On the Roman Road: A Journey with the poet Ausonius

Bijan Omrani

Rarely a day goes by at the moment without bleak newspaper articles warning that there will be little prospect of international travel this summer. For those of us who hoped to go crossing continents to visit friends and family, or indeed for Classicists who intended to explore the sites of the ancient world, this will be another summer of roads not taken.

Yet, as is often the way, there is some consolation to be found in Classical literature. If we cannot, as the poet C.P. Cavafy said, look forward to summer mornings where “you enter harbours you’re seeing for the first time”, we can still feed our imagination and explore other lands by going on armchair journeys with ancient authors.

The idea of being on the road is, of course, one of the great themes of ancient literature. One need hardly recall Homer’s Odyssey or Virgil’s Aeneid, with their mythical journeys and their ideas of nostos (νόστος, “homecoming”), that all reflect universal themes of an individual’s journey through life. Yet there are also other less well-known pieces of Classical literature which are fascinating, and much more practical, eye-witness accounts of real travel in the ancient world.

Monument to Decimus Magnus Ausonius, Milan, Italy.

One such piece of writing is the Mosella, or “The Moselle”, by Decimus Magnus Ausonius. Born in Gaul around AD 310, Ausonius lived until about 395. He was a prolific author: around 300 pages of his work still survive. However, his writing has not been fashionable in recent centuries, primarily because of a widespread prejudice against late Latin writers. As a result Ausonius himself has drifted into obscurity.

This neglect, I would argue, is terribly unjust. For one thing, Ausonius lived an extraordinary life. He started out as a humble teacher in Bordeaux, and ended up as a consul of the Roman Empire. His rise to prominence came in 364, when the Emperor Valentinian (ruled 364–75) appointed him as tutor to his son, Gratian, who later became emperor. After ten years as Gratian’s tutor, Ausonius entered the Roman civil service, being awarded numerous honours and developing friendships with many of the leading writers of the time. Yet, after his protégé Gratian was killed in a coup in 383, Ausonius had to withdraw from public life. He spent the last years of his life in Bordeaux, fully dedicated to literature.

He also left a huge range of written work, primarily poetry. Although he ended up moving in the highest circles, large parts of his oeuvre depict everyday life and experience. He writes love poetry for his wife, Attusia, which is as passionate as that of Catullus. He depicts his “daily round” in one cycle of poems, and in others gives vivid and often moving pen portraits of his family, and also of his teaching colleagues in Bordeaux. His work also includes correspondence in verse with friends and former students, most famously a Saint, Paulinus of Nola (353–431).

Paulinus of Nola (17th cent. engraving).

There are striking themes in his work which have many resonances for today. These include his attempts to reconcile his multiple identities as a Roman citizen and a Gallic tribesman; his mixed class background (Ausonius’ father was humbly born, whereas his mother was from a noble Gallo-Roman family); and his attempts to find a moderate reconciliation of traditional pagan Roman culture and philosophy with the new religion of Christianity, against the extremists of both sides who were raring to burn the other down.

Yet out of all of his works, the poem on the Moselle is perhaps the most beguiling. It arose out of a real journey. In 368, Ausonius had to accompany the Emperor’s household to a military campaign on the Rhine frontier. After a Roman victory against the Alamanni at the Battle of Solicinium, perhaps near Hechingen in the south-west of modern-day Germany, Ausonius was ordered to return with the eight-year old Gratian to the imperial capital of Trier. The journey began at the city of Vincum (the modern-day Bingen, 30 miles west of Frankfurt), where the Rhine merges with the river Nahe. From there, they travelled westwards across the province of Germania Inferior (Lower Germany), before reaching the river Moselle at Tabernae (Bernkastel-Kues). From here, they followed the Moselle southwest to Trier. This journey of around 75 miles Ausonius commemorated in his nearly 500-line poem.

The Porta Nigra gate of Roman Trier, the ultimate destination of Ausonius’ Journey.

The poem may well have had a propagandistic purpose, to stress the tranquillity and prosperity of the frontier regions under Roman rule, despite recent conflicts. Yet, even if this is the case, the poem has so many moments of freshness that one cannot doubt that they are born of direct experience and personal observation: the poem gives us a direct and haunting vision of the sights and sounds of travel close to the frontier in the Late Roman Empire.

Ausonius does not like to be away from the river. The first part of his journey from Vincum to Tabernae via Dumnissus (Kirchberg) is through untamed forests without human inhabitants, or else through sweltering parched fields. He rejoices as he reaches Tabernae, where there is an “unfailing spring”, and he notices that the land around it has been parcelled out to non-Roman migrants – Sarmatians, probably from modern-day Ukraine and southern Russia. Rome had followed a policy of settling migrants in these regions for generations; they cultivated the land and provided manpower for the army, where they learned Latin and Roman customs. So unremarkable was their presence that Ausonius barely gives them a second thought.

The modern Moselle at Pont-à-Mousson, France.

