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   Chapter 14 THE CIRCLE OF MAECENAS

Vergil / A Biography By Tenney Frank Characters: 17062

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


Julius Caesar had learned from bitter experience that poets were dangerous enemies. Cicero's innuendoes were disagreeable enough but they might be forgotten. When, however, Catullus and Calvus put them into biting epigrams there was no forgetting. This was doubtless Caesar's chief reason for his constant endeavor to win the goodwill of the young poets, and he ultimately did win that of Calvus and Catullus. Whether Octavian, and his sage adviser Maecenas, acted from the same motive we do not know, though they too had seen in Vergil's epigrams on Antony's creatures, and in Horace's sixteenth epode that the poets of the new generation seemed likely to give effective expression to political sentiments. At any rate, the new court at Rome began very soon to make generous overtures to the literary men of the day.

Pollio, Octavian's senior by many years, and of noble family, could hardly be approached. Though gradually drawing away from Antony, he had so closely associated himself with this brilliant companion of his Gallic-war days, that he preferred not to take a subordinate place at the Roman court. Messalla, who had entered the service of Antony, was also out of reach. There remained the brilliant circle of young men at Naples, men whose names occurred in the dedications of Philodemus' lectures: Vergil, Varius, Plotius and Quintilius Varus, three of whom at least were from the north and would naturally be inclined to look upon Octavian with sympathy.

Varius had already written his epic De Morte which seems to have mourned Caesar's death, and, though in hidden language, he had alluded bitterly to Antony's usurpations in the year that followed the murder. Before Vergil's epic appeared it was Varius who was always considered the epic poet of the group. Of Plotius Tucca we know little except that he is called a poet, was a constant member of the circle, and with Varius the literary executor who published Vergil's works after his death. Quintilius Varus had, like Varius, come from Cremona, known Catullus intimately, and, if we accept the view of Servius for the sixth Eclogue, had been Vergil's most devoted companion in Siro's school. He also took some part in the civil wars, and came to be looked upon as a very firm supporter of sound literary standards.[1] Horace's Ouis desiderio, shows that Varus was one of Vergil's most devoted friends.

[Footnote 1: Cf. Horace, Ars Poetica, 440.]

Vergil's position as foremost of these poets was doubtless established by the publication of the Eclogues. They took Rome by storm, and were even set to music and sung on the stage, according to an Alexandrian fashion then prevailing in the capital. Octavian was, of course, attracted to them by a personal interest. The poet was given a house in Maecenas' gardens on the Esquiline with the hope of enticing him to Rome. Vergil doubtless spent some time in the city before he turned to the more serious task of the Georgics, but we are told that he preferred the Neapolitan bay and established his home there. This group, it would seem, was definitely drawn into Octavian's circle soon after the peace of Brundisium, and formed the nucleus of a kind of literary academy that set the standards for the Augustan age.

The introduction of Horace into this circle makes an interesting story. He was five years younger than Vergil, and had had his advanced education at Athens. There Brutus found him in 43, when attending philosophical lectures in order to hide his political intrigues; and though Horace was a freedman's son, Brutus gave him the high dignity of a military tribuneship. Brutus as a Republican was, of course, a stickler for all the aristocratic customs. That he conferred upon Horace a knight's office probably indicates that the libertinus pater had been a war captive rather than a man of servile stock, and, therefore, only technically a "freedman." In practical life the Romans observed this distinction, even though it was not usually feasible to do so in political life. After Philippi Horace found himself with the defeated remnant and returned to Italy only to discover that his property had been confiscated. He was eager for a career in literature, but having to earn his bread, he bought a poor clerkship in the treasury office. Then during spare moments he wrote-satires, of course. What else could such a wreckage of enthusiasm and ambitions produce?

His only hope lay in attracting the attention of some kindly disposed literary man, and for some reason he chose Vergil. The Eclogues were not yet out, but the Culex was in circulation, and he made the pastoral scene of this the basis of an epode-the second-written with no little good-natured humor. Horace imagines a broker of the forum reading that passage, and, quite carried away by the succession of delightful scenes, deciding to quit business for the simple life. He accordingly draws in all his moneys on the Calends-on the Ides he lends them out again![2] What Vergil wrote Horace when he received a copy of the Epode, we are not told, but in his next work, the Georgics, he returned the compliment by similarly threading Horace's phrases into a description of country life-a passage that is indeed one of the most successful in the book.[3]

[Footnote 2: Horace's scenes (his memory is visual rather than auditory) unmistakably reproduce those of the Culex; cf. Culex 148-58 with Epode 26-28; Culex 86-7 with Epode 21-22; Culex 49-50 with Epode 11-12; etc. A full comparison is made in Classical Philology, 1920, p. 24. Vergil could, of course, be expected to recognize the allusions to his own poem.]

