The following post found on St Andrews blog briefly introduces you to one of the most fascinating writer of the late Antiquity: Faltonia Betitia Proba. I mentioned her (and mispronounced her name) during my first stream about Pagan Gods in Medieval Manuscripts. Enjoy the discovery if you didn’t know her!
I was first told of Proba by Pierre-Augustin Deproost, teacher at the Université catholique de Louvain, as we shared a train many years ago. Check out his personal webpage about Latin authors, from Virgil to Thomas More (in French).
The most famous female writer from Greco-Roman antiquity would have to have been Sappho, the lyric poet from the island of Lesbos, but for womens history month I’m going to shout out for a Latin author by the name of Proba.
Faltonia Betitia Proba was born to an aristocratic Roman family early in the fourth century. This was a period of great religious flux, and Proba herself converted to Christianity. We know of two works by her: a lost work on the war between Constantius II and the usurper Magnentius, and the extant cento Probae. A cento is a work composed of resequenced lines (or half-lines) from an existing work, arranged to create a new narrative.
Proba’s cento of nearly 700 hexameters resequences verses from classical Latin literature’s canonical highpoint…
I enjoy browsing digitized manuscripts so much that I lose my sleep over it. A few days ago I started a best off of Alexander the Great’s illumination in medieval manuscripts. That when I observed for myself that he is depicted as a 14th-15th century knight in full armour in most of pre-Renaissance manuscripts and we even find him depicted jousting against his enemy, King Porus!
scholars like André Petit or Frédéric Duval have thought hard and long about
those medieval so-called anachronisms. They came up with such complex theories
about the concepts and representations of time that I couldn’t properly
translate them in here. Not to say that I didn’t understand what they wrote
under the obvious influence of crack… But they certainly had a long hard puff of
the good shit.
From my readings I can give you four reasons as to why Alexander the Great (d. 323 BCE), Julius Cesar (d. 44 BCE) and King Arthur (supposed to have lived during the 5th and 6th centuries) were depicted as full-on 15th century knights by 15th century illuminators.
#1. Another perception of the passing of time
living at the end of the Middle Ages sensed no rupture between the Classical
Era and their own times. They didn’t know about our very 19th century
fashion of cutting History into three to four main periods. They hadn’t all
heard nor agreed to Petrarch’s claim that following the fall of Rome—that he
himself dated back to 96 AD, by the way, and not 476 AD—Europe had sunk into some Dark Age… What really differentiated
the Renaissance humanists with their intellectual predecessors, who also knew
their Classical texts by heart, was that very feeling of rupture, that urge to
find again what had been lost for they entertained that proto-romantic idea of
loss. Medieval scholars and humanists—for the Middle Ages had its own humanists
indeed—had a different relationship with Antiquity. They lived by the metaphor
of dwarves standing on the shoulders of giants: they were not as great as their
Roman founding fathers, but thanks to them, they could see farther than mankind
ever could before.
#2. Linguistic issues
scholars knew pretty well that the world was in a different state during
Alexander’s times. When reading their books in Latin they were very conscious
that some of the words that they were encountering used to describe realities
that no longer existed. That was the whole meaning of their numerous glosses.
Historical, judicial and literary Latin texts were sometimes heavily annotated.
Young university students learning Latin were not only studying a new language,
they were also discovering a different world. They could even, I bet, differentiate
the various meanings that one single Latin word could cover if written in a classical
text or in a medieval texts. That was not a problem. However, to translate
Latin texts into vernacular languages came out as quite a challenge from the 13th
to the 15th century for French, English or German were “poor”
languages when compared to Latin. They didn’t beneficiated yet from a fixed
grammar or an extensive scholarly vocabulary. That’s why the pontifex becomes the bishop, the praetor becomes a provost
and the miles (originally the foot-soldier!)
becomes the knight. Medieval scholars
could still tell the difference of course, but this constructed a
representation of Antiquity that was “very close from home” for non-erudite
#3. Capitalizing on a sense of legacy
men read the stories of Alexander and Arthur, they certainly wished to picture
themselves along those mighty heroes, fighting side by side with them on their
way to immortal glory. As a matter of fact, aristocrats would very often play
the part and dress up as Arthurian knights for jousting events or knightly tournaments.
