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   Chapter 13 POLLIO

Vergil / A Biography By Tenney Frank Characters: 8361

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


We come finally to the two Eclogues addressed to Asinius Pollio. This remarkable man was only six years older than Vergil, but he was just old enough to become a member of Caesar's staff, an experience that matured men quickly. To Vergil he seemed to be a link with the last great generation of the Republic. That Catullus had mentioned him gracefully in a poem, and Cinna had written him a propempticon, that Caesar had spoken to him on the fateful night at the Rubicon, and that he had been one of Cicero's correspondents, placed him on a very high pedestal in the eyes of the studious poet still groping his way. It may well be that Gallus was the tie that connected Pollio and Vergil, for we find in a letter of Pollio's to Cicero that the former while campaigning in Spain was in the habit of exchanging literary chitchat with Gallus. That was in the spring of 43, at the very time doubtless when Pollio-as young men then did-spent his leisure moments between battles in writing tragedies. Vergil in his eighth Eclogue, perhaps with over-generous praise, compares these plays with those of Sophocles.

This Eclogue presents one of the most striking studies in primitive custom that Latin poetry has produced, a bit of realism suffused with a romantic pastoral atmosphere. The first shepherd's song is of unrequited love cherished from boyhood for a maiden who has now chosen a worthless rival. The second is a song sung while a deserted shepherdess performs with scrupulous precision the magic rites which are to bring her faithless lover back to her. There are reminiscences of Theocritus of course, any edition of the Eclogues will give them in full, but Vergil, so long as he lived at Naples, did not have to go to Sicilian books for these details. He who knows the social customs of Campania, the magical charms scribbled on the walls of Pompeii, the deadly curses scratched on enduring metal by forlorn lovers,-curses hidden beneath the threshold or hearthstone of the rival to blight her cheeks and wrinkle her silly face,-knows very well that such folks are the very singers that Vergil might meet in his walks about the hills of the golden bay.

The eighth Eclogue claims to have been written at the invitation of Pollio, who had apparently learned thus early that Vergil was a poet worth encouraging. That the poem has nothing to do with the confiscations, in so far at least as we are able to understand the historical situation, has been suggested above. It is usually dated in the year of Pollio's Albanian campaign in 39, that is a year after his consulship. Should it not rather be placed two years earlier when Pollio had given up the Cisalpine province and withdrawn to the upper Adriatic coast preparatory to proceeding on Antony's orders against the Illyrian rebels? In the spring of 41 Pollio camped near the Timavus, mentioned in line 6; two years later the natural route for him to take from Rome would be via Brundisium and Dyrrhachium.[1] The point is of little interest except in so far as the date of the poem aids us in tracing Pollio's influence upon the poet, and in arranging the Eclogues in their chronological sequence.

[Footnote 1: Antony's province did not extend beyond Scodra; the roads down the Illyrian mountain from Trieste were not easy for an army to travel; if the Eclogues were composed in three years (Donatus) the year 39 is too late. Finally, Vellius, II, 76.2, makes it plain that in 41 Pollio remained in Venetia contrary to orders. He had apparently been ordered to proceed into Illyria at that time.]

Finally, we have the famous "Messianic" Eclogue, the fourth, which was addressed to Pollio during his consulship. By its fortuitous resemblance to the prophetic literature of the Bible, it came at one time to be the best known poem in Latin, and elevated its author to the position of an arch-magician in the medieval world. Indeed, this poem was largely influential in saving the rest of Vergil's works from the oblivion to which the dark ages consigned at least nine-tenths of Latin literature.

The poem was written soon after the peace of Brundisium-in the consummation of which Pollio had had a large share-w

hen all of Italy was exulting in its escape from another impending civil war. Its immediate purpose was to give adequate expression to this joy and hope at once in an abiding record that the Romans and the rulers of Rome might read and not forget. Its form seems to have been conditioned largely by a strange allegorical poem written just before the peace by a still unknown poet. The poet was Horace, who in the sixteenth epode had candidly expressed the fears of Roman republicans for Rome's capacity to survive. Horace had boldly asked the question whether after all it was not the duty of those who still loved liberty to abandon the land of endless warfare, and found a new home in the far west-a land which still preserved the simple virtues of the "Golden Age." Vergil's enthusiasm for the new peace expresses itself as an answer to Horace:[2] the "Golden Age" need not be sought for elsewhere; in the new era of peace now inaugurated by Octavian the Virgin Justice shall return to Italy and the Golden Age shall come to this generation on Italian soil. Vergil, however, introduces a new "messianic" element into the symbolism of his poem, for he measures the progress of the new era by the stages in the growth of a child who is destined finally to bring the prophecy to fulfillment. This happy idea may well have been suggested by table talks with Philodemus or Siro, who must at times have recalled stories of savior-princes that they had heard in their youth in the East. The oppressed Orient was full of prophetic utterances promising the return of independence and prosperity under the leadership of some long-hoped-for worthy prince of the tediously unworthy reigning dynasties. Indeed, since Philodemus grew to boyhood at Gadara under Jewish rule he could hardly have escaped the knowledge of the very definite Messianic hopes of the Hebrew people. It may well be, therefore, that a stray image whose ultimate source was none other than Isaiah came in this indirect fashion into Vergil's poem, and that the monks of the dark ages guessed better than they knew.

[Footnote 2: Sellar, Horace and the Elegiac Poets, p. 123. Ramsay, quoted by W. Warde Fowler, Vergil's Messianic Eclogue, p, 54.]

To attempt to identify Vergil's child with a definite person would be a futile effort to analyze poetic allegory. Contemporary readers doubtless supposed that since the Republic was dead, the successor to power after the death of Octavius and Antony would naturally be a son of one of these.

The settlements of the year were sealed by two marriages, that of Octavian to Scribonia and that of Octavian's sister to Antony. It was enough that some prince worthy of leadership could naturally be expected from these dynastic marriages, and that in either case it would be a child of Octavian's house.[3] Thus far his readers might let their imagination range; what actually happened afterwards through a series of evil fortunes has, of course, nothing to do with the question. Pollio is obviously addressed as the consul whose year marked the peace which all the world hoped and prayed would be lasting.

[Footnote 3: See Class. Phil. XI, 334.]

We have now reviewed the circumstances which called forth the Eclogues. They seem, as Donatus says, to have been written within a period of three years. The second, third, seventh and sixth apparently fall within the year 42, the tenth, fifth, eighth, ninth and first in the year 41, while the Pollio certainly belongs to the year 40, when Vergil became thirty years of age. The writing of these poems had called the poet more and more away from philosophy and brought him into closer touch with the sufferings and experiences of his own people. He had found a theme after his own heart, and with the theme had come a style and expression that fitted his genius. He abandoned Hellenistic conceits with their prettiness of sentiment, attained an easy modulation of line readily responding to a variety of emotions, learned the dignity of his own language as he acquired a deeper sympathy for the sufferings of his own people. There is a new note, as there is a new rhythm in:

Magnus ab integro saeclorum nascitur ordo.

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