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Vergil / A Biography By Tenney Frank Characters: 11157

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02

Among biographical commonplaces one frequently finds the generalization that it is the provincial who acquires the perspective requisite for a true estimate of a nation, and that it is the country-boy reared in lonely communion with himself who attains the deepest knowledge of human nature. If there be some degree of truth in this reflection, Publius Vergilius Maro, the farmer's boy from the Mantuan plain, was in so far favored at birth. It is the fifteenth of October, 70 B.C., that the Mantuans still hold in pious memory: in 1930 they will doubtless invite Italy and the devout of all nations to celebrate the twentieth centenary of the poet's birth.

Ancient biographers, little concerned with Mendelian speculation, have not reported from what stock his family sprang. Scientific curiosity and nationalistic egotism have compelled modern biographers to become anthropologists. Vergil has accordingly been referred, by some critic or other, to each of the several peoples that settled the Po Valley in ancient times: the Umbrians, the Etruscans, the Celts, the Latins. The evidence cannot be mustered into a compelling conclusion, but it may be worth while to reject the improbable suppositions.

The name tells little. Vergilius is a good Italic nomen found in all parts of the peninsula,[1] but Latin names came as a matter of course with the gift of citizenship or of the Latin status, and Mantua with the rest of Cisalpine Gaul had received the Latin status nineteen years before Vergil's birth. The cognomen Maro is in origin a magistrate's title used by Etruscans and Umbrians, but cognomina were a recent fashion in the first century B.C. and were selected by parents of the middle classes largely by accident.

[Footnote 1: Braunholz, The Nationality of Vergil, Classical Review, 1915, 104 ff.]

Vergil himself, a good antiquarian, assures us that in the heroic age Mantua was chiefly Etruscan with enclaves of two other peoples (presumably Umbrians and Venetians). In this he is doubtless following a fairly reliable tradition, accepted all the more willingly because of his intimacy with Maecenas, who was of course Etruscan:[2]

Mantua dives avis, sed non genus omnibus unum,

Gens illis triplex, populi sub gente quaterni,

Ipsa caput populis; Tusco de sanguine vires.

[Footnote 2: Aeneid, X, 201-3.]

Pliny seems to have supposed this passage a description of Mantua in Vergil's own day: Mantua Tuscorum trans Padum sola reliqua (III. 130). That could hardly have been Vergil's meaning, however; for the Celts who flooded the Po Valley four centuries before drove all before them except in the Venetian marshes and the Ligurian hills. They could not have left an Etruscan stronghold in the center of their path. Vergil was probably not Etruscan.

The case for a Celtic origin is equally improbable. From the time when the Senones burned Rome in 390 B.C. till Caesar conquered Gaul, the fear of invasions from this dread race never slumbered. During the weary years of the Punic war when Hannibal drew his fresh recruits from the Po Valley, the determination grew ever stronger that the Alps should become Rome's barrier line on the North. Accordingly the pacification of the Transpadane region continued with little intermission until Polybius[3] could say two generations before Vergil's birth that the Gauls had practically been driven out of the Po Valley, and that they then held but a few villages in the foothills of the Alps. If this be true, the open country of Mantua must have had but few survivors. And the few that remained were not often likely to have the privilege of intermarrying with the Roman settlers who filled the vacuum. Romans were too proud of their citizenship to intermarry with peregrini and raise children who must by Roman laws forego the dignities of citizenship.[4]

[Footnote 3: Polybius, II. 35, 4 (written about 140 B.C.).]

[Footnote 4: Ulpian, Dig. V. 8, ex peregrino et cive Romano, peregrinus nascitur.]

A Celtic strain of romance has been from time to time claimed for Vergil's poetry, though those who employ such terms seldom agree in their definition of them. His romanticism may be more easily explained by his early devotion to the Catullan group of poets, and the Celtic traits-whatever they may be-by the close racial affiliations between Celts and Italians, vouched for by anthropologists. But the difficulty of applying the test of the "Celtic temperament" lies in the fact that there are apparently now no true representatives of the Celtic race from whom to establish a criterion. The peoples that have longest preserved dialects of the Celtic languages appear from anthropometric researches to contain a dominant strain of a different race, perhaps that of the pre-Indo-European inhabitants of Western Europe. It may be, therefore, that what Arnoldians now refer to the "Celts" is after all not Celtic. At best it is unsafe to search for racial traits in the work of genius; in this instance it would but betray loose thinking.

