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   Chapter 8 EPICUREAN POLITICS

Vergil / A Biography By Tenney Frank Characters: 12334

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


Caesar fell on the Ides of March, 44. The peaceful philosophic community at Herculaneum "seeking wisdom in daily intercourse" must have felt the shock as of an earthquake, despite Epicurean scorn for political ambition. Caesar had been friendly to the school; his father-in-law, Piso, had been Philodemus' life-long friend and patron, and, if we may believe Cicero, even at times a boon companion. Several of Caesar's nearest friends were Epicureans of the Neapolitan bay. Their future depended wholly upon Caesar. Dolabella was Antony's colleague in that year's consulship, while Hirtius and Pansa had been chosen consuls for the following year by Caesar. To add to the shock, the liberators had been led by a recent convert to the school, Cassius.

The community as a whole was Caesarian, a fact explained not wholly by Piso's relations to Philodemus and the friendly attitude of so many followers of Caesar, but also by the consideration that the leading spirits were Transpadanes: Vergil, Varius and Quintilius, at least. But at Rome the political struggle soon turned itself into a contest to decide not whether Caesar's regime should be honored and continued in the family-Octavius seemed at first too young to be a decisive factor-but whether Antony would be able to make himself Caesar's successor. When in July Brutus and Cassius were out-manoeuvered by Antony, and Cicero fled helplessly from Rome, it was Piso who stepped into the breach, not to support Brutus and Cassius, but to check the usurpation of Antony. This gave Cicero a program. In September he entered the lists against Antony; in December he accepted the support of Octavian who had with astonishing daring for a youth of eighteen collected a strong army of Caesar's veterans and placed himself at the service of Cicero and the Senate in their warfare against Antony. Spring found the new consuls, Hirtius and Pansa, both Caesarians, with the aid of Octavian, Caesar's heir, besieging Antony at the bidding of the Senate in the defence of Decimus Brutus, one of Caesar's murderers! Such was Cicero's skill in generalship. Of course Caesarians were not wholly pleased with this turn of events. Cicero's success would mean not only the elimination of Antony-to which they did not object-but also the recall of Brutus and Cassius, and the consequent elimination of themselves from political influence. Piso accordingly began to waver. While assuring the Senate of his continued support in their efforts to render Antony harmless, he refused to follow Cicero's leadership in attempting the complete restoration of Brutus' party. Cicero's Philippics dwell with no little concern upon this phase of the question.

We would expect the Garden group, friendly to the memory of Caesar, to adopt the same point of view as Piso and for the same reasons. They could hardly have sympathized with the murderers of Caesar. On the other hand, they had no reason for supporting the usurpations of Antony, and seem to have enjoyed Cicero's Philippics in so far as these attacked Antony. Extreme measures were, however, not agreeable to Epicureans, who in general had nothing but condemnation for civil war. However, Octavian's strong stand could only have pleased them: Caesar's grand-nephew and heir would naturally be to them a sympathetic figure.

A fragment of Philodemus, recently deciphered,[1] reveals the teacher adopting in his lectures the very point of view which we have already found in Piso. The fragment is brief and mutilated, but so much is clear: Philodemus criticizes the party of Cicero for carrying the attack upon Antony to such extremes that through fear of the liberators a reaction in favor of Antony might set in. We find this position reflected even in Vergil. He never speaks harshly of the liberators, to be sure; in fact his indirect reference to Brutus in the Aeneid is remarkably sympathetic for an Augustan poet, but we have two epigrams of his attacking partizans of Antony in terms that remind us of passages in Cicero's Philippics. It would almost appear that Vergil now drew his themes for lampoons from Cicero's unforgettable phrases,[2] as Catullus had done some fifteen years before. How thoroughly Vergil disliked Antony may be seen in the familiar line in the Aeneid which Servius recognized as an allusion to that usurper (Aen. VI. 622):

Fixit leges pretio atque refixit.

[Footnote 1: Hermes, 1918, p. 382.]

[Footnote 2: Three other epigrams, VI, XII, XIII, have been assumed by some critics to be direct attacks upon Antony, but the key to them has been lost and certainty is no longer attainable.]

If Servius is correct, we have here again a reminder of those stormy years. This, too, is a dagger drawn from Cicero's armory. Again and again the orator in the Philippics charges Antony with having used Caesar's seal ring for lucrative forgeries in state documents. It is interesting to find that Vergil's school friend, Varius, in his poem on Caesar's death, called De Morte[3] first put Cicero's charges into effective verse:

Vendidit hic Latium populis agrosque Quiritum

Eripuit: fixit leges pretio atque refixit.

[Footnote 3: Some recent critics have suggested that the poem may have been a general discussion of the fear of death, but Varius is constantly referred to as an epic poet (Horace, Sat. I. 10, 43; Carm. I. 6 and Porphyrio ad loc). His poem was written before Vergil's eighth Eclogue which we place in 41 B.C. (Macrobius, Sat. VI. 2. 20) and probably before the ninth (see I.36).]

The reference here, too, must have been to Antony. The circle was clearly in harmony in their political views.

The two creatures of Antony attacked by Cicero and Vergil alike are Ventidius and Annius Cimber. The epigram on the former takes the form of a parody of Catullus' "Phasellus ille," a poem which Vergil had good reason to remember, since Catullus' yacht had been towed up the Mincio past Vergil's home when he was a lad of about thirteen. Indeed we hope he was out fishing that day and shared his catch with the home-returning travelers. Parodies are usually not works of artistic importance, and this for all its epigrammatic n

eatness is no exception to the rule. But it is not without interest to catch the poet at play for a moment, and learn his opinion on a political character of some importance.

