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Vergil / A Biography By Tenney Frank Characters: 17586

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02

Vergil's dedication of the Ciris to Valerius Messalla was, as the poem itself reveals, written several years after the main body of the poem. The most probable date is 43 B.C., when the young nobleman, then only about twenty-one, went with Cicero's blessing[1] to join Brutus and Cassius in their fight for the Republic. Messalla had then, besides making himself an adept at philosophy-at Naples perhaps, since Vergil knew him-and stealing away student hours at Athens for Greek verse writing, gained no little renown by taking a lawsuit against the most learned lawyer of the day, Servius Sulpicius. Cicero's letter of commendation, which we still have, is unusually laudatory.

[Footnote 1: Cicero, Ad Brutum, I, 15.]

The dedication of the Ciris reveals Vergil still eager to win his place as a rival of Lucretius. We may paraphrase it thus:

"Having tried in vain for the favor of the populace, I am now in the 'Garden' seeking a theme worthy of philosophy, though I have spent many years to other purpose. Now I have dared to ascend the mountain of wisdom where but few have ventured. Yet I must complete these verses that I have begun so that the Muses may cease to entice me further. Oh, if only wisdom, the mistress of the four sages of old, would lead me to her tower whence I might from afar view the errors of men; I should not then honor one so great with a theme so trifling, but I should weave a marvelous fabric like Athena's pictured robe … a great poem on Nature, and into its texture I should weave your name. But for that my powers are still too frail. I can only offer these verses on which I have spent many hours of my early school-days, a vow long promised and now fulfilled."

It is apparent that the student still throbs with a desire to become a poet of philosophy, and that he is willing to appease the muses of lighter song only because they insist on returning. But there is another poem addressed to Messalla that is equally full of personal interest.

Messalla, as we know from Plutarch's Brutus, drawn partly from the young man's diary, joined Cassius in Asia, and did noteworthy service in helping his general win the Eastern provinces from the Euxine to Syria for the Republican cause. Later at Philippi he led the cavalry charge which broke through the triumvirate line and captured Octavius' camp. That was the famous first battle of Philippi, prematurely reported in Italy as a decisive victory for the Republican cause. Three weeks later the forces clashed again and the triumvirs won a complete victory. Messalla, who had been chosen commander by the defeated remnant, recognized the hopelessness of his position and surrendered to the victors.

Vergil's ninth Catalepton seems to have been written as a paean in honor of Messalla on receipt of the first incomplete report. The poem does not by any means imply that Vergil favored Brutus and Cassius or felt any ill-will towards Octavian. Vergil's regard for Messalla was clearly a personal matter, and of such a nature that political differences played no part in it. The poet's complete silence in the poem about Brutus and Cassius indicates that it is not to any extent the cause which interests him. Nor can a eulogy of a young republican at this time be considered as implying any ill-will toward Octavian, to whom Vergil was always devoted. At this early day Antony was still looked upon as the dominating person in the triumvirate, and for him Vergil had no love whatever. He may, therefore, though a Caesarian and friendly to Octavian, sing the praises of a personal friend who is fighting Antony's triumvirate.

The ninth Catalepton, like most eulogistic verse thrown off at high speed, has few good lines (indeed it was probably never finished), but it is exceedingly interesting as a document in Vergil's life.

Since it has generally been placed about fifteen years too late and therefore misunderstood, we must dwell at length on some of its significant details. The poem can be briefly summarized:

"A conqueror you come, the great glory of a mighty triumph, a victor on land and sea over barbarian tribes; and yet a poet too. Some of your verses have found a place in my pages, pastoral songs in which two shepherds lying under the spreading oak sing in honor of your heroine to whom the divinities bring gifts. The heroine of your song shall be more famous than the themes of Greek song, yes even than the Roman Lucrece for whose honor your sires drove the tyrants out of Rome."

"Great are the honors that Rome has bestowed upon the liberty-loving (Publicolas) Messallas for that and other deeds. So I need not sing of your recent exploits: how you left your home, your son, and the forum, to endure winter's chill and summer's heat in warfare on land and sea. And now you are off to Africa and Spain and beyond the seas."

"Such deeds are too great for my song. I shall be satisfied if I can but praise your verses."

The most significant passage is the implied comparison of Valerius Messalla with the founder of the Valerian family who had aided the first Brutus in establishing the republic as he now was aiding the last Brutus in restoring it. The comparison is the more startling because our Messalla later explicitly rejected all connection with the first Valerius and seems never to have used the cognomen Publicola. The explanation of Vergil's passage is obvious.[2] The poet hearing of Messalla's remarkable exploit at Philippi saw at once that his association with Brutus would remind every Roman of the events of 509 B.C., and that the populace would as a matter of course acclaim the young hero by the ancient cognomen "Publicola." Later, after his defeat and submission, Messalla had of course to suppress every indication that might connect him with "tyrannicide" stock or faction. The poem, therefore, must have been written before Messalla's surrender in 42 B.C.

[Footnote 2: The argument is given in full in Classical Philology, 1920, p. 36.]

