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Cornelius Gallus livesPeter Parsons

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Vol. 2 No. 2 · 7 February 1980

Cornelius Gallus lives

Peter Parsons writes about a lost Latin poet

Waste-paper is rubbish; ancient waste-paper is scholarship. Most of Greek and Latin literature disappeared without trace in the Dark Ages; what survived in manuscript was printed and so perpetuated at the Renaissance; since then the texts remain constant, while the commentaries multiply. But there is one source that produces new material rather than novel opinions; and that is the salvage of the Egyptian Greeks. The dry sand of Egypt preserves a mass of litter, the books and papers of Greek-speaking settlers and their Roman masters; these fragments, deciphered and published by papyrologists, make their special contribution to the immortalité mouvante of the classics. Each year turns up surprises on papyrus: Archilochus and his Lolita, the prosy Jocasta of Stesichorus, Menander’s love-lorn mercenary, the rococo exercise in rustic chic which Callimachus created from the story of Heracles and the Nemean Lion. This year’s surprise is more surprising than most: a snippet from the most glamorous missing link in Latin literature.

The find itself is remarkable enough. The rock-fortress of Primis (now Qasr Ibrîm) lies at the back of beyond, 750 miles south of Cairo and 150 miles south of Aswan. It was a key point in the frontier zone between Egypt and Nubia, dominating the east bank of the Nile; it has been garrisoned by successive empires, Egyptian, Roman, Nubian and Ottoman, and its waste-paper covers three and a half millennia, from the hieroglyphs of the New Kingdom to the Turkish of the 18th-century mercenaries. The Egypt Exploration Society of London has dug the site since 1963. Last year the team began to clear a narrow alley which runs between the south bastion of the fortress and the girdle-wall surrounding it. The alley turned out to be choked with refuse thrown down from the bastion above – sacking, clothes and sandals, lamps and pottery, some of distinctively Roman type. The Romans are known to have captured the fortress in 25 BC: here apparently is a legionary rubbish-tip. Among the detritus there was also written material, mostly in Greek: scrappy private letters (one dated 22/1 BC) belong to the correspondence of two army trumpeters. But on 11 March 1978 the excavator, Robert Anderson, found himself looking at something quite different: five tattered scraps, with elegant Latin capitals. Individual words stood out:


was interesting.


was sensational. Only one Lycoris occurs in Latin literature: she was the mistress, in life and in verse, of C. Cornelius Gallus, friend of Virgil, political suicide and literary ancestor of the European love sonnet.

There is much to be said for being lost. Of Gallus’s poetry we possessed – until now – one solitary line; but his reputation has stood very high. The drama of his life has dazzled most critics. He was born to provincial obscurity, about 70 BC, near Fréjus; at 20 he was a famous poet, at 40 Viceroy of Egypt; three years later, in 26 BC, disgrace and death. The poets themselves celebrate his career in poetry: in Virgil’s Sixth Eclogue, Gallus is shown receiving his inspiration from the Muses; in the Tenth Eclogue, Gallus is at the centre, dying of love for the faithless Lycoris; for Propertius, Gallus is the latest exemplar for love poets; for Ovid, Gallus begins the apostolic succession of the amorous – Gallus, Tibullus, Propertius, Ovid. Historians and monuments record the political career: in 30 BC Octavian advanced into Egypt, eliminated Antony and Cleopatra, and became sole ruler of the Roman world; Gallus led an army in this campaign, and immortalised his title of Imperial Adjutant on the obelisk which now stands outside St Peter’s; in 29 he was made Prefect of the new province, the most glamorous and (so long as Rome depended on Egyptian corn) the most politically sensitive in the Empire. Octavian no doubt expected loyalty and discretion from the man he had made. But Gallus could not resist acting the pharaoh. He drank, and spoke imprudently of the Emperor; he welcomed a man of letters whom the Emperor had exiled; he filled Egypt with his own statues and his own inscriptions (one of these, which still survives at Philae, naively recounts how Gallus marched far to the south, ‘to a point where neither Roman nor Egyptian had ever ventured’). The Emperor publicly and formally broke off their friendship. Private accusers swarmed in to dismember the fallen favourite. The senate condemned him to confiscation and exile. He killed himself. But poets remained loyal to his memory; and so, as it now turns out, did one reader in the Roman garrison at Qasr Ibrîm.

