The Carmina of Publilius Optatianus Porphyrius and the Creative Process

This article on the Carmina Figurata of Publilius Optatianus Porphyrius began as a research paper for a seminar on Late Antiquity during my graduate studies at San Francisco State University. After several revisions, it was presented at the Sixth Annual Student Forum on the Ancient World hosted by the Classics Department at SFSU in October 2001. Following further revisions, it was published as a chapter in “Studies in Latin Literature and Roman History,” Volume XII (edited by Carl Deroux, published in Brusselles by Collection Latomus, 2005), pages 447 – 466.

Sometime around the end of the first quarter of the fourth century C.E., a former resident of the imperial city of Rome then living in exile in Achaea began a written campaign for his recall to the capitol. The campaign coincided with the Vicennalia, or twentieth anniverary, of the reign of the first Christian Roman Emperor, Constantine, an event celebrated in July 325 in Nicomedia and again in the summer of 326 at Rome itself. The writing campaign took advantage of this event and consisted of a series of panegyric poems addressed to Constantine in commemoration of both the Vicennalia and Constantine’s earlier defeat of Licinius in 324. The series, included in what is now known collectively as the Carmina or Carmina Figurata, is of an unusual and innovative sort: the poems contain supplementary text ‘hidden’ within the main body of the individual poems and intended to be ‘discovered’ by the reader. These versus intexti poems were apparently intended to dazzle Constantine with their technical virtuosity and thereby inspire the hoped–for recall of their creator, Publilius Optatianus Porphyrius.[1] The campaign was ultimately successful, and the intriguing larger body of work created by Optatianus remains captivating even today, both for its simple visual appeal and for its display of remarkable technical skill.

Despite the dazzling technical virtuosity and captivating visual appeal of the poems, they remain at the fringes of scholarly interest. One philologist describes their purely literary content as lacking elegance and refinement, even as banal.[2] Their value as sources of historical data is also limited. These two factors may partially explain why only a handful of modern scholars have given attention to the works and their creator.[3] Yet it must be remembered that the poems were almost certainly not composed as works of elegant literature, but rather as displays of purely technical skill designed to impress through visual impact, not verbal eloquence. Optatianus’ masterful display of word ordering in the later Carmina has had significant influence on an entire genre of ‘literary’ output, especially its modern direct descendant, the acrostic puzzle.

Historians have periodically debated a number of aspects of the poems, especially the dates at which the majority were written. All attempts at dating the poems have focused exclusively on the poems’ intratextual data. None have yet considered the overall design of the individual poems relative to each other and the resultant evidence of a logically evolving creative process and ever-increasing mastery of skill. This creative process, evolving as it does over time, provides a new method for sequential dating of the poems and is consistent with dating that utilizes intratextual references. The apparent evolving mastery in design skill also suggests, despite Timothy Barnes’ argument to the contrary, that not all of the poems were intended for presentation to Constantine.[4] Only a small subset of the poems displays the epitome of complexity, symmetry, and imagery necessary for truly ‘dazzling’ an imperial recipient.

This paper will examine a representative selection of the more than twenty poems for evidence of the evolution of Optatianus’ creative process and perfection of his technical skill. Implicit in the argument for a creative process lies a proposal that a sequential chronology for the poems can be established when evidence of relative complexity is considered. An analysis that utilizes textual evidence and the medieval manuscript tradition and that also incorporates evidence of the authorial creative process provides a more complete understanding of the poems as an entire body of work.

The Carmina of Optatianus survive only in fragmentary form spread through over a dozen separate manuscripts, all transcribed between the latter part of the eighth century and the middle of the sixteenth century.[5] Importantly, none of these manuscripts incorporates all of the poems in a single collection. According to Polara’s tabulation, eleven of the manuscripts have only seven of a known thirty–one poems in common (Poems II, III , and V-IX).[6] The remaining twenty-four poems appear with varying but lesser frequency in the many manuscripts. The late–thirteenth century Codex Parisinus 7806 incorporates the largest total number of poems: twenty-five plus two letters of dubious authenticity. The sixteenth–century Codex Monacensis Latinus 706a contains the fewest, at just fourteen poems. Thus there is no manuscript tradition to suggest with any certainty that all of the poems were ever intended by their author to be considered as a single entity.[7] All we can say with certainty is that Optatianus created an unknown total number of poems over an unknown span of time, and that some lesser portion of those poems were composed specifically for presentation to Constantine. Rather than beginning to write figured poetry specifically to win recall from exile, this paper argues that Optatianus was already toying with the form at the time of his exile. Only later, after he had perfected his skill in the form, did he write complex poems for the emperor in a specific effort to win recall. The Carmina can thus be divided into at least two separate subsets. An early subset was created for personal enjoyment and represents the evolution of the creative process, much like the preliminary drafts of a modern scholarly article. A later subset, representing the best that Optatianus had to offer, was intended for imperial presentation, in the same way that a modern historian presents only his best and most refined work for publication.

