Damasus of Rome

The Epigraphic Poetry

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Dennis Trout
Dennis Trout
Oxford Early Christian Texts
  • New York, NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , November
     384 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


For scholars of Rome in late antiquity, Dennis Trout’s Damasus of Rome is a crucially important book. Scholars of Damasus—particularly of his many epigrams—have had to rely for the past seventy-five years on Father Antonio Ferrua’s 1942 critical edition, Epigrammata damasiana. Ferrua’s volume, although exemplary scholarship, has been in need of an update for some time. Trout’s book accomplishes this admirably. It is important to note, as Trout himself does in the preface, that this book is not a new critical edition—his translations adhere closely to Ferrua’s. Epigrams are numbered, and those numbers also correspond to Ferrua’s numbering system. Thus Damasus of Rome is not so much a replacement of Ferrua as it is a significant addendum to it. 

Damasus of Rome was a controversial and galvanizing figure. He was the bishop of Rome from 366-384 CE: a papacy, some would say, gained illegitimately and certainly bloodily. Despite a temptation in Catholic historiography to paint Damasus as a man of words and deeds who furthered the causes of the monepiscopacy and the nascent Cult of the Martyrs in Rome, more recent evaluations of Damasus’s legacy have centered on his single-minded pursuit of episcopal power, and his relatively weak position in relation to a Roman aristocracy that easily outspent and out-influenced him. Here, Trout leans toward older rather than newer interpretations, although he notes that “Damasus’ authority, like all authority in late ancient Rome, was ever under negotiation” (10). Damasus’s relationship with Jerome, also important for late antique history, is duly noted (2) but not explored.

Because Dennis Trout is a historian of late antiquity, one might expect that this book is a historical study. It is resolutely not, as becomes evident from Trout’s identification as “editor” rather than author. Trout thus holds back, which is a shame, because he is a fabulous writer who has produced, in the past two decades, some of the most elegant prose and creative thought in modern scholarship on late antiquity. I will admit to being disappointed that the historical essay on Damasus, which foregrounds this edition of his poetry, was not longer. Instead, it has a brusque, businesslike tone as a result of Trout’s avoidance of controversy. He refuses to take sides in contemporary debates concerning Damasus’s moral character; indeed, Trout paints a general portrait of the bishop as primarily an “impresario of the saints”—the descriptor of “impresario” for Damasus being characteristic of Trout’s other works on the bishop as well. The dense footnotes demonstrate Trout’s familiarity and engagement with the full range of scholarship on Damasus, including recent studies and editions by Markus Löx, Steffen Diefenbach, and Antonio Aste. But Trout offers this book as a “gateway” to the Damasan corpus rather than a comprehensive study. 

That this is not a historical monograph is also underscored by Trout’s sharp turn in the introductory essay to the conventions of Damasan verse and monumental poetry. Here, Trout’s prose becomes virtually impenetrable to those unfamiliar with poetry, and functionally useless for those unacquainted with Latin verse. For instance: “Finally, contrary to both Vergil and Ovid, Damasus lengthened the short syllabus preceding the enclitic –que in the recurrent phrase regnaquepiorum … and also in telaque cruenta …” (20), or “Put differently only 31 lines (12.3 percent) of the 252 lines do notfollow the strong third-foot caesura with a strong fourth-foot caesura. In 30 of these 31 lines, Damasus compensates with a bucolic diaeresis, that is, a word ending at the seam of the fourth or fifth foot” (21). This technical treatment is no pleasure reading for the Roman history buff, but is significant and useful for scholars whose work centers primarily on Latin verse.

It is Trout’s aim (66) to contextualize the epigrammata within a topographical context as did Ferrua. Thus each epigraph begins with brief superscripts from medieval itineraries that describe the location in which each elogium was originally placed. The book includes six illustrations of elogia, a map of Rome, and a list of bishops to the 7th century at the front of the volume, along with helpful indices (an ICUR concordance and index of notable Latin expressions) at the end. The book is well organized, and typographical indicators aid the reader in determining whether a poem exists inscribed on stone or merely within medieval syllogae

One is left with the question of why Trout chose to publish this volume (which he worked on intermittently for a decade) now, rather than later, when it might become more comprehensive. Surely there is room in the scholarship on Damasus to include fuller insights from this fine, thoughtful interpreter of his work.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Nicola Denzey Lewis is the Margo L. Goldsmith Chair of Women's Studies in Religion at Claremont Graduate University.

Date of Review: 
September 10, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Dennis Trout is Associate Professor of Classical Studies at the University of Missouri. He is the author of Paulinus of Nola: Life, Letters, and Poems, which won the Outstanding Publication Award of the Classical Association of the Middle West and South. He has published widely on late antique life and literature.




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