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Avie'nus, Rufus Festus

The following poems are ascribed to an author bearing this name:--


1. , or, as it is variously entitled in different editions and MSS., , in 1394 hexameter lines

This is derived directly from the περιήγησις of Dionysius, and containing a succinct account of the most remarkable objects in the physical and political geography of the known world. It adheres too closely in some places, and departs too widely in others, from the text of the Alexandrian, to be called with propriety a translation, or even a paraphrase, and still less does it deserve to be regarded as an independent work, but approaches more nearly to our modern idea of a new edition compressed in certain passages, enlarged in others, and altered throughout. These changes can hardly be considered as improvements, for not unfrequently the anxiety of the writer to expand and embellish his original has made him wander into extravagance and error, while on the other hand the fear of becoming prolix and tedious has led to injudicious curtailments, and induced him to omit the names of nations and districts which ought not to have been passed over. Nor does he attempt to correct the mistakes of his predecessor, nor to take advantage of those stores of knowledge which must have been available at the period when he lived; but the blunders and follies of the old Greek poets, who were profoundly ignorant of all the regions to the West and North of their own country, are implicitly followed, and many things set down which every well-informed man under the empire must have known to be absurd. There is, however, a considerable energy and liveliness of style, which animates the inherent dulness of the undertaking and carries the reader lightly on, while much ingenuity is displayed in varying the expression of constantly-recurring ideas.


A fragment in 703 Iambic trimeters. The plan comprehended a full delineation of the shores of the Mediterranean, together with those of the Euxine and sea of Asov, and a portion of the Atlantic without the pillars of Hercules; but we know not if this design was ever fully carried out, for the portion which has been preserved is confined almost entirely to the coast stretching from Marseilles to Cadiz. The author professes to have commenced the essay in order to satisfy the intelligent inquiries of a youth named Probus, to whom it is addressed, with regard to the geography of the Pontus and the Maeotic Gulf; but if intended for the purposes of instruction, it is impossible to imagine any task executed in a less satisfactory manner. There is an absence of all order and arrangement. Instead of advancing steadily in a given direction, we are carried backwards and forwards, transported abruptly from one spot to another at a great distance, and brought again and again to the same point without completing any circuit, besides being distracted with discussions on localities and objects totally foreign to the matter in hand. Moreover, the different nations and districts are distinguished by their ancient and forgotten names, instead of those by which they were actually known at the time when this guide-book was composed, and all the old and exploded fantasies of half mythical geography revived and gravely propounded. We are led almost irresistibly to the conclusion, that Avienus, possessing no practical or scientific acquaintance with his subject, had read a number of conflicting accounts of the countries in question, written in former times by persons who were as ignorant as himself, and had combined and pieced them together in the hope of elaborating a consistent whole,-- neglecting with strange perversity the numerous sources of accurate information opened up by the wars so long waged and the dominion so long exercised by his countrymen in those regions.

3. , and

Both in Hexameter verse, the first containing 1325, the second 552 lines. They bear exactly the same relation to the well known works of Aratus as the Descriptio Orbis Terrae does to that of Dionysius. The general arrangement of the Greek original is followed throughout, and several passages are translated more closely than in the versions of Cicero and Germanicus, but on the other hand many of the mythical legends are expanded, new tales are introduced, and extracts from the works of celebrated astronomers, scraps of Pythagorean philosophy, and fragments of Aegyptian superstition, are combined and worked up with the materials of the old fabric. The result is much more successful than in the two efforts previously examined. Here there was more room for the imagination to disport itself unencumbered with dry details and stubborn facts, and accordingly the interest is well sustained and the flowing and spirited style of the poet appears to great advantage.

4. To , , and

Three short fugitive pieces, the first addressed to a friend, Flavianus Myrmecius, V. C., requesting a gift of some pomegranates from his estates in Africa, in order to remove an attack of bile and indigestion; the second, De Cantu Sirenum, or Sirenum Allegoria, on the allurements of the daughters of Achelous and the device by which Ulysses escaped their wiles; the third, Ad Amicos de Agro, enumerating the various occupations which by turns occupied the time and engaged the attention of the writer each day when living in country retirement.