The poet's silences and hesitation in touching upon this subject of civil war are significant of his mood. The principals of the triumph receive not a word: his friend is the "glory" of a triumph led by men whose names are apparently not pleasant memories. Nor is there any exultation over a presumed defeat of "tyrants" and a restoration of a "republic." The exploit of Messalla that Vergil especially stresses is the defeat of "barbarians," naturally the subjection of the Thracian and Pontic tribes and of the Oriental provinces earlier in the year. And the assumption is made (1. 51 ff.) that Messalla has, as a recognition of his generalship, been chosen to complete the war in Africa, Spain, and Britain. Most significant of all is Vergil's blunt confession that his mind is not wholly at ease concerning the theme (II. 9-12): "I am indeed strangely at a loss for words, for I will confess that what has impelled me to write ought rather to have deterred me." Could he have been more explicit in explaining that Messalla's exploits, for which he has friendly praise, were performed in a cause of which his heart did not approve? And does not this explain why he gives so much space to Messalla's verses, and why he so quickly passes over the victory of Philippi with an assertion of his incapacity for doing it justice?

To the biographer, however, the passage praising Messalla's Greek pastorals is the most interesting for it reveals clearly how Vergil came to make the momentous decision of writing pastorals. Since Messalla's verses were in Greek they had, of course, been written two years before this while he was a student at Athens. Would that we knew this heroine upon whom he represents the divinities as bestowing gifts! Propertius, who acknowledged Mesalla as his patron later employed this same motive of celestial adoration in honor of Cynthia (II. 3, 25), but surely Messalla's herois was, to judge from Vergil's comparison, a person of far higher station than Cynthia. Could she have been the lady he married upon his return from Athens? Such a treatment of a woman of social station would be in line with the customs of the "new poets," Catullus, Calvus, and Ticidas, rather than of the Augustans, Gallus, Propertius, and Tibullus. Vergil himself used the motive in the second Eclogue (l. 46), a reminiscence which, doubtless with many others that we are unable to trace, Messalla must have recognized as his own.

The pastoral which Vergil had translated from Messalla is quite fully described:

Molliter hic viridi patulae sub tegmine quercus

Moeris pastores et Meliboeus erant,

Dulcia jactantes alterno carmina versu

Qualia Trinacriae doctus amat iuvenis.

That is, of course, the very beginning of his own Eclogues. When he published them he placed at

the very beginning the well-known line that recalled Messalla's own line:

Tityre, tu patulae recubans sub tegmine fagi.

What can this mean but a graceful reminder to Messalla that it was he who had inspired the new effort?[3]

[Footnote 3: Roman writers frequently observed the graceful custom of acknowledging their source of inspiration by weaving in a recognizable phrase or line from the master into the very first sentence of a new work: cf. Arma virumque cano-[Greek: Andra moi ennepe] (Lundstr?m, Eranos, 1915, p. 4). Shelley responding to the same impulse paraphrased Bion's opening lines in "I weep for Adonais-he is dead."]

We may conclude then that Vergil's use of that line as the title of his Eclogues is a recognition of Messalla's influence. Conversely it is proof, if proof were needed, that the ninth Catalepton is Vergil's. We may then interpret line thirteen of the ninth Catalepton:

pauca tua in nostras venerunt carmina chartas,

as a statement that in the autumn of 42, Vergil had already written some of his Eclogues, and that these early ones-presumably at least numbers II, III, and VII-contain suggestions from Messalla.

There was, of course, no triumph, and Vergil's eulogy was never sent, indeed it probably never was entirely completed.[4] Messalla quickly made his peace with the triumvirs, and, preferring not to return to Rome in disgrace, cast his lot with Antony who remained in the East. Vergil, who thoroughly disliked Antony, must then have felt that for the present, at least, a barrier had been raised between him and Messalla. Accordingly the Ciris also was abandoned and presently pillaged for other uses.

[Footnote 4: It ought, therefore, not to be used seriously in discussions of Vergil's technique.]

The news of Philippi was soon followed by orders from Octavian-to be thoroughly accurate we ought of course to call him Caesar-that lands must now, according to past pledges, be procured in Italy for nearly two hundred thousand veterans. Every one knew that the cities that had favored the liberators, and even those that had tried to preserve their neutrality, would suffer. Vergil could, of course, guess that lands in the Po Valley would be in particular demand because of their fertility. The first note of fear is found in his eighth Catalepton:

Villula, quae Sironis eras, et pauper agelle,

Verum illi domino tu quoque divitiae,

Me tibi et hos una mecum, quos semper amavi,

Si quid de patria tristius audiero,

Commendo imprimisque patrem: tu nunc eris illi

Mantua quod fuerat quodque Cremona prius.

It is usually assumed from this passage that Siro had recently died, probably, therefore, some time in 42 B.C., and that, in accordance with a custom frequently followed by Greek philosophers at Rome, he had left his property to his favorite pupil. The garden school, therefore, seems to have come to an end, though possibly Philodemus may have continued it for the few remaining years of his life. Siro's villa apparently proved attractive to Vergil, for he made Naples his permanent home, despite the gift of a house on the Esquiline from Maecenas.

