An Introduction to the Poems of the Chronography of 354

I’m going to do a little series of twelve posts, one per month, on the poems in an ancient text, the Chronography of 354.  Let me first say something about that book.

In 354 AD, perhaps as a gift for New Year’s Day, an otherwise unknown Roman nobleman named Valentinus received a  very splendid present.  It was a luxury book, containing a series of useful official-type documents: lists of consuls, months, a calendar, lists of church festivals and much more.  It is known today as the Chronography of 354.

These were all useful, but what made it special was the full-page illustrations that filled it.  These were made by a famous artist named Furius Dionysius Filocalus.  They included portraits of “our emperors” – a sour-looking Constantius dropping coins from his hand, and his nephew, the luckless Gallus, executed later that year.  Each month of the calendar had a facing picture depicting some aspect of the month or the seasonal activities.

The book itself seems to have survived to around 800 AD, when copies were made.  A mass of partial copies of these copies have reached us, all more or less unsatisfactory.  Some contain some of the images.  Some are text only.  Modern editions are all rather unsatisfactory too.  It is a hard text to edit, in fairness. It is curious that, even today, the only publication that gives the newcomer an idea of the work as a whole, in order, is the version that I compiled for my own website (here) in 2006.

Part VI of the work, the calendar, may be found here. For each month, on facing pages, there is an illustration, within an ornate frame – and then opposite, the various days and events of the month.  Here is the picture for February, from a renaissance manuscript, printed in the 19th century:

Chronography of 354 – illustration of February

There are two elements to this picture that I did not engage with back in 2006, since they are most likely not original.  To the right, drawn clumsily down the side, is a four-line poem, a tetrastich.  Underneath, in majuscule, is half of a two line poem or distich – the second line appears underneath the facing page.

I intend to do a short series of posts here, dealing with the tetrastichs and distichs.  It would be nice to deal with them month by month, just as they appear in the manuscripts of the Chronography.

Now for a bit of bibliography.

Since 2006 an excellent study has appeared by Richard Burgess, “The Chronograph of 354: Its manuscripts, contents and history”, Journal of Late Antiquity 5 (2013), 345-396. This includes a convincing discussion of the tetrastichs and distichs.

The following year there appeared a mighty two-volume attempt at a modern edition and commentary: J. Divjak & W. Wischmeyer, Das Kalenderhandbuch von 354: Der Chronograph des Filocalus, Vienna: Holzhausen (2014).  Generously, the publishers have since made it available for free download: vol.1, and vol. 2.  This is no small blessing.

The new book was reviewed harshly by Burgess, and it seems as if the task of handling so much data perhaps overwhelmed the editors, as much as it overwhelms the reader.  But they edit the tetrastichs and distichs and even – very wisely – provide them with German translations.  So I intend to make use of their efforts.

Since 2006 a bunch of the manuscripts have come online and are accessible, particularly at the Vatican.  This also is a blessing, and I hope to use some of this material.

There is a mass of scholarly literature on every aspect of the Chronography, but most of it I have not read.  My purpose here is to make these texts better known.

Let’s talk a bit about how these texts actually come to us.

The distichs were edited by A. E. Housman, as a poem of twenty-four lines, who pronounced it to be pure “Augustan” in style.  The verses are perhaps 1st century.

The tetrastichs are said to be fifth-century, but I’m not sure on what basis.  But, although they are transmitted to us with the Chronography, they also circulated independently and have reached us in that way also, as part of the Latin Anthology.  The content of the poems seems to describe pictures in a calendar, but not always the pictures that we have.

The manuscript tradition of all this material is rather tangled, but a few details (from Burgess) may explain why the tetrastichs and distichs are thought to be later.

All but one of the extant manuscripts of the Chronography derive from a now lost Luxemburg manuscript of the 9-10th century which comes to light in 1560.  This is given the siglum “L”.  It was copied from Valentinus’ original book (siglum “O”).  The Luxemberg manuscript clearly had the tetrastichs and distichs, at least by the time that renaissance copies were made from it.

But the Luxemburg manuscript was not the only copy made from “O”.  It seems that St Gall 878 (= “S”), which contains only text from various parts of the work, was also copied directly from “O” in the 830s.  The copyist of “S” included the distichs, but he did not copy the tetrastichs.  This suggests that the tetrastichs were not present in “O”.

Neither the tetrastichs nor the distichs fit into the ornate graphic design of the framework of the ancient original.  They are tacked on the side and the bottom of the page.  This suggests again that neither is original.  The distichs are present in a clear rustic capitals, and were probably added in antiquity.  They do not relate to the text in any way, however.  The tetrastichs were added in a sloppy way, which might even be as late as the renaissance.  But they do relate in some ways to the illustrations.

I think that’s more than enough detail for now.  One problem with writing about the Chronography is that you always feel the urge to add more detail.  And then more.  Almost nobody who has written about this has resisted this temptation, with the result that the publications are very dense and unreadable.  Divjak and Wischmeyer almost drowned in the mass of data!  I shall try to do better, but those wanting more information must refer to the sources above.

I will post this and the first two months, since we’re a bit late with starting this.  I hope to post the other months at the start of each month.  For each month I will give the tetrastich and the distich.  Since the tetrastich often refers to the ancient image for the month, I will include this also.

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10 thoughts on “An Introduction to the Poems of the Chronography of 354

  1. Th Sarum Breviary has similar “mottos” for each month – somewhat opaque and difficult to translate.

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