Ausonius finds the sight of the Moselle transformative. He speaks lyrically about the beauty of the open skies and broad horizons around the river, the play of light and shadow on its banks, the sands and gem-like pebbles on the river bed, the dance of the water plants in the current:

quod sulcate levi crispatur harena meatu,

inclinata tremunt viridi quod gramina fundo:

usque sub ingenuis agitatae fontibus herbae

vibrantes patiuntur aquas lucetque latetque

calculus et viridem distinguit glarea muscum.

How the furrowed sand is rippled by the light current, how the bowed water-grasses quiver in the river’s green bed; down beneath their native streams the quivering plants endure the water’s buffeting, pebbles gleam and are hid, and gravel picks out patches of green moss. (trans. H.G. Evelyn-White, adapted)

The fish that the river provides play a large part in his description: salmon which furnish opulent banquets for the wealthy, shad and tench which the poorer people barbecue on their hearths, and pike which are fried in stuffy cookhouses. Fishermen seek their catch with greenwood rods, or nets buoyed up with corks. One fish, he recalls, was caught and left on a rock, until it summoned up the last of its strength to jump back into the water, only to be followed by the enraged fisherman who leapt into the river after it.

A partially-reconstructed Roman villa, the Villa Mehring, near the Moselle east of Trier. It was originally built in the 2nd century AD, and enlarged in the following centuries.

Ausonius, naturally, speaks about the grand sights along the way: the great villas of every design with soaring roofs and towers, lofty pillars, courtyards, heated baths, and even the bathers:

quid quae fluminea substructa crepidine fumant

balnea, ferventi cum Mulciber haustus operto

volvit anhelatas tectoria per cava flammas,

inclusum glomerans aestu spirante vaporem?

vidi ego defessos multo sudore lavacri

fastidisse lacus et frigora piscinarum,

ut visis fruerentur aquis, mox amne refotos

plaudenti gelidum flumen pepulisse natatu.

What of their baths, contrived low down on the verge of the bank, which smoke when Vulcan [=fire] drawn by the glowing flue, pants forth his flames and whirls them up through the channelled walls [of the hypocaust and flue-tiles], rolling in masses the imprisoned smoke before the scorching blast! I myself have seen some, exhausted by the intense heat of the baths, scorn the pools and cold plunge-baths, preferring to enjoy the running water, and straightaway refreshed by the river, buffet the cool stream, threshing it with their strokes. (trans. H.G. Evelyn-White, adapted)

Landscape of travellers resting, Nicolas Poussin, c. 1638 (National Gallery, London, UK).

He even mentions a remarkable mill by the Moselle’s junction with the Ruwer, which would both grind flour and even operate saw blades that cut local marble into blocks. Yet he also delighted in the ordinary life he encountered: other travellers making their way along the low riverbanks; boatmen straining to haul their vessels upstream by ropes attached to the masts. Some farmhands banter and trade cheerful insults with those on the river; another just stands on the bank contemplating the skippers steering their boats, or a young and inexperienced crew trying to keep their vessel under control. Boys play by the edge of the water, and admire, like Narcissus, their reflections in its surface.

Many of us who had hoped to travel abroad to explore ancient sites this summer are likely to be disappointed. But, to my mind, reading poems like the Moselle can more than make up for this loss. In a visit to a site we might well see the old stones and foundations of villas and city walls, but it is only in reading Ausonius that we can still hear the echoes of lost voices around them from over sixteen centuries in the past.

Bijan Omrani is an Honorary Associate Research Fellow at the University of Exeter. His books include Afghanistan: A Companion and Guide, and Caesar’s Footprints: Journeys to Roman Gaul. He has written for Antigone on the Greeks, Afghanistan and Buddha here.

Further Reading

A modern translation of the Moselle is available in Ausonius: Moselle, Epigrams and Other Poems, translated by Deborah Warren with an introduction and notes by Joseph Pucci (Routledge, Oxford/New York, 2017).  An older Latin-English parallel text is also available in the first volume of the Loeb Edition of Ausonius (1919), translated by H.G. Evelyn-White.

A broad introduction to Ausonius and his work can be found in Harold Isbell’s chapter ‘Decimus Magnus Ausonius: The Poet and His World’ in J.W. Binns (ed.), Latin Literature of the Fourth Century (Routledge, London/ Boston, 1974) 22–57.

Some other works dedicated to descriptions of roads and travel in Latin Literature include

  • Horace, Satire 1.5, a Journey to Brundisium (Brindisi), in southern Italy.
  • Statius, Silvae 4.3 includes a description of the construction of the Domitian Way.
  • Apuleius’ Golden Ass has many scenes of travel  .
  • Rutilius Claudius Namatianus’ De Reditu Suo is a description of a journey from Rome to Gaul in AD 417.

In 2013, the route taken by Ausonius was developed into a hiking route, the Ausoniusweg. See here for further details.