Publilii Optatiani Porfyrii, Carmina, I: textus; adiectio indice uerborum; recensuit Iohannes Polara, Torino 1973, 1-3, (Corpus scriptorum Latinorum Paravianum).
A majority of manuscripts transmitting the poetic works of Publilius Optatianus Porfirius include a pair of letters that present themselves, respectively, as an epistle from Constantine the Great to the poet, and from Porfirius to the emperor. Most scholars tend to accept their authenticity, as well as their usefulness as sources for reconstructing Porfirius’ life and poetic activity; nevertheless, doubts have been raised. These can be traced as early as Kaspar Barth in the mid-17th c., and appear most recently in the latest commentary (1973), which views the epistles as a scholarly exercise, and in the work of Smolak (1989). Against the authenticity of Constantine’s letter - which Kluge (1924) maintains was personally written by the emperor himself, rather than by his chancellery - one may note an epistle from Theodosius to Ausonius claiming to be the first time that an emperor had written personally and directly to a poet. More relevant, perhaps, are a series of chronological contradictions that one finds when comparing the two letters: that of Constantine speaks of an initial dispatch of carmina from the poet, while that of Porfirius refers to carmina which had already been sent on prior occasions. This would appear to suggest that the emperor’s letter preceded the poet’s, yet Porfirius’s epistle presents itself as the first contact between the two men, even as the emperor’s appears to show greater familiarity from the start.
Assuming the letter of Porfirius is authentic, it defies easy placement within the poet’s life. It ought to have accompanied the verse Panegyricus with which he secured recall from exile on the eve of the 20th anniversary of Constantine’s ascent to the throne (celebrations for which were held at Constantinople and Rome in 325 and 326), but the epistle makes no reference to the banishment. This stands in marked contrast to that poem’s preface, a securely authentic set of distychs that follow Ovid’s model in playfully discussing the sadness of the situation and reflecting pessimistically on the book’s poetic and physical quality - necessarily poor and lacking the embellishments that had always graced his compositions in prior years. Like the epistle attributed to Constantine, the so-called letter of Porfirius also consists of loci communes that were popular in the rhetorical schools and the literary products they produced: the poet is not inspired by the Muses but by the emperor; his chief objective has been attained, since his carmina are in the hands of the ruler; Vergil could rely on Maecenas, but Porfirius is much luckier since his patron is Constantine himself, whose benevolence not only justifies the poet’s boldness in sending his book, but is also worth much more than the judgement of expert literary critics. [G. Polara; tr. C. L. Caterine].