We must remark, that while we can scarcely entertain a doubt that the two Geographical Essays are from the same pen, especially since in the second (1. 71) we find a direct reference to the first, we have no external evidence connecting them with the others, except the fact, that the same name is prefixed in all MSS. to the whole, with the exception of the 2nd and 3rd epigrams. But, on the other hand, the style, manner, and phraseology of the Aratean poems correspond so exactly with what we observe in the rest, that scholars in general have acquiesced in the arrangement which assigns the whole to one person. They evidently belong to an epoch when Latin literature, although fast verging to old age, was still fresh and hale, and far from being paralyzed by infirmities ;--we still perceive with pleasure a force and freedom. of expression in strong contrast with the inflated feebleness and uneasy stiffness which marked the last period of decay.

Assuming that the astronomical Avienus is the same with the geographical Avienus, we can at once determine approximately the age to which he belongs; for Jerome, in his commentary on the Epistle of St. Paul to Titus, mentions that the quotation by the Apostle, in the xvii. chapter of the Acts, To τοῦ γάρ καὶ γένος ἐσμέν, is to be found in the Phaenomena of Aratus, “quem Cicero in Latinum sermonem transtulit, et Germanicus Caesar, et nuper Avienus.” Now Jerome died in 420; therefore, allowing all fair latitude to the somewhat indefinite nuper, we may with tolerable certainty place Avienus in the latter half of the fourth century, under Valens, the Valentinians, Gratian, and Theodosius, or even somewhat earlier, under Constantine and Julian. Our next step leads us upon ground much less firm, but we may venture yet a little further. An inscription, discovered originally, we are told, in the church of St. Nicholas, of the Furbishers, at Rome, and afterwards deposited in the Villa Caesarina, has been published by Fabretti and others, and will be found in Burmann's Anthologia. (1.79, or Ep .n. 278, ed. Meyer.) It bears as a title R. FESTUS V. C. DE SE AD DEAM NORTIAM, and begins in the first person, Festus Musoni soboles prolesque Avieni, after which follows an announcement on the part of this individual, that he was born at Vulsinii, that he dwelt at Rome, tnat he had twice been elevated to the office of proconsul, that he was the happy husband of a lady named Placida, the proud father of a numerous offspring, and the author of many poems (carmina multa serens); then follows a sort of epitaph in four lines, inscribed by Placidus, apparently the son of the above personage, to the sacred memory of his sire. Wernsdorf and others have at once pronounced without hesitation, that the Festus who here calls himself descendant of Musonius and son of Avienus, for such is undoubtedly the true meaning of the words, must be the same with our Rufus Festus Avienus. The proof adduced, when carefully sifted, amounts to this:-- 1. It is probable that the ancestor here referred to may be C. Musonius Rufus, the celebrated Stoic and intimate friend of Apollonius of Tyana. He was exiled by Nero, patronized by Vespasian, and is frequently mentioned by the writers who treat of this period. This idea receives confirmation from the circumstance that Tacitus and Philostratus both represent Musonius as a Tuscan, and Suidas expressly asserts that he was a native of Vulsinii. We thus filly establish an identity of name between the writer of the inscription and our Avienus, and can explain satisfactorily how the appellation Rufus came into the family. 2. From two laws in the Codex of Justinian (see Gothofred, Prosopogr. Cod. Theod.), it appears that a certain Festus was proconsul of Africa in the years 366 and 367, which agrees with the age we have assigned to our Avienus from St. Jerome, and an inscription is extant (Boeckh, Inscr. Graec. i. p. 436) commemorating the gratitude of the Athenians towards Ῥούφιος Φῆστος, proconsul of Greece. Now the editor of Dionysius and Aratus must have been a Greek scholar, and we gather from some lines in the Descriptio that he had repeatedly visited Delphi in person; thus he may be this very Ῥούφιος Φῆστος, and the two proconsular appointments are in this way determined. 3. The words " carmine multa serens " point out a similarity of taste and occupation. 4. Lastly, in the epitaph by Placidus we detect an expression, " Jupiter aethram (Pandit, Feste tibi)," which seems to allude directly to the second line of the Phaenomena, "excelsum reserat Jupiter aethram," although this may be merely an accidental resemblance. It will be seen that the evidence requires a good deal of hypothetical patching to enable it to hang together at all, and by no means justifies the undoubting confidence of Wernsdorf; but, at the same time, we can scarcely refuse to acknowledge that the coincidences are remarkable.

