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   Chapter 3 SCHOOL AND WAR

Vergil / A Biography By Tenney Frank Characters: 16052

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


To Cremona, Vergil was sent to school. Caesar, the governor of the province, was now conquering Gaul, and as Cremona was the foremost provincial colony from which Caesar could recruit legionaries, the school boys must have seen many a maniple march off to the battle-fields of Belgium. Those boys read their Bellum Gallicum in the first edition, serial publication. When we remember the devotion of Caesar's soldiers to their leader, we can hardly be surprised at the poet's lasting reverence for the great imperator. He must have seen the man himself, also, for Cremona was the principal point in the court circuit that Caesar traveled during the winters between his campaigns-whenever the Gauls gave him respite.

The toga virilis Vergil assumed at fifteen, the year that Pompey and Crassus entered upon their second consulship-a notice to all the world that the triumvirate had been continued upon terms that made Julius the arbiter of Rome's destinies.

That same year the boy left Cremona to finish his literary studies in Milan, a city which was now threatening to outstrip Cremona in importance and size. The continuation of his studies in the province instead of at Rome seems to have been fortunate: the spirit of the schools of the north was healthier. At Rome the undue insistence upon a practical education, despite Cicero's protests, was hurrying boys into classrooms of rhetoricians who were supposed to turn them into finished public men at an early age; it was assumed that a political career was every gentleman's business and that every young man of any pretensions must acquire the art of speaking effectively and of "thinking on his feet." The claims of pure literature, of philosophy, and of history were accorded too little attention, and the chief drill centered about the technique of declamatory prose. Not that the rhetorical study was itself made absolutely practical. The teachers unfortunately would spin the technical details thin and long to hold profitable students over several years. But their claims that they attained practical ends imposed on the parents, and the system of education suffered.

In the northern province, on the other hand, there was less demand for studies leading directly to the forum. Moreover, some of the best teachers were active there.[1] They were men of catholic tastes, who in their lectures on literature ranged widely over the centuries of Greek masters from Homer to the latest popular poets of the Hellenistic period and over the Latin poets from Livius to Lucilius. Indeed, the young men trained at Cremona and Milan between the days of Sulla and Caesar were those who in due time passed on the torch of literary art at Rome, while the Roman youths were being enticed away into rhetoric. Vergil's remarkable catholicity of taste and his aversion to the cramping technique of the rhetorical course are probably to be explained in large measure, therefore, by his contact with the teachers of the provinces. Vergil did not scorn Apollonius because Homer was revered as the supreme master, and though the easy charm of Catullus taught him early to love the "new poetry," he appreciated none the less the rugged force of Ennius. Had his early training been received at Rome, where pedant was pitted against pedant, where every teacher was forced by rivalry into a partizan attitude, and all were compelled by material demands to provide a "practical education," even Vergil's poetic spirit might have been dulled.

[Footnote 1: Suetonius, De Gram. 3.]

How long Vergil remained at Milan we are not told; Donatus' paulo post is a relative term that might mean a few months or a few years. However, at the age of sixteen Vergil was doubtless ready for the rhetorical course, and it is possible that he went to the great city as early as 54 B.C., the very year of Catullus' death and of the publication of Lucretius' De Rerum Natura. The brief biography of Vergil contained in the Berne MS.-a document of doubtful value-mentions Epidius as Vergil's teacher in rhetoric, and adds that Octavius, the future emperor, was a fellow pupil. This is by no means unreasonable despite a difference of seven years in the ages of the two pupils. Vergil coming from the provinces entered rhetoric rather late in years, whereas Octavius must have required the aid of a master of declamation early, since at the age of twelve he prepared to deliver the laudatio funebris at the grave of his grandmother. Thus the two may have met in Epidius' lecture room in the year 50 B.C. Vergil could doubtless have afforded tuition under such a master since he presently engaged the no less distinguished Siro. We have the independent testimony of Suetonius that Epidius was Octavius' and Mark Antony's teacher.

