By A.M. Juster
The Swerve, Stephen Greenblatt’s best-selling book about the rediscovery of the sole surviving manuscript of Lucretius’ De rerum natura, is profoundly flawed as history, but it does accurately capture the fevered excitement of medieval humanists searching for classical texts in libraries, archives, and storage rooms of monasteries, castles, and universities. One of the most eagerly sought texts was a collection of love elegies, perhaps called Amores, by Cornelius Gallus (70 BC-26 BC), the poems that inspired the amorous poetry of Ovid, Propertius and Tibullus.
Gallus, like many Roman poets, mixed politics and poetry. He was friendly with Virgil and studied poetry with Virgil’s instructor. Gallus shrewdly threw his lot in with Octavian and rose quickly in his government, but Octavian eventually removed him as prefect of Egypt—apparently due to overly ostentatious celebrations of Gallus’ suppression of a rebellion in Thebes. Gallus promptly committed suicide, then Octavian ordered damnatio memoriae so efficient that none of Gallus’ poetry survived for two thousand years except for one extremely ordinary line quoted by another author.
The love elegists inspired a sixth-century imitator/satirist named Maximianus who wrote in “old age” (probably his late fifties) about the largely failed romantic adventures of his youth and a recent bout with erectile dysfunction. One of the four women in Maximianus’ elegies is “Lycoris,” a name borrowed from the alias for Gallus’ famed love interest.
The survival of Maximianus’ “elegies” (perhaps more accurately described as “antielegies”) is remarkable because no contemporaneous references to his poetry exist and only one arguable bit of extrinsic evidence exists about his life. That one reference places him in the circle of poets, scholars and public servants under Theoderic that included Boethius and Cassiodorus, but it refers only to historical preservation duties in Rome.
While some scholars have recently stretched mightily to place Maximianus in Constantinople at the time that Justinian conquered the new capital of Ravenna in May 540, the most likely hypothesis is that he remained in Italy and succumbed to the plague of Justinian, which killed a large percentage of the people living in Italy. In either case, historical references in Maximianus’ work end just before the fall of Ravenna.
Despite the low profile of Maximianus and his poetry during his lifetime, his work started to influence other poets almost immediately. The underrated North African poet Corippus echoed Maximianus just a few years after the fall of Ravenna.
The connection between Maximianus and Corippus may have been Athanasius, one of Justinian’s key functionaries. We know that Corippus worked for Athanasius. Maximianus, based on his Elegy V, might have known Athanasius in Constantinople while he was performing the diplomatic duties described in that poem. Those duties would have most likely been performed under the brief and violent reign of Theodahad (ca. 480-536) from 534 to 536; Maximianus wrote glowingly about Theodahad in two of the six poems of the Appendix Maximiani (assuming acceptance of the attribution of those poems). One of these poems is an oddly lyrical description of the site at which the henchmen of Theodahad executed his female cousin, who had previously served for many years as regent.
Eugene of Toledo (ca. 595-657) is the next poet who echoes Maximianus, although we cannot guess how Maximianus’ elegies made it to Spain. A clumsy, anonymous condensation of Maximianus’ elegies appeared at some point during the next few centuries, then brief aphoristic excerpts from Maximianus’ elegies became regular features of grammars for children across Europe.
Around 1200 French grammarian Alexander de Villa Dei criticized the use of Maximianus’ nugae (a very difficult term to translate that perhaps is best rendered here as “trifles”) in grammars. Soon the work of Maximianus began vanishing in Europe, at least on the continent. Maximianus had more durability in England; Chaucer mentioned him and there is an anonymous Middle English poem called Le Regret de Maximian.
Three centuries after Alexander de Villa Dei, a brilliant but morally bankrupt teenaged humanist in Italy named Pomponius Gauricus noticed the fevered search for elegies of Gallus—and smelled opportunity. In 1501 he slightly modified his edition of Maximianus by deleting the distich that contains Maximianus’ name and changing “Boethius” to “”Bobetus.” He also broke the text into six “elegies,” a format still generally accepted by today’s scholars. He then hoisted his forgery aloft as the great prize—an edition of the elegies of Gallus.
Although there was some immediate skepticism about the young scholar’s find, for a time most classicists enthusiastically accepted the arrival of the elegies of “Gallus.” It is unclear whether Gauricus profited financially from his fraudulent edition, but the book significantly increased his stature. In 1504 he published an influential treatise on sculpture; his youthful fraud never caught up with him before his death in 1530.
Despite a 1569 edition of Maximianus edited by Theodor Pulmann (1510-1607) that debunked the attribution of the poems to Gallus, the world only slowly accepted Pulmann’s opinion. In the 1588 edition of his essays, Montaigne cites “Gallus” seven times. Cotton Mather (1663-1728) quotes “Gallus,” but it is hard not to believe that he lifted the quotation from his catena (a book of quotations).
Gallus remained in the public imagination. For instance, he plays a significant part in Ben Jonson’s 1601 play The Poetaster. Gallus also moved Tom Stoppard enough to insert him into his 1997 play about A.E. Housman, The Invention of Love, which includes this tribute and consolation:
Virgil wrote a poem for him; how much immortality does a man need?—his own poetry, all but a line, as if it had never been, but his memory alive in a garden of an empire that disappeared fifteen hundred years ago.
As a sad postscript to this story, in 1978 archeologists picking through a long-buried pile of Egyptian trash found a papyrus that included nine lines of Gallus’ poetry. Those nine lines appear to have come from an epigram and a love elegy, but they have not impressed anyone as great poetry.