Cover image for Imagined Romes: The Ancient City and Its Stories in Middle English Poetry By C. David Benson

Imagined Romes

The Ancient City and Its Stories in Middle English Poetry

C. David Benson


$96.95 | Hardcover Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-08320-9

$39.95 | Paperback Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-08321-6

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216 pages
6" × 9"

Imagined Romes

The Ancient City and Its Stories in Middle English Poetry

C. David Benson

“As with [the author’s] book about medieval Troy stories, Imagined Romes may well become a standard undergraduate source. The book conveniently maps out a set of instances in which some medieval writers represented Rome or responded to various definitions of Romanness.”


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This volume explores the conflicting representations of ancient Rome—one of the most important European cities in the medieval imagination—in late Middle English poetry.

Once the capital of a great pagan empire whose ruined monuments still inspired awe in the Middle Ages, Rome, the seat of the pope, became a site of Christian pilgrimage owing to the fame of its early martyrs, whose relics sanctified the city and whose help was sought by pilgrims to their shrines. C. David Benson analyzes the variety of ways that Rome and its citizens, both pre-Christian and Christian, are presented in a range of Middle English poems, from lesser-known, anonymous works to the poetry of Gower, Chaucer, Langland, and Lydgate. Benson discusses how these poets conceive of ancient Rome and its citizens—especially the women of Rome—as well as why this matters to their works.

An insightful and innovative study, Imagined Romes addresses a crucial lacuna in the scholarship of Rome in the medieval imaginary and provides fresh perspectives on the work of four of the most prominent Middle English poets.

“As with [the author’s] book about medieval Troy stories, Imagined Romes may well become a standard undergraduate source. The book conveniently maps out a set of instances in which some medieval writers represented Rome or responded to various definitions of Romanness.”
“The relation of medieval cultures to Rome is creatively conflicted: early Christianity defines itself against everything that ‘Rome’ stands for, while the Papacy models itself as a new empire. David Benson’s Imagined Romes takes us into the medieval city and trains us to understand how late medieval English readers of and visitors to the eternal city imagined its republican and imperial past. The resultant book—ever lucid and engaging—is full of illuminating surprises.”
“David Benson has written a book that was much needed not only by students of medieval English literature but by all those who are interested in pagan and Christian Rome and her image after the fall of the empire. Imagined Romes is a work of intelligence and love, full of the surprises that only a great scholar can set up and rewarding throughout.”
“Benson’s lyrical book about English writers’ recovery of ancient Rome allows us to see how profoundly ideas about Rome shaped the later Middle Ages. Imagined Romes offers a delightful tour of an ancient city that existed only in the memories of Middle English poets. Despite being a fantasy, this Rome shaped conceptions of power, truth, justice, mercy, love, tragedy, and literature for generations. Benson’s book will appeal to literary scholars, medievalists, and any reader who has fallen in love with a place found only in a book.”
“The originality and critical acumen of this work are well represented in its title: the reader can expect to discover a multitude of Romes, as Benson highlights the plurality of cities that, under the name of Rome, were built in the imagination of Middle English poets.”
Imagined Romes resounds with evocative and theologically rich tales of Rome and Romans in Middle English poetry, and will captivate a contemporary literate audience with the marvels of the eternal city, in an analogous fashion to those wondrous bells ringing-out from the Capitoline hill.”
“This study ably fills a startling gap that I, for one, had not previously thought to consider. The interpretative consequences are estimable, for Benson’s focus through the lens of Rome eloquently illuminates significant aspects of all four Middle English poets he considers.”

C. David Benson is Distinguished Professor Emeritus of English and Medieval Studies at the University of Connecticut. He is the author of Public Piers Plowman: Modern Scholarship and Late Medieval English Culture, also published by Penn State University Press.


Note on Spelling


Part 1: Ancient Rome and Its Objects

1 The Relics of Rome: Christian Mercy and the Stacions of Rome

2 The Ruins of Rome: Pagan Marvels and the Metrical Mirabilia

Part 2: Narratives of Ancient Romans

3 Civic Romans in Gower’s Confessio Amantis

4 Heroic (Women) Romans in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and the Legend of

Good Women

5 Virtuous Romans in Piers Plowman

6 Tragic Romans in Lydgate’s Fall of Princes




From the Introduction

The question this book asks may seem an odd one: how did Middle English poets imagine the city of ancient Rome? But odder still is that such a question has not really been asked before, let alone answered. Much has been written about the role of other, more legendary ancient cities in Middle English poetry, especially Troy (indeed, I once wrote such a book myself), but about Rome there is mostly silence, even though major poets such as Gower, Chaucer, and Lydgate tell a number of stories set in the city. Of course, articles and books about what Latin literature contributed to Middle English poetry are plentiful, especially those that trace the influence of Ovid on Chaucer. There are also many excellent readings of individual Roman narratives (though they do not give much attention to their Romanness), including the Trajan episode in Piers Plowman and the Second Nun’s Tale of Saint Cecilia, but there is no systematic study of ancient Rome as a major theme in the works of late medieval English poets. No one has stopped to ask what it is about Rome and its stories that so attracts these poets—none of whom actually visited the city. How do these poets conceive of Rome and Romans, and why does that matter to their work? Do these poets share the same attitude about the city and its stories, or does each treat them differently? Rome and Romans have been hiding in plain sight in Middle English poetry, waiting to be recognized as an important topic for study.

