The Legend of Emperor Octavian

The legend of Octavian has only a marginal connection to the legend of Charlemagne, but it was the inspiration for the second part of Book II of the Reali di Francia, and one Irish version does set it in the reign of Charlemagne. All other versions are set in the reign of Dagobert. This story has no relation to Augustus Caesar.

The legend of Octavian is extant in three major redactions. Please note that I have given them this classification myself; it does not reflect scholarly usage.

THE FIRST REDACTION
Octavian. A French poem in octosyllables, mid to late 1200’s, ancestor of all other versions.

Octovion. The Northern English version. A poem in tail-rhyme. Can be found in EETS vol. 289, or in TEAMS Four Middle English Romances. c. 1350.

Sechrain Na Banimpire. Or “The Wanderings of the Empress”. Irish prose, flowery like most Irish translations. Englished by Carl Marstrander in “Sechrain Na Banimpire.” Ériu No. 5, 1911. [not freely available on the internet, due to a lack of copies of the journal in America and the idiotic length of copyright in Europe. Be comforted, however. You’re not missing much.]

Octovion. The Southern English version. A poem in six-line aaabab stanzas, with the b lines shorter than the a’s. [This is best known nowadays as Robert Burns’ signature stanza]. Can be found in Weber’s Metrical Romances. No modern edition for the general reader. c. 1350.

THE SECOND REDACTION

Florent et Lyon. French prose, first printed around 1500, but perhaps written earlier, the ancestor of the French chapbooks. No modern editions.

Kaiser Octavianus. A German chapbook, from 1545.

Hans Sach’s play, 1555.

Sebastian Wilde’s poem, 1566.

Danish chapbook, oldest surviving from 1597, probably first printed earlier.

A Polish version from the 1600’s.

The Russian translation, made from the Polish around 1670. No edition, to my knowledge.

Komediya Olundina, or Caesar Otto. A play based on the above by Princess Natalya Alexeyevna, sister of Peter the Great. Included in I. A. Shlyapkin’s Tsarevna Natalya Alekseyevna I teatr yevo vremeni.

A Very Edifying and Touching Tale of an Empress and Her Two Sons and a Lioness. A shorter Russian chapbook version, with no proper names. Published in P. N. Rybnikov’s Pesni, volume 3.

Another play based on that, which was part of the standard repertoire in the schools during Peter the Great’s reign. To be found in S. A. Shcheglova’s Neizvestnaya drama Petrovsky epokhi o tsaritse i l’vitse. In the journal Trudy komissii po drevnerusskoy literature, 1932, I, pp.153-229.

Naturally, none of the Russian works have been translated into English.

Dutch chapbook, oldest surviving from 1621, probably first printed earlier.

Icelandic chapbook, oldest surviving from 1733, probably first printed earlier.

The French prose and its descendents [German, Danish, Dutch, Icelandic, Polish, Russian] are distinguished by renaming the younger Octavian “Lion”, and adding an episode where he wins a tournament and therefore marries the daughter of the King of Spain. They also make Florence become King of England.

THE LONG REDACTION

Florent and Octavian. A chanson de geste in rhymed alexandrines. Some claim it is the original, but much more likely it is an expansion of the octosyllabic version. c. 1356.

Othovyan. A prose adaptation of the long version and of Le Bone Florence de Rome. Circa 1450. Never printed.

 

OCTAVIAN IN OCTOSYLLABLES

Emperor Octavian of Rome, after fifteen years of childlessness, begets twins on his wife, the daughter of King Dagobert of France. His mother says twins are a sign of adultery. The emperor denies it, but his mother slips a page boy into the empress’ bed and shows him to Octavian. As the empress has a prophetic nightmare, Octavian beheads the boy, and when she wakes up, he banishes her. As she rests by a spring, her children are stolen, one  by an ape and one by a lioness. The one stolen by the ape is rescued by a knight, captured by robbers, and bought by a merchant of Paris named Clement, who names him Florent and raises him as his own. The one stolen by the lioness is recovered by his mother, who journeys with him and the lioness [for lions have no power to harm chaste women of royal blood] to Jerusalem, where she is treated kindly by the king. Her son, Octavian, is dubbed a knight when he comes of age.

