The Carmina of Optatianus.

I never heard of this guy, but J. Stephan Edwards makes him sound interesting and influential (and surprisingly ignored):

Sometime around the end of the first quarter of the fourth century C.E., a former resident of the imperial city of Rome then living in exile in Achaea began a written campaign for his recall to the capitol. The campaign coincided with the Vicennalia, or twentieth anniverary, of the reign of the first Christian Roman Emperor, Constantine, an event celebrated in July 325 in Nicomedia and again in the summer of 326 at Rome itself. The writing campaign took advantage of this event and consisted of a series of panegyric poems addressed to Constantine in commemoration of both the Vicennalia and Constantine’s earlier defeat of Licinius in 324. The series, included in what is now known collectively as the Carmina or Carmina Figurata, is of an unusual and innovative sort: the poems contain supplementary text ‘hidden’ within the main body of the individual poems and intended to be ‘discovered’ by the reader. These versus intexti poems were apparently intended to dazzle Constantine with their technical virtuosity and thereby inspire the hoped-for recall of their creator, Publilius Optatianus Porphyrius.[1] The campaign was ultimately successful, and the intriguing larger body of work created by Optatianus remains captivating even today, both for its simple visual appeal and for its display of remarkable technical skill.

Despite the dazzling technical virtuosity and captivating visual appeal of the poems, they remain at the fringes of scholarly interest. One philologist describes their purely literary content as lacking elegance and refinement, even as banal.[2] Their value as sources of historical data is also limited. These two factors may partially explain why only a handful of modern scholars have given attention to the works and their creator.[3] Yet it must be remembered that the poems were almost certainly not composed as works of elegant literature, but rather as displays of purely technical skill designed to impress through visual impact, not verbal eloquence. Optatianus’ masterful display of word ordering in the later Carmina has had significant influence on an entire genre of ‘literary’ output, especially its modern direct descendant, the acrostic puzzle.

It’s worth clicking through for the illustrations, which are quite striking. Thanks, Trevor!


  1. Commenting the word “oulipian” for the benefit of future search engines.

  2. David Marjanović says

    If the “discoverers” of the “Bible Code” had known what Puny Humans are capable of…

  3. Oh, these were discussed (as Porphyrius I believe) in some book… which one? Can’t find it on the shelf…

  4. Here are the actual texts of the Carmina, though of course from this bare-bones layout you can’t get any of the hidden messages.


  1. […] Hat looks at the Carmina of Optatianus, an interesting piece of Latin […]

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