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Vergil / A Biography By Tenney Frank Characters: 21595

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02

The Culex seems to have been completed in September 48 B.C., and the main part of the Ciris was written not much later. Now came a crisis in Vergil's affairs. Perhaps his own experience in the law courts, or the conviction that public life could contain no interest under an autocracy, or disgust at rhetorical futility, or perhaps a copy of Lucretius brought him to a stop. Lucretius he certainly had been reading; of that the Ciris provides unmistakable evidence. And the spell of that poet he never escaped. His farewell to Rome and rhetoric has been quoted in part above. The end of the poem bids-though more reluctantly-farewell to the muses also:

Ite hinc Camenae; vos quoque ite jam sane dulces Camenae (nam fatebimur verum, dulces fuistis): et tamen meas chartas revisitote, sed pudenter et raro.

It is to Siro that he now went, the Epicurean philosopher who, closely associated with the voluminous Philodemus, was conducting a very popular garden-school at Naples, outranking in fact the original school at Athens. It is not unlikely that this is where Lucretius himself had studied.

It is well to bear in mind that the ensuing years of philosophical study were spent at Naples-a Greek city then-and very largely among Greeks. This fact provides a key to much of Vergil. Our biographies have somehow assumed Rome as the center of Siro's activities, though the evidence in favor of Naples is unmistakable. Not only does Vergil speak of a journey (Catal. V. 8):

Nos ad beatos vela mittimus portus

Magni petentes docta dicta Sironis,

and Servius say Neapoli studuit, and the Ciris mention Cecropus horrulus, and Cicero in all his references place Siro on the bay of Naples,[1] but a fragment of a Herculanean roll of Philodemus locates the garden school in the suburbs of Naples.

[Footnote 1: De Fin. II. 119, Cumaean villa; Acad. II. 106, Bauli; Ad. Fam. VI. 11.2; Vestorius is a Neapolitan; of. Class. Phil. 1920, p. 107, and Am. Jour. Philology, XLI, 115. For other possible references, see Am. Jour. Phil.1920, XLI, 280 ff.]

Even after Siro's death-about 42 B.C.-Vergil seems to have remained at Naples, probably inheriting his teacher's villa. In 38 he with Varius and Plotius came up from Naples to Sinuessa to join Maecenas' party on their journey to Brundisium; Vergil wrote the Georgics at Naples in the thirties (Georg. IV. 460), and Donatus actually remarks that the poet was seldom seen at Rome.

As the charred fragments of Philodemus' rolls are published one by one, we begin to realize that the students of Vergil have failed to appreciate the influences which must have reached the young poet in these years of his life in a Greek city in daily communion with oriental philosophers like Philodemus and Siro. After the death of Phaedrus these men were doubtless the leaders of their sect; at least Asconius calls the former illa aetate nobilissimus (In Pis. 68). Cicero represents them as homines doctissimos as early as 60 B.C., and though in his tirade against Piso-ten years before Vergil's adhesion to the school-he must needs cast some slurs at Piso's teacher, he is careful to compliment both his learning and his poetry. Indeed there seems to be not a little direct use of Philodemus' works in Cicero's De finibus and the De natura deorum written many years later. In any case, at least Catullus, Horace, and Ovid made free to paraphrase some of his epigrams. And these verses may well guard us against assuming that the man who could draw to his lectures and companionship some of the brightest spirits of the day is adequately represented by the crabbed controversial essays that his library has produced. These essays follow a standard type and do not necessarily reveal the actual man. Even these, however, disclose a man not wholly confined to the ipsa verba of Epicurus, for they show more interest in rhetorical precepts than was displayed by the founder of the school; they are more sympathetic toward the average man's religion, and not a little concerned about the affairs of state. All this indicates a healthy reaction that more than one philosopher underwent in coming in contact with Roman men of the world, but it also doubtless reflects the tendencies of the Syrian branch of the school from which he sprang; for the Syrian group had had to cast off some of its traditional fanaticism and acquire a few social graces and a modicum of worldly wisdom in its long contact with the magnificent Seleucid court.

Philodemus was himself a native of Gadara, that unfortunate Macedonian colony just east of the Sea of Galilee, which was subjected to Jewish rule in the early youth of our philosopher. He studied with Zeno of Sidon, to whom Cicero also listened in 78, a masterful teacher whose followers and pupils, Demetrius, Phaedrus, Patro, probably also Siro, and of course Philodemus, captured a large part of the most influential Romans for the sect.[2]

[Footnote 2: Italiam totam occupaverunt. Cic. Tusc. IV, 7.]