[Footnote 3: See Georgics, II, 458-542, and a discussion of it in Classical Philology, 1920, p. 42.]

The composition of the sixteenth epode by Horace-soon after the second, it would seem-gave Vergil an opportunity to recognize the new poet, and answer his pessimistic appeal with the cheerful prophecy of the fourth Eclogue, as we have seen. By this time we may suppose that an intimate friendship had sprung up between the two poets, strengthened of course by friendly intercourse, now that Vergil could spend some of his time at Rome. Horace himself tells how Vergil and Varius introduced him to Maecenas (Sat. 1. 6), an important event in his career that took place some time before the Brundisian journey (Sat. 1. 5). Maecenas had hesitated somewhat before accepting the intimacy of the young satirist: Horace had fought quite recently in the enemy's army, had criticized the government in his Epodes, and was of a class-at least technically-which Octavian had been warned not to recognize socially, unless he was prepared to offend the old nobility. But Horace's dignified candor won him the confidence of Maecenas; and that there might be no misunderstanding he included in his first book of Satires a simple account of what he was and hoped to be. Thus through the efforts of Vergil and Varius he entered the circle whose guiding spirit he was destined to become.

Thus the coterie was formed, which under such powerful patronage was bound to become a sort of unofficial commission for the regulation of literary standards. It was an important question, not only for the young men themselves but for the future of Roman literature, which direction this group would take and whose influence would predominate. It might be Maecenas, the holder of the purse-strings, a man who could not check his ambition to express himself whether in prose or verse. This Etruscan, whose few surviving pages reveal the fact that he never acquired an understanding of the dignity of Rome's language, that he was temperamentally un-Roman in his love for meretricious gaudiness and prettiness, might have worked incalculable harm on this school had his taste in the least affected it. But whether he withheld his dictum, or it was disregarded by the others, no influence of his can be detected in the literature of the epoch.

Apollodorus, Octavian's aged teacher, a man of very great personal influence, and highly respected, probably counted for more. In his lectures and his books, one of which, Valgius, a member of the circle, translated into Latin, he preached the doctrines of a chaste and dignified classicism. His creed fortunately fell in with the tendencies of the time, and whether this teaching be called a cause, or whether the popularity of it be an effect of pre-existing causes, we know that this man came to represent many of the ideals of the school.

But to trace these ideals in their c

ontact with Vergil's mental development, we must look back for a moment to the tendencies of the Catullan age from which he was emerging. In a curious passage written not many years after this, Horace, when grouping the poets according to their styles and departments,[4] places Vergil in a class apart. He mentions first a turgid epic poet for whom he has no regard. Then there are Varius and Pollio, in epic and tragedy respectively, of whose forceful directness he does approve. In comedy, his friend, Fundanius, represents a homely plainness which he commends, while Vergil stands for gentleness and urbanity (molle atque facetum).

[Footnote 4: Sat. I. 10, 40 ff.]

The passage is important not only because it reveals a contemporaneous view of Vergil's position but because it shows Horace thus early as the spokesman of the "classical" coterie, the tenets of which in the end prevailed. In this passage Horace employs the categories of the standard text-books of rhetoric of that day[5] which were accustomed to classify styles into four types: (1) Grand and ornate, (2) grand but austere, (3) plain and austere, (4) plain but graceful. The first two styles might obviously be used in forensic prose or in ambitious poetic work like epics and tragedies. Horace would clearly reject the former, represented for instance by Hortensius and Pacuvius, in favor of the austere dignity and force of the second, affected by men like Cornificius in prose and Varius and Pollio in verse. The two types of the "plain" style were employed in more modest poems of literature, both, in prose and in such poetry as comedy, the epyllion, in pastoral verse, and the like. Severe simplicity was favored by Calvus in his orations, Catullus in his lyrics 5 while a more polished and well-nigh précieuse plainness was illustrated in the speeches of Calidius and in the Alexandrian epyllion of Catullus' Peleus and Thetis and in Vergil's Ciris and Bucolics.

[Footnote 5: E.g. Demetrius, Philodemus, Cicero; of. Class. Phil. 1920, p. 230.]