If Antony's style be a criterion, this new master of Vergil's was a rhetorician of the elaborate Asianistic style,[2] then still orthodox at Rome. This school-except in so far as Cicero had criticized it for going to extremes-had not yet been effectively challenged by the rising generation of the chaster Atticists. Hortensius was still alive, and highly revered, and Cicero had recently written his elaborate De Oratore in which, with the apparent calmness of a still unquestioned authority, he laid down the program of the writer of ornate prose who conceived it as his chief duty to heed the claims of art. While not an out and out Asianist he advocates the claims of the "grand-style," so pleasing to senatorial audiences, with its well-balanced periods, carefully modulated, nobly phrased, precisely cadenced, and pronounced with dignity. To be sure, Calvus had already raised the banner of Atticism and had in several biting attacks shown what a simple, frugal and direct style could accomplish; Calidius, one of the first Roman pupils of the great Apollodorus, had already begun making campaign speeches in his neatly polished orations which painfully eschewed all show of ornament or passion; and Caesar himself, efficiency personified, had demonstrated that the leader of a democratic rabble must be a master of blunt phrases. But Calvus did not threaten to become a political force, Calidius was too even-tempered, and Caesar was now in the north, fighting with other weapons. Cicero's prestige still seemed unbroken. It was not till Caesar crossed the Rubicon in 49, after Hortensius had died, and Cicero had been pushed aside as a futile statesman, that Atticism gained predominance in the schools. Later, in 46, Cicero in several remarkable essays again took up the cudgels for an elaborate prose, but then his cause was already lost. Caesar's victory had demonstrated that Rome desired deeds, not words.

[Footnote 2: Octavius was drawn to the Atticistic principles by the great master Apollodorus.]

When Virgil, therefore, turned to rhetoric, probably under Epidius, he received the training which was still considered orthodox. His farewell[3] to rhetoric-written probably in 48-shows unmistakably the nature of the stuff on which he had been fed. It is the bombast and the futile rules of the Asianic creed against which he flings his unsparing scazons.

[Footnote 3: Catalepton V (Edition, Vollmer). Birt, Jugendverse und Heimatpoesie Vergils, 1910, has provided a useful commentary on the Catalepton.]

Begone ye useless paint-pots of the school;

Your phrases reek, but not with Attic scent,

Tarquitius' and Selius' and Varro's drool:

A witless crew, with learning temulent.

And ye begone, ye tinkling cymbals vain,

That call the youths to drivelings insane.

Epidius, to be sure, is not mentioned, but we happen to know that Varro-if this be the erudite friend of Cicero-was devoted to the Asianic principles. And Epidius, the teacher of the flowery Mark Antony, may well be concealed in Vergil's list of names even if mention of him was omitted for reasons of propriety.

This poem reveals the fact that Vergil did not, like the young men of Cicero's youth, enjoy the privilege of studying law, court procedure, and

oratory by entering the law office, as it were, of some distinguished senator and thus acquiring his craft through observation, guided practice, and personal instruction. That method, so charmingly described by Cicero as in vogue in his youth, had almost passed away. The school had taken its place with its mock courts, contests in oratory, set themes in fictitious controversies. The analytical rules of rhetoric were growing ever more intricate and time-wasting, and how pedantic they were even before Vergil's childhood may be seen by a glance into the anonymous Auctor ad Herennium. The student had to know the differences between the various kinds of cases, demonstrativum, deliberativum and judiciale; he must know the proportionate value to the orator of inventio, dispositio, elocutio, memoria, and pronuntiatio, and how to manage each; he must know how to apply inventio in each of the six divisions of the speech: exordium, narratio, divisio, confirmatio, confutatio, conclusio. On the subject of adornment of style a relatively small task lay in memorizing illustrations of some sixty figures of speech-and so on ad infinitum. Inane cymbalon juventutis is indeed a fitting commentary on such memory tasks. The end of the poem cited betrays the fact that the poet had not been able to keep his attention upon his task. He had been writing verses; who would not?

Quite apart, however, from the unattractive content of the course, the gradual change in political life must have disclosed to the observant that the free exercise of talents in a public career could not continue long. The triumvirate was rapidly suppressing the free republic. Even in 52, when Pompey became sole consul, the trial of Milo was conducted under military guard, and no advocate dared speak freely. During the next two years every one saw that Caesar and Pompey must come to blows and that the resulting war could only lead to autocracy.

The crisis came in January of 49 B.C. when Vergil was twenty years old. Pompey with the consuls and most of the senators fled southward in dismay, and in sixty days, hotly pursued by Caesar, was forced to evacuate Italy. Caesar, eager to make short work of the war, to attack Spain and Africa while holding the Alpine passes and pressing in pursuit of Pompey, began to levy new recruits throughout Italy.[4] Vergil also seems to have been drawn in this draft, since this is apparently the circumstance mentioned in his thirteenth Catalepton. "Draft," however, may not be the right word, for we do not know whether Caesar at this time claimed the right to enforce the rules of conscription. In any case, it is clear from all of Vergil's references to Caesar that the great general always retained a strong hold upon his imagination. Like most youths who had beheld Caesar's work in the province close at hand, he was probably ready to respond to a general appeal for troops, and Labienus' words to Pompey on the battlefield of Pharsalia make it clear that Caesar's army was largely composed of Cisalpines. The accounting they gave of themselves at that battle is evidence enough of the spirit which pervaded Vergil's fellow provincials. Nor is it unlikely that Vergil himself took part, for one of the most poignant passages in all his work is the picture of the dead who lay strewn over the battlefield of Pharsalia.