The first part of Imagined Romes calls attention to two anonymous and little known poems, the Stacions of Rome and an interpolation on Rome in the Metrical Version of Mandeville’s Travels. They are the only Middle English poems that describe the city itself and its antiquities, exemplifying a principle noted by Sarah Stanbury. She says that in the Middle Ages, Rome was always “linked imaginatively” to physical objects: “The Roman thing is a monument or a relic.” The Stacions of Rome surveys the enshrined bodies of Christian martyrs and other ancient relics in Rome’s churches, along with the pardons from sin they offer, and the Metrical interpolation surveys the pagan city’s monuments, including its palaces, temples, and statues, and names some of the ancient Romans associated with them. Both poems are based on Latin catalogues, but each, in its own way, enlivens its source to stimulate vernacular readers to envision the wonders of ancient Rome. Each creates its own fantasy city. Ignoring the realities of the actual medieval city, the Stacions creates a holy Rome whose ancient martyrs and popes make it a never-ending source of divine mercy for sinners, one unmatched elsewhere and perhaps as beneficial to devout readers of the poem as to actual visitors to the city. The Metrical interpolation derives from a Latin textual tradition that portrays pagan Rome, with its extraordinary marvels, as a worthy ancestor to the Christian city that follows it. The English poem describes an equally fabulous Rome, but its poet is more conflicted about the city: while its monuments are made even more ingenious and alluring, they present a greater danger to the triumph of Christianity precisely because of that allure.

The Middle English poems discussed in the second part of Imagined Romes are by four famous poets rather than two anonymous ones: John Gower, Geoffrey Chaucer, William Langland, and John Lydgate. Instead of surveying the city’s material objects, they narrate Roman stories that are an integral, if unrecognized, topic in large, multiplex works. These narratives call attention to the Romanness of the people and events they describe and tell of men and women, both pagan and Christian, from the city’s founding to late antiquity.2 Through such stories, often the same stories, each poet creates his own individual portrait of the city and its culture. No other major Middle English poet deals with the idea of Rome as seriously as these four. Rome is named briefly at the very beginning of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and then not again, and it is referred to only once more (perhaps) in the other three poems attributed to the author. The city exists primarily in anticipation in Gavin Douglas’s translation of the Aeneid, and though Thomas Hoccleve does include a few Roman stories in his Regiment of Princes, they function as convenient examples to point a moral and reveal no more than a nominal interest in the city itself—other stories set elsewhere would do as well. The four poets I discuss stand out from their fellows because of their deep engagement with the city, yet, united as they are by an interest in Rome, they conceive of the city in radically different ways that contribute to their own distinctive thought and aesthetic. The topic of Rome provides a new perspective on each of these great poets.

Imagined Romes is not meant to be a comprehensive encyclopedia of Rome in all medieval English writing. It is a study of Middle English poetry that discusses the two Middle English poems that describe the material remains of the ancient city and the four major Middle English poets who tell its stories.3 To have included prose works as well would have diffused the focus of the book. Rome often appears in medieval chronicles, for example, but they do not treat the city in the same way. Chronicles narrate a sequence of successive events, whereas the poems I discuss include only isolated episodes from the city’s history and make little attempt to distinguish between its different periods or to trace its other developments, such as the changes from monarchy to empire. Another kind of prose work, the Gesta Romanorum, despite its promising title and some classical names and allusions, is a collection of moralizing fables that often have nothing to do with the ancient city. Margery Kempe’s long account of her visit to Rome in her Book is characteristically provocative, but her subject is not the ancient city but her own life, including serving an old, poor Roman woman (until she doesn’t) and marrying God the Father in the Lateran, about whose history and relics she says virtually nothing. Two prose works by English clerics who actually went to Rome, Master Gregorius in the late twelfth or early thirteenth century and John Capgrave in the fifteenth, do contain information about the ancient as well as the medieval city, but, in addition to being in prose, their approach to the city is different again. Gregorius’s work is more subjective than the works I discuss (animated by such emotions as his scorn of pilgrims and obsession with a naked statue of Venus), and Capgrave’s work is more academic and homiletic (stuffed with a range of information and moral lessons). Interesting as they are for their contrasting responses to Rome, they belong in another book.