How Philodemus taught his rich Roman patrons and pupils to value not only his creed but the whole line of masters from Epicurus we may learn from the Herculanean villa where his own library was found, for it contained a veritable museum of Epicurean worthies down to Zeno, perhaps not excluding the teacher himself, if we could but identify his portrait.[3]

[Footnote 3: See Class. Phil. 1920, p. 113.]

The list of influential Romans who joined the sect during this period is remarkable, though of course we have in our incidental references but a small part of the whole number. Here belonged Caesar, his father-in-law Piso, who was Philodemus' patron, Manlius Torquatus, the consulars Hirtius, Pansa, and Dolabella, Cassius the liberator, Trebatius the jurist, Atticus, Cicero's life-long friend, Cicero's amusing correspondents Paetus and Callus, and many others. To some of these the attraction lay perhaps in the philosophy of ease which excused them from dangerous political labors for the enjoyment of their villas on the Bay of Naples. But to most Romans the greatest attraction of the doctrine lay in its presentation of a tangible explanation of the universe, weary as they were of a childish faith and too practical-minded to have patience with metaphysical theories now long questioned and incomprehensible except through a tedious application of dubious logic.

Vergil's companions in the Cecropius hortulus, destined to be his life-long friends, were, according to Probus, Quintilius Varus, the famous critic, Varius Rufus, the writer of epics and tragedies, and Plotius Tucca. Of his early friendship with Varius he has left a remembrance in Catalepton I and VII, with Varus in Eclogue VI. Horace combined all these names more than once in his verses.[4] That the four friends continued in intimate relationship with Philodemus, appears from fragments of the rolls.[5]

[Footnote 4: Cf. Hor. Sat. i. 5.55; i. 10. 44-45 and 81; Carm. i. 24.]

[Footnote 5: Rhein. Mus., 1890, p. 172. The names of Quintilius and Varius occur twice; the rest are too fragmentary to be certain, but the space calls for names of the length of [Greek: Plo]tie] and [Greek: Ou[ergilie] and the constant companionship of these four men makes the restoration very probable.]

Of the general question of Philodemus' influence upon Varius and Vergil, Varus and Horace, the critics and poets who shaped the ideals of the Augustan literature, it is not yet time to speak. It will be difficult ever to decide how far these men drew their materials from the memories of their lecture-rooms; whether for instance Varius' de morte depended upon his teacher's [Greek: peri thanatou], as has been suggested, or to what extent Horace used the [Greek: peri orgaes] and the [Greek: peri kakion] when he wrote his first two epistles, or the [Greek: peiri kolakeias] when he instructed his young friend Lollius how to conduct himself at court, or whether it was this teacher who first called attention to Bion, Neoptolemus, and Menippus; nor does it matter greatly, since the value of these works lay rather in the art of expression and timeliness of their doctrine than in originality of view.

In the theory of poetic art there is in many respects a marked difference between the classical ideals of the Roman group and the rather luxurious verses of Philodemus, but he too recognized the value of restraint and simplicity, as some of his epigrams show. Furthermore his theories of literary art are frequently in accord with Horace's Ars Poetica on the very points of chaste diction and precise expression which this Augustan group emphasized. It would not surprise his contemporaries if Horace restated maxims of Philodemus when writing an essay to the son and grandsons of Philodemus' patron. However, after all is said, Vergil had questioned some of the Alexandrian ideals of art before he came under the influence of Philodemus, and the seventh Catalepton gives a hint that Varius thought as Vergil. It is not unlikely that Quintilius Varus, Vergil's elder friend and fellow-Transpadane, who had grown up an intimate friend of Catullus and Calvus, had in these matters a stronger influence than Philodemus.

There are, however, certain turns of sentiment in Vergil which betray a non-Roman flavor to one who comes to Vergil directly from a reading of Lucretius, Catullus, or Cicero's letters. This is especially true of the Oriental proskynesis found in the very first Eclogue and developed into complete "emperor worship" in the dedication of the Georgics. This language, here for the first time used by a Roman poet, is not to be explained as simple gratitude for great favors. It is not even satisfactorily accounted for by supposing that the young poet was somewhat slavishly following some Hellenistic model. Catullus had paraphrased the Alexandrian poets, but he could hardly have inserted a passage of this import. Nor was it mere flattery, for Vergil has shown in his frank praise of Cato, Brutus, and Pompey that he does not merely write at command. No, these passages in Vergil show the effects of the long years of association with Greeks and Orientals that had steeped his mind in expressions and sentiments which now seemed natural to him, though they must have surprised many a reader at Rome. His teachers at Naples had grown up in Syria and had furthermore carried with them the tradition of the Syrian branch of the school that had learned to adapt its language to suit the whims of the deified Seleucid monarchs. As Epicureans they also employed sacred names with little reverence. Was not Antiochus Epiphanes himself a "god," while as a member of the sect he belittled divinity?

