Rigor mortis is not a characteristic of late classical epic. If the health of the genre is at its strongest when it is most open to thematic and generic variety, then late epic is sound. The major forms survive. They evolve, however, to produce a bewildering tangle of related, but superficially dissimilar subgenres. The long mythological epic survives (Vian 1963: xxiii cites some lost examples), as does the long ecomiastic epic. Particularly popular was the shorter epic. The miniature epic (limited to approximately 1,400 lines) was not like the Alexandrian product: it varies from simple myth narrative, from the encomiastic, via the adventurous application of allegory, to the romantic work of Vandal Africa. There also developed a strong metaphrastic tradition (Herzog 1975) which, in the manner of Hellenistic writers such as Philo the Elder or Theodotus (see Chapter 4), turned biblical narrative into epic verse. Two of the most striking examples of late epic are the long, often ribald mythological hybrid, the Dionysiaca of Nonnus, and the long 'biographic' epic, Venantius Fortunatus' life of St Martin of Tours.
It is too easy to dismiss the remarkable diversity of this epic jungle as evidence of a species not wholly of the first rank. A lack of central characters and issues, and a striving to be compendious, are said to be weaknesses in most of the poems. (How often have we heard these first two objections brought against Hellenistic or Silver Latin epic?) This loss of intensity is frequently blamed upon the eclipse of Rome itself and, with it, the loss in prestige of Latin and of the artificial Greek still composed in the east. Above all, it is sometimes asserted, the Dark Ages extinguished the eminence of the written word. In this period the torch passed to the barbaric vernacular cultures of the