Sidonius’s myth and philosophy in marriage of Araneola & Polemius

In mid-fifth-century Gaul, Araneola and Polemius planned to marry. Araneola was a strong, independent woman descended from leading Roman officials. Polemius, a descendant of the eminent Roman historian Tacitus, was a Platonic philosopher. Polemius asked his friend Sidonius Apollinaris, a noted poet, to provide a wedding song (epithalamium). The eminent church father Jerome under the name of Aristotle’s most-favored student Theophrastus had urged women to recognize men’s difficulties in marriage. With classical myth and philosophy, Sidonius playfully amplified Theophrastus’s teachings to warn Polemius about marrying Araneola.

Sidonius associated marriage with bodily pleasure and procreation. He wrote to a bishop about a young man, apparently a priest, who had lived with a sexually attractive slave-woman. According to Sidonius, “the extravagant costliness of that domestic Charybdis {sumptuositas domesticae Charybdis}” had swallowed the young man’s modest inheritance and reduced him to indigence.[1] The young man finally came to good sense. He ended his relationship with the sexually attractive slave-woman and married a wealthy woman of good character and birth. That wasn’t a pleasureless marriage. Sidonius declares:

It would indeed be glorious if he had renounced his life of pleasure so completely as to not even have a wife. But while one might perhaps move from error to a good way of life, few begin by moving to the best. For most, who have long indulged themselves in all pleasures with women, it’s impossible to eliminate all immediately and simultaneously.

{ haec quidem gloria, si voluptates sic reliquisset, ut nec uxori coniugaretur; sed, etsi forte contingat ad bonos mores ab errore migrare, paucorum est incipere de maxumis, et eos, qui diu totum indulserint sibi, protinus totum et pariter incidere. }

Sidonius thus urges the bishop to pray that this young priest follow a moderate way:

Therefore your duty is by sedulous prayer to obtain for the couple as soon as possible the hope of children, such that after a son or two being born (and I have said too much) he who has presumed to do what is unlawful will abstain from what is lawful.

{ quocirca vestrum est copulatis obtinere quam primum prece sedula spem liberorum; consequens erit, ut filio uno alterove susceptis (et nimis dixi) abstineat de cetero licitis, qui inlicita praesumpsit. }

Sidonius, himself a married bishop, recognized the joy of sex and the blessing of children. But he evidently thought it best for priests to abstain from sex and focus on other forms of Christian service.

Like the disconsolate Boethius, Sidonius privileged above marriage public service to the Roman Empire. He castigates his friend and relative Eutropius for being happy at home, plowing and seeding:

Granted, your vats will foam from your multiple vineyards, barns will be given innumerous piles of collected crops until bursting, and your well-fed shepherd will drive a crowded flock with full udders to the milking-pail through the odorous entrances of your sheep-folds. Yet what use is it to have increased your inheritance by so dirty an economy and at the same time to have remained in obscurity, not only amid such surroundings, but even more shamefully, for the sake of them?

{ esto, multiplicatis tibi spumabunt musta vinetis, innumeros quoque cumulos frugibus rupta congestis horrea dabunt, densum pecus gravidis uberibus in mulctram per antra olida caularum pinguis tibi pastor includet: quo spectat tam faeculento patrimonium promovisse compendio et non solum inter ista sed, quod est turpius, propter ista latuisse? }[2]

While Eutropius engages in sensuous, earthly cultivating, he also studies the philosophy of Plotinus and his school of third-century Platonists. Sidonius wants Eutropius to travel to Rome and take up public office. Sidonius bluntly concludes his letter by threatening Eutropius about following Epicurus’s doctrines:

Well, what more? If you submit to these exhortations, I’m ready to be your comrade and helper, a guide and partner of your efforts. But if you let yourself be entangled in the tempting snares of luxury so, as they say, to be coupled with the dogmas of Epicurus, who has admitted virtue’s rejection and defines the supreme good in terms of bodily pleasure alone, then here and now I call our ancestors and our posterity to witness that I have nothing to do with such wickedness. Farewell.

