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   Chapter 7 EPIGRAM AND EPIC

Vergil / A Biography By Tenney Frank Characters: 16828

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


The years of Vergil's sojourn in Naples were perhaps the most eventful in Rome's long history, and we may be sure that nothing but a frail constitution could have saved a man of his age for study through those years. After the battle of Pharsalia in 48, Caesar, aside from the lotus-months in Egypt, pacified the Eastern provinces, then in 46 subdued the senatorial remnants in Africa, driving Cato to his death, and in September of that year celebrated his fourfold triumph with a magnificence hitherto undreamed. All Italy went to see the spectacle, and doubtless Vergil too; for here it was, if we mistake not, that he first resolved to write an epic of Rome. The year 45 saw the defeat of the Pompeian remnants in Spain, and the first preparations for the great Parthian expedition which, as all knew, was to inaugurate the new Monarchy. Then came the sudden blow that struck Caesar down, the civil war that elevated Antony and Octavian and brought Cicero to his death, and finally the victory at Philippi which ended all hope of a republic. Through all this turmoil the philosophic group of the "Garden" continued its pursuit of science, commenting, as we shall see, upon passing events.

The Aetna-which seems to date from about 47-6-reveals the young philosopher, if it is Vergil, in a serious mood of single-minded devotion to his new pursuit. But as may be inferred from the fifth Catalepton he was not sure of not backsliding. To the influence of Catullus, plainly visible all through these brief poems, there was added the example of Philodemus who wrote epigrams from time to time. Several of the Catalepton may belong to this period. The very first,[1] addressed to Vergil's lifelong friend Plotius Tucca, is an amusing trifle in the very vein of Philodemus. The fourth, like the first in elegiacs, is a gracious tribute to a departing friend, Musa, perhaps his fellow-townsman Octavius Musa.[2] It closes with a generous expression of unquestioning friendship that asks for no return:

Quare illud satis est si te permittis amari

Nam contra ut sit amor mutuus, unde mihi?

[Footnote 1:

Dequa saepe tibi, venit? sed, Tucca, videre

Non licet. Occulitur limine clausa viri.

Dequa saepe tibi, non venit adhuc mihi; namque

Si occulitur, longe est tangere quod nequeas.

Venerit, audivi. Sed iam jnihi nuntius iste

Quid prodest? illi dicito cui rediit.]

[Footnote 2: See Horace, Sat. I. 10, 82; Servius on Ecl. IX. 7; Berne

Scholia on Ecl. VIII. 6.]

That is the trait surely that accounts for Horace's outburst of admiration.

Animae quales neque candidiores

Terra tulit.

The seventh is an epigram mildly twitting Varius for his insistence upon pure diction. The crusade for purity of speech had been given a new impetus a decade before by the Atticists, and we may here infer that Varius, the quondam friend of Catullus, was considered the guardian of that tradition. Vergil, despite his devotion to neat technique, may have had his misgivings about rules that in the end endanger the freedom of the poet. His early work ranged very widely in its experiments in style, and Horace's Ars Poetica written many years later shows that Vergil had to the very end been criticized by the extremists for taking liberties with the language. The epigram begins as though it were an erotic poem in the style of Philodemus. Then, having used the Greek word pothos, he checks himself as though dreading a frown from Varius, and substitutes the Latin word puer,

Scilicet hoc fraude, Vari dulcissime, dicam:

"Dispeream, nisi me perdidit iste pothos."

Sin autem praecepta vetant me dicere, sane

Non dicam, sed: "me perdidit iste puer."

For the comprehension of the personal allusions in the sixth and twelfth epigrams, we have as yet discovered no clue, and as they are trifles of no poetic value we may disregard them.

The fourteenth is, however, of very great interest. It purports to be a vow spoken before Venus' shrine at Sorrento pledging gifts of devotion in return for aid in composing the story of Trojan Aeneas.

Si mihi susceptum fuerit decurrere munus,

O Paphon, o sedes quae colis Idalias,

Troius Aeneas Romana per oppida digno

Iam tandem ut tecum carmine vectus eat:

Non ego ture modo aut picta tua templa tabella

Ornabo et puris serta feram manibus-

Corniger hos aries humilis et maxima taurus

Victima sacrato sparget honore focos

Marmoreusque tibi aut mille coloribus ales

In morem picta stabit Amor pharetra.

Adsis o Cytherea: tuos te Caesar Olympo

Et Surrentini litoris ara vocat.

The poem has hitherto been assigned to a period twenty years later. But surely this youthful ferment of hope and anxiety does not represent the composure of a man who has already published the Georgics. The eager offering of flowers and a many-hued statue of Cupid reminds one rather of the youth who in the Ciris begged for inspiration with hands full of lilies and hyacinths.

However, we are not entirely left to conjecture. There is indubitable evidence that Vergil began an epic at this time, some fifteen years before he published the Georgics. It seems clear also that the epic was an Aeneid, with Julius Caesar in the background, and that parts of the early epic were finally merged into the great work of his maturity. The question is of such importance to the study of Vergil's developing art that we may be justified in going fully into the evidence[3]. As it happens we are fortunate in having several references to this early effort. The ninth Catalepton, written in 42, mentions the poet's ambition to write a national poem worthy of a place among the great classics of Greece (l.62):

Si patrio Graios carmine adire sales.

