carmen cancellatum of Optatianus Porfyrius: words weren’t enough

Optatianus Porfyrius, Carmen XXIII, carmen cancellatum

Throughout most of recorded European history, Latin provided learned men and women with considerable freedom of speech. But words sometimes aren’t enough to help men see the reality of their lives. Even if they have read Tertullian, men lacking bodily awareness don’t appreciate Boccaccio’s figure of putting the devil back into Hell. Such men disparage dogs, don’t appreciate what donkeys have to offer women, and refuse to believe that gynocentrism is real. Living within such circumstances, Optatianus Porfyrius early in the fourth century used letter, image, and scale of address in a carmen cancellatum (gridded poem) to bring enlightenment to Roman men.

Deeply I groaned, in sorrow for my Greek friend.
Distressed at what has been done, my mind wants
to tell him everything, so that, reading this secret
message on his own, he will rouse himself in anger
and be able to beat the guilty man and throw him
in chains. But avoiding the many witnesses to his
shameful quarrel (which a husband will not want),
and for fear that the fair woman will blunt the Greek
by and by with her lovely weapons, seeing as she
does — wicked woman! — that the swan’s daughter
Helen lost nothing, but acquired greater fame by her
double adultery, I gladly give all the names: the muse
sings to Greeks; Phrygian husband, believe the song!

{ Ingemui grauiter, Graecum miseratus amicum,
cui mea mens, admissa dolens, cupit omnia fari,
solus ut haec occulta legens se concitet ira,
unde queat plexum uinclis sontemque tenere,
sed uitans multos, quos foeda ad iurgia coiux
noluerit testes, neu candida femina Graecum
mox caris hebetet telis, nihil improba cygni
deposuisse uidens Helenam, cui gratia binis
maior adulteriis. do nomina cuncta libenter:
musa sonat Graecis. Fryx coiux, crede canenti. }[1]

Like Juvenal writing to his friend Postumus and Valerius writing to his friend Rufinus, Optatianus Porfyrius’s implied author in his Poem 23 empathizes with his intimate friend Marcus. This poem, the carmen cancellatum depicted above, contrasts intimate understanding with public standing. The implied author apparently knows the backstory of some distressing public marital quarrel involving his friend. Others don’t know about the wife’s adultery, or at least not the name of her lover. The normative public response to adultery in gynocentric society is to act with the central Greek public emotion of anger to beat, imprison, or kill “the guilty man.”[2] Men act violently toward other men to gain or regain public status. Men’s violence toward women, which is much less frequent, affects public status much differently. If a husband acts violently toward his wife, he is shamed. If his wife acts violently toward him, he is also shamed. In quarreling with his wife, a man’s best hope for fair concern for his interests is to have no witnesses except for close family and friends. No one other than them should know the true extent of the man’s suffering. While intimates can discuss the issues, no one should speak publicly of men’s true position in relation to women.

Optatian’s Poem 23 scales across intimate understanding and broad public myth. In the first of the final three clauses of the poem, the implied author states that he is liberating into public discourse the names of his husband-friend, the husband’s adulterous wife, and her adulterous lover. The second clause evokes both the author’s muse and Homer’s muse in singing grand narrative to Greeks. The specific adultery for which the author sorrowfully groans thus scales to the Greek master narrative of the Trojan War. The Phrygian husband is Aeneas, and, by synecdoche, all Romans.[3] All men must understand the secret message that Optatian’s implied author is conveying to his friend Marcus.

Mάρκε τεὴν ἅλοχον τὴν Ὑμνίδα Νεȋλος ἐλαύνει.
Marcus, Neilos is fucking your wife Hymnis. [4]

Reading Optatian’s Poem 23 requires literary understanding and bodily sense. As a carmen cancellatum, Poem 23 has an interwoven design, probably originally highlighted in red (see above).[5] To see the red meaningfully requires understanding the anger of the cuckolded husband and his fear:

the fair woman will blunt the Greek by and by with her lovely weapons, seeing as she does — wicked woman! — that the swan’s daughter Helen lost nothing, but acquired greater fame by her double adultery.