Optatianus produced three distinct types of poetry, two of which are imitations of earlier forms, and one type that was an original creation. Taken as a body of work, the Carmina are part of an evolving tradition of poetry known as technopaignion.[8] This type of poetry is meant to display the skill of the writer for arranging words in a complex way so as to create either a visual pattern with the verses themselves, known as pattern poetry, or to conceal a text within the poem for the reader to ‘puzzle out,’ or versus intexti. A limited number of pattern poems pre–date Optatianus’ work, most originating in Greece. Simmias and Theocritus are the best known creators of Greek pattern poetry. Optatianus’ pattern poems are probably a continuation of that Greek tradition and represent the genesis of his creative process. Similarly, Optatianus also wrote one known proteus poem, the words of which can be re–arranged to create new verses while maintaining the established poetic meter. There are no known examples of versus intexti prior to Optatianus, so that he is thus credited with having invented that form. He did so with amazing virtuosity. The intexti vary from simple acrostics to complex patterns that produce a graphic design within the text of the poem, a kind of self–contained illustration. As further evidence of his remarkable skill, a number of the poems also contain proteus poems, while others have intexti that can be transliterated from Latin to Greek. A minority of the poems goes so far as to incorporate all of these elements into one carmen, a masterful achievement of skill and inventiveness.

The simplest of the Carmina are the pattern poems, certainly created in imitation of the earlier Greek form. Optatianus may well have been exposed to Greek pattern poetry either in his putative birthplace Africa or during his exile in Achaea. Earlier Greek examples include the poems of Simmias of Rhodes, who produced a pattern poem in the shape of wings and another in the shape of an ax, both around 325 B.C.E. Theocritus produced a panpipe-shaped poem, known as a syrinx or fistula, around 300 B.C.E. Dosiadas of Crete is credited with a poem known as ‘Jason’s Altar’ It is a pattern poem in the shape of a pagan altar that doubles as a riddle poem, explicitly inviting a solution from the reader.[9] Optatianus’ Poem XXVI is undoubtedly a direct imitation of Dosiada’s ‘Jason’s Altar.’[10]

Poem XXVI is made up of twenty-four lines of varying length that create the shape of an ancient altar. The textual content of the poem reveals that it is an altar to Apollo. Scholars are unable to agree on the period in which this poem was written.[11] Polara dates it to the period of Optatianus’ exile during the years 324-326.[12] Others, including Elsa Kluge, contend that there is insufficient intratextual evidence to support any specific date of composition. The similarity to earlier Greek examples, the relative simplicity of its construction, and the absence of specific reference to Constantine all indicate, however, that this was indeed one of the first poems written by Optatianus. This carmen may well represent the beginning of Optatianus’ fascination with figured poetry, prior to any conscious intent to compose panegyrics to the emperor.

Other examples of simple Optatian poems that imitate Greek pattern poetry include the syrinx-shaped Poem XXVII and the water–organ–shaped pair, Poems XXa and XXb. None of these poems contain specific textual data that allows for precise dating, but refer instead in general and poetic terms to battles, triumphs, and celebrations, all of which can be associated with any major military victory. As with Poem XXVI, the simplicity of design of these three poems and their apparent imitation of earlier Greek pattern poetry suggest that they were also among the first that Optatianus created. If any portion of Optatianus’ work was intended to earn his recall from exile by ‘dazzling’ the recipient, it is unlikely that Optatianus would have considered these simple imitative poems sufficiently impressive. These poems instead represent the beginning of Optatianus’ creative process, a purely personal undertaking that would only later be seized upon as a means to achieve his eventual goal.

