Rutilius Claudius Namatianus and His Trip from Rome to Gaul

09 Nov

In 417 a wealthy Gallo-Roman by the name of Rutilius Claudius Namatianus traveled from Rome to his estates in Gaul. Then he wrote a poem about his trip, De Reditu Suo. And we have some of it, a big chunk of one book and a bit of a second. Cool, right?

Unfortunately, the poem doesn’t reveal quite as much about the fifth century as either Hydatius’ Chronicle or Salvian’s book on what God was really up to then, but it has some interesting information. In particular, following the sack of Rome and Visigothic occupation of much of Gaul, it provides another window into what contemporary inhabitants of the Roman Empire thought of things. In contrast to the above authors, Namatianus does not seem to believe the world is falling apart. Quite the opposite; based on this poem he believes things have turned a corner and are looking up. Besides showing the attitude of an elite Roman during this specific time it also is a nice illustration of how quickly things were changing in the second decade of the fifth century.

The edition I read is a reprint of something that was originally published in 1907. In many ways it’s equally interesting to read what folks thought about all this a hundred years ago though I’ll save a discussion of that for the end of this post.1

As usual, a brief bio seems to be in order, and this will indeed be brief. We don’t know when or where Namatianus was born and we have no idea when or where he died. We know little of him at all actually though we do find out that his father was pretty high on the Roman food chain and Namatianus tells us that the same held true for himself. 2

From the content of the poem we learn that Namatianus has estates in Gaul and is evidently a member of the wealthy landowning class. The point of this trip is that he is going to tend after his estates in Gaul which are in need of care.

The poet provides a great deal of detail about the trip, including how far his party traveled and what they saw each day. For the portion covered by the poem (not all of it survives) this is a sea voyage from Rome to Pisa with the poem ending after they left the Pisan harbor. This was not a single long sea voyage but a series of short legs as they traveled along the Italian coast and spent each night on shore. The editor of this edition believes the dates of the surviving portion of the poem are from September 22 to November 21. 3

Many people appreciate the poem for its descriptive elements and how Namatianus portrays the various cities and landmarks he passed along the way. For myself, I’m more interested in what it says about the state of the Empire in the year 417, when this trip took place.

At that time the Visigoths, who had been living in Gaul, had recently moved to Spain where they stayed for a brief period before they received lands in Gaul through a treaty signed in 418. The Visigothic journey through the Empire to that point was a fairly convoluted one. Alaric had sacked Rome in 410, then moved to the south of Italy where he died. His brother, Athaulf, took over the leadership and moved them back north into Gaul where they remained until being driven into Spain by Constantius in 415.

Namatianus makes several references in the poem to the Goths and the damage they have caused, both to Rome and Gaul. He speaks of how his Gallic fields have been marred by war and demand his attention so he can build anew. 4

Namatianus clearly believes that Rome will recover. Early in the poem he spends substantial time praising the city, professing his love for Rome and describing how, while she has been harmed, she has recovered from greater depths than this. The Goths are a temporary setback. Rome is eternal. The Gods (there is little doubt he is a pagan) have and will continue to protect her. Her greatness has perhaps been marred a bit but this is a small setback. Rome is recovering, as are his estates. In contrast to Hydatius, Salvian and Sidonius Apollinaris, Namiatus believes that, for this snapshot in time, 417, Rome is strong and in no danger. 5

There are two other items that caught my attention. First, Namatianus hates Jews. He absolutely reviles them. They are a “filthy race” and one is “An animal that spurns at human food.” An interesting question is whether he distinguishes between Jews and Christians. I suspect he is well-informed enough to do so. This does not, of course, mean that he believes the differences between the two are substantial. He may even be using his vilification of Jews as a way to express similar feelings toward Christians. He takes the opportunity to criticize the monks of Capraria as mad and says that they are punishing themselves deservedly for evil. It’s impossible to say if his feelings towards the monks are extended to all Christians but it is certainly possible. 6

He is even more vitriolic against Stilicho. Stilicho burned the Sybilline Books. He opened the protective barrier of the Alps and allowed Rome to be pillaged. The barbarians were invited into Rome, to commit murder. Nero was horrible for killing his mother but Stilicho was responsible for the death of the mother of the world. Namatianus reviles Stilicho more than anyone or anything else in this poem. 7

