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   Chapter 12 THE EVICTIONS

Vergil / A Biography By Tenney Frank Characters: 13772

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


The first and ninth Eclogues, and only these, concern the confiscations of land at Cremona and Mantua which threatened to deprive Vergil's father of his estates and consequently the poet of his income. There seems to be no way of deciding which is the earlier. Ancient commentators, following the order of precedence, interpreted the ninth as an indication of a second eviction, but there seems to be no sound reason for agreeing with them, since they are entirely too literal in their inferences. Conington sanely decides that only one eviction took place, and he places the ninth before the first in order of time. He may be right. The two poems at any rate belong to the early months of 41.

The obsequious scholiasts of the Empire have nowhere so thoroughly exposed their own mode of thought as in their interpretations of these two Eclogues. Knowing and caring little for the actual course of events, having no comprehension of the institutions of an earlier day, concerned only with extracting what is to them a dramatic story from the Eclogues, they put all the historical characters into impossible situations. The one thing of which they feel comfortably sure is that every Eclogue that mentions Pollio, Gallus and Alfenus Varus must have been a "bread and butter" poem written in gratitude for value received. Of the close literary associations of the time they seem to be unaware. To suit such purposes Pollio[1] is at times made governor of Cisalpine Gaul, and at times placed on the commission to colonize Cremona, Alfenus is made Pollio's "successor" in a province that does not exist, and Gallus is also made a colonial commissioner. If, however, we examine these statements in the light of facts provided by independent sources we shall find that the whole structure based upon the subjective inferences of the scholiasts falls to the ground.

[Footnote 1: See Diehl, Vitae Vergilianae, pp. 51 ff.]

We must first follow Pollio's career through this period. When the triumvirate was formed in 43, Pollio was made Antony's legatus in Cisalpine Gaul and promised the consulship for the year 40.[2] After Philippi, however, in the autumn of 42, Cisalpine Gaul was declared a part of Italy and, therefore, fell out of Pollio's control.[3] Nevertheless, he was not deprived of a command for the year remaining before his consulship (41 B.C.), but was permitted to withdraw to the upper end of the Adriatic with his army of seven legions.[4] His duty was doubtless to guard the low Venetian coast against the remnants of the republican forces still on the high seas, and, if he had time, to subdue the Illyrian tribes friendly to the republican cause.[5] During this year, in which Octavian had to besiege Lucius Antony at Perusia, Pollio, a legatus of Mark Antony, was naturally not on good terms with Octavian, and could hardly have used any influence in behalf of Vergil or any one else. After the Perusine war he joined Antony at Brundisium in the spring of 40, and acted as his spokesman at the conference which led to the momentous treaty of peace. We may, therefore, safely conclude that Pollio was neither governor nor colonial commissioner in Cisalpine Gaul when Cremona and Mantua were disturbed, nor could he have been on such terms with Octavian as to use his influence in behalf of Vergil. The eighth and fourth Eclogues which do honor to him, seem to have nothing whatever to do with material favors. They doubtless owe their origin to Pollio's position as a poet, and Pollio's interest in young men of letters.

[Footnote 2: Appian, IV. 2 and V. 22.]

[Footnote 3: Appian, V. 3 and V. 22.]

[Footnote 4: Velleius Paterculus, II. 76.2; Macrobius, Sat. I. XI. 22]

[Footnote 5: A task which he performed in 39.]

With regard to Alfenus and Gallus, the scholiasts remained somewhat nearer the truth, for they had at hand a speech of Callus criticizing the former for his behavior at Mantua. By quoting the precise words of this speech Servius[6] has provided us with a solid criterion for accepting what is consistent in the statements of Vergil's earlier biographers and eliminating some conjectures. The passage reads: "When ordered to leave unoccupied a district of three miles outside the city, you included within the district eight hundred paces of water which lies about the walls." The passage, of course, shows that Alfenus was a commissioner on the colonial board, as Servius says. It does not excuse Servius' error of making Alfenus Pollio's successor as provincial governor[7] after Cisalpine Gaul had become autonomous, nor does it imply that Alfenus had in any manner been generous to Vergil or to any one else. In fact it reveals Alfenus in the act of seizing an unreasonable amount of land. Vergil,[8] of course, recognizes Alfenus' position as commissioner in his ninth Eclogue where he promises him great glory if he will show mercy to Mantua:

Vare, tuum nomen, superet modo Mantua nobis …

And Vergil's appeal to him was reasonable, since he, too, was a man of literary ambitions.[9] But there is no proof that Alfenus gave ear to his plea; at any rate the poet never mentions him again. Servius' supposition that Alfenus had been of service to the poet[10] seems to rest wholly on the mistaken idea that the sixth Eclogue was obsequiously addressed to him. As we have seen, however, Quintilius Varus has a better claim to that poem.

[Footnote 6: Servius Dan. on Ecl. IX. 10; ex oratione Cornelii in

Alfenum. Cf. Kroll, in Rhein. Museum 1909, 52.]

[Footnote 7: Servius Dan. on Ecl. VI. 6.]

[Footnote 8: Vergil, Eclogue IX, 26-29.]

[Footnote 9: See Suffenus and Alfenus, Classical Quarterly, 1920, p. 160.]

[Footnote 10: On Eclogue. VI. 6.]

The quotation from the speech of Gallus also lends support to a statement in Servius that Gallus had been assigned to the duty of exacting moneys from cities which escaped confiscation.[11] For this we are duly grateful. It indicates how Alfenus and Gallus came into conflict since the latter's financial sphere would naturally be invaded if the former seized exempted territory for the extension of his new colony of Cremona. In such conditions we can realize that Gallus was, as a matter of course, interested in saving Mantua from confiscation, and that in this effort he may well have appealed to Octavian in Vergil's behalf. In fact his interpretation of the three-mile exemption might actually have saved Vergil's properties, which seem to have lain about that distance from the city.[12]

[Footnote 11: Servius Dan. on Ecl. VI. 64.]

[Footnote 12: Vita Probiana, milia passuum XXX is usually changed to

III on the basis of Donatus: a Mantua non procul.]

Again, however, there is little reason for the supposition that Vergil's Eclogues in honor of Gallus have any reference whatever to this affair. The sixth followed the death of Siro, and the t

enth seems to precede the days of colonial disturbances, if it has reference to Gallus as a soldier in Greece. If the sixth Eclogue refers to Siro, as Servius holds, then Vergil and Gallus had long been literary associates before the first and ninth were written.

The student of Vergil who has once compared the statements of the scholiasts with the historical facts at these few points, where they run parallel, will have little patience with the petty gossip which was elicited from the Eclogues. The story of Vergil's tiff with a soldier, for example, is apparently an inference from Menalcas' experience in Eclogue IX. 15; but "Menalcas" appears in four other Eclogues where he cannot be Vergil. The poet indeed was at Naples, as the eighth Catalepton proves. The estate in danger is not his, but that of his father, who presumably was the only man legally competent of action in case of eviction. Vergil's poem, to be sure, is a plea for Mantua, but it is clearly a plea for the whole town and not for his father alone. The landmark of the low hills and the beeches up to which the property was saved (IX.8) seems to be the limits of Mantua's boundaries, not of Vergil's estates on the low river-plains. We need not then concern ourselves in a Vergilian biography with the tale that Arrius or Clodius or Claudius or Milienus Toro chased the poet into a coal-bin or ducked him into the river.[13] The shepherds of the poem are typical characters made to pass through the typical experiences of times of distress.

[Footnote 13: See Diehl, Vitae Vergilianae, p. 58.]