Two other Optatian poems are probably imitative of an existing form but are more complex in construction than are the pattern poems. Poem XXV is a proteus poem. The words of the poem can be re-arranged to create new verses with coherent meaning. The poem consists of just four lines totaling twenty words.

Ardua conponunt felices carmina Musae
dissona conectunt diversis vincula metris
scrupea pangentes torquentes pectora vatis
undique confusis constabunt singula verbis.

The text itself invites the reader to rearrange the words to form new verses. The words may be manipulated within their designated line or exchanged with words of similar metrical qualities in other lines to create new verses. A total of 1792 verses may be created from these four lines, assuming certain metrical rules are obeyed.[13] Similarly, Poem XV contains a single line of protean verse, but it is also a veritable catalog of technical devices. Those devices have been enumerated elsewhere by William Levitan and thus will not be described here.[14] It is sufficient to note that the technical skill required to produce these two poems is greater than that required for the pattern poems. The words of these poems were not chosen simply for their length and number in an effort to create an overall pattern. Rather, they were chosen based on their quantity of syllables, their ability to maintain established metrical qualities if rearranged, or their symmetry in declension. Where the pattern poems ‘dazzle’ through the creation of an overall pattern or ‘picture,’ these latter poems instead ‘dazzle’ by displaying a proficiency at choosing words and arraying them so as to create subtle tricks and poetic devices. The focus has shifted from creating a picture readily perceived by a passive viewer to creating a word puzzle that requires the active participation of the reader in order to be successful. They are an extension of Optatianus’ creative process and evidence of a progressive level of technical skill.

The fifteen known Optatian intexti poems are his tours de force and are the form that he has been credited with inventing. Comparison of these poems to each other provides a rich source of evidence for the evolution of a creative process, evidence that is almost entirely visual rather than verbal. The extant medieval manuscripts indicate how the poems were to be deciphered by the reader: they are written in black ink with the letters of the versus intexti highlighted in red ink.[15] The reader was expected to trace the red ink and to ‘puzzle out’ by his own effort the pattern that resulted, then to read the intextus as an additional or complementary verse. The intexti vary in complexity from the very simple to the magnificently ornate, a variation almost certainly based in a chronologically progressive development of skill on the part of their creator.

Poem XXI displays one of the simplest intextus patterns. The brief sixteen lines composed of uneven verse contain a series of intexti lozenges. The uppermost intextus line, ‘Publilius Optatianus Porfyrius haec lusi’, indicates that the author was amusing himself, an incongruous referent if the purpose of this poem was to amuse the emperor. It therefore seems more likely that Optatianus was experimenting with an evolving newfound personal pleasure. The poem also offers an early key to reading the intexti: the text of the inner lozenges refer to varicolored verses, confirming that two colors of ink were used in order to highlight certain text. The right-hand margin of the poem is ragged and the intexti patterns are asymmetrical. The intexti pattern is quite simple, and the poem is brief. In the absence of references to persons (other than the author) or events that could provide textual dating, and when considered as part of an evolving creative process, this poem must be among the earliest intexti poems created.

Poem XXIII, one of the shortest of the Carmina, contains a simple intextus pattern forming an inverted ‘W’. Yet it evidences a progression in the creative process, despite its seeming simplicity. The Roman lettering of the intextus are transliterations of Greek letters, making this a cryptographically bilingual poem, a feature Optatianus repeats in subsequent works. The content of the poem indicates that the poem is addressed to a specific Greek friend of Optatianus, and the use of a Greek intextus may have been inspired by that relationship.[16] The brevity and relative simplicity of overall design indicates that this poem is among the earliest intexti poems, while the crypto–bilingualism suggests it was not the first. The subject matter argues against its composition as a presentation piece for Constantine.

The subject matter of Poem XVI contains rather vague references to non-specific historical events, resulting in some debate as to when the poem was composed. Polara argues for a date of 322, while Barnes leaves open the possibility of a date as late as mid-324.[17] The degree of creative skill evidenced by the poem suggests an early date, however. The poem is more ambitious in terms of length, extending to thirty-eight lines. The right-hand margin, however, is markedly uneven. Vertical lines of verse at approximately every tenth letter-space form the intexti. They once again contain cryptographic Greek text. The simple vertical pattern of the intexti and ragged right margin indicate that it is probably an early effort at longer intexti poetry, while its overall length and use of cryptographic Greek suggest a sequential placement later than the poems discussed above. If considered in the context of an evolving creative process, the composition date circa 322 suggested by Polara is more readily supportable.