It is strange that the importance of the ancient city in Middle English poetry has been ignored, because the connection of England to Rome is often stressed in insular Latin and vernacular writing. Not only were city names, a highway system, two great walls, countless ruins, and even the Tower of London (begun, it was thought, by Julius Caesar) reminders of Britain’s former status as a Roman province, but legendary histories told tales of other interactions between the island and the city. In his twelfth-century Historia regum Britanniae, Geoffrey of Monmouth invented an exciting and more equal relationship; he claimed that Britain, despite having once been subjected to Rome, also managed on more than one occasion to almost (but not quite) itself conquer the ancient city.4 Despite some contemporary scholars’ disparagement of Geoffrey’s accuracy, his work influenced England’s popular sense of its past for centuries, primarily in romances, from Layamon’s Brut to Malory’s Morte d’Arthur, and in vernacular chronicles such as the popular Middle English prose Brut.5 Yet Rome is only a vague, if menacing, opponent in these works, for unlike the poems discussed in Imagined Romes, they are indifferent to the city’s antiquities and its own stories. Rome’s special meaning for medieval English Christians derived from real rather than fictional exchanges with the city in late antiquity. In his influential eighth-century Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Bede argues that the island owed its very faith to missionaries sent from the city by Pope Gregory the Great. Indeed, as Francesca Tinti observes, the Anglo-Saxons “had a clear awareness of Rome as the source of their own Christianity, which further contributed to making it a place of special affection and devotion.” Anglo-Saxon pilgrims, lay and clerical, sought the holy places of Rome, and some local kings, including Caedwalla of Wessex, even settled in the city with their retinues near St. Peter’s “to spend the rest of their days near the shrine of the Apostle in prayer, fasting, almsgiving and other good works and at the end to be buried in the basilica.” The area of the Vatican now known as the Borgo gets its name from burgus Saxonum, where a schola Saxonum (later schola Anglorum) was founded to aid visitors and survived into the twelfth century. English pilgrims and those on ecclesiastical business never stopped going to Rome, and in 1362 a new residence was established, the Hospital of Saint Thomas (now the English College), near the Campo de’ Fiori, where Margery Kempe was housed, turned away, and eventually accepted back while in the city.

The Rome that these medieval English visitors found was radically diminished from its former eminence as the teeming capital of an immense empire, when it earned such epithets as caput mundi (head of the world), aurea (golden), and aeterna (eternal). Although the Colosseum still existed, as did huge pilgrim churches built over the shrines of martyrs like Peter and Lawrence, the population of the city had shrunk from more than a million in classical times to no more than thirty-five thousand and perhaps as few as seventeen thousand; much of the area within the city walls had reverted to countryside, with cattle grazing in the unexcavated Forum. Medieval Rome had also lost its reputation for Christian sanctity, for the age of the martyrs was long past. The pope and his court were absent at Avignon for much of the fourteenth century (1309–76), and the subsequent Schism (1378–1417), with rival claimants to the seat of Saint Peter, further damaged the prestige of the papacy. Even before these latest upheavals, the twelfth-century cleric and satirist Walter Map expressed a common medieval view when he wrote that ROMA is an anagram for radix omnium malorum avaritia (greed is the root of all evil), and the fourteenth-century English chronicler Adam Usk described the papal city he knew well as a place “where everything was for sale, and benefices were granted not according to merit but to the highest bidder.”

This sorry contrast between past and present Rome was a frequent theme in medieval European, especially Italian, writing. Indeed, the contemporary decline of the city may have caused memories of what had been there to become all the more golden. Poggio Bracciolini, in his fifteenth-century De varietate fortunae, quoted Virgil’s celebration of the monuments on the Capitoline Hill in his own day when compared to the original scrub seen by Aeneas, “Golden now, once bristling with wild bushes” (Aeneid 8.348); Poggio, however, reverses the quotation to emphasize the city’s present decay: “Golden once, now infested with thorn thickets and full of bramble-bushes.” With similar dismay, Adam Usk said that whereas Rome once teemed with princes and their palaces, “now it is abandoned and full of slums, thieves, wolves and vermin.”

Despite the brambles and vermin that overran medieval Rome, the glories of the ancient city could still be detected amid its ruins if a visitor used his imagination. Petrarch, in a letter to his friend Cardinal Colonna, recalled their walks in Rome, where “at each step there was present something which would excite our tongue and mind.” Proceeding through the city, they would remind each other of ancient places and people (whether accurately identified or not)—both pagan (“this is the rock that Manlius defended and then fell from,” “this was the temple of Jupiter, this was the home of all the triumphs,” “here Caesar triumphed, here he perished”) and Christian (“here Peter was crucified, there Paul was beheaded, here Lawrence was burned,” “there Agnes after her death came back to life and forbade her kin to weep, here Sylvester hid, there Constantine got rid of his leprosy”). Two centuries earlier, Archbishop Hildebert of Lavardin wrote a pair of famous poems contrasting Rome’s ancient magnificence with its current state. The first poem both laments the fall of the ancient city and praises its pagan glory:

Par tibi, Roma, nihil cum sis prope tota ruina.

Quam magni fueris integra, fracta doces.

(Nothing can equal you, Rome, although you are almost a

total ruin.

Broken into pieces, you teach how great you were when whole.)

Excerpt ends here.