Florent, meanwhile, due to his high birth, has no talent for business, and wastes all his money on horses, hounds and hawks, much to his foster father’s displeasure. After some humorous scenes, a Sultan attacks Paris, bringing his giant Aragonour and his daughter Marsibelle with him. Emperor Octavian rides to succor King Dagobert. Aragonour promises Marsibelle the head of King Dagobert. Armed in a rusty suit of armor he found in Clement’s attic, Florent kills the giant, and presents his head to Marsibelle, and proceeds to carry her off, but is obliged to leave her when he is ambushed by pagans, much to the princess’ regret. He returns to Paris, and she with her maid Olive, plans to see him again. Clement and Florent are presented to Dagobert and Octavian, and Florent is dubbed. Much humor is made about Clement’s practical, thrifty, behavior at the extravagant court feast.

Florent volunteers to be a messenger, in order to see Marsibelle again. At the Sultan’s tent, however, he is recognized, and must fight his way home. He does, however, receive Marsibelle’s sleeve, and wears it in the next battle. Later, he sneaks into her garden, and she tells him to steal her father’s unicorn. Clement, disguised as a Saracen, accomplishes this. Nonetheless, the Saracens capture Florent, Dagobert, and Octavian in the next battle.

This news comes to Jerusalem, whence the young Octavian, his mother, and the lioness set out with an army. He saves the captives, and all recognize each other. Marsibelle converts and marries Florent, Octavian’s mother is sentenced to boil in brass, but stabs herself instead, and everyone else lives happily ever after.

 ENGLISH OCTOVIAN

Octavian’s seven-year barrenness is cured not by coincidence, but by prayer to Our Lady and by endowing a monastery. Octavian throws the page boy’s head at the queen to wake her up. In the Northern version, he refrains from sentencing her until he has invited her father, [who is not Dagobert, here, but the king of Calabria] to court and asked him what adulteresses deserve. He answers that they deserve to be burnt, and Octavian sentences the queen accordingly, only commuting her sentence to banishment when she is already tied to the stake. The queen, living in Jerusalem, is taken into King Amauri’s household, instead of merely being known to him. In the Southern version, Clement is a butcher, not a merchant.

 IRISH OCTAVIAN

From the Northern English. King Charlemagne replaces Dagobert, and Roland, Oliver, Ogier, Naymes, Gui of Burgundy, and Denis [probably Saint Denis, but here king of Norway!] at first refuse to fight the Sultan’s giant, and afterwards are captured by the Sultan alongside Plurens [Florent]. Plurens marries the Sultan’s daughter Felicita, and Octavian marries Charlemagne’s daughter.

 FLORENT ET LYON

The French prose and its descendents [German, Danish, Dutch, Icelandic, Polish, Russian] are distinguished by renaming the younger Octavian “Lion”, and adding an episode where he wins a tournament and therefore marries the daughter of the King of Spain. They also make Florence become King of England. I will pass over this redaction, because it has nothing to do with Charlemagne, only noting that by the time the story reached Russia, the emperor was named Otto, and the empress Olunda.