The sixth Eclogue begins with an allusion to it:

Prima Syracusio dignata est ludere versu

Nostra, nec erubuit silvas habitare Thalia.

Cum canerem reges et proelia, Cynthius aurem

Vellit et admonuit, pastorem Tityre pinguis

Pascere oportet oves, deductum dicere carmen.

[Footnote 3: Cf. Classical Quarterly, 1920, 156.]

This may be paraphrased: "My first song-the Culex-was a pastoral strain. When later I essayed to sing of kings and battles, Phoebus warned me to return to my shepherd song." On this passage Servius has the comment: significat aut Aeneidem aut gesta regum Albanorum. Donatus finally in his Vita says explicitly: mox cum res Romanas inchoasset, offensus materia, ad Bucolica transit. The poem, therefore, was on the stocks before the Bucolics. We may surmise that the death of Caesar, whose deeds seem to have brought the idea of such a poem to Vergil's mind, caused him to lay the work aside.

Returning to the fourteenth Catalepton, we find what seems to be a definite key to the date and circumstances of its writing. The closing lines are:

Adsis, o Cytherea: tuos te Caesar Olympo

Et Surrentini litoris ara vocat.

It was on September 26 in 46 B.C., that Julius Caesar so strikingly called attention to his claims of descent from Venus and Aeneas by dedicating a temple to Venus Genetrix, the mother of the Julian gens. It was on that day that Caesar "called Venus from heaven" to dwell in her new temple.[4]

[Footnote 4: Cassius Dio, 43, 22; Appian, II. 102. There is independent proof that Catalepton XIV is earlier than the Georgics. In Georgics II, 146, Vergil repeats the phrase maxima taurus victima, but the phrase must have had its origin in the Catalepton, since here maxima balances humilis. In the Georgics the phrase is merely a verbal reminiscence, for there is nothing in the context there to explain maxima. On the order of composition of the Aeneid, see M.M. Crump, The Growth of the Aeneid]

Was not this the act that prompted the happy idea of writing the epic of Aeneas? Vergil was then living at Naples, and we can picture the poet fevered with the new impulse, sailing away from his lectures across the fair bay for a day's brooding. Could one find a more fitting place than Venus's shrine at Sorrento for the invocation of the Aeneid?

How far this first attempt proceeded we shall probably not know. Vergil's own words would imply that his early effort centered about Aeneas' wars in Italy; the sixth Eclogue,

Cum canerem reges et proelia,

is rather explicit on this point. Furthermore, the erroneous reference of Calaeno's omen to Anchises in the seventh book (l. 122) would indicate that t

his part at least was written before the harpy-scene of the third, for the latter is so extensive that the poet could hardly have forgotten it if it had already been written.

It is, however, in reading the first and fifth books that I think we may profit most by keeping in mind the fact that the poet had begun the Aeneid before Caesar's death. In Book I, 286 ff., occurs a passage which Servius referred to Julius Caesar. It reads:

Nascetur pulchra Troianus origine Caesar,

Imperium Oceano, famam qui terminet astris,

Iulius, a magno demissum nomen Iulo.

Hunc tu olim caelo, spoliis Orientis onustum,

Accipies secura; uocabitur his quoque uotis.[5]

[Footnote 5: The following lines (291-6) refer to the succeeding reign of Augustus as the poet is careful to indicate in the words tum positis-bellis.]

Very few modern editors have dared accept Servius' judgment here, and yet if we may think of these lines as adapted from (say) an original dedication to Julius Caesar written about 45 B.C., the difficulties of the commentators will vanish. The facts that Vergil seems to have in mind are these: in September 46 B.C., Julius Caesar, after returning from Thapsus, celebrated his four great triumphs over Gaul, Egypt, Pontus, and Africa, displaying loads of booty such as had never before been seen at Rome. He then gave an extended series of athletic games, of the kind described in Vergil's fifth book, including a restoration of the ancient ludus Troiae. When these were over he dedicated the temple of Venus Genetrix, thereby publicly announcing his descent from Venus, and presently proclaimed his own superhuman rank more explicitly by placing a statue of himself among the gods on the Capitoline (Dio, XLIII, 14-22). Are not the phrases, imperium Oceano and spoliis Orientis onustum a direct reference to this triumph which, of course, Vergil saw? And did not these dedications inspire the prophecy uocabitur hic quoque uotis? Be that as it may, it is difficult to refuse credence to Servius in this case, for Vergil here (I, 267-274 and 283) accepts Julius Caesar's claim of descent from Iulus, whereas in the sixth book, in speaking of the descent of the royal Roman line, he derives it, as was regularly done in Augustus' day, from Silvius the son of Aeneas and Lavinia (VI, 763 ff.). We must notice also that in the Aeneid as in the Georgics Augustus is regularly called 'Augustus Caesar' or 'Caesar,' whereas in the only other references to Julius in the Aeneid the poet explicitly points to him by saying 'Caesar et omnis Iuli progenies' (VI, 789).