Like Poem XVI, Poems XI and XIII contain vertical intexti. Poem XIII is, at just twelve lines, quite short and its acrostic and telestic combine to cite Constantine by name and simple title (‘Pius Augustus Constantinus’). The subject matter of the poem refers to the victory of Licinius, suggesting that Optatianus was composing with the emperor in mind, and dating it to some point after the summer of 324. Yet when compared to examples to be discussed below, it is still crude, with a markedly ragged right margin and two simple intexti, marking this poem as a probable early ‘study’ rather than as a presentation piece. Poem XI also cites Constantine by name but uses different titles, and it references the defeat of Licinius in more specific terms. Poem XI is longer than Poem XIII and contains an additional mesostic, but displays the same overall design and ragged right margin in addition to similar textual references. The similarities of Poems XVI, XI, and XIII suggest that they were composed contemporaneously.

Poems XI, XIII, and XVI, together with the four imitative pattern poems and two proteus poems, are all relatively simple in design and display a similar level of technical skill in their creation. That relative simplicity and/or imitative nature render them less likely to have been perceived by their own creator as sufficiently ‘dazzling’ to earn his recall from exile. Poems XII (not specifically discussed by this paper), XXI, and XXIII are more ‘dazzling’ in their innovative extension of the versus intexti format, but none of them contain sufficiently specific textual references to support the suggestion that they were intended for imperial presentation. Indeed, the content of Poems XXI and XXII suggests they were not intended for Constantine’s eye, as discussed above. These twelve poems together constitute a subset of the Carmina, one that represents only early stages of Optatianus’ creative process. This subset was not intended by their creator to come under the imperial eye. Only a second subset, one that displays the truly ‘dazzling’ skill required to impress a person as eminent as a Roman emperor, was ever intended for presentation.

The proposed presentational subset of remaining poems, beginning with Poem X, displays certain remarkable common features. The text of each poem forms a square and is symmetrically composed of thirty-five lines of thirty-five characters each, with only rare exceptions. Most contain specific references to datable historical events, especially military victories such as the defeat of Licinius in 324. The intexti patterns within each poem are all either symmetrical or create a graphic image. The poems can be arranged sequentially according to both datable textual references and a corresponding increase in complexity of design. The repeated specific references to Constantine’s military victories, the similarity of design features between the poems, the suitability of the consistently symmetrical design to formal presentation in an inscribed or engraved format, and the simultaneous complexity of these poems in comparison to previous examples all suggest that only these poems were actually intended for presentation to Constantine as Optatianus sought recall from exile.

Poem X begins the series of presentation pieces and initiates the symmetrical design that continues throughout the remainder of this subset of poems. One can easily imagine the visual impact of these poems when carefully inscribed in multicolored ink on a large square folio or inlaid into a suitable substrate using varicolored metals. The intexti of Poem X form a complex pattern of pairs of double chevrons within the arms of a single corner-to-corner ‘X’. Each pair of chevrons is read separately, and the central X–shaped mesostic creates a fifth intextus. Additionally, each chevron pair contains identical intexti so that mirror images are produced in pairs viewed top-to-bottom or side-to-side. Despite its complexity relative to previous examples, Poem X is actually the least complex of the presentation series. It is a fitting ‘mid–point’ in the evolution of Optatianus’ creative process.

Poem III is also a full quadrant containing linear-geometric shapes, but uses a still more complex intexti pattern than its predecessors. The intexti are curvilinear, so that they create a subtle but specific visual image, suggested by the reference to Appelleas in the vertical intextus along the right margin. The pattern consists of one vertical and one horizontal mesostic made up of line 18 and the eighteenth column of letters, plus four winged chevrons along each of the four margins. These intexti contain witty phrases unrelated to each other or to the content of the main body of the poem, phrases that seem rather to have been designed specifically to amuse. As with so many of the Optatian poems, Poem III cannot be assigned a clear date of composition, despite references to Constantine as lord and conqueror of the whole world. When the evidence of that reference is coupled with the evidence provided by the poem’s visual patterns and relative complexity, the poem can be placed among the early presentation pieces.