{ sed quid plura? si pateris hortantem, conatuum tuorum socius adiutor, praevius particeps ero, sin autem inlecebrosis deliciarum cassibus involutus mavis, ut aiunt, Epicuri dogmatibus copulari, qui iactura virtutis admissa summum bonum sola corporis voluptate determinat, testor ecce maiores, testor posteros nostros huic me noxae non esse confinem. vale. }

The philosophy of Plotinus differs considerably from that of Epicurus. Sidonius’s point is merely to browbeat Eutropius into leaving his farm in Gaul and traveling to Rome to acquire a public office. Eutropius evidently did that. He became Praetorian Prefect of Gaul about 470.

In writing an epithalamium for the Platonist Polemius, Sidonius more comprehensively mocks philosophy. He explains to Polemius:

More influential on me has been the system of your learning than the occasion of your marriage. I have omitted therefore the tenderness of epithalamium and pulled my pen over the most bitter and rough teachings of philosophy.

{ valet magis me doctrinae quam causae tuae habuisse rationem. omissa itaque epithalamii teneritudine per asperrimas philosophiae et salebrosissimas regulas stilum traxi }[3]

Polemius apparently honors the traditional Roman gods. Sidonius, who is a Christian, twists Polemius’s non-Christian learning back at him:

Since my attention to your love-endeavor has led me, a man of Gaul, to introduce matter of a sophisticated school into your epithalamium, I require from you prayerful intercession for my deed. Let Venus and all the false colorings of love be bestowed on one who would lack the ability to be so lauded. Farewell.

{ quoniam tui amoris studio inductus homo Gallus scholae sophisticae intromisi materiam, vel te potissimum facti mei deprecatorem requiro. illi Venus vel Amorum commenticia pigmenta tribuantur cui defuerit sic posse laudari, vale. }[4]

Christians favor in marriage fleshly love like that which the Roman love-goddess Venus promotes. Sidonius, however, torments Polemius with the classical myth and philosophy that Martianus Capella had used to delay interminably the fleshly marriage of Philology and Mercury.

Cassandra at the altar of Athena

Sidonius begins his epithalamium for Araneola and Polemius atypically. He begins with the Roman goddess Athena’s revenge on the Greek warrior Ajax for raping the Trojan prophetess Casandra after the Greeks destroyed Troy. Cassandra received her prophetic powers from the god Apollo. Apollo offered to give her the gift of prophecy if she would have sex with him. When Cassandra accepted Apollo’s proposal and gift, but then reneged on her promise to have sex with him, he was enraged. He cursed Cassandra’s prophecies so that, although true, they would not be believed. Cassandra subsequently prophesied that if Paris were to elope with Helen, the Greeks would destroy Troy. Cassandra was ignored. Paris married Helen, and the Greeks sacked Troy. Amid that horror, Cassandra sought refuge in the temple of Athena. Locrian Ajax desecrated Athena’s temple in raping Cassandra. Athena in revenge hurled a thunderbolt at Ajax’s ship heading home from Troy. He drowned in the wreckage. Horrific violence ensuing from true prophecy not believed is a shocking beginning to Sidonius’s very unusual wedding song.[5]

Continuing his epithalamium, Sidonius describes Athena from her head downwards. That’s the classical pattern for describing a beautiful young woman (descriptio puellae). In the most important mythic beauty pageant, Athena lost to Venus. Athena’s loss surely is at least partly attributable to her propensity to adorn her chest with a Gorgon’s head. In fact, in describing Athena, Sidonius describes at length her chest adornment:

A Gorgon covers the middle of her chest, acting in beholding
without delays, though beheaded. Proudly shines that dangerous
image. Its loveliness lives with its spirit perishing.
The gloomy head makes fierce its piles of horn-headed vipers
with towering spirals. The biting hair twists its spotted
coils and its angry locks utter horrible hisses.

