Some scattered notes on ancient Greek and Latin “centos”, and my own small cento.

–  What is a cento? A cento is a type of transformative composition with a long history. Wikipedia defines a cento as “a poetical work wholly composed of verses or passages taken from other authors; only disposed in a new form or order.”  To me, the ancient cento reminds me in form to the modern music mashup. Despite melodic and lyrical content drawn from a variety of sources, the rhythmic pulse creates a tentative unity. This is most evident in Latin and ancient Greek cento poetry, where a general attempt was made to preserve metrical regularity. Thus, most Latin centos are selections of hexameter lines from Virgil’s corpus, remixed (transformed) into a new composition, but a composition with the same beat. The ancient Greek centos that survive are mostly reposititionings of Homer’s hexameters, preserving the rhythm of epic. This gets interesting when centos deal with conventionally “un-epic” themes (e.g. bread baking, dice games?).

–  On the topic of Centos  as transformation or deformation:  I’ll admit here that I don’t see much of a difference between the terms transformation and deformation besides as ways to express my own subjective evaluation.  A cento that generates fertile play of meaning for me will seem like a transformation, and a cento that fails to do this will seem like a deformation, an unprovocative distortion.

–    One ancient Roman composer of a cento, Ausonius, admits in his preface to having deformer’s guilt over “profaning the dignity” (dehonestasse dignitatem) of Virgil’s poetry. He expresses concern that readers would judge his personal morality, since he “made Virgil impudent”.  Ausonius emphasizes the ludic, playful nature of the cento form, an emphasis which was largely not shared by Christian cento poets, who had the audacity to transform lines of Virgil’s poetry into retellings of biblical myth. There doesn’t seem to be much playfulness in the Christian poet Proba declaring that she “will say that Virgil sang the holy gifts of Christ”. (source)

– One interesting ancient Greek Cento is a patchwork of about 2000 lines from various Greek tragedians, fashioned into a passion of the Christ story. I don’t think there’s a lot of consensus about the date of this Christus Patiens.

– One Latin cento is often cited as particularly provocative is a reworking of Virgil’s Latin hexameters into a rendition of the ancient tragedy Medea. The composer of this cento is Hosidius Geta. We know a little bit about Geta thanks to a few heretic-hating, Christian apologists.  These Christian thinkers (of particular relevence are here Irenaeus and Tertullian) had a close eye on all matters involving textual subversion and transformation – not surprising given the charged interpretive battleground that biblical scripture has birthed. In the context of scripture, any kind of remixing, whether adding to, taking from, or reordering from within, was heresy, and at stake was the word and meaning of god.  Tertullian, who has always seemed like a curmudgeonly fellow to me, uses the example of Valentinus and Marcio to describe how bad teaching and scholarship of the bible are even more deformative than its textual modification.

One man perverts the Scriptures with his hand, another their meaning by his exposition. For although Valentinus seems to use the entire volume, he has none the less laid violent hands on the truth only with a more cunning mind and skill than MarcionMarcion expressly and openly used the knife, not the pen, since he made such an excision of the Scriptures as suited his own subject-matter. Valentinus, however, abstained from such excision, because he did not invent Scriptures to square with his own subject-matter, but adapted his matter to the Scriptures; and yet he took away more, and added more, by removing the proper meaning of every particular word, and adding fantastic arrangements of things which have no real existence. (Chapter 38, De Praescriptione Haereticorum)

In his next paragraph, Tertullian turns his attention to “profane writings” that raise similar questions, now using the example of our man Hosidius Geta and his Virgilian cento of the Medea:

You see in our own day, composed out of Virgil, a story of a wholly different character, the subject-matter being arranged according to the verse, and the verse according to the subject-matter. In short, Hosidius Geta has most completely pilfered his tragedy of Medea from Virgil. A near relative of my own, among some leisure productions of his pen, has composed out of the same poet The Table of Cebes. On the same principle, those poetasters are commonly called Homerocentones, collectors of Homeric odds and ends, who stitch into one piece, patchwork fashion, works of their own from the lines of Homer, out of many scraps put together from this passage and from that into miscellaneous confusion. Now, unquestionably, the Divine Scriptures are more fruitful in resources of all kinds for this sort of facility. (Chapter 39)

For Tertullian, if people like to compose centos out of Virgil, people will most definitely also target scripture. I wonder what qualities Tertullian has in mind that make certain texts particularly prone to remixing? Maybe it’s just the opportunity to transform such culturally and spiritually important texts in slippery, self-serving ways.