The intexti of Poem VI extend the creative process and introduce yet another innovation in that they may be read along multiple tracks to produce various permutations of verses. Poem VI can be dated to ca. 322–323 based on numerous specific references to known events, including the defeat of the Sarmatians (line 15) and battles at Campona and the River Margus (lines 18–25).[18] The basic quadrant form of thirty-five lines of thirty-five characters each is again used, but the intexti are made up of two lines of verse that can be read along at least four tracks each.[19] One set of four tracks, centered on ‘conabor Phoebeo’, has Apollo as its subject; the other set of four, centered on ‘Musarum vinciri’, takes the Muses as their subject. This results in a total of eight different verses that can be derived by following various paths through the intexti. Poem VI is quite similar in overall design to its companion in the Polara enumeration, Poem VII. The two have numerous common features, especially similar overall patterns of intexti construction, multiple paths available through the intexti, and shared subject matter references. Taken together these two poems represent skillful technical innovation and a further step along the creative path. Subsequent poems, however, present still further arrays of design innovations that are ever-increasingly complex.

Poems IX and XIV both contain intexti that produce easily detected graphic images or iconography. The intexti of Poem IX produce the visual image of a palm frond, a symbol sometimes associated with Christ. Poem XIV also contains explicitly Christian imagery in its depiction of the monogram of Christ, or xi–rho emblem. The verse within the intextus of Poem XIV refers obliquely to Constantine’s defeat of Licinius in 324 (‘Orbem totem pacavit trucidatis tyrannis’), so that this work must be dated to some time after the summer of 324. It probably pre–dates the Vicennalia, however, since no mention is made of that event. Creative design criteria and datable textual references thus suggest a date of creation between the summer of 324 and the Vicennalia the following year.

The next three poems to be considered are each datable, based on textual references, to some point after the defeat of Licinius. None of them mention the Vicennalia, however, so that it is likely that they were created before the summer of 325.

Poem II makes reference to the defeat of Licinius, but other references render it one of the most significant of the entire collection. The content of the first third of the poem indicates that it is clearly from the period of exile, while the remaining two thirds indicate that it was written specifically to win for Optatianus forgiveness for his errors and his recall to Rome. The expression of these sentiments, appearing as they do only now and rather far along in the creative continuum, suggests that the idea of presenting complex and ‘dazzling’ works to the emperor came late to their creator and was not inherent throughout the process.

Poem II incorporates a rigidly linear–geometric pattern of intexti delineated by an identical intextus repeated along each margin and at the vertical and horizontal midpoints. Additional mesostics of eight characters each are placed at the center of each of the four squares produced.[20] Though seemingly simple in overall design, the repetition of identical intexti along each margin and the central axes requires significant skill in word choice and overall composition. The resulting symmetry in composition also lends itself quite well to any visual presentation.

Poem XVIII displays an equal skill in word choice and overall composition while simultaneously exemplifying Optatianus’ unique ability to combine multiple techniques into a single poem. Poem XVIII is both a versus intexti and proteus poem. The overall pattern of the intexti creates a square grid divided into quadrants, and each quadrant contains an additional X–shaped intextus. Each of the four marginal intexti repeats the same phrase. The mesostics in each quadrant create an additional proteus poem by allowing the reader to follow no less than forty–five routes through the intexti, creating an equal number of lines of hexameter verse.[21] Every intextus in this poem begins with ‘A’, the first letter of the Roman alphabet, another example of Optatianus’ penchant for visual symmetry. Levitan describes this remarkable feat of wordplay and technical skill as ‘a work of difficult and marvelous complexity, of intense articulation and precise equipoise.’[22] It is truly a masterpiece of ingenuity and invention and implies a markedly increased facility for composing in the form.

The date at which Poem XVIII was composed has not been definitively established from textual evidence, so that further evidence must be considered in dating the poem. Kluge and others argue that it was probably written in 332, based on wording in lines 5 and 11 which they interpret as referencing Constantine’s victory over the Goths.[23] Polara and Barnes disagree, both stating that the same wording may alternatively refer to the victory over the Sarmatians, since the lines immediately following refer to Constantine’s conquest of the east in 324.[24] This earlier date places the poem within the period in which Optatianus was writing panegyrics to the emperor. Kluge’s proposed date of 332 removes this poem to a position much later than similar works created for presentation in conjunction with the Vicennalia in 325/6. When considered in the light of an evolving creative process, a date of 332 (which would make Poem XVIII the last in the series) is equally incongruent with the cumulative evidence of a creative continuum. A date of late 324 is the more correct interpretation in light of Optatianus’ intent and the logical evolution of his creative process.