{ Gorgo tenet pectus medium, factura videnti
et truncata moras; nitet insidiosa superbum
effigies vivitque anima pereunte venustas;
alta cerastarum spiris caput asperat atrum
congeries, torquet maculosa volumina mordax
crinis, et irati dant sibila taetra capilli }[6]

What man would want to marry such a woman, or even merely direct his male gaze toward Athena? Athena herself is warrior-woman. She wears steel armor, carries a spear in her right hand, and a shield in her left. Her shield is decorated with scenes as tumultuous as a field of volcanoes. The giant Enceladus, who fought at length against Athena, launches to the heavens a spiny Pindus mountain like a giant spear. Typhoeus hurls the high mountain Ossa like a missile. Athena throws a spear at her name-matched Pallas, a giant. He’s petrified by her Gorgoneion before her spear strikes his body. Within the fray Briareus is fighting with all his hands. Athena’s shield thus depicts a panorama of brutality like a nightmare marriage.

After introducing Athena into his epithalamium, Sidonius depicts two temples: one for weaving speculative thoughts in philosophy and another for weaving useful clothes. The temple of philosophy contains only men. The temple of weaving contains only women. The woman-goddess Athena, with whom the epithalamium begins, is known for both wisdom and weaving. Athena symbolizes the gynocentric order that encompasses both women and men and all aspects of human life.

Within the temple of philosopy reside the “seven sages {septem sapientes}.” According to Sidonius, those seven sages are “the origins of innumerous philosophers {innumerabilium primordia philosophorum}.” He gives the names of the seven sages and popular slogans associated with them. That’s far from serious philosophy. In fact, by Sidonius’s day the seven sages had long been the subject of latrine humor.

Sidonius then discusses at length the teachings of Samian Pythagoras on music and astrology. He discusses at length the teachings of Thales of Miletus, one of the seven sages that he had previously cited. He traces Thales’s students across seven generations to the Socratic school of Plato. Sidonius credits Plato with being the first to establish by how much “the first essence would be distant / from the highest and sixth good {prima essentia distet / a summo sextoque bono}.” That’s pseudo-philosophical blather. Nonetheless, Sidonius pretends to explain it at length.

Sidonius concludes his pompous and ridiculous discussion of philosophy with a mock-laudatory invocation of Polemius. Polemius, unlike Christians, denies truth in his school of philosophy:

In this school, science cultivates the life
of Polemius and fosters him attached to her Plato.
Although the Academy opposes all sects
and denies truth, it adorns him with true lauds.

{ hoc in gymnasio Polemi sapientia vitam
excolit adiunctumque suo fovet ipsa Platoni;
obviet et quamquam totis Academia sectis
atque neget verum, veris hunc laudibus ornat. }[7]

Sidonius surely means for the phrase “true lauds” to ring ironically. He also notes, “As for the Epicureans, virtue ejects them from every part of the temple {ast Epicureos eliminat undique Virtus}.”[8] In Sidonius’s writings, Epicureans are associated with bodily pleasure, including sexual pleasure. Polemius apparently should not think that he would have bodily pleasure in his marriage to Araneola.

Glaucus importuning Scylla

The temple for weaving clothes provides an equally daunting perspective on marriage. The robe of Jupiter, the leading god in cuckolding husbands, was woven there. Another of its garments displays the likeness of Glaucus, who disastrously fell in love with Scylla, a woman just as perilous as Charybdis. A third garment depicts Amphitryon’s putative son Hercules unknowingly killing two serpents with his strong grip. Jupiter cuckolded Amphitryon to engender Hercules with Amphitryon’s wife Alcmene. Jupiter’s wife Juno, furious at her husband’s philandering, had sent those two serpents to kill Hercules.

Araneola herself is working in the temple of weaving. She is weaving an imperial robe for her father. He has risen to be a Roman consul like her grandfather and her great-grandfather.[9] She had already woven a robe for her father to use in touring the cities of Spain when he was appointed Praetorian Prefect of Gaul. Would Polemius measure up to his wife’s father, grandfather, and great-grandfather? Athena attempts to compete with Araneola in weaving and then resigns in defeat. Polemius likewise probably couldn’t successfully compete with his wife or his wife’s family.