[Footnote 4: Cic. Ad Att. IX. 19, in March.]

It is also probable that Vergil had had some share in the cruises on the Adriatic conducted by Antony the summer and winter before Pharsalia. Not only does this poem speak of service on the seas, but his poems throughout reveal a remarkable acquaintance with Adriatic geography. If he took part in the work of that stormy winter's campaigns, when more than one fleet was wrecked, we can comprehend the intimate touches in the description of Aeneas' encounters with the storms.

The thirteenth Catalepton, which mentions the poet's military service, is not pleasant reading. Written perhaps in 48 or 47 B.C., directed against some hated martinet of an officer, it bears various disagreeable traces of camp life, which was then not well-guarded by charitable organizations of every kind as now. We need quote only the first few lines:[5]

You call me caitiff, say I cannot sail

The seas again, and that I seem to quail

Before the storms and summer's heat, nor dare

The speeding victor's arms again to bear.

We know how frail Vergil's health was in later years. His constitution may well have been wrecked during the winter of 49 which Caesar himself, inured though he was to the storms of the North, found unusually severe. Vergil, it would seem from these lines, was given sick-leave and permitted to go back to his studies, though apparently taunted for not later returning to the army.

[Footnote 5:

Jacere me, quod alta non possim, putas

Ut ante, vectari freta,

Nec ferre durum frigus aut aestum pati

Neque arma victoris sequi.

The verses were written before 46 B.C. when the collegia compitalicia

were disbanded; Birt, Rhein. Mus. 1910, 348.]

There is another brief epigram which-if we are right in thinking Pompey the subject of the lines-seems to date from Vergil's soldier days, the third Catalepton:

Aspice quem valido subnixum Gloria regno

Altius et caeli sedibus extulerat.

Terrarum hic bello magnum concusserat orbem,

Hic reges Asiae fregerat, hic populos,

Hic grave servitium tibi iam, tibi, Roma, ferebat

(Cetera namque viri cuspide conciderant),

Cum subito in medio rerum certamine praeceps

Corruit, e patria pulsus in exilium.

Tale deae numen, tali mortalia nutu

Fallax momento temporis hora dedit.[6]

[Footnote 6: Behold one whom, upborne by mighty authority, Glory had exalted even above the abodes of heaven. Earth's great orb had he shaken in war, the kings and peoples of Asia had he broken, grievous slavery was he bringing even to thee, O Rome,-for all else had fallen before that man's sword,-when suddenly, in the midst of his struggle for mastery, headlong he fell, driven from fatherland into exile. Such is the will of Nemesis; at a mere nod, in a moment of time, the faithless hour tricks mortal endeavor.]

Whether or not Pompey aspired to become autocrat at Rome, many of his supporters not only believed but desired that he should. Cicero, who did not desire it, did, despite his devotion to his friend, fear that Pompey would, if victorious, establish practically or virtually a monarchy.[7] Vergil, therefore, if he wrote this when Pompey fled to Greece in 49, or after the rout at Pharsalia, was only giving expression to a conviction generally held among Caesar's officers. Quite Vergilian is the repression of the shout of victory. The poem recalls the words of Anchises on beholding the spirits of Julius and Pompey:

Tuque prior, tu parce, genus qui ducis Olympo

Proice tela manu, sanguis meus.

[Footnote 7: Cic. Ad Att. VIII, 11, 4; X, 4, 8.]

This is the poet's final conviction regarding the civil war in which he served; his first had not differed widely from this.

Vergil's one experience as advocate in the court room should perhaps be placed after his retirement from the army. Egit, says Donatus, et causam apud judices, unam omnino nec amplius quam semel. The reason for his lack of success Donatus gives in the words of Melissus, a critic who ought to know: in sermone tardissimum ac paene indocto similem. The poet himself seems to allude to his disappointing failure in the Ciris: expertum fallacis praemia volgi. How could he but fail? He never learned to cram his convictions into mere phrases, and his judgments into all-inclusive syllogisms. When he has done his best with human behavior, and the sentence is pronounced, he spoils the whole with a rebellious dis aliter visum. A successful advocate must know what not to see and feel, and he must have ready convictions at his tongue's end. In the Aeneid there are several fluent orators, but they are never Vergil's congenial characters.

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