Poem XXII’s overall design favors a place next among the presentation pieces and suggests that it is closely contemporaneous with Poem XVIII. Yet Constantine is neither the person addressed nor mentioned in the work, leading Polara to argue that the poem is not authentically Optatian, but is instead the work of a later imitator.[25] Kluge asserts that the poem was written by Optatianus in 325, the year that one of its possible addressees, Sextus Anicius Paulus (line 2), was consul. Polara rejects Kluge’s argument, however, based in part on the slight asymmetry of the intexti pattern. They form a lattice of diamond shapes that are not completely uniform in size, and the intersections of which do not occur along single horizontal or vertical axes.[26] The text itself contains verbal irregularities, including multiple abbreviations, which Polara points out are not found in such large number within any one of the other poems. The size is similar, at thirty–seven lines of thirty–five characters each, to other authentically Optatian poems, however. The intexti produce a remarkably intricate geometric pattern far surpassing any seen previously. Further, those same intexti, if transcribed in standard verse format, produce an additional pattern poem (below).

The existence of slight asymmetries and certain verbal irregularities might be forgiven if one considers the intricacy of the overall design and the requisite limitations imposed by incorporating that design into a coherent whole. The superior skill required for the execution of Poem XXII, the relative consistency with other examples of its overall format and intexti structure, and the multiple poetic forms employed support Kluge’s contention that the poem is authentically Optatian and was composed ca. 325. Levitan puts it best in stating, ‘Considering the extreme difficulty of this type of writing and the individuality of the problems posed by each composition, we would do best to suspend judgment on [the] objection[s] to its authenticity….’[27] Another option has never been considered, however. If the poem is indeed authentically Optatian, yet not addressed to the emperor, perhaps it was composed in the same period as the imperial presentation pieces in an effort to enlist support from members of Constantine’s court.

The three remaining versus intexti poems are of a markedly different design, their intexti producing specific graphic designs rather than linear–geometric patterns. The first of the three, determined through evidence provided by both intratextual references and refinement of the creative process, is Poem VIII. Though scholars debate its date of composition, the pattern of the intexti and their degree of complexity favor a date of 325.[28] The intexti repeat the large central xi-rho emblem seen earlier in Poem XIV, this time with the addition of five more intexti interspersed clockwise among its arms and forming the name ‘IESUS’. Optatianus, in creating this poem, was appealing to Constantine’s known personal affinity for the xi-rho emblem and his Christian beliefs. And though the textual references in this poem are to events preceding the Vicennalia celebration by several years, the presentation series paid homage collectively to twenty years of holding the imperium. The citation of numerous events throughout that period would flatteringly remind the recipient of his past triumphs, consistent with the panegyric form. The incorporation of intexti that themselves form Roman letters requires an advanced degree of skill in selecting and placing words, suggesting that this poem is among the most highly developed.

Optatianus pays a highly visual tribute to the Vicennalia celebration itself through the graphic image created by the intexti of Poem V. He again uses intexti to form the Roman letters ‘AUG XX CAES X’, simultaneously confirming a date of composition in 325/6. The poem can be read in three modes: first as a poem of thirty–five lines of verse, then as a second poem comprised of verses derived from the ten intexti, and then as a celebratory message spelled out through the pattern of the intexti. It must be noted that like Poem XII, the intextus pattern is not absolutely symmetrical. The letters ‘A U G’ and ‘C A E’ are all seven lines in height, while the ‘X X’ and ‘S X’ are nine lines in height. Similar inequalities occur in the width of the letters. This asymmetry is slight and occurs as a result of a forgivable imperfection in Optatianus’ ability to construct a coherent whole while incorporating new and imaginative parts. Though not perfect in form, Poem V is clearly a ‘dazzling’ achievement and was specifically intended for presentation to the emperor on the occasion of the Vicennalia.