High up on her father’s consular robe Araneola embroidered famous marriages from ancient times. She depicted Penelope duping her suitors by weaving and unweaving a burial shroud as her husband Odysseus delayed in returning home. She also depicted Orpheus. Lacking trust that his wife Eurydice was following him out of Hell, he lost her to Hell again. Even more chillingly, she in addition depicted the Danaids. Among those fifty young women, forty-nine slaughtered their sleeping husbands. She wove in Jupiter having sex with Mnemosyne, Europa, Semele, Leda, and Cynosura by transforming himself into a serpent, bull, lightning, swan, and nymph, respectively. What husband could be safe from such a god?

Araneola sees Athena looking with more pleasure upon the temple of philosophy than upon the temple of weaving. Araneola responds defiantly, just as did Arachne to claims of Athena’s superior weaving skill. Araneola recalcitrantly weaves the courtesan Lais dominating the philosopher Diogenes the Cynic:

Araneola began to depict Lais, the philosopher’s vanquisher,
who over the chin and neck of the boorish Cynic
severed his smelly beard with her fragrant scissors.

{ pingere philosophi victricem Laida coepit,
quae Cynici per menta feri rugosaque colla
rupit odoratam redolenti forcipe barbam }

Like Aristotle in relation to Phyllis, Diogenes wasn’t cynical enough about women to ward off his own humiliation at a woman’s hands. Araneola wouldn’t yield to the goddess Athena. Surely she would also dominate the philosopher Polemius in her marriage with him.[10]

metamorphosis of Arachne into a spider

Sidonius imagines that Polemius, a rational thinker, is hesitant to marry. Athena urges Araneola and Polemius to move forward with their marriage

No more shall you laugh at our dogmas, you young woman
who shall marry my philosopher. Put on your bridal veil.
Allow a mother to weave this work. Rise, Polemius,
distinguished ornament of sages, and now finally your Stoic
frown dismiss. And imitating Cynics as lovers,
undertake to make for me a second little Plato.

{ non nostra ulterius ridebis dogmata, virgo
philosopho nuptura meo; mage flammea sumens
hoc mater sine texat opus. consurge, sophorum
egregium Polemi decus, ac nunc Stoica tandem
pone supercilia et Cynicos imitatus amantes
incipies iterum parvum mihi ferre Platona }

Polemius hesitates, perhaps not wanting to find himself like Diogenes the Cynic in love with Lais. Then Polemius hears the words of his master Plato:

Press on willingly! You could not possibly reject marriage,
which our old teacher Socrates commands. Not reluctant, he drank
poison while contemplating gods, with Anytus his executioner turning pale.

{ perge libens, neu tu damnes fortasse iugari,
quod noster iubet ille senex qui non piger hausit
numina contemplans Anyto pallente venenum. }

Socrates was married to the harridan Xanthippe. He had good reason to drink poison willingly. One might hope that a wedding song would sing not about drinking poison, but about performing the rites “of the love-goddesses {Venerum}.” Alas for the meter, not so went Sidonius’s epithalamium for Polemius and Araneola.

The marriage ceremony moves forward. Polemius modestly removes his threadbare philosopher’s cloak and consigns it to Plato. Athena ties an olive branch, a symbol of peace, onto each of the spouses’ heads. She joins their right hands. Then their golden life-threads are woven together. Perhaps Araneola herself had spun those threads.

Sidonius didn’t actually regard serious study of philosophy and literature as inconsistent with marriage. In a letter to a young literary friend, Sidonius declares:

That you would be able to read more easily and more pleasurably, it is necessary that you read without faking and without limit to your reading. Don’t tolerate the thought that you will soon be at home happily married to deflect you from this proposition. Always fully remember that time when Marcia, Terentia, Calpurnia, Pudentilla, and Rusticiana held candles and candelabra while their husbands, respectfully Hortensius, Tullius, Pliny, Apuleius, and Symmachus, were reading and thinking. Certainly, moreover, if you are complaining that your oratory and poetical skill, and the edge of your tongue, sharpened with the whetstone of frequent study, are blunted by a houseful of women, remember that Corinna often helped her Naso to complete a verse, and so it was with Lesbia and Catullus, Caesennia and Gaetulicus, Argentaria and Lucan, Cynthia and Propertius, and Delia and Tibullus. Hence one should have clarity that the studious perceive marriage to bestow opportunity, while idlers perceive it as an excuse.