They were dressing up alright, but they were fighting for real. Back in the 13th century, when Wace translated
into Anglo-Norman Monmouth’s Historia Regum
Britanniae, he did it with a purpose: to prove that Henry II Plantagenet
was the rightful ruler of England as per a translatio
imperii, a “shift of power” from East to West which made England the natural
heir of both Troy and Rome through the figures of Brutus (the Trojan legendary
founder of Britain) and King Arthur. If such characters were to be depicted the
same way late medieval Kings of England were, then it would be much easier for
the latter to claim their legacy. So that’s what happened. Alexander, David,
Caesar, Arthur and Charlemagne were all depicted in a way that made them
somehow familiar. It would even further the idea that knighthood was a concept impervious
from the passing of time: good Kings and noble knights had always existed. It
was up to the new generation to carry on their long-lasting and exemplary tradition.
#4. History as a set of examples
who do we see when we look at Alexander or Arthur in medieval manuscripts? Is
it really Alexander? Or Arthur?—Does it even matter? What we actually see is
the concept they symbolise: a most perfect King. It is very important to
remember that History had a very clear purpose in the Late Middle Ages. It
served as a set of good and bad moral examples. The real truth behind every story
were not the facts they told, but the message they carried. Our very world was considered
to be only the mirror of another and higher reality known as God’s own realm. The
Matrix was the shit. Charles IV of the Holy Roman Empire believed that himself
as we can read in his autobiography. He starts by reminding that we have two
faces or two shapes. One, anchored in this very world, means nothing in itself.
However, as it fulfils God’s will then it can serve a purpose and escape the
void that is the matter. Medieval scholars went as far as to give theological
meaning to Alexander or Caesar’s adventures. Such was the real purpose of their
story. Factual accuracy had nothing to do with it.
When the Portuguese humanist Vasco de Lucena decided to translate Alexander the Great’s biography for Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, at the very end of the 15th century, he frowned upon the many tales that surrounded the Macedonian monarch. He bluntly rejected the romances as any kind valid historical source. Alexander was no more to be equal to Lancelot or Tristan. He had to be more. He had to be real, historically accurate. Vasco de Lucena returned to the source that he deemed the most reliable, the biography of Quintus Curtius. He followed a “scientific method” establishing Alexander’s reign period thanks to the Bible and cross-referencing other classical sources. It was the beginning of a new era but it would yet take some time for the classical aesthetic models to impose themselves and cast away the charming gothic depictions of antique heroes, as the Burgundian manuscripts holding Vasco’s translation show.
A Companion to Alexander Literature in the Middle Ages. Edited by Z. David Zuwiyya. Leiden, Boston: Brill, 2011.
Frédéric Duval, “Comment interpreter les anachronismes ? Le cas de l’histoire romaine écrite en français au début du xiiie siècle”, in Anabases (2008), 8; online edition.
Alexander the Great was a very popular hero in Medieval Litterature, nothing short of a Marvel or DC character. As a matter of fact his true story was slightly forgotten and casted away in favor of wonders and legends.
Here under you’ll find my personal best off of medieval illuminations telling the fabulous stories of Alexander the Great in various manuscripts. Expect this best off to grow over time!
A great man can only have a great birth. It is said that Buddha was born he looked around and then took 7 paces in the direction of the 4 cardinal points. Just like that. He was born and he could already walk up straight.
The Legend of Alexander’s legendary birth however draws closer to Suetonius’ reported tale of Augustus’ birth [Suet., 12 Caes., 2:94]:
I have read the following story in the books of Asclepias of Mendes entitled Theologumena. When Atia had come in the middle of the night to the solemn service of Apollo, she had her litter set down in the temple and fell asleep, while the rest of the matrons also slept. On a sudden a serpent glided up to her and shortly went away. When she awoke, she purified herself, as if after the embraces of her husband, and at once there appeared on her body a mark in colours like a serpent, and she could never get rid of it; so that presently she ceased ever to go to the public baths. In the tenth month after that Augustus was born and was therefore regarded as the son of Apollo.