We need scarcely notice the opinion of some early critics, that Avienus was a Spaniard, since it avowedly rests upon the consideration, that the fragment of the Ora Maritima which has been preserved is devoted chiefly to the coast of Spain, and contains quotations from the works of Himilco and the Carthaginian annalists with regard to that country and the shores of the Atlantic. To refute such arguments would be almost as idle as to invent them. Nor need we treat with greater respect the assertion that he was a Christian. Not a line can be quoted which would appear to any reasonable man favourable to such a notion; but, on the contrary, wherever he speaks of the Pagan gods we find that he expresses in very unequivocal language a marked reverence for their worship. There is little to be said either for or against the idea, that he is the young Avienus introduced by Macrobius in the Saturnalia as talking with Symmachus. So far as dates are concerned there is no anachronism involved, but the name was very common, and we have no clue to guide us to any conclusion.

Servius, in his commentary on Virgil (10.388), speaks of an Avienus who had turned the whole of Virgil and Livy into Iambics (qui totum Virgilium et Livium iambis scripsit), and refers to him again (10.272) as the person " qui iambis scripsit Virgilii fabulas." We cannot doubt that Livy the historian must be indicated here, for he was by so much the most celebrated of all authors bearing that appellation, that a grammarian like Servius would scarcely have failed to add a distinguishing epithet had any other Livy been meant. There is no difficulty in believing the operation to have been performed upon Virgil, for we know that such conversions were common exercises during the decline of literature, and Suidas tells us in particular of a certain Marianus, in the reign of the emperor Anastasius, who turned the dactylics of Theocritus, Apollonius, Callimachus, and others, into iambic measures.

Lastly, all scholars now admit that there are no grounds for supposing, that the prose treatise " Breviarium de Victoriis ac Provinciis Populi Romani ad Valentinianum Augustum," ascribed to a Sextus Rufus or Rufus Festus, and the topographical compendium " Sexti Rufi de Regionibus Urbis Romae," belong to Avienus, as was at one time maintained; while the poem "De Urbibus Hispaniae Mediterraneis," quoted as his work by several Spaniards, is now known to be a forgery, executed in all probability by a certain Hieronymus Romanus, a Jesuit of Toledo, who was notorious for such frauds.


The Editio Princeps of Avienus was printed at Venice in Roman characters, by Antonius de Strata, under the care of Victor Pisanus, in 4to., and bears the date of 25th October (8 Kal. Nov.), 1488. It contains the Descriptio Orbis Terrae, the Ora Maritima, the Aratea, and the epigram addressed to Flavianus Myrmecius; besides which we find in the same volume the translation of Aratus by Cicero and Germanicus, and the verses of Q. Serenus Samonicus on the cure of diseases.

The most useful edition is to be found in the second part of the fifth volume of the Poetae Latini Minores of Wernsdorf, which, however, does not include the Aratea, Wernsdorf not having lived to complete his work. But this last piece also, which was carefully edited by Buhle and placed at the end of his Aratus, is given in the French reprint of Wernsdorf (1825), which forms a portion of the collection of Latin classics published at Paris by Lemaire.


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