The first Eclogue, Tityre tu, is even more general than the ninth in its application. Though, of course, it is meant to convey the poet's thanks to Octavian for a favorable decree, it speaks for all the poor peasants who have been saved. The aged slave, Tityrus, does not represent Vergil's circumstances, but rather those of the servile shepherd-tenants,[14] so numerous in Italy at this time. Such men, though renters, could not legally own property, since they were slaves. But in practice they were allowed and even encouraged to accumulate possessions in the hope that they might some day buy their freedom, and with freedom would naturally come citizenship and the full ownership of their accumulations. Many of the poor peasants scattered through Italy were coloni of this type and they doubtless suffered severely in the evictions. Tityrus is here pictured as going to the city to ask for his liberty, which would in turn ensure the right of ownership. Such is the allegory, simple and logical. It is only the old habit of confusing Tityrus with Vergil which has obscured the meaning of the poem. However, the real purpose of the poem lies in the second part where the poet expresses his sympathy for the luckless ones that are being driven from their homes; and that this represents a cry of the whole of Italy and not alone of his home town is evident from the fact that he sets the characters in typical shepherd country,[15] not in Mantuan scenery as in the ninth. The plaint of Meliboeus for those who must leave their homes to barbarians and migrate to Africa and Britain to begin life again is so poignant that one wonders in what mood Octavian read it. "En quo discordia cives produxit miseros!" was not very flattering to him.

[Footnote 14: See Leo, Hermes, 1903, p. 1 ff., questioned by Stampini, Le Bucoliche,'3 1905, p. 93.]

[Footnote 15: Capua and Nuceria were two of the cities near Naples where

Vergil could see the work of eviction near at hand.]

The very deep sympathy of Vergil for the poor exiles rings also through the Dirae, a very surprising poem which he wrote at this same time, but on second thought suppressed. It has the bitterness of the first Eclogue without its grace and tactful beginning. The triumvirs were in no mood to read a book of lamentations. "Honey on the rim" was Lucretius' wise precept, and it was doubtless a prudent impulse that substituted the Eclogue for the "Curses." The former probably accomplished little enough, the latter would not even have been read.

The Dirae takes the form of a "cursing roundel," a form once employed by Callimachus, who may have inherited it from the East. It calls down heaven's wrath upon the confiscated lands in language as bitter as ever Mt. Ebal heard: fire and flood over the crops, blight upon the fruit, and pestilence upon the heartless barbarians who drive peaceful peasants into exile.

The setting is once more that of the country about Naples, of the Campanian hills and the sea coast, not that of Mantua.[16] It is doubtless the miserable poor of Capua and Nuceria that Vergil particularly has in mind. The singers are two slave-shepherds departing from the lands of a master who has been dispossessed. The poem is pervaded by a strong note of pity for the lovers of peace,-"pii cives," shall we say the "pacifists,"-who had been punished for refusing to enlist in a civil war. A sympathy for them must have been deep in the gentle philosopher of the garden:

O male deuoti, praetorum crimina, agelli![17]

Tuque inimica pii semper discordia ciuis.

Exsul ego indemnatus egens mea rura reliqui,

Miles ut accipiat funesti praemia belli.

Hinc ego de tumulo mea rura nouissima uisam,

Hinc ibo in siluas: obstabunt iam mihi colles,

Obstabunt montes, campos audire licebit.[18]

[Footnote 16: It is just possible that "Lycurgus" (l. 8) who is spoken of as the author of the mischief is meant for Alfenus Varus, who boasted of his knowledge of law. Horace lampoons him as Alfenus vafer.]

[Footnote 17:

Ye fields accursed for our statesmen's sins,

O Discord ever foe to men of peace,

In want, an exile, uncondemned, I yield

My lands, to pay the wages of a hell-born war.

Ere I go hence, one last look towards my fields,

Then to the woods I turn to close you out

From view, but ye shall hear my curses still.]

[Footnote 18: The Lydia which comes in the MS. attached to the Dirae is not Vergil's. Nor can it be the famous poem of that name written by Valerius Cato, despite the opinion of Lindsay, Class. Review, 1918, p. 62. It is too slight and ineffectual to be identified with that work. The poem abounds with conceits that a neurotic and sentimental pupil of Propertius-not too well practiced in verse writing-would be likely to cull from his master.]

For Vergil there was henceforth no joy in war or the fruits of war. His devotion to Julius Caesar had been unquestioned, and Octavian, when he proved himself a worthy successor and established peace, inherited that devotion. But for the patriots who had fought the losing battle he had only a heart full of pity.

Ne pueri ne tanta animis adsuescite bella,

Neu patriae validos in viscera vertite viris;

Tuque prior, tu parce, genus qui ducis Olympo,

Projice tela manu, sanguis meus!

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