In choosing between these two, Horace, of course, sympathizes with the ideals of the severe and chaste style, which he finds in the comedies of Fundanius. Vergil's early work, unambitious and "plain" though it is, falls, of course, into the last group; and though Horace recognizes his type with a friendly remark, one feels that he recognizes it for reasons of friendship, rather than because of any native sympathy for it. By his juxtaposition he shows that the classical ideals of the second and third of the four "styles" are to him most sympathetic. Mollitudo does not find favor in any of his own work, or in his criticism of other men's work. Vergil, therefore, though he appears in this Augustan coterie as an important member, is still felt to be something of a free lance who adheres to Alexandrian art[6] not wholly in accord with the standards which are now being formulated. If Horace had obeyed his literary instincts alone he would probably have relegated Vergil at this period to the silence he accorded Callus and Propertius if not to the open hostility he expressed towards the Alexandrianism of Catullus. It is significant of Vergil's breadth of sympathy that he remitted not a jot in his devotion to Catullus and Gallus and that he won the deep reverence of Propertius while remaining the friend and companion of the courtly group working towards a stricter classicism. If we may attempt to classify the early Augustans, we find them aligning themselves thus. The strict classicists are Horace the satirist, Varius a writer of epics, Pollio of tragedy; while Varus, Valgius, Plotius, and Fundanius, though less productive, employ their influence in the support of this tendency as does Tibullus somewhat later. Vergil is a close personal friend of these men but refuses to accept the axioms of any one school; Gallus, his friend, is a free romanticist, and is followed in this tendency a few years later by Propertius.

[Footnote 6: Horace had doubtless seen not only the Culex but several of the other minor works that Vergil never deigned to put into general circulation.]

The influences that made for classicism were many. Apollodorus, the teacher of Octavian, must have been a strong factor, but since his work has been lost, the weight of it cannot now be estimated. Horace imbibed his love for severe ideals in Athens, of course. There his teachers were Stoic rhetoricians who trained him in an uncompromising respect for stylistic rules.[7] He read the Hellenistic poets, to be sure, and reveals in his poems a ready memory of them, but it was the great epoch of Greek poetry that formed his style. Such are the foreign influences. But the native Roman factors must not be forgotten. In point of fact it was the classicistic Catullus and Calvus, of the simple, limpid lyrics, written in pure unalloyed every-day Latin, that taught the new generation to reject the later Hellenistic style of Catullus and Calvus as illustrated in the verse romances. Varus, Pollio, and Varius were old enough to know Catullus and Calvus personally, to remember the days when poems like Dianae sumus in fide were just issued, and they were poets who could value the perfect art of such work even after the authors of them had been enticed by ambition into dangerous by-paths. In a word, it was Catullus and Calvus, the lyric poets, who made it possible for the next generation to reject Catullus and Calvus the neoteric romancers.

[Footnote 7: For the stylistic tenets of the Stoic teachers see

Fiske, Lucilius and Horace, pp. 64-143. Apollodorus seems to be the

rhetorician whom Horace calls Heliodorus in Sat. I, 5, see Class.

Phil. 1920, 393.]

For the modern, therefore, it is difficult to restrain a just resentment when he finds Horace referring to these two great predecessors with a sneer. Yet we can, if we will, detect an adequate explanation of Horace's attitude. Very few poets of any time have been able to capture and hold the generation immediately succeeding. The stronger the impression made by a genius, the farther away is the pendulum of approbation apt to swing. The neoteroi had to face, in addition to this revulsion, the misfortunes of the time. The civil wars which came close upon them had little use for the sentimentality of their romances or the involutions of their manner of composition. And again, Catullus and Calvus had been over-brutal in their attacks upon Julius Caesar, a character lifted to the high heavens by the war and the martyrdom that followed. And, as fortune would have it, almost all of the new literary men were, as we have seen, peculiarly devoted to Caesar. We know enough of wars to have discovered that intense partizanship does silence literary judgment except in the case of a very few men of unusual balance. Vergil was one of the very few; he kept his candle lit at the shrine of Catullus still, but this was hardly to be expected of the rest.

In prose also the Augustans upheld the refined and chaste work of classical Atticism, an ideal which they derived from the Romans of the preceding generation rather than from teachers like Apollodorus. Pollio and Messalla are now the foremost orators. Pollio had stood close to Calvus as well as to Caesar, and had witnessed the revulsion of feeling against Cicero's style which continued to move in its old leisurely course even after the civil war had quickened men's pulses. Messalla may have been influenced by the example of his general, Brutus, a man who never wasted words (so long as he kept his temper). Messalla and Pollio were the dictators of prose style during this period.

We find Vergil, therefore, in a peculiar position. He was still recognized as a pupil of Catullus and the Alexandrians at a time when the pendulum was swinging so violently away from the republican poets that they did not even get credit for the lessons that they had so well taught the new generation. Vergil himself was in each new work drifting more and more toward classicism, but he continued to the last to honor Catullus and Calvus, Cinna and Cornificius, and his friend Gallus, in complimentary imitation or by friendly mention. The new Academy was proud to claim him as a member, though it doubtless knew that Vergil was too great to be bound by rules. To after ages, while Horace has come to stand as an extremist who carried the law beyond the spirit, Vergil, honoring the past and welcoming the future, has assumed the position of Rome's most representative poet.

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