Francesco Busti

The Translation of Zmyrna: Anchoring Roman Poetry in the East

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Famous as the third gift the Magi «from the East» offered to the Christ Child, myrrh (Greek z-/smýrna) had a strong reputation in ancient Greece and Rome as an eastern rarity. The history of its importation to the western world passes through politics and literature, providing an exciting insight into Rome’s development as a global superpower aspiring to the East: a pivotal figure in this political/cultural appropriation and assimilation was Gaius Helvius Cinna, a politician and a poet.

Foreign objects, ideas and peoples had a massive influx in the formation of Roman culture during the 1st century bce, when Rome’s eastward expansion took a big step forward. Both a man of arms and a man of letters, Gaius Helvius Cinna (died 44 bce) personally participated in this both political and cultural process: he certainly went once to Bithynia, a kingdom in present-day Turkey bequeathed to the Roman Republic in 74 bce, and he almost certainly fought in the Third Mithridatic War there (74-63 bce); when he came back, he brought with him material and immaterial treasures.

One of the so-called «new poets» (poetae noui) alongside his more famous friend Catullus, Cinna implemented a literal translation of Hellenistic poetry from the East, bringing written corpora (we know of a gift copy of Aratus’ poem) and human corpora (he probably was the Cinna who captured the Bithynian poet Parthenius) to Rome. This literal translation soon bore fruit and fostered a literary translation of new stories, new themes, new genres. Cinna’s masterpiece, the innovative mythological epic poem Zmyrna, is the aetiology of a typically Arabian product whose importation passed through Asia: myrrh, the aromatic exudations of the tree into which Zmyrna was transformed by the gods. A foreign tree, with all its cultural implications, was being transplanted from Asian to Italian soil.

This project studies a specific example of how Roman culture anchored itself in the tradition of others. Through his poem about the origin of myrrh, Cinna deliberately enacted the cultural assimilation of a foreign material and literary product, mirroring the contemporary political appropriation of a foreign land. My main aim is to demonstrate how Zmyrna’s story reflected Rome’s interests in Eastern material and cultural imports and specifically enabled Roman poets (starting with Cinna and going on to Catullus and Ovid) to endorse Rome’s cultural claim to the East, thus validating Rome’s expansions in that direction. In this multi-layered process of “translation” (from East to West, from Greek to Latin, from Other to Self), history, literature and material culture closely interact with one another, providing a complete perspective on how Rome was able to anchor itself in the wider Hellenistic world and thus develop from a regional player into a global superpower.