{ candida femina Graecum
mox caris hebetet telis, nihil improba cygni
deposuisse uidens Helenam, cui gratia binis
maior adulteriis. }

The phrase “her lovely weapons {carae tela}” plausibly refers to lovely breasts like those that Phryne displayed to win acquittal while on trial for a capital charge. Greek literature similarly describes Menelaus forbearing from killing the adulterous Helen when she displayed her breasts to him.[6] The letters contained within the interwoven red design are a Greek hexameter verse transliterated into Latin. Translated into English, that verse says, “Marcus, Neilos is fucking your wife Hymnis {Mάρκε τεὴν ἅλοχον τὴν Ὑμνίδα Νεȋλος ἐλαύνει}.” The interwoven red design looks like an M as in a first-letter monogram for Marcus. Seen rather than read, the interwoven red design represents breasts.[7] Once the text is read knowingly, it communicates non-verbally.

Poem 23 probably isn’t an obscure means by which Optatian delivered a painfully frank message to his friend Marcus. Marcus was a highly popular Roman personal name. In a literary context, Marcus might allude to Mars, the Roman god of war. The name Neilos has linguistic resonance with something worthless, and Hymnis, female sexuality.[8] Those names in the personal message thus have relevant connotations to the narrative of adultery from the perspective of the husband’s friend. Most significantly, the final phrase “Phrygian husband, believe the song!” addresses all Roman men through Aeneas, Rome’s mythic founder. Optatian’s poem creatively addressed constraints and limitations of words in speaking of husbands’ vulnerability to their wives committing adultery.

In Optatian’s lifetime, the Roman Empire was changing its religious orientation in response to radical Christian communicative claims about the word made flesh and communion. Today, messaging and content sharing through mobile smart phones are putting everyone in the communicative position of celebrities in old mass media. Within gynocentric society, these communicative changes particularly disadvantage men relative to women. Men’s relations with women implicate fundamental issues of sense and scale in communication: from the bodily intimacy of lovers to third-personal communication through widely circulating public texts to formal institutions of gendered social structure.[9] Meaning makers today have to be better than Optatianus Porfyrius in overcoming communicative constraints to enlighten men.

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[1] Optatianus Porfyrius, Poem (Carmen) 23, Latin text (with modern word spacing, capitalization, and punctuation) from from Intratext, English trans. (modified slightly) from Squire (2011) p. 222. The Latin text is also available from musisque deoque, and the Latin Library.

Porfyrius is also commonly spelled Porphyry. Following Squire and others, I will refer to him as Optatian for short. In some older collections, this poem is numbered 24. I’ve made a few minor changes to Squire’s translation. For musa and canenti, rather than “my muse” and “my song,” I have written “the muse” and “the song.” The latter pair seems to me to capture significant ambiguity in the Latin. On Optatian’s life and career, see Barnes (1975), Edwards (2005), and Squire (2014) pp. 90-2.

[2] On ancient Greek emotions, Konstan (2006).

[3] Aeneas was from Troy in Phrygia. Virgil, Aeneid 4.103 and Ovid, Metamorphoses 14.79-80 refer to Aeneas as a “Phrygian husband” in the context of his relationship with Dido. That relationship ultimately came to a bitter end.

[4] This hexameter verse is the interwoven text (uersus intexti) in Optatian’s Poem 23. The transliterated Greek above is that of the Latin letters in the interwoven text. The interpretation in ancient Greek of the Latin letters is from Squire (2011) p. 222. In the Latin poem’s seventh line, fourth letter, Squire has K rather than C. That may be a spelling variant in a manuscript. For the interwoven text, I’ve adapted Squire’s English translation to use more common vulgar language for sexual intercourse.