{ quoque id facilius possis voluptuosiusque, opus est ut sine dissimulatione lectites, sine fine lecturias; neque patiaris ut te ab hoc proposito propediem coniunx domum feliciter ducenda deflectat, sisque oppido meminens quod olim Marcia Hortensio, Terentia Tullio, Calpurnia Plinio, Pudentilla Apuleio, Rusticiana Symmacho legentibus meditantibusque candelas et candelabra tenuerunt. certe si praeter oratoriam contubernio feminarum poeticum ingenium et oris tui limam frequentium studiorum cotibus expolitam querens obtundi, reminiscere quod saepe versum Corinna cum suo Nasone complevit, Lesbia cum Catullo, Caesennia cum Gaetulico, Argentaria cum Lucano, Cynthia cum Propertio, Delia cum Tibullo. proinde liquido daret studentibus discendi per nuptias occasionem tribui, desidibus excusationem }[11]

Sidonius perceived Polemius’s marriage as an occasion for mocking philosophy and humorously invoking themes from literature of men’s sexed protest. While filled with classical learning, Sidonius’s epithalamium for Araneola and Polemius isn’t meant to be taken seriously.

Sidonius wryly indicated that Polemius resented this epithalamium. Measuring up to Araneola’s forefathers, Polemius became Praetorian Prefect of Gaul about 471. Sidonius included in his disseminated letter-collection a letter that he wrote to Polemius about two years later.[12] In that letter, Sidonius hints that he has repented of a crime he committed against Polemius and complains that Polemius has long ignored him. Perhaps that crime was his epithalamium. Sidonius begs to receive a letter from his long-time friend Polemius. Sidonius also suggests that high office, not marriage, has blunted Polemius’s appreciation for philosophy. That’s an important insight. Nominally leading men in gynocentric society tend to be the ones most offended by frankly comical depictions of gender relations.

* * * * *

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[1] Sidonius Apollinaris, Letter {Epistola} 9.6, “Sidonius to the Lord Bishop Ambrosius, greetings {Sidonius Domino Papae Ambrosio salutem},” Latin text from Anderson (1965), my English translation, benefiting from that of id. The subsequent two quotes above are similarly from Epistola 9.6. Attractive women threatening men as do Scylla and Charybdis is a motif in men’s sexed protest.

[2] Sidonius, Epistola 1.6, “Sidonius to his friend Eutropius, greetings {Sidonius Eutropio suo salutem},” Latin text from Anderson (1936), my English translation, benefiting from that of id. The subsequent quote above is similarly from Epistola 1.6.

In Epistola 3.6 to Eutropius, Sidonius congratulates Eutropius on his recent elevation (c. 470) to Praetorian Prefect of Gaul. Sidonius also refers to “your master Plotinus {vester Plotinus}” and associates Eutropius with the “school of Platonists {palaestra Platonicorum}.” Plotinus lived from 204 to 270 GC. He was an influential philosopher now regarded as the leading Neoplatonist.

Sidonius’s disparagement of Epicurean pleasure contrasts sharply with Epicurus in the earlier but related work of Martianus Capella. Martianus placed Epicurus among immortals and declared: “Epicurus indeed was carrying violets and roses mixed with all allurements of pleasure {Epicurus vero mixtas violis rosas et totas apportabat illecebras voluptatum}.” Martianus Capella, About the Marriage of Philology and Mercury {De nuptiis Philologiae et Mercurii} 213 (from Book 2), Latin text from Willis (1983), my English translation. Martianus apparently wrote De nuptiis Philologiae et Mercurii early in the fifth century (before 439). On Martianus’s view of Epicurus, Brown (1982).

[3] Sidonius, Song {Carmen} 14, “Sidonius to his friend Polemius, greetings {Sidonius Polemio suo salutem},” Latin text from Anderson (1936), my English translation, benefiting from that of id. The subsequent quote above is similarly from Carmen 14. Carmina 14 and 15 seem to date to “461, or else very soon after.” Kelly (2020) p. 172. For a commentary (not available to me) on these works, Ravenna (1990).

Carmen 14 isn’t actually a poem, but a prose letter. It precedes Sidonius’s epithalamium for Araneola and Polemius among Sidonius’s poems in the manuscript tradition. Kelly (2021).