FLORENT ET OCTAVIEN IN ALEXANDRINES

The story is set in the year 240, under Dagobert, the fourth king of his line, who founded the Abbey of Saint Denis. Emperor Octavian, long childless, goes to help him fight the Wandres [Vandals?] and returns to find his wife Florimonde has given birth to twins, and been accused of adultery, despite the red crosses on their shoulders [a sign of royal blood]. The story continues as the short version, only changing a few names (the sultan is Acarius, the giant Fernagu), until the younger Octavian is sixteen, at which time the Sultan of Damascus demands the hand of Esclarmonde, daughter of King Amauri of Jerusalem. Octavian and his lion defeat the sultan, and the lad wins the love of Esclarmonde. Traitors wrongfully tell the king that he has deflowered her, and so Amauri sends Octavian to the Sultan with a Bellerophon-letter. The Sultan decides to keep him imprisoned instead of killing him, and marches on Jerusalem. Amauri surrenders Esclarmonde, who discovers the situation, pretends that she sent the letter, and asks for the favor of killing Octavian herself, immediately. The sultan sends her with a jailer to the dungeon, but she kills him and frees her lover. The two flee with the lion. They sail from Acre to Rome, still under siege by Acarius, who has captured the Emperor and Florent. Octavian’s traitorous minister Couart is mulling how best to surrender, when Dagobert arrives, and saves the day with the young Octavian and the lion’s help. The youth exposes his grandmother as a fraud, and defeats Couart, her lover, in a trial by combat. Couart is hanged, but the young Octavian manages to get his grandmother’s sentence reduced from burning to perpetual imprisonment.
Acarius retreats, but still has Florent and Octavian senior in captivity. Octavian junior follows him to Babylon, stopping en route to save Amauri from the Sultan of Damascus. Amauri is mortally wounded in the battle, but pardons Octavian and bequeaths him his daughter and his kingdom. Octavian leads his new kingdom to war against Babylon, but on the way he learns of Margalie, Marsebille’s sister, who is locked in Castel-Geant, where only minstrels are allowed to visit. Dressed as a minstrel, he goes to her, who fortunately has fallen in love with him by report. Her uncle, King Malaquin, catches the happy couple, and a fight ensues which ends with Octavian and his lady’s maid holding a tower against his garrison. The maid shows him a secret passage, and he slips away to defeat Acarius, and thereby win Margalie’s hand in marriage.
One month later, as they reign in Babylon [Mesopotamian Babylon, for once; not Cairo], Clement, his son Clodoan, Esclarmonde and Marsebille arrive. The awkwardness is resolved by wedding Florentto Marsebille, and Clodoan to Esclarmonde, and giving this last couple the throne of Babylon. Clement receives Jerusalem, and the brothers and their wives go home to Italy.
King Morgan of Tartary lays siege to Babylon. Esclarmonde kills her husband by treason, and sends to young Octavian for aid. He arrives, and she steals his seal to send a forged letter to Marsebille, luring her onto a ship bound for the Levant. Esclarmonde’s goons are about to throw her overboard, when she is saved by prayer. She meets King Corsabrun of Rochebrune’s ship, who is bringing aid to Morgan. He drowns her persecutors, and brings her to Rochebrune, where he leaves her as governor while he makes war. Octavian thinks his wife is dead, thanks to Esclarmonde. King Cladius of Tarse abandons Corsabrun after a quarrel at chess, and joins Octavian, converting to Christianity. They two go to Jerusalem for help from Clement. They rest at Rochebrun, where the lion recognizes Marsebille and refuses to leave her, much to Octavian’s bafflement. On his way back from Jerusalem with thirty thousand soldiers, he besieges Rochebrun to get his lion back, and all is explained. They go to Babylon, rout the Tartars, burn Esclarmonde at the stake, and Octavian is again Sultan.
Florent returns from a trip to Paris to find a note from Marsebille, saying she has taken their son Othonet to Babylon to see her family. But really, traitors told her he was dead, then, when she wanted to sail home, threw her and her son overboard. She is rescued by merchants of Palerne and Aumarie, who take her to be a slave in Palerme and him to be a slave in Aumarie. The traitors try to kill Florent in his bedroom, who jumps out the window, escapes, rallies his faithful men, and kills them. He then goes to Babylon, but is caught be Saracen pirates, who sell him to the King of Palerne. He is comforted by Princess Police. Meanwhile, Corsaut of Aumaries, a giant, defies the King of Palerne, but Florent kills him. Corsaut’s men, though, seize him and sell him to the King of Aumarie, where he meets Marsebille. The two escape and flee to Rome. Othonent, meanwhile, is being raised by the Saracen King of Palerne as his own son, under the name of Aceré. At sixteen, he is dubbed, conquers Aumarie, and learns he is adopted, which gladdens him, as he can now wed Police. He leads his army to Rome, is captured by Florent, who recognizes him. When his fellow Saracens refuse to follow his example in conversion, he is obliged to rout them. Police is the only one who converts. Marsebille dies soon after, and Florent goes to end his days in Babylon with Octavian, leaving Othon as king of Rome. He was the father of La Bonne Florence, whose story is announced to follow in all manuscripts, but only does so in one verse MS, and all the prose ones.

Since La Bonne Florence’s story originated separately, was only attached to Octavian in a late version, continued to circulate independently afterwards, and has nothing to do with Charlemagne, it will be treated of in a later post, if at all.

So let us leave thus subject, and treat of King Rother.

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