[5] Greek poetry from the late fourth or early third century BGC includes poems written to form a specific visual design. Such poetry was known as technopaegnia. Kwapisz (2013). Attic inscriptions of the fifth and fourth century BGC were written with strictly gridded letters in what’s called the stoichedon style. Squire (2011) p. 217. Optatian’s poetry, however, is the earliest known to have gridded letters with an interwoven verse (uersus intexti). Edwards (2005). Venantius Fortunatus in sixth-century Gaul wrote at least three gridded poems / figure poems: Carmina 2.4, 2.5, and 5.6a. For figure, text, translation, Roberts (2017).

Optatian didn’t refer to his carmen cancellatum with that term. His Poem 22, however, had a uersus intexti that declared: mixta per amfractus diducunt carmina Musae / seu cancellatos spatia in contraria flexus. Optatian’s Poem 9 has the term uersus intexti woven into its uersus intexti. Squire (2014) p. 100, nn. 35, 36.

Coloring the uersus intexti brings out the specific visual design. Optatian refers to his poems as paintings and uses the term “painted page” for a page of his work. Squire (2014) p. 100, n. 37. The online presentation of a luxurious biblia pauperum (pauper’s bible) held in the Bavarian State Library (Mettener Armenbibel, shelfmark Clm 8201) includes a color image of a carmen cancellatum in that work (p. 100). The uersus intexti is colored in red. In the magic square inscriptions of the Tabulae Iliacae, no particular path on the letter grid is highlighted:  “glide whichever way you choose” / “continue wherever you wish.” Squire (2011) p. 205, Petrain (2014) p. 67.

Here’s a review of poems with uersus intexti throughout history. Many more representations of ancient poems with uersus intexti can be found here, here, and here. Dan Koster provides an online exhibit of visual poetry through the ages.

[6] On Menelaus forbearing from killing Helen for adultery when she displayed her breasts to him, Little Iliad Fr. 28 GEF; Euripides, Andromache 629-30. That scene is depicted in Tabulae Iliacae 1A (The Capitoline tablet). Petrain (2014) pp. 7, 202. For a drawing of the relevant section of the tablet, Squire (2014) p. 162, Figure 60, register 2. In contrast to women displaying their breasts, Roman men sought public favor by displaying wounds on their chests.

[7] With characteristic lack of appreciation for masculine sexual response, scholars have failed to see breasts in the design of Optatian’s Poem 23. Edwards (2005) describes the poem as containing “a simple intextus pattern forming an inverted ‘W’.” Higgins (1987), p. 28, sees “a simple mesostic with two wedge-formed intexti pointing upwards.” Squire (2011), p. 221, n. 54, senses abstractly:

note how the hexameter zigzags its way up and down the ten verses — weaving not only the Greek into the Latin, but also the figurative into the verbal, the specific into the mythological, and the new into the old.

Squire in more recent work recognized a portrait of Constantine in Optatian’s Poem 3. On Constantine and Optatian, Bruhat (2008). Okáčová (2007), p. 62, insightfully describes Poem 23 as having a “slightly mischievous strain.”

[8] Scholars have tended to take the poetic address literally:

The poet claims to be giving the real names (XXIII, 9): two senators with the cognomen Nilus are known from the middle of the fourth century.

Barnes (1975) p. 183. Squire more recently observed:

Even if we decode the figurative pattern and find the concealed name, however, appearances are never quite what they seem: is this ‘Neilos’ a real individual, some unnamed Egyptian (personified as the river ‘Nile’ itself), or for that matter an empty rhetorical construct (punning on the Latin nilum)?

Squire (2011) p. 221, n. 54. The name Hymnis (Ὑμνίδα) evokes both hymnus / ὕμνος (“hymn”) and hymen / ὕμήν (Greek god of marriage ceremonies, female sexuality, part of a vagina). The word hymen is attested in Latin in Plautus, Casina 4.3.