[4] Sidonius seems to be taunting Polemius as a follower of traditional Roman gods and goddesses. Traditional Roman religion didn’t regard Venus as a false coloring of love. Sidonius implies that Polemius regards philosophers as gods. Christians, in contrast, pray to Christian saints for help.

[5] The name Polemius suggests the ancient Greek word “war {πόλεμος}.” Polemius’s name thus resonates with the violent beginning of the epithalamium for him. Roberts (1989) p. 342. On knowledge of Greek in fifth-century Gaul, John (2020).

War is institutionally structured as violence against men. Sidonius, however, like Prudentius, seems to have deliberately reversed the gender polarity of war. The goddess Athena represents war, while Polemius is a hesitant, modest, and unwarlike man.

The name Polemius is elsewhere attested by Polemius Silvius, a fifth-century Christian imperial official. Polemius Silvius devised a calendar integrating traditional Roman festivals with Christian holy days.

[6] Sidonius Carmen 15, “Epithalamium of Sidonius spoken to Polemius and Araneola {Sidonii epithalamium dictum Polemio et Araneolae},” vv. 7-12, Latin text from Anderson (1936), my English translation, benefiting from that of id. The epithalamium title used here is from Kelly (2021). Roberts noted that except for the last six verses of this epithalamium, it contains “little of the conventional epithalamium.” Roberts (1989) p. 341.

Subsequent quotes above from Carmen 15 are similarly sourced. They are vv. 42 (seven sages), 43 (the origins of innumerous philosophers), 102-3 (the first essence would be…), 117-21 (In this school, science cultivates the life…), 125 (As for the Epicureans…), 182-4 (Araneola began to depict Lais…), 186-91 (No more shall you laugh at our dogmas…), 193-5 (Press on willingly! …).

[7] In the verse Carmen 15.121, the pronoun “him {hunc}” is probably best interpreted to refer to Polemius. Early Christians distinguished themselves from others, whom they came to call pagans, in insisting on the absolute truth of Christianity. On that distinctive Christian epistemological stance, O’Donnell (1979).

Sidonius credited his friend Bishop Faustus with having Christianized philosophy. Jerome interpreted the captive maiden of Deuteronomy as modeling Christianization of Greco-Roman classics. Through Jerome’s figure of the captive maiden, Sidonius elaborately represented both his own action and Bishop Faustus’s learning . With respect to Bishop Faustus, Sidonius declared:

An artist then endowed with all these intellectual and literary excellences, you have joined to yourself a beautiful woman. She has married you in the ritual prescribed by Deuteronomy, my Lord Bishop. You had seen her, while still in your youth, among the hordes of the enemy. There in the midst of the hostile ranks you fell in love with her and, defying the attempts of the opposing warriors to drive you back, you carried her off with the conquering arm of desire. Her name was Philosophy. Rescued by force from the crowd of blasphemous sciences, she shaved off the locks that betokened false religion. She shaved off the disdainful eyebrows of worldly knowledge and cut away the folds of her old former raiment — and by folds I mean the twists and turns of sinister dialectic screening wrong and unlawful behavior. Then, when cleansed in every part, she united herself with you in a mystic embrace.

She has long been your attendant, even from your early years. She is your inseparable companion whether you are exercising yourself in the hard school of the city or wearing yourself out in hidden solitudes. She is your partner in the Athenaeum and in the monastery. With you she renounces worldly studies, and with you she proclaims heavenly doctrine. If anyone assails you now that you are wed to this spiritual bride, he will learn that Plato’s Academy is now enlisted in the cause of Christ’s church and that you practice philosophy in a nobler sense.