Naples, too, was a Greek city always filled with Oriental trading folk, and these carried with them the langua

ge of subject races. It is at Pompeii that the earliest inscriptions on Italian soil have been found which recognize the imperial cult, and it is at Cumae that the best instance of a cult calendar has come to light. It is a note, one of the very few in the great poet's work, that grates upon us, but when he wrote as he did he was probably not aware that his years of residence in the "garden" had indeed accustomed his ear to some un-Roman sounds.[6] Octavian was of course not unaware of the advantage that accrued to the ruler through the Oriental theory of absolutism, and furtively accepted all such expressions. By the time Vergil wrote the Aeneid the Roman world had acquiesced, but then, to our surprise, Vergil ceases to accord divine attributes to Augustus.

[Footnote 6: Julius Caesar began as early as 45 B.C. to invite extraordinary honors for political purposes, but Roman literature seems not to have taken any cognizance of them at that time.]

Again, I would suggest that it was at Naples that Vergil may most readily have come upon the "messianic" ideas that occur in the fourth Eclogue, for despite all the objections that have been raised against using that word, conceptions are found there which were not yet naturalized in the Occident. The child in question is thought of as a Soter whose deeds the poet hopes to sing (l. 54), and furthermore lines 7 and 50 contain unmistakably the Oriental idea of naturam parturire, as Suetonius phrases it (Aug. 94). Quite apart from the likelihood that the Gadarene may have gossiped at table about the messianic hopes of the Hebrews, which of course he knew, it is not conceivable that he never betrayed any knowledge of, or interest in, the prophetic ideas with which his native country teemed. Meleager, also a Gadarene, preserved memories of the people of his birthplace in his poems, and Caecilius of Caleacte, who seems to have been in Italy at about this time, was not beyond quoting Moses in his rhetorical works.[7]

[Footnote 7: It is generally assumed that his book was the source for the quotation in Pseudo-Longinus.]

Furthermore, Naples was the natural resort of all those Greek and Oriental rhetoricians and philosophers, historians, poets, actors, and artists who drifted Romeward from the crumbling courts of Alexandria, Antioch, and Pergamum. There they could find congenial surroundings while discovering wealthy patrons in the numerous villas of the idle rich near by, and thither they withdrew at vacation time if necessity called them to Rome for more arduous tasks. Andronicus, the Syrian Epicurean, brought to Rome by Sulla, made his home at nearby Cumae; Archias, Cicero's client, also from Syria, spent much time at Naples, and the poet Agathocles lived there; Parthenius of Nicaea, to whom the early Augustans were deeply indebted, taught Vergil at Naples. Other Orientals like Alexander, who wrote the history of Syria and the Jews, and Timagenes, historian of the Diadochi, do not happen to be reported from Naples, but we may safely assume that most of them spent whatever leisure time they could there.

Puteoli too was still the seaport town of Rome as of all Central Italy, and the Syrians were then the carriers of the Mediterranean trade.[8] That is one reason why Apollo's oracles at Cumae and Hecate's necromatic cave at Lake Avernus still prospered. When Vergil explored that region, as the details of the sixth book show he must have done, he had occasion to learn more than mere geographic details.

[Footnote 8: Frank, An Economic History of Rome, chap. xiv.]

That Vergil had Isaiah, chapter II, before his eyes when he wrote the fourth Eclogue is of course out of the question; there is not a single close parallel of the kind that Vergil usually permits himself to borrow from his sources; we cannot even be sure that he had seen any of the Sibylline oracles, now found in the third book of the collection, which contains so strange a syncretism of Mithraic, Greek, and Jewish conceptions, but we can no longer doubt that he was in a general way well informed and quite thoroughly permeated with such mystical and apocalyptic sentiments as every Gadarene and any Greek from the Orient might well know. It speaks well for his love of Rome that despite these influences it was he who produced the most thoroughly nationalistic epic ever written.

The first fruit of Vergil's studies in evolutionary science at Naples was the Aetna, if indeed the poem be his. The problem of the authorship has been patiently studied, and the arguments for authenticity concisely summarized by Vessereau[9] make a strong case. The evidence is briefly this. Servius attributed the poem to Vergil in his preface and again in his commentary on Aeneid, III, 578. Donatus also seems to have done so, though some of our manuscripts of his Vita contain the phrase de qua ambigitur. Again, the texts of the Aetna which we have agree also in this ascription. Internal evidence proves the poem to be a work of the period between 54 and 44, which admirably suits Vergilian claims. Its close dependence upon Lucretius gives the first date, its mention of the "Medea" of the artist Timomachus as being overseas, a work which was brought to Rome between 46 and 44, gives the second. Finally, the Aetna is by a student of Epicurean philosophy largely influenced by Lucretius. It would be difficult to make a stronger case short of a contemporaneous attribution. Has not Vergil himself referred to the Aetna in the preface of his Ciris, where he thanks the Muses for their aid in an abstruse poem (l. 93)?

