Christian poet of the fifth century
Dracontius, BLOSSIUS AEMILIUS, a Christian poet of the fifth century. Dracontius belonged to a distinguished family of Carthage and was the pupil of a noted grammarian named Felicianus. He was called clarissimus (most illustrious), won the favor of the proconsul Pacideius, and led a prosperous life by means of inherited riches and the income of his law practice until he incurred the ill will of the Vandal king, Gunthamund. The cause of this misfortune seems to have been the expression of sentiments of Romano-Byzantine patriotism; for these utterances Dracontius suffered a long imprisonment. Nothing more is known of his history except that he was still alive when Thrasamund ascended the throne in 496.
His works are the "Romulea", three books on God (De laudibus Dei), and a poem entitled "Satisfactio". The latter two were written in prison; the first-mentioned is a collection of pieces composed at various times and written in the style of rhetorical school-exercises. Thus, one of these poems represents a rich man and a poor man as enemies; as a reward for the exploits of the rich man his statue is erected in the public square and accorded the right of sanctuary. Later, in recompense for additional services, the rich man asks for the head of the poor one, whereupon the latter flees to the statue for safety and a formal process ensues. In another poem Achilles deliberates as to whether or not he shall sell the body of Hector. When Dracontius deals with themes of his own day, as in the eulogy on his former teacher, and the "Epithalamia" for two couples who were friends, his style is occasionally less conventional. The writings forming the "Romulea" contain but little suggestion of a Christian poet; on the other hand, the "Satisfactio" and the "De laudibus Dei" manifest an ardent and sometimes eloquent faith. The "Satisfactio", written about 490, was intended to be instrumental in obtaining the royal pardon; the "De laudibus Dei", produced between 486 and 496, is a recital of God's benefits. The first book of the "De laudibus Dei" has for its main contents a description of the creation; the chief theme of the second is the Incarnation and the Redemption, it also contains vehement attacks on Arianism; the third compares, by appropriate examples, the hope of the Christian who denies himself in order to love God with the cheerless prospect of the pagan who counts on no future reward. This poem, like the others, is full of ideas taken from other sources; the episodes drawn from the Bible, profane history, and mythology are as varied as the textual reminiscences of the Latin poets, both Christian and pagan. However, the excellent pupil of Felicianus was not a thorough master of Latin diction and prosody; his writings give frequent evidence in their form of the surrounding barbarism.
The collection named "Romulea" is incomplete. Probably it should also contain two small poems, one on the months and the other on the origin of the rose; perhaps, further, the "Orestis tragcedia", which is called a tragedy, though in reality it is an epic poem of some thousand verses, wherein the author follows a unique ancient version of the myth; finally, though with less certainty, the "Aegritudo Perdicae" (Perdica's Malady). The subject of this little poem of 290 hexameters is interesting from the point of view of folklore. Perdica, a student of Athens, has neglected the worship of Venus and by way of revenge this goddess inspires him with a guilty love for his mother, Castalia. Perdica falls into a decline and his physicians are unable to understand his ailment, but Hippocrates, who ascertains that Perdica's heart beats more violently when Castalia approaches, recognizes the real nature of the malady. There is no remedy for the trouble and Perdica hangs himself (see Rohde, Der griechisch. Roman, p. 54). The works of Dracontius were not known in their real form until 1791 and 1873. His Christian poems were very popular in the sixth and seventh centuries. They were revised by Eugenius, Bishop of Toledo (d. 657), but these revisions made great changes in the author's statements. What Eugenius failed to understand he altered; moreover, he corrected the doctrine of Dracontius. The latter had said that God deliberately created good and evil at the same time (Satisfactio, 15); Eugenius made him say that God tolerated evil. It was in this recension that both the Christian poems were known until 1791. The larger part of the secular poems of Dracontius were first published in 1873.