{ artifex igitur his animi litterarumque dotibus praeditus mulierem pulchram sed illam deuternomio astipulante nubentem, domine papa, tibi iugasti; quam tu adhuc iuvenis inter hostiles conspicatus catervas, atque illic in acie contrariae partis adamatam, nil per obstantes repulsus proeliatores, desiderii brachio vincente rapuisti, philosophiam scilicet, quae violenter e numero sacrilegarum artium exempta raso capillo superfluae religionis ac supercilio scientiae saecularis amputatisque pervetustarum vestium rugis, id est tristis dialecticae flexibus falsa morum et illicita velantibus, mystico amplexu iam defaecata tecum membra coniunxit.

haec ab annis vestra iamdudum pedisequa primoribus, haec tuo lateri comes inseparabilis, sive in palaestris exerceris urbanis sive in abstrusis macerare solitudinibus, haec Athenaei consors, haec monasterii, tecum mundanas abdicat, tecum supernas praedicat disciplinas. huic copulatum te matrimonio qui lacessiverit, sentiet ecclesiae Christi Platonis Academiam militare teque nobilius philosophari }

Sidonius, Epistola 9.9.12-3, “Sidonius to the Lord Bishop Faustus, greetings {Sidonius Domino Papae Fausto salutem},” Latin text and English translation (modified slightly) from Anderson (1965). For an alternate perspective on the classical heritage in fifth-century Gaul, Stevens (1933) pp. 15-8; John (2021).

[8] Sidonius evocatively refers to paintings on the Areopagus in Athens that show “Epicurus with unwrinkled skin {Epicurus cute distenta}.” Sidonius, Epistola 9.9.14, “Sidonius to the Lord Bishop Faustus, greetings {Sidonius Domino Papae Fausto salutem},” Latin text and English translation from Anderson (1965). Bishop Faustus became Bishop of Riez about 460. See Epistola 9.3.

[9] Araneola’s grandfather was Flavius Constantinus Felix, Consul of Rome in 428. Her father was the eminent Gallo-Roman noble Flavius Magnus of Narbonne. He was a Roman senator. Emperor Majorian appointed him Magister Officiorum, Consul of Rome in 460, and Praetorian Prefect of Gaul in 469. Araneola’s brother was Magnus Felix. He rose to be Praetorian Praefect of Gaul and Patrician. He was Sidonius’s schoolfriend. On this and other aristocratic Gallo-Roman families, Mathisen (2003).

[10] The unusual name Araneola is a diminutive of the Latin word “spider {aranea},” from the ancient Greek ἀράχνη. According to Ovid, the young woman Arachne of Maeonia, an outstanding weaver, would not acknowledge Athena as preeminent weaver. Ovid, Metamorphoses 6.5-7. After Athena challenged Arachne to a weaving contest and lost, Athena transformed Arachne into a spider. In Sidonius’s revision of that myth, Athena challenges Araneola to a weaving contest and Araneola wins. Then Araneola asserts the superiority of women’s beauty and guile (Lais) over men’s thinking (the philosopher Diogenes). On Sidonius’s recasting of the myth of Arachne competing with Athena, Rosati (2004).

According to Roberts, Sidonius through Araneola indicates “scepticism about the superiority of male virtus.” Araneola undercuts “the male perspective” in her weaving of mythic scenes. Araneola’s depictions of Penelope, who deceived her suitors; Alcestis, for whom Admestus was required to undertake a deadly quest; and Hypermestra, sister to the husband-killing Danaids, “suggest some criticism of the comparative value of male and female worlds.” Moreover, “Orpheus seems entirely ineffectual by comparison with the heroic female figures with whom he’s surrounded.” In addition, “Araneola’s irreverence makes a charming contrast” with the self-important posing of academicians. The mythic end of this epithalamium is “the sublation of the opposition between male and female in an image of equality.” Roberts (1989) pp. 342-3. Indeed, could academics today read this epithalamium in any other way?

[11] Sidonius, Epistola 2.10, “Sidonius to his friend Hesperius, greetings {Sidonius Hesperio suo salutem},” Latin text from Anderson (1936), my English translation, benefiting from that of id.

[12] Sidonius, Epistola 4.14, “Sidonius to his friend Polemius, greetings {Sidonius Polemio suo salutem}.” In this letter, Sidonius also refers to Tacitus as being Polemius’s ancestor. Sidonius again positions Polemius as not being a Christian:

I would like that you would know that being before the forum’s high priest is not like being before the judge of the world. For you, the man who doesn’t keep silent about his disgraces is damned, yet for us one who makes confession of them to God is absolved.

