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17th-century monument to Ausonius, Milan (photo: Giovanni Dall'Orto)

Decimus Magnus Ausonius (310-395), poet, professor, and imperial courtier, is one of the most engaging literary figures of late antiquity. If Ausonius is known to wine drinkers today, it is probably as the eponym of the great Château Ausone in Saint-Emilion. However, since this property overlooks the valley of the Dordogne, and Ausonius tells us in his “Mosella” that his villa overlooks the Garonne, it is very unlikely that he had any connection with the property that bears his name.

Born in Bordeaux, Ausonius was a grammarian and teacher of rhetoric. He was made the tutor of Gratian, the son of the Emperor Valentinian, and held a number of court offices, finally becoming consul in 379 when his pupil became emperor. After Gratian’s assassination in 383 Ausonius retired to his estates and amused himself with poetry until his own death some ten years later.

Ausonius’s gift was for centos, a poetic form defined perhaps too pithily by Dr Johnson as a “composition formed by joining scraps from other authors”. A cento is a form of poetic composition in which individual phrases or lines from some great and respected poet of the past are excerpted and stitched together to form a new piece of poetry (the term, which derives ultimately from the Greek verb meaning to plant slips or cuttings of trees, came in time to refer to a patchwork quilt or garment). This “new” poem tended to be on an un-epic or otherwise undignified or common subject; and the most usual source of material for centos was the work of the most respected poets — Homer and Virgil in Greek and Latin respectively.

It was a form which generated its own aesthetic, as Ausonius explained in the dedicatory epistle to his own most notorious cento, the “Cento Nuptialis”, a work commissioned by no less a patron than the Emperor Valentinian himself:

I’ll try to tell you what a cento is. It is a poem neatly constructed out of a variety of passages and diverse meanings, in such a way so that either two half lines are joined together to form one single line, or one line and the following half of the next line. To place two entire lines side by side is poorly done, and three in a row is really disgraceful. . . . And so this little work, the cento, is handled in much the same way as a geometrical puzzle, so as to bring together different meanings, to make pieces which are in fact arbitrarily connected seem to fit in naturally with one another, to let foreign elements let no crack of light slip between them, to prevent the far-fetched from proclaiming the metaphysical force which yokes them together, the densely packed from bursting, the closely knit from gaping.

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