In today’s reading (January 14), Irenaeus likened the ‘Gnostic’ use of Scripture to that of someone who takes Homeric verses and rearranges them to create a new poem on a totally different theme. This passage is strong evidence that Irenaeus was classically-educated — Homer was the backbone of ancient Greek education. Furthermore, in all likelihood, Irenaeus composed this little poem about Heracles himself.
This form of poetic composition is called the cento (not the canto) in Latin (and hence English) and κέντρων in Greek (deriving from the Latin for once). The Latin term literally means any patchwork piece of clothing, especially a cloak (as I found it in Petronius’ bawdy Satyricon referring to a cloak). It was practised throughout antiquity to produce new poetry out of old. The cento is a demonstration of the erudition of the poet, not necessarily of his or her own originality.
Although Homeric resonances, sometimes not only half- but even full lines, are found throughout Greek poetry from the Archaic period (up to the 5th c. BC) onwards, such resonances are a different sort of composition, being either conscious or unconscious allusion/intertextuality with Homer, not a complete poem composed out of rearranged Homeric material.
The cento does not become popular until the imperial period (31 BC-476/1453) and usually uses epic (which, in Greek, invariably means Homer), such as Palatine Anthology 9.381 and Dio Chrysostom Oration 32. In Latin, the cento uses Vergil (70-19 BC) the most; Vergil was the backbone of imperial Roman education, as Homer was of Greek education. Petronius in the first century produced a Vergilian cento at Satyricon 132.11, and our earliest surviving whole cento is the 461-line Medea attributed to Hosidius Geta in the second century AD. We have eleven other pagan centos, all of them under 200 lines.
Although a Christian, Irenaeus’ cento is basically a pagan cento.
Christians do, however, take up the cento for more than apologetic or polemical purposes and use them to recast the Gospel story to convert the snobbish upper classes of Rome. Although Jerome sniffs his nose at centos, we must admit that many in antiquity sniffed their noses at the Bible, whether in Latin or Greek (recall Augustine’s admissions of his own attitude before conversion). The cento casts the Good News of Jesus in a poetic form acceptable to a pagan audience for evangelistic purposes.
The most popular Christian cento was a Latin cento of 694 Vergilian verses by Proba (mid-4th c AD) that takes the reader from the Creation to Redemption, from Adam to Christ. This text was very popular throughout the Middle Ages as a school-text, no doubt because it could teach good style and the Gospel at once. John Currans recently wrote an article about Proba’s cento,* demonstrating how not only was the style of narration affected by this recasting of the Gospel, but also its moral content. Proba gives us a Jesus who is the best of what an aristocratic Roman could hope to be but also mirrors some Irenaean themes of recapitulation.
Another cento worth mentioning is a Byzantine play of 2,610 verses drawn from Euripides, Aeschylus, and Lycophron called Christus Patiens. This tragedy retells the passion of Christ and was long attributed to Gregory of Nazianzus (late fourth century, composed his own verses in Homeric dialect and metre) but is now thought to be from the 11th or 12th century.
I don’t imagine that when Irenaeus wrote his Heraclean cento he thought that Christians would one day employ the same poetic strategy for spreading the Gospel. But they did, and he is probably the first Christian to write a cento.
*’Virgilizing Christianity in Late Antique Rome’, in Gavin Kelly and Lucy Grig, eds, Two Romes. New York: 2012, 325-344.