Gallus’s literary achievement had two sides, to judge from ancient allusions. Apparently he wrote ‘subjective elegy’ (that is, he described his own experiences, if not in his own person, at least in his own persona); and devoted a whole cycle of poems (four books, according to the commentator Servius) to his relationship with one woman – as Propertius and Ovid did later, and Petrarch and Shakespeare after them. Apparently he wrote mythological narratives, in imitation of the Hellenistic poet Euphorion (whose surviving works combine obscure myth, recondite vocabulary and crossword-puzzle allusiveness in crabbed donnish diversions which later found favour with the special tastes of the Emperor Tiberius). The textbooks therefore write him up as a transition and a synthesis: a transition between the age of Catullus and the age of Propertius; a synthesis between personal passion and Alexandrian artifice. The difficulty has been to put flesh on this tidy skeleton; we lack words and details. The one surviving line is quoted only for its geographical content, and is notable only for its crude verbal neatness. Beyond that, we have some lines in the Tenth Eclogue, which Servius (in the fourth century) alleged to be ‘taken over’ from Gallus; and some lines in the Sixth Eclogue, which Skutsch (in 1906) guessed to be summaries of Gallan poems. The vacuum invites filling. Pomponius Gauricus published the works of Gallus in 1501: but they turned out to be by the Christian poet Maximian. Aldus Manutius the Younger discovered the works of Gallus in 1590: but they turned out to be his own. Caspar von Barth in 1607 attributed to Gallus the anonymous poem ‘Ciris’, and so have others since: but no one ever believes it for long. The moderns have generally been more subtle in the quest for Gallus. The Roman literary world was as small as Bloomsbury; Gallus must have had great influence in it; if there are coincidences between the poems of Gallus’s admirers, should we not see their origin in poems of Gallus? And so Gallus becomes omnipresent, like God or phlogiston, invisible but deducible.

The new papyrus comes as a breeze in the hot-house.* It is in itself a romantic object, this splendidly elegant book: it is probably the oldest Latin manuscript to survive, so old indeed that it could have been in the hands of Virgil, could have been copied in the lifetime of Gallus. It had a romantic fate: when the Romans came to Qasr Ibrîm, Gallus had been dead a year or more; but some officer carried his ex-commander’s poems to the far south, well beyond the point his ex-commander had boasted of reaching, and it was in this exotic spot that they were finally consigned to the garbage. The content is less romantic but more interesting: nine lines of the real Cornelius Gallus.

The first is the end of a poem, addressed to Lycoris: ‘my life made miserable by your misbehaviour’. This is what we expected.

There follows a four-line epigram: ‘Caesar, my fate will be sweet to me, when you are the greatest part of Roman history and when I read how the temples of many gods are enriched with the spoils you place there.’ Caesar makes history, the poet reads it: stock flattery. But which Caesar is it? And from which war is he returning full of booty? A major war, if the compliment is rational (but you need not expect rationality from a poet on the make); the major wars of Gallus’s career are early and late – the Parthian war of Julius Caesar (44 BC, aborted by his murder), the Egyptian war of Octavian (30 BC) or the Parthian war which was expected to follow. R.G.M. Nisbet opts for the early date, on the ground that by the Twenties Gallus was too grand to write verse, and Lycoris too old to be written about (one might doubt the first argument, and indeed the second: Lycoris, like Propertius’s Cynthia, may have remained a symbol long after she ceased to be a siren). In that case, the great man is Julius, not Octavian; the compliment is an early rung on the ladder to the top.

The third poem is another epigram: ‘Now at last the Muses have made me poems that I can speak as worthy of my mistress. I at least have no fear … when you, Viscus, or you, Cato, are the judge.’ These are the critics: Viscus, one of two brothers whose judgment Horace respected; Valerius Cato, poet, scholar, critic and guru to the avant-garde poets of Catullus’s generation. Perhaps Gallus claimed their approval for his new poetry, perhaps he dismissed them as irrelevant, once Lycoris approved (the text is damaged). Certainly the Mistress is central: the first clear use of the word in European literature.

Lycoris, Caesar, Viscus and Cato: love, power, poetry: these three poems cover systematically chief themes, and dominating personalities, of Gallus’s career. The themes themselves interlock: Lycoris’s infidelity makes him sad; Caesar’s triumph relieves the sadness; new inspiration will win Lycoris back. But the style of the lines, and the shape of the whole, are equally puzzling. We expected a sequence of love elegies: we have a series of epigrams. We expected Grecising elegance and mythological ornament: we have plain flat diction, foursquare and even lumpish metric, and one prosodic feature that the next generation would find strikingly old-fashioned. Nothing suggests the deutero-Euphorion, and almost nothing the proto-Propertius. Now of course the proprieties of epigram may be different from the proprieties of elegy; the lucky dip may have turned up the least typical, or the least successful, of Gallus’s works. But reality ought to weigh more heavily than reputation. In the ancient world, Gallus had the advantage of friends and glamour: in the modern world, the encroaching charm of a missing link. Now that we have an actual sample before us, we recognise a more human Gallus: modest talent, of historical interest.

The Gallus-construction industry has reared gorgeous palaces from its few bricks; it will be interesting to see how it copes with the new breeze-block. Meanwhile there is the hope of more reality: the Egypt Exploration Society has been digging the same site again this Christmas.

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