[9] Seven of the Tabulae Iliacae, which were probably made early in the first century, have on their reverse sides “magic squares” similar to Optatian’s carmen cancellatum. Inscribed above at least two of the magic-square letter grids is the instruction:

Look for the middle letter {gramma} and continue wherever you wish.

Petrain (2014) p. 67. Cf. Squire (2011) p. 205, which favors a slightly different reading. The middle figure in the obverse arrangement of images is associated with Aeneas, the “Phrygian husband.” Focus on Aeneas is a programmatic aspect of the Tabulae Iliacae. Petrain (2014). In addition, the Tabulae Iliacae present “grand dialectics of the big and small” and intermediality:

As knowingly ‘intermedial’ objects, the Tabulae Iliacae oscillate between images and texts: that is their technê — and indeed their sophia.

Squire (2011) pp. 19, 21. On intermediality in a broader context, Lanham (1993), e.g. pp. 5-6, 75, and Galbi (2003). A relation between particular male and female persons is the central figure in most persons’ lives. At a much larger scale, gender is a central structure in almost all human societies. Medieval literature addressing the Trojan War squarely recognized its relation to men’s gender position. The medieval Latin work Solomon and Marcolf, which shares some characteristics with the Tabulae Iliacea, can help to provide a more critical perspective on representations about Rome’s founding and the establishment of the Roman Republic.

[image] Optatianus Porfyrius, Poem 23. I created this image based on the Latin text. Fourth-century Latin texts were written in only upper case letters, without punctuation and spacing between words. Historical evidence indicates that Optatian’s poems were colored. I colored the uersus intexti (interwoven verse) red. That’s a plausible coloring.


Barnes, T. D. 1975. “Publilius Optatianus Porfyrius.” The American Journal of Philology. 96 (2): 173-186.

Bruhat, Marie-Odile. 2008. “Une poétique du vœu: inspiration poétique et mystique impériale dans le poème XIX (et quelques autres) d’Optatianus Porfyrius.” Dictynna 5.

Edwards, Stephan. 2005. “The Carmina of Publilius Optatianus Porphyrius and the Creative Process.” Pp. 447-66 in Carl Deroux, ed. Studies in Latin Literature and Roman History. Volume XII. Brusselles: Collection Latomus.

Galbi, Douglas. 2003. Sense in Communication. Worldwide: Internet.

Higgins, Dick. 1987. Pattern poetry: guide to an unknown literature. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Konstan, David. 2006. The emotions of the Ancient Greeks: studies in Aristotle and classical literature. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Kwapisz, Jan. 2013. The Greek figure poems. Hellenistica Groningana, v. 19. Leuven: Peeters. (review)

Lanham, Richard A. 1993. The electronic word: democracy, technology, and the arts. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. (relevant excerpt)

Okáčová, Marie. 2007. “Publilius Optatianus Porfyrius: Characteristic Features of Late Ancient Figurative Poetics.” Sborník prací Filozofické fakulty brněnské univerzity, řada klasická N, Graeco-Latina Brunensia, Brno: Masarykova univerzita v Brně, 2007, LVI, N12, s. 57-71.

Petrain, David. 2014. Homer in Stone: the Tabulae Iliacae in their Roman context. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. (review)

Roberts, Michael, ed and trans. 2017. Venantius Fortunatus. Poems. Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library 46. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Reviews by Hope Williard and by Lionel Yaceczko.

Squire, Michael. 2011. The Iliad in a nutshell: visualizing epic on the Tabulae Iliacae. Oxford: Oxford University Press. (review)

Squire, Michael. 2014. “Patterns of significance: Publilius Optatianus Porfyrius and the figurations of meaning.” Pp. 87-121 in R. Green and M. Edwards, eds. Images and Texts: Papers in Honour of Professor E. W. Handley, CBE, FBA. London: Bulletin of the Institute of Classical Studies, Supplement 129.

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