Servius, therefore, seems to be correct in regarding Julius as the subject of the passage in the first book, and it follows that the passage contains memories of the year 46 B.C., whether or not the lines were, as I suggest, first written soon after Caesar's triumph.

The fifth book also, despite the fact that its beginning and end show a late hand, contains much that can be best brought into connection with Vergil's earlier years. It is, for instance, easier to comprehend the poet's references to Memmius, Catiline, and Cluentius in the forties than twenty years later.

Vergil's strange comparison of Messalla to the superbus Eryx in Catalepton IX, written in 42 B.C.,[6] is also readily explained if we may assume that he has recently studied the Eryx myth in preparation for the contest of Book V (11. 392-420). The poet's enthusiasm for the _ludus Troiae is well understood as a description of what he saw at Caesar's re-introduction of the spectacle in 46. At Caesar's games Octavian, then sixteen years of age, must have led one of the troops:[7] in the fifth book Atys the ancestor of Octavian's maternal line led one column by the side of Iulus:

Alter Atys, genus unde Atii duxere Latini (1. 568).

[Footnote 6: See Chapter VIII.]

[Footnote 7: The brief account of Nicolaus of Damascus (9) mentions that

Octavius had charge of the Greek plays at the triumphal games.]

Then, too, marks of youth pervade the substance of the book. The questionable witticisms might perhaps be attributed to an attempt to relieve the strain, but there is an unusual amount of Homeric imitation, and inartistic allusion to contemporaries which, as in the youthful Bucolics, destroys the dramatic illusion. Thus, Vergil not only dwells upon the ancestry of the Memmii, Sergii, and Cluentii, but insists upon reminding the reader of Catiline's conspiracy in the Sergestus, furens animi, who dashes upon the rock in his mad eagerness to win, and obtrudes etymology in the phrase segnem Menoeten (1. 173). One is tempted to suspect that the whole narrative of the boat-race is filled with pragmatic allusions. If the characters of his epic must be connected with well-known Roman families, it is at least interesting that the connections are indicated in the fifth book and not in the passages where the names first meet the reader. Does it not appear that the body of the book was composed long before the rest, and then left at the poet's death not quite furbished to the fastidious taste of a later day?

Finally, I would suggest that the strange and still unexplained[8] omen of Acestes' burning arrow in 11. 520 ff. probably refers to some event of importance to Segesta in the same year, 46 B.C. We are told by the author of the Bellum Africanum that Caesar mustered his troops for the African campaign at Lilybaeum in the winter of 47. We are not told that while there he ascended the mountain, offered sacrifices to Venus Erycina, and ordered his statue to be placed in her temple, or that he gave favors to the people of Segesta who had the care of that temple. But he probably did something of that kind, for as he had already vowed his temple to Venus Genetrix he could hardly have remained eight days at Lilybaeum so near the shrine of Aeneas' Venus without some act of filial devotion. If Vergil wrote any part of the fifth book in or soon after 46 this would seem to be the solution of the obscure passage in question.

[Footnote 8: See however DeWitt, The Arrow of Acestes, Am. Jour. Phil. 1920, 369.]

It is of importance then in the study of the Aeneid to keep in mind the fact that the plot was probably shaped and many episodes blocked out while Vergil was young and Julius Caesar still the dominant figure in Rome. Many scenes besides those in the fifth book may find a new meaning in this suggestion. Does it not explain why so many traits in Dido's character irresistibly suggest Cleopatra,[9] why half the lines of the fourth book are reminiscent of Caesar's dallying in Egypt in 47? Do not the protracted battle scenes of the last book-otherwise so un-Vergilian-remind one of Caesar's never-ending campaigns against foes springing up in all quarters, and of the fact that Vergil had himself recently had a share in the struggle? The young Octavius, also, whose boyhood is so sympathetically sketched by Nicolaus (5-9)-a leader among his companions always, but ever devoted and generous-seems to peer through the portrait of Ascanius.[10] Vergil's memories of the boy at school, the recipient of the Culex, the leader of the Trojan troop at Caesar's games, the lad of sixteen sitting for a day in the forum as praefectus urbi, seem very recent in the pages of the epic.

[Footnote 9: Nettleship, Ancient Lives of Virgil, 104; Warde Fowler, Religious Experience of the Roman People, p. 415.]

[Footnote 10: See Warde Fowler, The Death of Turnus, pp. 87-92, on the character of Ascanius.]

It would be futile to attempt to pick out definite lines and claim that these were parts of the youthful poem. Indeed the artistry of most of the verses discussed is, as any reader will notice, more on the plane of the later work than of the Ciris, written about 47-3 B.C. It is safe to say that Vergil did not in his youth write the sonorous lines of Aen. I, 285-290, just as they now stand. But as we may learn from the Ciris, which Vergil attempted to suppress, no poet has more successfully retouched lines written in youth and fitted them into mature work without leaving a trace of the process.

Critics have always expressed their admiration for the comprehensive scope of the Aeneid, its depth of learning, its finished artistry, and its wide range of observation. The substantial character of the poem is not a mystery to us when we consider how long its theme lay in the poet's mind.

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