and to have engaged in a long life of amorous adventure and writing poetry.

This Maximianus was somehow a powerful ally of Justinian I, Emperor of Byzantium, who would soon conquer Ravenna and its territories in an attempt to restore the old Roman Empire. He was the Emperor's express candidate for the bishopric. This, it is said, in lieu of his completing the construction of the Church of San Vitale where the two men still stand side by side in one of the most celebrated pieces of mosaic art ever to survive to our day.

By best evidence, our translator A. M. Juster informs us, Elegy 5 refers to Maximianus leading an embassy to Justinian's capitol, Constantinople, during one or another of the short reigns of Theoderic's successors.

Dispatched for diplomatic service in the East
to close a quiet deal for worldwide peace

While I attempted forging ties between twin realms,
I came upon wars toxic to my heart.

Here, sizing me up as a cloddish Tuscan son,
a girl from Greece ensnared me with her tricks...

As always, he falls under the spell of a beautiful young woman.

The question that arises in the humble reviewer's mind is "Are these both the same Maximianus?" The few dates and associations that we have fit with an interesting snugness. Bishop Maximianus would have been 25 years old when Boethius died—much the right age to have recently had the philosopher mentor him on matters including his sex life. During the final years of his life, Boethius lived in Ravenna as he served Theoderic in numerous capacities. At that time the author of The Elegies of Maximianus seems to have been heading up the great building project in Ravenna and keeping a sharp eye out for prospective lovers.

As for the poems, apart from possible historical references, they are surprisingly well written for the times. Most Latin texts from the depths of the Dark Ages are far more of a grammatical and vocabulary hodge-podge. The cultures described tend to be barbaric, impoverished in every way in comparison to the days even of the late Empire.

Maximianus describes a cultured life in his poetry. Many of the people around him seem to have wealth and security in a notoriously impoverished and perilous time. His world is being built and maintained rather than crumbling. He travels at least to the East without great anxiety for his personal safety along the route.

The poems we know of his were written as he was regretting the ravages of age. They look back at when he was strong and able to invite hardships of every kind.

I swam the icy currents of the Tiber's waves
and did not fear to thrust my limbs in rapids.

I could refresh myself with sleep, albeit brief,
and nourish limbs with scraps, however small,

but if a wine-soaked host abruptly sought me out
or good times led to drinking many days,

even old Bacchus marveled at my binge...

He has quite a high opinion of himself in his younger days. The reference to "Tiber's waves" suggests that he spent his school years, at least, in the capitol.

Still, for all that his grammar and vocabulary are superior for the times, the decay of the classical education cannot be missed either. The Latin that A. M. Juster translates for us is highly idiomatic. The original suggests occasionally showing off in style as much as content. The notes here are particularly necessary if the reader wishes to dally at all with the original.

As much as anything, the style is seasoned with odds-and-ends from dozens of classical texts, from variations on the language that do not quite flow naturally off the poet's tongue. The mix seems likely to reflect a debased form of classical Latin being spoken in his daily life that the author enhanced through desultory study of the finest authors to which he had access.

The flashes of obscenity are not a sign of the more vulgar time, however. There was more than a little of that in even the finest classical Latin love poetry. The theme of age overtaking virility, though, was less common.

she started fondling my burning prick by hand
and she aroused me with her fingers too.

Even the strokes of passion did not help my numbness;
frost stayed within the hearth, as in the past.

The Elegies of Maximianus have it as their signature theme. While much younger, the poet of The Elegies may also have written the poems in Appendix B celebrating the sensual banquet of love. The vocabulary and prosody are noticeably more classical, however. It is difficult to see them as written by the same man but not impossible, and the future may bring other manuscripts to light that fill this, or any or all the various gaps, to our satisfaction.

As for the quality of this translation, the name "A. M. Juster" should be all that needs saying. In the realm of translating shorter Latin classics into poetry attractive to the general reader of English he is the equal of any and far better than all but a very few.

Each new volume displays a firmer grasp of the many various demands of the genre. With The Elegies of Maximianus the challenges are considerably more daunting than was the case with his translations of the Elegies of Tibullus or The Satires of Horace. Our knowledge of the poems of Maximianus has only the most limited, the most conjectural context. Almost everything we know is informed by scholarly exegesis rather than an historical sense of his person, place or time or his fellow writers.

The text of Maximianus betrays a translator always on the watch for opportunities to slide into riffs of dactyls and trochees in order to approximate the tone of the original. More often the final word of a line is "common," as the Latins would describe it—ambivalent—towards the end of approximating a closing dactyl. An attempt has been made to include occasional hexameter first lines, where practical, toward the same end. More often, regardless the number of poetic feet, the first line of a distich is one syllable longer than the second. But he has the good judgment not to strain too hard for these particular effects. The point is to provide the reader with a sense of the foreign style of the Latin original together with a literal rendering of the meaning. To attempt more would merely arrive at poor English poems.

Juster refers also to an effort, in particular, to approximate "Maximianus's pronounced internal rhyme, alliteration, and assonance, all of which are more common in Late Antiquity than in the classical era." In his concise Introduction, Michael Roberts highlights the relationship between the Elegies and the love poetry of Ovid. The disparities, in particular, between the two are particularly expressive.

Getting it right has its own problems in each instance unique to the work at hand. Maximianus indulges in a great many clumsy constructions and it would be poor work to translate them away. Active verbs are regularly contorted into passive usages by their position in lines: a sign one suspects of encroaching Medieval Latin and vulgar Romance languages that will follow, as the centuries pass. It is a stylistic trait that surely must have tried the translator's patience. It has to be tiresome to write less well than one can. Even as a matter of principal. But vitally important principle it is, at least in the realm of scholarship, and Juster is definitely intent, on this occasion, on wearing both hats.

A. M. Juster's translation of The Elegies of Maximianus is a distinctive combination of genuine scholarship and poetry precisely rendered. It describes a marked change in his trajectory as a translator from the more popular to the more historical. For those who prefer to explore less traveled territories, the combination offers a unique and rewarding experience.


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