This, however, is not Vergil's last mention of Siro, if we may believe Servius, who thinks that "Silenum" in the sixth Eclogue stands for "Sironem," its metrical equivalent. If, as seems wholly likely, Servius is right, the sixth Eclogue is a fervid tribute to a teacher who deserves not to be forgotten in the story of Vergil's education. The poem has been so strangely misinterpreted in recent years that it is time to follow out Servius' suggestion and see whether it does not lead to some conclusions.[5]

[Footnote 5: Skutsch roused a storm of discussion over it by insisting that it was a catalogue of poems written by Gallus (Aus Vergils Frühzeit.) Cartault, étude sur les Bucoliques de Virgile (p. 285), almost accepts Servius' suggestion: "un résumé de ses lectures et de ses études."]

After an introduction to Varus the poem tells how two shepherds found Silenus off his guard, bound him, and demanded songs that he had long promised. The reader will recall, of course, how Plato also likened his teacher Socrates to Silenus. Silenus sang indeed till hills and valleys thrilled with the music: of creation of sun and moon, the world of living things, the golden age, and of the myths of Prometheus, Phaeton, Pasipha?, and many others; he even sang of how Gallus had been captured by the Muses and been made a minister of Apollo.

A strange pastoral it has seemed to many! And yet not so strange when we bear in mind that the books of Philodemus reveal Vergil and Quintilius Varus as fellow students at Naples. Surely Servius has provided the key. The whole poem, with its references to old myths, is merely a rehearsal of schoolroom reminiscences, as might have been guessed from the fine Lucretian rhythms with which it begins:

Namque canebat, uti magnum per inane coacta

Semina terrarumque animaeque marisque fuissent

Et liquidi simul ignis; ut his exordia primis

Omnia et ipse tener mundi concreverit orbis;

Tum durare solum et discludere Nerea ponto

Coeperit, et rerum paulatim sumere formas;

Iamque novum terrae stupeant lucescere solem.

Altius atque cadant summotis nubibus imbres;

Incipiant silvae cum primum surgere, cumque

Rara per ignaros errent animalia montis.

The myths that follow are meant to continue this list of subjects, only with somewhat less blunt obviousness. They suggested to Varus the usual Epicurean theories of perception, imagination, passion, and mental aberrations, subjects that Siro must have discussed in some such way as Lucretius treated them in his third and fourth books of the De Rerum Natura.

It is, of course, not to be supposed that Siro had lectured upon mythology as such. But the Epicurean teachers, despite their scorn for legends, employed them for pedagogical purposes in several ways. Lucretius, for instance, uses them sometimes for their picturesqueness, as in the prooemium and again in the allegory of the seasons (V. 732). He also employs them in a Euhemeristic fashion, explaining them as popular allegories of actual human experiences, citing the myths of Tantalus and Sisyphus, for example, as expressions of the ever-present dread of punishment for crimes. Indeed Vergil himself in the Aetna-if it be his-somewhat na?vely introduced the battle of the giants for its picturesque interest. It is only after he had enjoyed telling the story in full that he checked himself with the blunt remark:

(1. 74) Haec est mendosae vulgata licentia famae.

Lucretius is little less amusing in his rejection of the Cybele myth, after a lovely passage of forty lines (II, 600) devoted to it.

Vergil was, therefore, on familiar ground when he tried to remind his schoolmate of Siro's philosophical themes by designating each of them by means of an appropriate myth. Perhaps we, who unlike Varus have not heard the original lectures, may not be able in every case to discover the theme from the myth, but the poet has at least set us out on the right scent by making the first riddles very easy. The lapides Pyrrhae (I. 41) refer of course to the creation of man; Saturnia regna is, in Epicurean lore, the primitive life of the early savages; furtum Promethei (I. 42) must refer to Epicurus' explanation of how fire came from clashing trees and from lightning. The story of Hylas (I. 43) probably reminded Varus of Siro's lecture on images and reflection, Pasipha? (I. 46) of unruly passions, explained perhaps as in Lucretius' fourth book, Atalanta (I. 61) of greed, and Phaeton of ambition. As for Scylla, Vergil had himself in the Ciris (I. 69) mentioned, only to reject, the allegorical interpretation here presented, according to which she portrays:

"the sin of lustfulness and love's incontinence."

Vergil had not then met Siro, but he may have read some of his lectures.

Finally, the strange lines on Cornelius Gallus might find a ready explanation if we knew whether or not Gallus had also been a member of the Neapolitan circle. Probus, if we may believe him, suggests the possibility in calling him a schoolmate of Vergil's, and a plausible interpretation of this eclogue turns that possibility into a probability. The passage (II. 64-73) may well be Vergil's way of recalling to Varus a well-beloved fellow-student who had left the circle to become a poet.

The whole poem, therefore, is a delightful commentary upon Vergil's life in Siro's garden, written probably after Siro had died, the school closed, and Varus gone off to war. The younger man's school days are now over; he had found his idiom in a poetic form to which Messalla's experiments had drawn him. The Eclogues are already appearing in rapid succession.

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