Department Colloquium: Steven Smith (Department of Comparative Literature, Languages, and Linguistics, Hofstra University) "The Descendants of Aeneas in New Rome: Epigrams on the Fall of Troy from the Cycle of Agathias"

Thursday, February 4, 2021 - 4:30pm

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Title: The Descendants of Aeneas in New Rome: Epigrams on the Fall of Troy from the Cycle of Agathias

Abstract: Agathias published his Cycle of epigrams by contemporary poets in Constantinople around 567, early in the reign of Justin II. Within the anthology, the legend of Troy informs Agathias’ representations of Roman imperial power and is relevant also to his conception of poetic authority. By crafting imaginary inscriptions on the theme of Rome’s Trojan ancestry, Agathias figuratively re- inscribes in 6th century Constantinople the Vergilian ambiguity – simultaneously patriotic and critical – archetypal of Rome’s imperial vision.


I examine first a series of four epigrams by Agathias (AP 9.152-155) that deal from various perspectives with the fall of Troy. Though this was a conventional motif within the epigrammatic tradition, Agathias offers an original variation: in the final epigram, the fallen city becomes prophetic, announcing its future resurgence and universal domination through the agency of its descendant, Rome. But as in Vergil’s epic, fulfilling the dream of an imperial future comes with a latent warning about the human costs. Applying a paradigm of ambiguous interpretation familiar from modern approaches to Vergil’s Aeneid is justified on the grounds that Agathias was himself familiar with Vergil’s poem (cf. AP 9.152.5 with V. A. 2.758).


Two further epigrams by Agathias treat the subject of empire vis à vis a power unifying east and west, i.e. the contemporary fulfillment of Troy’s prophetic vision. The first (AP 9.641), inscribed on the Sangarius Bridge in Asia Minor, celebrates the military achievements of the emperor Justinian. The second (9.657) – also probably a real inscription – commemorates the palace built by the emperor Justin II for his wife, the augousta Sophia. The two epigrams are complementary commentaries on imperial power, the former asserting Rome’s absolute dominion over enslaved barbarian nations, the latter suggesting the harmonious unification of Europe and Asia through the symbolic harmony of the imperial marriage.


Agathias’ preface to the Cycle, an hexameter panegyric to Justin II, reveals an awareness that his own literary activity is implicated in the ambiguous imperial achievement of an oikoumenē pacified through subjugation (AP 4.3.74-97). Though he imagines his anthology as a sublime bouquet and himself as its industrious bee- gatherer, Agathias’ description of his book as syzyx (“binding, unifying, yoking together,” AP 4.3.104) nevertheless evokes the sometimes violent ideological yoking (Roman and barbarian, west and east, male and female, orthodox and heterodox) required for imperial unification.


Agathias was a sophisticated reader of the myth of Trojan ancestry. Connecting his Trojan epigrams to his epigrams about Roman imperial power reveals his own ambiguous interpretation of a myth that even in the 6th century could legitimize the dream of a universal Roman empire.

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