Italian Digressions

One of the memorable phrases of Richard Burgess's recent article, 'The Date, Purpose, and Historical Context of the Original Greek and the Latin Translation of the So-Called Excerpta Latina Barbari', is the "Italian Digression". This is his term for an extensive and not-quite-explicable interpolation of material about the rulers of Italy, Alba Longa and Rome into a Latin chronograph, the Excerpta Latina Barbari.

Chronographs often resemble Wikipedia articles that were originally conceived as harmonious texts and then acquire additions which various officious readers decide it "would be good to have as well". The result is usually a lopsided mess. Wikipedia neatly allows its readers to compare versions and even undo the more foolish and self-indulgent digressions. Late Antique manuscripts do not come with such conveniences.

That makes it an intellectual challenge to unwind this process of accumulation. As Professor Burgess demonstrates with his analyses of chronographs, this can sometimes succeed.

Readers of this blog will recall that the Great Stemma is an early fifth-century chronographic diagram where the reader can see the whole course of biblical history at a glance, somewhat like the divine vision omnis etiam mundus ... ante oculos eius adductus est (the whole world placed before the eyes, in Gregory the Great's phrase for an overview of the whole human condition at a glance).

The Great Stemma seems to have developed in parallel with the Liber Genealogus of 427. Digressions quickly developed in both.

The first edition of the Liber Genealogus (datable because it mentions the Roman consuls of 427 as the very latest ones) was exclusively concerned with the biblical timespans.

The LG edition of 455 (which gives its date as the 16th year of the reign of Genseric as well as the year of death of Valentinian III) throws in for no apparent reason a long witty anecdote from 1 Esdras 3. What has this debate about the comparative merits of booze, power, sex and truth at the Emperor Darius's feast got to do with chronography?

Perhaps the answer lies in the Esdras story's conclusion: that truth endures and is strong forever? Or is the whole digression an erudite game, where each editor of the LG chases up a topic initiated by his predecessor? You tell me a story about the Jews and Darius, I'll tell you a literary Darius story back.

The digressions do not stop. The LG same edition of 455, represented by a single manuscript now preserved at Lucca, Italy, also digressively inserts a list of kings of Rome. This kind of list is generally termed an Ordo Romanorum Regum. What we don't fully understand is why Late Antique writers felt the urge to insert this seemingly irrelevant information into annalistic documents.

Some years ago I wrote an article on a similar "Italian digression" which seems to have been added to the Great Stemma. What have ancient Roman kings got to do with biblical history? Their dates don't help you to figure out the age of the world, or the antiquity of Judaism. Perhaps it is something merely ideological. Maybe 5th-century Christian writers felt a need to flaunt their knowledge of early Roman history as an expression of their patriotic allegiance to the Christian empire and their revulsion for the barbarian Germanic invaders who were disrupting the old order.

We don't really know the answer. But digressions may give us a feeling for the issues that preoccupied a generation of editors, just as alterations to Wikipedia articles often give you a picture of what kind of people are hiding behind the pseudonyms and what the Wikipedians' obsessions are.

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