The assumption of Celtic origin is, therefore, hazardous.[5] There is, however, a strong likelihood that Vergil's forbears were among the Roman and Latin colonists who went north in search of new homes during the second century B.C. Vergil's father was certainly a Roman citizen, for none but a citizen could have sent his son to Rome to prepare for a political career. Mantua indeed, a "Latin" town after 89 B.C., did not become a Roman municipality until after Vergil had left it, but Vergil's father, according to the eighth Catalepton, had ea

rlier in his life lived in Cremona. That city was colonized by Roman citizens in 218 B.C. and recolonized in 190, and though the colonists were reduced to the "Latin status," the magistrates of the town and their descendants secured citizenship from the beginning, and finally in 89 B.C. the whole colony received full citizenship. But quite apart from this, all of Cisalpine Gaul, as the region was called, was receiving immigrants from all parts of Italy throughout the second century, when the fields farther south were being exhausted by long tilling, and were falling into the hands of capitalistic landlords and grazers. Since Roman citizenship was a personal rather than a territorial right, such immigrants could preserve their political status despite their change of habitation. The probabilities are, therefore, that in any case Vergil, though born in the province, was of the old Latin stock.

[Footnote 5: Vergil we know was tall and dark. The Gauls were as a rule fair with light hair. The Etruscans on the other hand, while dark, were generally short of stature. Such data are however not of great importance.]

About the child appropriate stories gathered in time, but what the biographers chose to repeat in the credulous days of Donatus, when Rome was almost an Oriental city, need not detain us long. To Donatus, no doubt, Magia seemed a suitable name for the mother of a poet who knew the mysteries of the lower world; that she dreamed prophetically of the coming greatness of her son, we may grant as a matter of course. Sober judgment, however, can hardly accept the miraculous poplar tree which shot up at the place of nativity, or the birth-stories deriving "Vergilus" from virga, contrary to early Latin nomenclature and phonology. It is well to mention these things merely so that we may keep in mind how little faith the late biographers really deserve.

Donatus is also inclined to accept the tradition that Vergil's father was a potter and a man of very humble circumstances. That Vergil's father made pottery may be true; a father's occupation was apt to be recorded in Augustan biography-but it requires some knowledge of Roman society to comprehend what these words meant at the end of the Republic. In Donatus' day a "potter" was a day-laborer in loin-cloth and leather apron, earning about twenty cents for a long day of fourteen hours. Needless to say, Vergil's leisured competence during many years did not draw from such a trickling source. Donatus had forgotten that in Vergil's day the economic system of Rome was entirely different. At the end of the Republic, the potters of Northern Italy conducted factories of enormous output, for they had with their artistic red-figured ware captured the markets of the whole Mediterranean basin. The actual workmen were not Roman citizens by any means, but slaves. And we should add that while industrial producers, like traders, were in general held in low esteem, because most of them were foreigners and freedmen, the producers of earthenware had by accident escaped from the general odium. The reason was simply that earthenware production began as a legitimate extension of agriculture-it was one form of turning the products of the villa-soil to the best use-and agriculture as we remember (including horticulture and stock-raising) continued into Cicero's day the only respectable income-bringing occupation in which a Roman senator could engage without apology. That is the reason why even the names of Cicero, Asinius Pollio, and Marcus Aurelius are to be found on brick stamps when it would have been socially impossible for such men to own, shall we say, hardware or clothing factories. Donatus was already so far away from that day that he had no feeling for its social tabus. The property of Vergil's father-possibly a farm with a pottery on some part of it-could hardly have been small when it supported the young student for many years in his leisured existence at Rome and Naples under the masters that attracted the aristocracy of the capital. The story of Probus, otherwise not very reliable, may, therefore, be true-that sixty soldiers received their allotments from the estates taken from Vergil's father.

Of no little significance is the fact that Vergil first prepared himself for public life,[6] and progressed so far as to accept one case in court. In order to enter public life in those days it was customary to train one's self as widely as possible in literature, history, rhetoric, dialectic, and court procedure, and to attract public notice for election purposes by taking a few cases. It was not every citizen who dared enter such a career. This was the one occupation that the nobility guarded most jealously. While any foreigner or freedman might become a doctor, banker, architect or merchant prince, he could not presume to stand up before a praetor to discuss the rights and wrongs of Roman citizens; and since the advocate's work was furthermore considered the legitimate preliminary to magisterial offices it must the more carefully be protected. It would have been quite useless for Vergil to prepare for this career had it been obviously closed. We have no sure record in Cicero's epoch of any young man rising successfully from the business or industrial classes to a career in public life except through the abnormal accidents provided by the civil wars. Presumably, therefore, Vergil's father belonged to a landholding family with some honors of municipal service to his credit.

[Footnote 6: Donatus, 15; Ciris, l.2; Catal. V.; Seneca, Controv.

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