A. M. Juster, New Formalist poet and translator of a diverse range of Latin poets from Horace to Aldhelm, offers in this volume the first poetic translation into modern English of the late antique Elegies of Maximianus. Maximianus himself is a rather shadowy figure whose exact dates, full name, and social milieu all remain elusive. The current scholarly consensus is that the poet lived in sixth-century Italy, as his references to residences at Rome (1.63) and Etruria (5.5; 5.40), to the philosopher Boethius (3.48), and to a war-time embassy to Constantinople (5.1–4) all fit within the context of Ostrogothic or early Byzantine Italy. The Elegies themselves are perhaps more puzzling. Aptly labeled “polyphonic” by Anna Maria Wasyl,1 they consist of six connected poems (or one long poem—the jury is still out) narrated by an old man, who vituperates the sorrows of old age by recalling four past erotic encounters. These are recounted in a sometimes bewildering mixture of genres from elegy to epitaph to epigram, and tones from humorous to pathetic to obscene. The work had a prolific afterlife, as Maximianus became a medieval school author and remained an early modern staple. Recently, the poem has seen much scholarly attention in part because of its polyphonous, almost self-contradictory aspects. Juster's translation and commentary strives to present the Elegies to us in all of their incongruous grandeur.
To begin with the translation itself, Juster meets his goal of “provid[ing] a faithful—but not ‘literal’—translation that also works as poetry” (vii). Juster approximates the rhythm of the Latin elegiac couplets in English by alternating lines of iambic hexameter and pentameter. He also strives, wherever possible, to preserve some of the rhetorical tricks of the original—alliteration, anaphora, antithesis, internal rhyme, etc. An example of Juster's translation at its finest is the couplet 1.5–6, which also happens to be perhaps the most famous passage of the Elegies (16–7):
In the first line, “I am not who I was” retains the same epigrammatic quality of the original, and the translator has also preserved the alliteration on the letter p. The way the rhythm of the line in English seems to slow over those first, pregnant words, before galloping to the end of the line is also a nice touch. In the second line, “cling” excellently translates the sense of habent, avoiding a more mundane translation of such a common verb. Since translation is a form of interpretation, there are, of course, places where one could quibble with Juster's rendering, such as the slangy “screw” for prodere (2.18), the archaicizing “Hector-guarded Troy” (5.41), or the perhaps-sanitized “boys and girls,” in a context that seems to imply “servants” or “slaves” (pueri atque ipsae … puellae; 1.283–4). Minor complaints such as these excepted, the translation is eminently readable, preserves the flavor of the Latin, and also, much to Juster's credit, often retains the ambiguity of the original. For example, at the end of “Elegy 3,” rather than identifying whether the poet is speaking of separation from his former beloved, Aquilina, or his would-be procurer, Boethius, Juster preserves the ambiguity of the Latin: “We split up, equally resentful and unhappy; the reason for the split was modest life” (3.93–4).
In addition to Juster's translation, The Elegies of Maximianus also includes a very lucid introduction by Michael Roberts, the Latin text of the poem on facing-pages with the translation, numerous appendices, and a detailed commentary upon the poems, the first in English since 1900.2 Not all of these elements seem to be incorporated together as well as they could be. For example, it is hard to see why Appendices D, the Imitatio Maximiani, and E, Le regret de Maximian, are included. Juster says he includes these two medieval poems to spur future research into them (vii), but surely a notice in the introduction or commentary would have been sufficient for this purpose, as neither poem is translated and the notes on them in the commentary merely refer to other secondary sources. Appendices A–C, however, are important comparands for the Elegies and its tradition. The poetic translation of the Appendix Maximiani, a series of poems included in some manuscripts with the Elegies and dating to the Ostrogothic Period, is a particularly welcome contribution (Appendix B), and the excerpts from Cassiodorus (A) and Ennodius (C) are helpful for navigating scholarly debates. Another incongruous element is the total lack of punctuation in the Latin text. According to the author, this is done to not over-determine the meaning of Maximianus' text (viii), but specific interpretations (including punctuation) are asserted by the translation on the facing page and sometimes by notes in the commentary.