There’s one other passage that interested me. In this poem Namatianus discusses various friends of his who he meets along the way. One of these is Victorinus. Victorinus was apparently the deputy for the Prefect whose authority included Britain. While this is well after Rome had abandoned Britain, evidently a Roman official continued to be assigned responsibility for it. Did this mean Rome believed it would take Britain back or was this symbolic only? I can’t say, though based on the rest of the poem it seems likely that Namatianus believed Rome could regain everything it had lost (or at least he wrote a poem which made it seem like he believed it). 8

As I noted above, I went ahead and read through the introductory section. It’s interesting to see how thinking has changed on some items over the past century. For example, Keene does not believe Namatianus would have been capable of showing warmth to a Christian however there are plenty of examples of Christians and Pagans being good friends. There were zealots such as Ambrose and the mob at Alexandria that killed Hypatia however there were also Christians who believed themselves to be advanced philosophers and didn’t behave that way. Keene also depicts the trip as extremely dangerous and the poem does not give this sense at all and at that moment in time there is little reason for it to have been. 9

I don’t believe this poem tells us nearly as much as Hydatius, Salvian or Sidonius, but it does provide some information. In contrast to the writings of the three former authors, for Namatianus Rome is still strong, her future bright. At this specific snapshot in time the threat of the Goths has been lifted, the great landowners are still prosperous and with a little work, life will continue as it always has. One wonders what a poem of his would have looked like ten years later.

1 I debated ignoring the introductory section and decided to read through it, thankfully. I also want to note that while it includes both the English and Latin, the English and Latin do not match up on the facing pages but generally you had to flip a page or two further on to find the matching Latin. This raises an interesting dilemma for notation and I’ve decided that when I reference something the line number will represent where I found the Latin and the page number will reference the English which is what I’ll quote when a quote seems called for. I hope this is clear. Seems a strange way to publish a book but there it is. While my Latin is far from strong the poem contains many proper names and references to geographic locations so I was able to keep track reasonably well, I hope. I suppose this is as good of a place as any to mention that I found this a tough read. Namatianus’ style is florid at best. He’s often called, “The Last of the Roman Poets.” Personally, I think whoever is given that title should have written a better poem.

2 For Namatianus’ father see I.579-585, p 157 where he is Prefect of Tuscany, Quaestor, Prefect of Rome and the Imperial Treasurer. For Namatianus see I.561-4, p 155 where he says, “I of old by office held control over the palace and the soldiery guarding the pious Emperor.” which would make him Magister Officiorum and I.466, p 148 where we learn that he was Praefecti Urbi or Prefect of Rome, like his father.

3 There are several interludes where, for weather or other reasons, the travelers remained in one place for several days. For a discussion of the astronomical signs mentioned in the poem indicating the dates of the trip, see the Introduction, pp 8-9. Also, at the time of this edition the journey was believed to have taken place in 416 while a fragment of the poem discovered later indicates that it took place in 417.

4 For his ravaged lands, see I.19-34, p 111. For references to the Goths see I.39-40, p 113 and a lengthy passage referencing the fall of the Goths and recovery of the earth at I.141-154, p 121. Namatianus refers to them as Getae which can be used to refer to a number of barbarian groups however he’s specific enough with his references that it seems fairly clear that he’s discussing Alaric’s and Athaulf’s Goths.

5 This theme repeats itself several times but nowhere stronger than in this opening section, I.47-204, pp 113-121.

6 For Jews see, I.380-398, p 141. For the monks see, I.440-452, pp 145-7.

7 II.41-60, pp 165-7.

8 I.493-501, pp 149-51.

9 Introduction, p 24 for Keene’s discussion of Namatianus’ likely feelings toward Christians and p 13 for his describing the trip as difficult and perilous.

Rutilii Claudii Namatiani, De Reditu Suo Libri Duo: The Home-Coming of Rutilius Claudius Namatianus from Rome to Gaul in the Year 416 A.D., Charles Haines Keene, ed., George F. Savage Armstrong, trans. London: George Bell & Sons (1907), Nabu Reprint (2010). ISBN: 978-1-1763-8714-0.


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