In 1493 a manuscript of the 7-8th century was discovered at the Irish monastery of St. Columbanus at Bobbio in north Italy, which contained some previously unknown ancient works. One of these was a poem, De reditu suo – On his return – by Rutilius Namatianus, who was Urban Prefect in Rome in 414 AD. The poem describes his return to Gaul by sea around 416 AD. It is incomplete, but it lambasts the policy of Stilicho that brought the Goths over the Alps.
The text and English translation of the poem may be found at Bill Thayer’s site Lacus Curtius here, which is now back online. The text is out of date, tho, as we shall see in a moment.
The poem also contains a passage recounting how Rutilius and his company were harassed by a Jew when they put in to land. Rutilius does not hold back his feelings about the man and his race.
This I learned of thanks to a link back from an article at a fringe blog named History Reviewed, here. Here’s the text, overparagraphed by me.
The neighbouring Faleria checks our weary course, though Phoebus scarce had reached his mid career. That day it happened merry village-bands along the country cross-roads soothed their jaded hearts with festal observances; it was in truth the day when, after long time restored, Osiris wakes the happy seeds to yield fresh produce. Landing, we seek lodging, and stroll within a wood; we like the ponds which charm with their shallow enclosed basin. The spacious waters of the imprisoned flood permit the playful fish to sport inside these preserves.
But we were made to pay dear for the repose of this delightful halting-place by a lessee who was harsher than Antiphates as host! For a crabbed Jew was in charge of the spot — a creature that quarrels with sound human food. He charges in our bill for damaging his bushes and hitting the seaweed, and bawls about his enormous loss in water we had sipped.
We pay the abuse due to the filthy race that infamously practises circumcision: a root of silliness they are: chill Sabbaths are after their own heart, yet their heart is chillier than their creed. Each seventh day is condemned to ignoble sloth, as ’twere an effeminate picture of a god fatigued. The other wild ravings from their lying bazaar methinks not even a child in his sleep could believe.
And would that Judaea had never been subdued by Pompey’s wars and Titus’ military power. The infection of this plague, though excised, still creeps abroad the more: and ’tis their own conquerors that a conquered race keeps down.
Against us rises a North wind; but we too strive with oars to rise, while daylight shrouds the stars. Close at hand Populonia opens up her safe coast, where she draws her natural bay well inland. …
Readers of Horatius, in Lord Macaulay’s Lays of Ancient Rome will be reminded of Lars Porsenna gathering his Etruscans,
From lordly Volaterræ,
Where scowls the far-famed hold
Piled by the hands of giants
For godlike kings of old;
From seagirt Populonia,
Whose sentinels descry
Sardinia’s snowy mountain-tops
Fringing the southern sky;
Rutilius’ unnamed Jew is an unattractive figure. It is interesting that a man who had held such a high office, and must have travelled with his clients, could be abused like this. The Urban Prefect was the emperor’s strong-arm boy in the City, after all. Possibly this suggests that the episode is a literary fiction; or else it testifies to the disturbed state of Italy, only a few years after the Gothic sack of Rome.
But it does provide a vehicle to criticise the Christians, now fully in the saddle in the Roman empire. The ruinous effects of the rise of superstition and dogma, of heresy trials and smelling-out of dissenters, upon that fragile state, were obvious to anybody. It is telling that so senior an aristocrat feels quite powerless to do anything about any of these disasters. A little later he says:
As we advance at sea, Capraria now rears itself — an ill-kept isle full of men who shun the light. Their own name for themselves is a Greek one, “monachoi” (monks), because they wish to dwell alone with none to see. They fear Fortune’s boons, as they dread her outrages: would anyone, to escape misery, live of his own choice in misery? What silly fanaticism of a distorted brain is it to be unable to endure even blessings because of your terror of ills? Whether they are like prisoners who demand the appropriate penalties for their deeds, or whether their melancholy hearts are swollen with black bile, it was even so that Homer assigned the ailment of excessive bile as cause of Bellerophon’s troubled soul; for it was after the wounds of a cruel sorrow that men say the stricken youth conceived his loathing for human kind.
The monks of the late fourth century could be a very rubbishy crew. In Egypt they were gangs of illiterates, used as muscle by bishops like Theophilus of Alexandria, in their struggles with their personal enemies. Rutilius has no respect for them.
The text of Rutilius Namatianus reached us in a single manuscript at Bobbio. Fortunately it was copied. For in 1706 a French adventurer stole the ancient volume from the abbey. His name was Comte Claude Alexandre de Bonnival, a successful French military man who had entered Austrian service that year, and was a Major-General in the service of Prince Eugene, campaigning near Turin.
This we learn from a handwritten note by Michel-Ange Carisio, Abbot of Bobbio in 1792, printed in M. Tulli Ciceronis, Orationum pro Scauro, pro Tullio, et in Clodium, fragmenta inedita, ed. Amedeus Peyron, 1824 (online here), p.xx:
Sadly the manuscript was never seen again. In 1973 a reseacher found a fragment of a leaf of the manuscript, which had become separated from the rest, in a binding from Bobbio. This restored the endings of a number of lines in book 2.
De Bonneval led a rackety life. He was a very capable French army officer. But he was his own worst enemy, and he could never stay out of trouble. He quarreled with the war minister, the Duc de Vendôme, was condemned to death, after an exchange of insulting letters, in the pleasant manner of the time, and was therefore obliged to flee to Germany. Prince Eugene took him on, and he was very effective in Austrian service, first against the French and then against the Ottoman Turks. His reputation increased so much so that he became famous in France, and, his enemies being dead, was pardoned and allowed to return. But he went back to Austrian service in Italy, where he became notorious for duelling, and then circulated insults about Prince Eugene, despite the warnings of his wife. Prince Eugene sent him to the Low Countries where he got into more trouble and was condemned to death again, although in fact he only served a year in prison. In disgrace in Vienna, he then “went Turk”, offered his services to the Ottoman empire, became a Muslim, joined their army and fought against the Austrians and the Russians with distinction. He was made governor of Chios, but once again fell out with his employers and was banished to the Black Sea. He died in Constantinople in 1747, apparently without having been condemned to death yet again. I have read that his “Memoirs” are fakes, however.
If only he had stayed away from Bobbio!