Ventidius had had a checkered career. After captivity, possibly slavery and manumission, Caesar had found him keeping a line of post horses and pack mules for hire on the great Aemilian way, and had drafted him into his transport service during the Gallic War. He suddenly became an important man, and of course Caesar let him, as he let other chiefs of departments, profit by war contracts. It was the only way he could hold men of great ability on very small official salaries. Vergil had doubtless heard of the meteoric rise of this mulio even when he was at school, for the post-road for Caesar's great trains of supplies led through Cremona. After the war Caesar rewarded Ventidius further by letting him stand for magistracies and become a senator-which of course shocked the nobility. Muleteers in the Senate! The man changed his cognomen to be sure, called himself Sabinus on the election posters, but Vergil remembered what name he bore at Cremona. Caesar finally designated him for the judge's bench, as praetor, and this high office he entered in 43. He at once attached himself to Antony, who used him as an agent to buy the service of Caesarian veterans for his army. It was this that stirred Cicero's ire, and Cicero did not hesitate to expose the man's career. Vergil's lampoon is interesting then not only in its connections with Catullus and the poet's own boyhood memories, but for its reminiscences of Cicero's speeches and the revelation of his own sympathies in the partizan struggle. The poem of Catullus and Vergil's parody must be read side by side to reveal the purport of Vergil's epigram.

Phaselus ille, quem videtis, hospites,

Ait fuisse navium celerrimus,

Neque ullius natantis impetum trabis

Nequisse praeterire, sive palmulis

Opus foret volare sive linteo.

Et hoc negat minacis Adriatici

Negare litus insulasve Cycladas

Rhodumque nobilem horridamque Thraciam

Propontida trucemve Ponticum sinum,

Ubi iste post phaselus antea fuit

Comata silva: nam Cytorio in iugo

Loquente saepe sibilum edidit coma.

Amastri Pontica et Cytore buxifer,

Tibi haec fuisse et esse cognitissima

Ait phaselus: ultima ex origine

Tuo stetisse dicit in cacumine,

Tuo imbuisse palmulas in aequore,

Et inde tot per inpotentia freta

Erum tulisse, laeva sive dextera

Vocaret aura, sive utrumque Iuppiter

Simul secundus incidisset in pedem;

Neque ulla vota litoralibus deis

Sibi esse facta, cum veniret a mari

Novissimo hunc ad usque limpidum lacum.

Sed haec prius fuere; nunc recondita

Senet quiete seque dedicat tibi,

Gemelle Castor et gemelle Castoris.

Vergil's parody,[4] which substitutes the mule-team plodding through the Gallic mire for Catullus' graceful yacht speeding home from Asia, follows the original phraseology with amusing fidelity:

Sabinus ille, quem videtis, hospites

Ait fuisse mulio celerrimus,

Neque ullius volantis impetum cisi

Nequisse praeterire, sive Mantuam

Opus foret volare sive Brixiam.

Et hoc negat Tryphonis aemuli domum

Negare nobilem insulamve Caeruli,

Ubi iste post Sabinus, ante Quinctio

Bidente dicit attodisse forcipe

Comata colla, ne Cytorio iugo

Premente dura volnus ederet iuba.

Cremona frigida et lutosa Gallia,

Tibi haec fuisse et esse cognitissima

Ait Sabinus: ultima ex origine

Tua stetisse (dicit) in voragine,

Tua in palude deposisse sarcinas

Et inde tot per orbitosa milia

Iugum tulisse, laeva sive dextera

Strigare mula sive utrumque coeperat

* * * * *

Neque ulla vota semitalibus deis

Sibi esse facta praeter hoc novissimum,

Paterna lora proximumque pectinem.

Sed haec prius fuere: mine eburnea

Sedetque sede seque dedicat tibi,

Gemelle Castor et gemelle Castoris.

[Footnote 4: See Classical Philology, 1920, p. 114.]

The other epigram referred to (Catalefton II) also attacks a creature of Antony's, Annius Cimber, a despised rhetorician who had been helped to high political office by Antony. Again Cicero's Philippics (XI. 14) serve as our best guide for the background.

Corinthiorum amator iste verborum,

Iste iste rhetor, namque quatenus totus

Thucydides, Britannus, Attice febris!

Tau Gallicum min et sphin ut male illisit,

Ita omnia ista verba miscuit fratri.

It might be paraphrased: "a maniac for archaic words, a rhetor indeed, he is as much and as little a Thucydides as he is a British prince, the bane of Attic style! It was a dose of archaic words and Celtic brogue, I fancy, that he concocted for his brother."

There seem to be three points of attack. Cimber, to judge from Cicero's invective, was suspected of having risen from servile parentage, and of trying, as freedmen then frequently did, to pass as a descendant of some unfortunate barbarian prince. Since his brogue was Celtic (tau Gallicum) he could readily make a plausible story of being British. Vergil seems to imply that the brogue as well as the name Cimber had been assumed to hide his Asiatic parentage. The second point seems to be that Cimber, though a teacher of rhetoric, was so ignorant of Greek, that while proclaiming himself an Atticist, he used non-Attic forms and vaunted Thucydides instead of Lysias as the model of the simple style. Finally, it was rumored, and Cicero affects to believe the tale, that Cimber was not without guilt in the death of his brother. Vergil is, of course, not greatly concerned in deriding Atticism itself: to this school Vergil must have felt less aversion than to Antony's flowery style; it is the perversion of the doctrine that amuses the poet.

Taken in conjunction with other hints, these two poems show us where the poet's sympathies lay during those years of terror. There may well have been a number of similar epigrams directed at Antony himself, but if so they would of course have been destroyed during the reign of the triumvirate. Antony's vindictiveness knew no bounds, as Rome learned when Cicero was murdered.

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