– On this topic of the Homerocentones of Tertullians day, some scholars think it’s plausible that the roots of cento-style composition can be traced to the Homeric rhapsodes of the ancient Greek oral poetic traditions, for whom every performance was a unique remix of formulaic and innovative elements, a patchwork quilt of various stories in the Iliad cycle.

-Geta’s Medea and other centos are postmodern theoretial playgrounds, with evasive centers and tangled webs of intertextuality.

– My transformation is going to be of a small cento composed from the lines of Geta’s own cento, Medea, which is derived from lines of Virgilian poetry.  Geta’s cento invites a comparison of his Medea to Virgil’s Dido, since it’s in the mouth of Medea that Geta was able to repurpose a lot of Dido’s lines from Aeneid Book IV.  My cento finds it’s linguistic core in Virgil  (through Geta’s cento), but Geta’s recontextualization of Virgil is a significant “subtext”, and from my perspective a pressing one. For a cento of a cento, the reader has to balance the two interpretive loci in the first cento while adding the third context of the new one. Also, how can readers tell that Geta’s Medea is even at play, given that all of my lines trace back originally to Virgil? They can’t, but my Penelope also invites comparison to Medea through her actions, even if the reader doesn’t know that Penelope is indeed even using Medea’s words, which are at the same time Dido’s words.

My small cento is about the path that could have been for Odysseus in the Odyssey had he returned home like Agamemnon only to be slaughtered by his wife. In Homer’s Odyssey, Penelope proves herself to be different from Agamemnon’s wife, Clytemnestra. In my Odyssey fragment, Penelope is a sort of mashup between Medea and Clytemnestra: taking revenge on her returning husband (like Clytemnestra), but by killing their child (like Medea). Penelope has heard rumors of Odysseus’ unfaithfulness, and Odysseus doesn’t seem to trust her very much upon his return, arguably.

In this scene, Penelope addresses Telemachus in the great hall at Ithaca. Odysseus, trying to slyly gather information, is eavesdropping just outside the door, out of view. I will give the Latin and then an English translation.


Penelope: Num fletu ingemui nostro aut miseratus amantem est?

                Et dubitamus adhuc? lacrimantem et multa volantem

               dicere descruit rapidus et nil nostri miserere? 

Telemachus: Farce pias scelerare manus ! aut quo tibi nostri

                     pulsus amor? nos rape in omnia tecum

Penelope:   Quid dubitas? Audendum dextra, nunc ipsa vocat res.

                    Nam quid dissimulo aut quae me ad majora reservo?

Telemachus: Nec te noster amor pietas nec mitigat ulla,

                     nostri tibi cura recessit et matri praeceptus amor?

[Odysseus enters the room as Penelope stabs Telemachus to death]

Penelope: Stat casus renovare omnes, dare lintea retro,

                Rursus et casus abies visura marinos.

                Te sine, erit.  



Penelope:  Did he groan at my weeping or pity me at all, his lover?

I was crying and wanting to say more when he left me quick,

And you don’t pity me at all either?

Telemachus: Keep your holy hands unbloody, mother! Where has your love

for me been pushed?  Take me with you, in all things.

Penelope:     Why do I doubt? My right hand ought to take courage,

(to herself)   This deed calls itself forth. Why do I dissimulate,

Towards what greater things do I reserve myself?

Telemachus:  Doesn’t love for me or even any sense of justice soften you?

Or has concern for me left, and has the love of a mother been pilfered?

[Odysseus enters the room as Penelope stabs Telemachus to death]

Penelope:    All things remains for me to make new, again to throw up sails and return home.

A boat is about to see the ways of the water again.

(turning to  

Odysseus)      It will be without you.


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