Roman poetry is when…

My favourite definition of poetry goes like this:

Poetry is when every line begins with a capital letter and does not reach the right margin of the page.

I like this definition so much, because, in its focus on two aspects of poems’ formal presentation, it is infuriatingly oblivious of what one might normally regard as essential to poetry: artifice, sound, and meaning beyond mere words and syntactical constraints. (I talk about this here in some detail.)

When it comes to ancient Roman (and Greek) poetry, an award of the honorific label ‘poetry’ is commonly made on a similarly infuriating basis: if a sequence of words is arranged, with absolute precision, according to a pre-defined pattern of long and short syllables (or, very rarely and much later, accentuated and unaccentuated syllables), then it qualifies as poetry.

If this doesn’t apply, Classicists have three recourses open to them:

  1. they may call the very same sequence of words ‘prose’ (assuming that rhythmisation was never intended in the first place), or ‘rhythmical prose’ (if feeling generous);
  2. they may call it ‘corrupt’ (assuming that a work of perfection has been spoiled by a manuscript tradition – giving the textual critic permission to interfere with the manuscript transmission without any consideration of the issue as to whether or not such interference may, in fact, destroy the original wording of a poem), or
  3. they insult the writer as ‘poetaster’ or some such (assuming that rhythmisation was mandatory and only an incompetent idiot would be unable to live up to such a standard – exceptions are only made for Homer and Vergil, respectively, who may be excused for the odd line that is too long, too short, or otherwise too freely crafted).

This is in keeping with what ancient grammarians teach, and any violation of these standard operating procedures is very much frowned upon.

An ancient classical poet writing anything any less than perfect? Unthinkable, not even for an effect – suggesting otherwise is pretty much the Classical scholar’s counterpart to committing an act of blasphemy.

Studying the Latin verse inscriptions, rhythmical imperfections are not the exception to me. They are a constant feature of this type of Latin poetry – the common people’s poetry as opposed to the verbal art of Rome’s urban elite and aristocracy.

Previous generations of scholars have carefully listed the metrical ‘violations’ of such poems, not rarely attaching their scholarly scoldings of the misellus poetaster who was clearly too stupid and too ill-educated to avoid them.

But are we actually right to think that flawless rhythmisation, and rhythmisation only, is what made ancient poetry? The more I study the Latin verse inscriptions, the more I doubt it – formal criteria may be useful, but on their own they smack of artificiality rather than profound appreciation of the vastness of human artistic desire.

The problem is, of course, as already suggested, that our own concept of what makes ancient poetry poetry is derived from the teachings of ancient grammarians and metricians – and who, if not those specialists, our professional predecessors, should know best?

Recently, however, (I think) I found some corroboration for my suspicion that we are on the wrong track with our approach to what ought to qualify as poetry in Cicero’s speech Pro Archia, a speech full of insights into the production of art in first century B. C. Rome.

In section 25 of this speech, Cicero reports that –

quem nos in contione vidimus, cum ei libellum malus poeta de populo subiecisset, quod epigramma in eum fecisset tantummodo alternis versibus longiusculis, statim ex iis rebus, quas tum vendebat, iubere ei praemium tribui sub ea condicione, ne quid postea scriberet. Qui sedulitatem mali poetae duxerit aliquo tamen praemio dignam, huius ingenium et virtutem in scribendo et copiam non expetisset?

We saw him (Lucius Sulla) in a public gathering – when some bad poet from the crowd handed him a script, as he had produced an epigram on the subject matter of him alone, with every other line rather long – commanding that the man at once be given a reward payable from the items that he flogged at the time on the condition that he should never write again. He thought that the industry of a bad poet was worthy of some reward nonetheless: the very same man should not have sought the genius, literary prowess, and abundance of my client?

There has been some debate over the alignment of tantummodo (‘only (just)’) – I take it to mean that the subject of the epigramma was Sulla alone (most scholars have taken it as a modifier of longiusculis, ‘rather long’, which does not make any sense). There has also been some discussion as to whether alterni uersus should specifically refer to the metrical form of the ‘elegiac distich‘, in a technical sense, which is possible (but not a given).

What I find a lot more interesting is the description itself: there is a nameless poet (albeit not a very good one, according to Cicero – one must doubt, of course, that he ever actually saw the epigram in question!), and this poet produces a little piece in honour of Sulla – offering it to him as a gift.

All that remains of the poem is a description of its shape: it was written in alterni uersus, pairs of lines (i. e. distichs, whether they were elegiacs or not), in a format in which every other line was longiusculus, ‘rather long’, without conforming to any format that was regarded as flawless.

Cicero calls the author a malus poeta, a bad poet, twice. But – and this is what is important to me – he still calls him a poet, and he calls his piece an epigramma, describing its shape. What is more, before making this episode relevant to the case at hand, Cicero emphasises that Sulla appreciated the sedulitas, the effort and industry, of the malus poeta – and even rewarded it (if from presumably rather ill-gotten gains).

Sulla offered his reward on condition of a poetic ceasefire: no more bad poetry in honour of Rome’s powerful aristocrat!

What we may take away from it is that, certainly in Rome during the first century B. C., poetry was something that was produced with artistic conviction, sedulitas, first,  recognised by its shape(s) second (alterni versus longiusculi), assessed by the impact on its audience third (epigramma in eum … tantummodo), and measured by its technical perfection last.

Cicero’s client is better than the malus poeta not in terms of meter and rhythm. He excels with regard to his ingenium et virtutem in scribendo et copiam, his genius, literary prowess, and abundance.

May we still call poets ‘bad poets’?

We certainly may.

But it shouldn’t be a judgement based on technical perfection alone, just as one would not base one’s judgement of the qualities of a chef on the formal presentation of the food alone.

About Peter Kruschwitz

Berliner. Classicist. Scatterbrain.
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5 Responses to Roman poetry is when…

  1. I more prefer the term ‘poetical imagination’ because this is not limited to the form of a ‘poem’ with strict forms or techniques. The most important is creating images let’s say by heart, inspiration, vizualisation, phantastic assumptions, a.s.o.. Talking about it in a technical focused discourse does/can not lead to a basic understanding of what is really important. Before the word, there will be normally an image what could be written.

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  2. chattykerry says:

    I can only imagine what these venerable Latin scholars would make of Facebook and Twitter. Our Latin teacher insisted that we pronounce Latin in a certain way, even though we cannot say for certain how language was spoken. Or perhaps you know differently?


  3. Well, there are some competing ideas, of course, and we can’t know for certain (in absolute terms). There’s a great little book by a guy called W. S. Allen, which gives a good introduction on the subject. 🙂

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  4. chattykerry says:

    It’s a fascinating thought – what did Latin sound like. Our Latin Master was so scary in his long black robe (Catholic School) that we just did what he said… 😆 Even worse was the middle aged lady who we named Flavia.

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  5. Those types… priceless!

    Liked by 1 person

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