Quare quae cantus meditanti mittere caecos[10]

Magna mihi cupido tribuistis praemia divae.

What other poem could he have had in mind? The designation does not fit the Culex, which is the only poem besides the Aetna that could be in question. It is best, therefore, to take the Aetna[11] into account in studying Vergil's life, even though we reserve a place in our memories for that stray phrase de qua ambigitur.

[Footnote 9: Vessereau, Aetna, xx ff.; Rand, Harvard Studies, XXX, 106, 155 ff. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Seneca attributed the Aetna to Vergil in ad Lucilium 79, 5: The words "Vergil's complete treatment" can hardly refer to the seven meager lines found in the third book of the Aeneid.]

[Footnote 10: Lucretius is very fond of using the word caecus with reference to abstruse and obscure philosophical and scientific subjects.]

[Footnote 11: When Vergil wrote the Georgics, on a subject which the poet of the Aetna derides as trivial (264-74) he seems to apologize for abandoning science, in favor of a meaner theme, Georgics II, 483 ff. Is not this a reference to the Aetna?]

The poet after an invocation to Apollo justifies himself for rejecting the favorite themes of myth and fiction: the mysteries of nature are more worthy of occupying the efforts of the mind. He has chosen one out of very many that needs explanation. The true cause of volcanic eruption, he says, is that air is driven into the pores of the earth, and when this comes into contact with lava and flint which contain atoms of fire, it creates the explosions that cause such destruction. After a second invitation to the reader to appreciate the worth of such a theme he tells the story of two brothers of Catania who, when other refugees from Aetna's explosion rescued their worldly goods, risked their lives to save their parents.

The poem is not a happy experiment. There is no lack of enthusiasm for the subject, despite the fact that the science of that day was wholly inadequate to the theme. But Vergil could hardly realize this, since both Stoics and Epicureans had adopted the theory of the exploding winds. The real trouble with the theme is its hopelessly prosaic ugliness. Lucretius, by his imaginative power, had apparently deceived him into thinking that any fragment of science might be treated poetically. In his master the "flaring atom streams" had attained the sublimity of a Platonic vision, and the very majestic sadness of his materialism carried the young poet off his feet. But the mechanism of Aetna remained merely a puzzle with little to inspire awe, and the theme contained inherently no deep meaning for humanity-which, after all, the scientific problem must possess to lend itself to poetic treatment. The poet indeed realized all this before he had finished. He sought, with inadequate resources, to stir an emotion of awe in describing the eruption, to argue the reader into his own enthusiasm for a scientific subject, to prove the humanistic worth of his problem by asserting its anti-religious value, and finally, in a Turneresque obtrusion of human beings, to tell the story of the Catanian brothers. But though the attempt does honor to his aesthetic judgment the theme was incorrigible. Perhaps the recent eruptions of Aetna-they are reported for the years 50 and 46 B.C.-had given the theme a greater interest than it deserved. We may imagine how refugees from Catania had flocked to Naples and told the tale of their suffering.

There is another element in the poem that is as significant as it is prosaic, a spirit of carping at poetic custom which reminds the reader of Philodemus' lectures. Philodemus, whether speaking of philosophy or music or poetry, always begins in the negative. He is not happy until he has soundly trounced his predecessors and opponents. The author of the Aetna has learned all too well this scholastic method, and his acerbity usually turns the reader away before he has reached the central theme. There is of course just a little of this tone left in the Georgics-Lucretius also has a touch of it-but the Aeneid has freed itself completely.

The compensation to the reader lies not so much in episodical myths, descriptions, and the story at the end, apologetically inserted on Lucretius' theory of sweetened medicine, as rather in the poet's contagious enthusiasm for his science, the thrill of discovery and the sense of wonder (1. 251):

Divina est animi ac jucunda voluptas!

Men have wasted hours enough on trivialities (258):

Torquemur miseri in parvis, terimurque labore.

A worthier occupation is science (274):

Implendus sibi quisque bonis est artibus: illae

Sunt animi fruges, haec rerum est optima merces.

And science must be worthy of man's divine majesty (224):

Non oculis solum pecudum miranda tueri

More nec effusis in humum grave pascere corpus;

Nosse fidem rerum dubiasque exquirere causas,

Ingenium sacrare caputque attollere caelo,

Scire quot et quae sint magno fatalia mundo


This may be prose, but it has not a little of the magnificence of the Lucretian logic. The man who wrote this was at least a spiritual kinsman of Vergil.

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