Poem XIX, by far the most complex and visually appealing of all the poems, can also be dated to the Vicennalia by the ‘XX’ intexti incorporated into the design. This poem incorporates most of the previous creative elements in a single piece de resistence. The several intexti, when viewed together, create the graphic image of a Roman trireme with decorative bow, what appears to be a ramming spike, and a tiller. A Christian xi–rho forms the mast, and the letters ‘VOT’ appear above the ship. Most scholars consider these letters to be an abbreviated form of ‘vota’, citing the words ‘votis tuis’ contained in the ‘T’ intextus.[29] A different reading for these letters is possible, however, since Optatianus only rarely employs crude and asymmetrical abbreviations. Optatianus repeatedly styles Constantine as ‘victor’ and ‘invictus’, and the graphic motif is a decidedly naval one. ‘VOT’ may therefore be an abbreviation for ‘Victor Oceani Terraeque’, a variant on the more common title ‘Victor Terrae Marisque’. Oceanus is used less commonly in Latin than mare to describe the sea, however, so that ‘Victor Orbis Terrarum’ may be the more accurate interpretation. This somewhat hyperbolic sentiment would be consistent with the panegyric form and is supported by the usage in line 2 of ‘decus mundi’ to describe Constantine.

The xi–rho intextus of Poem XIX is again cryptographic, with Greek wording partially transliterated to Roman letters. An additional line of verse formed by the combined mast and tiller intexti is also cryptographic and a continuation of the same versus intexti. Taken together the text reads, ‘The ship must be ordered, and you prepared in mind; It is spread from your nobility to the leaping winds.’[30] The remaining intexti are all Latin and form a proteus poem. They can be read along a number of routes, creating a multitude of verses. Poem XIX is a masterpiece of ingenuity and design, and if any of the poems were likely to impress an emperor and win the author’s recall from exile, Poem XIX might easily be sufficient on its own merit. Clearly Optatianus had achieved remarkable technical skill at producing increasingly complex forms, combinations of forms, and patterns of versus intexti. Poem XIX is the culmination of a lengthy but logical evolution in the creative process of its creator.

The figured poetry created by Publilius Optatianus Porphyrius constitutes a remarkable technical achievement. What began as a simple personal pleasure in imitation of an earlier Greek form was transformed over time by this poet-artist into a very complex new form of magnificent complexity. When analyzed critically using evidence derived from the manuscript tradition, intratextual data, and a concomitant evolving creative process, a new consideration of the collected works of Optatianus emerges. The Carmina are not a single–purpose, unified collection of poems, but are instead comprised of at least two lesser subsets. One subset contains those poems that Optatianus created for personal pleasure and that display his acquisition and eventual mastery of technical skill. The second, more influential subset contains the approximately fifteen poems created after 323/4 which were specifically intended for presentation to Constantine and designed to win Optatianus’ recall from exile. This second subset is the epitome of the evolution of Optatianus’ creative process, and the only one sufficiently ‘dazzling’ to catch and impress the imperial eye.