{ noveris volo non, ut est apud praesulem fori, sic esse apud iudicem mundi, namque ut is, qui propria vobis non tacuerit flagitia, damnatur, ita nobiscum qui eadem deo fuerit confessus absolvitur. }

Sidonius seems to mock Roman religious belief as well as Roman marriage. Inter-personal forgiveness is a central value in Christian societies.

Mratschek interprets Epistola 4.14 more narrowly as expressing Sidonius’s pain for Polemius’s silence across two years. She observed:

In his letter (Ep. 4.14.1), the bishop {Sidonius} reproduced almost word for word the speech attributed in Tacitus’ Histories (5.26.2) to the rebel leader Iulius Civilis, who stayed true to his friendship with Vespasian even during the Batavian war, in which the two fought on opposite sides.

Mratschek (2020 p. 245. Polemius might have felt that Sidonius didn’t stay true to their friendship in his epithalamium. In any case, this letter is the only letter to Polemius (other than Carmen 14) that Sidonius included in his collection. That suggests that it was included for its poignancy (whether real or contrived) in relation to Carmen 15.

[images] (1) Cassandra imploring Athena for vengeance after Ajax desecrated Athena’s temple and raped Cassandra. Painted by Jérôme-Martin Langlois in 1810. Via Wikimedia Commons. (2) Glaucus importuning Scylla. Painted by Bartholomeus Spranger between 1580 and 1582. Preserved as accession # GG_2615 in the Kunsthistorisches Museum (Vienna, Austria). Via Wikimedia Commons. (3) Metamorphosis of Arachne into a spider. From an instance of the Ovide moralisé, illustrated by the Master of Fauvel about 1330. From folio 78r of Paris, Arsenal, Ms-5069 réserve. Also available via BnF Mandragore and Wikimedia Commons.


Anderson, W.B, ed. and trans. 1936 / 1965. Sidonius. Poems and Letters. With an English translation, introduction, and notes. 2 vols. Loeb Classical Library 296 and 420. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Vol. 1, Vol. 2.

Brown, Emerson. 1982. “Epicurus and Voluptas in Late Antiquity: The Curious Testimony of Martianus Capella.” Traditio. 38: 75–106.

John, Alison. 2020. “Learning Greek in Late Antique Gaul.” Classical Quarterly. 70 (2): 846-864.

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Kelly, Gavin. 2020. “Dating the Works of Sidonius.” Chapter 3 (pp. 166-194) in Kelly & van Waarden (2020).

Kelly, Gavin. 2021. “An Edition of the Paratexts of Sidonius’ Poems.” Posted online March 27, 2021 at

Kelly, Gavin, and Joop van Waarden. 2020. The Edinburgh Companion to Sidonius Apollinaris. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. Reviews by Tabea L. Meurer and by Lena Walhgren-Smith.

Mathisen, Ralph W. 2003. ‘“Qui Genus Unde Patres?” the Case of Arcadius Placidus Magnus Felix.Medieval Prosopography. 24 (1): 55–71.

Mratschek, Sigrid. 2020. “Creating Culture and Presenting the Self in Sidonius.” Chapter 6 (pp. 237-260) in Kelly & van Waarden (2020).

O’Donnell, James J. 1979. “The Demise of Paganism.” Traditio. 35: 45–88.

Ravenna, Giovanni. 1990. Le Nozze di Polemio e Araneola: Sidonio Apollinare Carmina XIV-XV. Bologna: Pàtron.

Roberts, Michael. 1989. “The Use of Myth in Latin Epithalamia from Statius to Venantius Fortunatus.” Transactions of the American Philological Association. 119: 321–348.

Rosati, Gianpiero. 2004. “La strategia del ragno, ovvero la rivincita di Aracne. Fortuna tardo-antica (Sidonio Apollinare, Claudiano) di un mito Ovidiano.” Dictynna. 1: 1-14. Online at

Stevens, Courtenay Edward. 1933. Sidonius Apollinaris and His Age. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Willis, James, ed. 1983. Martianus Capella. Leipzig: B.G. Teubner Verlagsgesellschaft.

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