OUP (2023) h/b pp £100 (ISBN 9780197666555) 

Eudocia, empress and saint, is the subject of a long and eloquent paragraph in Chapter 32 of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall. The daughter of an Athenian orator, she came to Constantinople to seek her fortune. There she caught the eye of the formidable Augusta Pulcheria as a suitable bride for her younger brother and ward Theodosius II. On her marriage she converted to Christianity, and in the following years became one of the most prolific female poets of the ancient world. On a pilgrimage to the Holy Land she dispensed extravagant largesse. Her triumphant return presaged a power struggle with Pulcheria. Worsted in this, Eudocia retired to Jerusalem for the rest of her life, which had occupied the first two-thirds of the fifth century AD. The story, first told a hundred years later by the chronicler John Malalas, has elements of romance but (as Gibbon points out) is anchored in history by her marriage. 

A cento (Latin for ‘patchwork’) is defined as a poem assembled from fragments of existing works. Centos became popular in the third century AD and remained so for about 200 years. Most surviving examples use grand epic as their material (Homer in Greek, Virgil in Latin), and many blend it with Christian content and doctrine. The Homeric Centos attributed to Eudocia (its title consistently plural in this book) retells in Homeric language stories from Genesis and the gospels. The work has a complex textual history, but Anna Lefteriatou focuses on the first edition, which together with a short prefatory poem amounts to about 2,400 hexameter lines. Her account of it is an exercise in exploration, but also in rehabilitation and defence. Gibbon dismissed the work as ‘that insipid performance’. In the imagination of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Eudocia ‘sat among the ruins of the holy city … pulling Homer’s gold to pieces bit by bit’. Others have seen centos as a ‘parlour game’ or a ‘whimsical genre’. In taking Eudocia’s poem more seriously, L. builds on the work of M.D. Usher’s 1998 Homeric Stitchings.

The broader context for this renewed attention is the great upsurge of interest in Late Antiquity over recent decades. Arnaldo Momigliano in The Conflict between Paganism and Christianity (1963) traced a dominant theme of the fourth century, but for the educated Christian elite of the fifth (with that debate effectively settled) the two traditions could be enjoyed and blended in comfort. This is the age in which Nonnus could write in hexameter verse both his Dionysiaca and his Paraphrasis of St John’s gospel. L. sees the Centos as weaving together a biblical warp (actually given as ‘wrap’, but I think this is a typo—one of many—rather than a witty variation) and a Homeric weft.

Already in the Odyssey the making of cloth was implicitly compared to the making of plots and of poems. Much else in L.’s account suggests themes that can be traced a long way back. Indeed the basic activity of a cento poet, putting fixed groups of words into new combinations, is in effect a late and literary version of what the oral bard once did with inherited formulaic phrases (both modifying as required). A passing reference to Jesus getting into a boat (Matthew 9:1) is expanded with lines describing three different Homeric ships: here is the ‘jewelled style’ of Late Antique literature, but we might think also of the way Hellenistic poems such as Callimachus’ Hecale dwell on details rather than the obvious narrative core. L. quotes numerous passages where often diverse Homeric sources are cited alongside each line. The erudite reader is expected to savour their juxtaposition, and to ponder the implicit comparison of a biblical character to a whole range of Homeric ones (Jesus as Achilles, Patroclus, Hector): a technique reminiscent of Virgil. ‘Type scenes’ are found in the Bible as well as in Homer, and the cento draws on both. The account of the Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well evokes the meeting of Odysseus and Nausicaa. Iliadic supplications become the context for miracles of healing. A whole tradition of allegorical reading lay behind the comparison of Jesus on the cross to Odysseus bound to the mast. His true identity is recognised as that of the returned and disguised hero.

A major emphasis in L.’s account is the distinct female focus of the Homeric Centos. This is used to argue both for the traditional attribution to Eudocia and for an intended readership including many learned ladies. Female focalisation of the narrative draws on accounts of characters such as Thecla in the New Testament apocrypha. The Virgin Mary evokes a whole range of Homeric models (Andromache, Nausicaa, Calypso, Penelope). The presentation both of Jesus and of Mary in a fifth-century work of literature inevitably had theological implications. While eschewing a dogmatic Christology, Eudocia presents a Jesus who is fully human in his suffering. Mary is not yet Theotokos (‘Mother of God’) but she is presented as a queen, as she also is in the roughly contemporary mosaics of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome. L. pursues in passing other analogies with art and architecture. The narrative use of episodes where the reader is expected to fill in background links is compared to the sequence of scenes on a Late Antique sarcophagus. The whole Christian cento enterprise is compared both to the repurposing of classical temples as churches and to the element of architectural salvage in the Arch of Constantine.

L. begins her book by observing that modern poets such as Eliot and Seferis use a version of the cento technique. The reader ends it with an enlarged sense of what can be achieved in this once disparaged genre. The price is not now unusual for an academic monograph, but copy editing and proof reading have unfortunately not been done to the standard expected of OUP.  

John Taylor