word-search aesthetics


We don’t know all too much about Publilius Optatianus Porfyrius. But he’s one of the more striking authors I’ve come across this year in my work at the Thesaurus Linguae Latinae.

Written under Constantine, Porfyrius’ poems conform in some sense to standard aesthetics of ancient poetry. You’ll find regular meter and allusions to canonical authors. But Porfyrius also displays a playful virtuosity in these poems, creating figures—abstract shapes and sometimes even whole words—that are hidden within his texts. Above, you’ll see sunt quoque diagonally positioned within a grid of hexameter lines (in this poem, 37 lines each with 37 characters). By writing Christus Salvator in the first line and consilium virtus in the second (and so on), Porfyrius spells out these “word-search” Easter Eggs throughout his works:



(You can find these poems and more from Porfyrius in Rabanus Maurus, In honorem sanctae Crucis [De laudibus sanctae Crucis], held at Bibliothèque nationale de France.)

Perhaps this Porfyrius material doesn’t amount to much more than literary showmanship, but it also directs readers of ancient poetry toward an aesthetic beyond, say, intertextuality. I’m certainly not the first to think about these visual elements. To take some recent examples: my friend Mathias Hanses wrote about acrostics in Aratus, and John Schafer is doing incredibly interesting work on poetry on the page. (I saw Schafer present on this topic at Joe Howley and Stefanie Frampton’s excellent conference on ancient bibliography last year.)