Similarly, Alexander’s birth is linked to a divine figure of the Sun and results of a sexual act with a ‘serpent’. Well, in his case, it was no less than a dragon which got involved!
Nectanebus was an astrologer who predicted to queen Olympias of Macedonia that she’d be visited by Amon in the form of a dragon and that she would give birth out of their union. However, Nectanebus got tired of waiting and turned into a dragon and visited Olympias at night. According to that story, Alexander is therefore a bastard!
Why are you so shocked? So was King Arthur. Read Geoffrey of Monmouth [Hist. Reg. Brit., 8:19]:
After this victory Uther repaired to the city of Alclud, where he settled the affairs of that province, and restored peace everywhere. […] The Easter following he ordered all the nobility in the kingdom to meet, in order to celebrate that great festival, in honour of which he designed to wear his crown. […] Among the guests was present Gorlois, duke of Cornwall, with his wife Igerna, the greatest beauty in all Britain. No sooner had the king cast his eyes upon her among the rest of the ladies, than he fell passionately in love with her, and little regarding the rest, made her the subject of all his thoughts. She was the only lady that he continually served with fresh dishes, and to whom he sent golden cups by his confidants; on her he bestowed all his smiles, and to her addressed all his discourse. […] A whole week was now past, when, retaining in mind his love to Igerna, he said to one of his confidants, named Ulfin de Ricaradoch: “My passion for Igerna is such that I can neither have ease of mind, nor health of body, till I obtain her: and if you cannot assist me with your advice how to accomplish my desire, the inward torments I endure will kill me.” […]
Merlin, therefore, being introduced into the king’s presence, was commanded to give his advice, how the king might accomplish his desire with respect to Igerna. And he, finding the great anguish of the king, was moved by such excessive love, and said, “To accomplish your desire, you must make use of such arts as have not been heard of in your time. I know how, by the force of my medicines, to give you the exact likeness of Gorlois, so that in all respects you shall seem to be no other than himself. If you will therefore obey my prescriptions, I will metamorphose you into the true semblance of Gorlois […]; and in this disguise you may go safely to the town where Igerna is, and have admittance to her.” The king complied with the proposal, and acted with great caution in this affair; [then he] underwent the medical applications of Merlin, by whom he was transformed into the likeness of Gorlois. […] The king therefore stayed that night with Igerna, and had the full enjoyment of her, for she was deceived with the false disguise which he had put on, and the artful and amourous discourses wherewith he entertained her. […] She refused him nothing which he desired.
The same night therefore she conceived the most renowned Arthur, whose heroic and wonderful actions have justly rendered his name famous to posterity.
Oh, because you thought Jon Snow’s story and the ‘R + L = J’ theory was an original idea? You thought works of fiction never saw a bastard prince secretely being the actual heir to the throne prophesied to save or take over the world? Yeah. Sure!
Ever since Jesus, magical bastards that can survive or come back from death tend to be plentiful and rather generic. Yet we love them. We can’t help it.
Nectanebus Prophesies Alexander’s Birth
Nectanebus Lays with Queen Olympias
Nectanabus Keeps Flirting in the Shape of a Dragon
The Legend Refuted
As the 15th century went by and the Renaissance grew closer, scholars were tired to see fables get the better of the nobility’s knowledge of History. Vasco de Lucena decided to refute the legends regarding Alexander the Great and to translate Quitus Curtius Rufus’ biography of the Macedonian king. Nevertheless, his erudite translation was illustrated with well-known legendary tales. His work states how Alexander the Great couldn’t be born from a dragon. Vasco de Lucena even goes as far as to quote the Holy Scriptures to do so. Yet, the illuminations made to embellish several of the manuscripts containing his work still act as reminders of Nectanebus’ fabled fatherhood.
“Go West, young man!” did they say in 19th century Northern America. During the European Middle Ages, however, it was more like “Go East, young man!” And so did Alexander. Did he expect to face dragons, giants and other monsters on his way to conquer India? As you can see, he seemed pretty well prepared, even to meet naked damsels in the woods!