The general introduction to the volume describes the poet's life, the structure of the Elegies and its genre, and provides some interesting interpretive suggestions, while the commentary largely tackles issues of dating, textual variants, and similarity of phrasing with other Latin authors. Roberts, one of the foremost scholars of late Latin poetry, has produced a succinct yet thorough introduction to Maximianus, which includes particularly helpful remarks on the role of the elegiac couplet in late antique poetry (8–11) and the difficulty of interpreting the poems (11–13). Juster, for his part, has produced in his commentary a useful entry point into recent debates surrounding the Elegies. Juster summarizes and synthesizes the commentaries of numerous previous editors of the Elegies, presenting alternative interpretations to textual difficulties and various suggestions of intertextual allusions, all in keeping with his stated goal “to stimulate debate, not stifle it” (vii). Juster is open about the help he received from supporting scholars, whom he refers to as his “advisors.” With the assistance of these advisors, Juster's commentary goes beyond summarizing past scholarship and adds several new contributions. One highlight is the succinct and informative account of the medieval collections of the “epigrams” of Maximianus, compiled with the acknowledged help of Robert Kaster (110–11). Also impressive were the various reception notes on Maximianus, including some more modern ones ones previously unknown to this reviewer, such as Cotton Mather's use of some Maximian lines (137) or the rewrite of one of Maximianus's more salacious love affairs by Kenneth Rexroth (181). However, I found it peculiar that both Juster and Roberts allude only in passing to the most significant aspect of Maximian reception, namely the poem's false attribution to Cornelius Gallus in the Renaissance, even though the current division of the poem into six elegies can, in part, be traced to this misattribution.3
While the commentary overall is judicious, thorough, and helpful, there is at least one subject upon which the commentary is problematic: the biography of the poet. Juster is convinced that the details of the poem are at least to some degree autobiographical, not simply part of a poetic persona. In addition, Juster argues that the poem can be dated accurately to ca. 539 CE (104–5). However, Juster's dating criteria rest on several arguments which are far from universally accepted. In fact several points are directly contradicted in Roberts's introduction, which is more cautious both about dating the poem and accepting the text as straightforward biography. Juster is convinced that Variae 1.21 refers to our Maximianus, Roberts suggests it does not (1); Juster accepts that Corippus' Iohnnia (c. 548 CE) imitates Maximianus, Roberts suggests the parallels are not significant (2 with note 6); Juster asserts the Appendix Maximiana was by the same poet, Roberts denies this (13). Simply put, the dates of the poet and the question of biography remain vexed and unanswered questions in Maximian scholarship and are far less straightforward than their presentation in Juster's commentary sometimes suggests. That being said, if students and scholars interested in learning about the work and afterlife of this most intriguing of late antique poets keep this caveat in mind, they have in this volume an excellent introduction and a vade mecum for future investigation.
Anna Maria Wasyl, Genres Rediscovered: Studies in Latin Minatare Epic, Love Elegy and Epigram of the Romano-Barbaric Age (Krakow: Jagiellonian University Press, 2011), 120–135.
Richard Webster, The Elegies of Maximianus (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1900). Juster's Latin text is based on Webster's, incorporating emendations suggested by scholars in the intervening 118 years.
Wolfgang Schneider, “Definition of Genre by Falsification: The False Attribution of the Maximianus Verses to Cornelius Gallus by Pomponius Gauricus and the ‘Definition’ of Their Genre and Structure,” Rivista di filologia e di instruzione classica 129 (2001): 445–64. See also Paul White's recent Gallus Reborn: A Study of the Diffusion and Reception of Works Ascribed to Gaius Cornelius Gallus (Abingdon: Routledge, 2019).