J. Stephan Edwards, PhD



  1. Various scholars use alternate spellings of the name Porphyrius/Porfyrius. The spelling used herein is intended to distinguish him from the better–known Neo–Platonist philosopher and poet Porphyry (or Porfyry), also called Porphyrius. It is also the spelling that Porphyrius himself uses in Poem XXI. Similar variation occurs in the use of the name Optatianus, rather than Porphyrius, to refer to Publilius Optatianus Porphyrius. Many bibliographic indices, including L’Anee Philologique, list the poet under the name Optatianus, thus that name is preferred in this paper.
  2. William Levitan, ‘Dancing at the End of the Rope: Optatian Porfyry and the Field of Roman Verse’ in Transactions of the American Philological Association 115 (1985): 246. Levitan describes Optatianus as ‘not a good poet … not even a bad poet.’
  3. Scholarship on Optatianus and his poems, particularly scholarship that has been published in English, is quite limited. See Lucian Mueller, Publilii Optatianii Porfyrii Carmina (Leipzig: G.B. Teubner, 1877); Elsa Kluge, Publilii Optatianii Porfyrii Carmina (Leipzig, 1926); Giovanni Polara, Ricerche sulla tradizione manoscritta di Publilio Optaziano Porfirio (Salerno: Libreria Internazionale, 1971); and Giovanni Polara,ed., Carmina in 2 Volumes (Torino: Az. G.B. Paravia &Co., 1973). Also, Wilbur Helm, ‘The Carmen Figuratum as Shown in the Works of Publilius Optatianus Porfyrius’ in Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association 33 (1902): xliii–xlix; Timothy Barnes, ‘Publilius Optatianus Porfyrius’ in The American Journal of Philology 96: 2 (Summer 1975); and Levitan [see n. 2]. Linda Jones Hall has begun an English translation of the poems that has not yet been published.
  4. Barnes, Publilius, 173.
  5. See Polara, Ricerche, for a thorough philological analysis of the medieval manuscript sources for the poems of Optatianus. A short summary of this same study can be found in Polara, Carmina, I: vii–xxxiv.
  6. Polara, Carmina, I: xix. Polara is able firmly to attribute less than twenty–five of the thirty–one poems to Optatianus. The authenticity of authorship for the remainder of the poems and two accompanying letters is uncertain. Several poems are generally considered to be later imitations inserted into the medieval manuscripts. This paper will consider only those figured poems that scholars generally agree are authentically Optatian in composition. The two letters are not considered herein.
  7. The Carmina were published collectively in one volume for the first known time in 1590, though that work is now lost (cited by Polara, Carmina, I: vii).
  8. Dick Higgins, Pattern Poetry: Guide to an Unknown Literature (Albany: State University iof New York Press, 1987), 25. Technopaignions are any literary work intended to display the technical skill of the writer, and include pattern poems and intexti poems. See Higgins, 4-25, for his discussion of both technopaignions and Optatianus’ poetry, from which this and the following paragraph are derived.
  9. Higgins, Pattern Poetry, 20-25. Other later known pattern poems include a group of Greek pattern poems dating from the late Republic found in an inscription fragment at Rome. Interestingly, no Greek pattern poem is documented after 200 C.E., fully a century before Optatianus. And only two examples of Latin pattern poems are known to pre-date Optatianus, each by over two hundred years. It is therefore apparent that Optatianus was resurrecting a near–forgotten form as he began his creative efforts.
  10. All poems are referred to using Polara’s numeration. All images of the poems are digital scans from that work.
  11. Polara, Carmina, II: 159.
  12. Polara, Carmina, II: 159.
  13. Levitan, ‘Dancing at the End of the Rope,’ 251, n. 17.
  14. Levitan, ‘Dancing at the End of the Rope,’ 251.
  15. The Grove Dictionary of Art cites Optatian poetry in its entry on chrysography, which it describes as red lettering on a purple field (7: 246). Dick Higgins goes further in speculating that the poems may have been presented as engravings on colored stone tablets with the lettering filled in by varicolored precious metals. See Higgins, Pattern Poetry, 26. The use of outlining presented here is a modern insertion intended to ease visualization of the patterns.
  16. Polara, Carmina, II: 151.
  17. Polara, Carmina, II: 94; Barnes, 182.
  18. See Polara, Carmina, II: 52, for his discussion of the dating of this poem, as well as Barnes, 179.
  19. Polara, Carmina, II: 54.
  20. Together the additional mesostics read, ‘Aurea sic mundo disponas saecula toto.’
  21. Polara, Carmina, II: 103–108. Polara provides a valuable graphic rendering of the various verses attainable.
  22. Levitan, ‘Dancing at the End of the Rope,’ 263.
  23. Polara, Carmina, II: 103.
  24. Polara, Carmina, II: 103; Barnes, 182.
  25. Polara, Carmina, II: 141.
  26. The arguments of Kluge and others are concisely summarized along with Polara’s full argument and his own attribution of the poems in Polara, Carmina, II: 140–141. Barnes offers no opinion on the authenticity of this poem.
  27. Levitan, ‘Dancing at the End of the Rope,’ 260.
  28. Poem VIII was written after 319, based on a phrase in line 33 praising the victory of Crispus occurring in that year. Polara interprets lines 6-9 as offering praises on the occasion of the approaching Quinquennalia of the two Caesars in 321 (see Polara, Carmina, II: 60). Kluge and Barnes both suggest that a later date of 325 is also arguable (see Barnes, Publilius, 180).
  29. Polara, Carmina, II: 61.
  30. My thanks to Tiernan Doyle for providing this translation of the Greek.



Lady Jane Grey’s Prayer Book

The prayer book that Lady Jane Grey carried with her to the scaffold on the day of her execution on 12 February 1554, now part of the British Library’s collection as Harley Manuscript 2342.