The Eclogues of Virgil Criticism - Essay


W. Y. Sellar (essay date 1908)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Eclogues” in The Roman Poets of the Augustan Age: Virgil, Clarendon Press, 1908, pp. 130-73.

[In the essay below, Sellar discusses the order of composition of Vergil's Eclogues and maintains that Vergil's earlier poems are imitative of Theocritian poetry. After Vergil mastered the form, rhythm, and diction of the pastoral, Sellar notes, he increasingly demonstrated originality in his choice of subject and in the truthful manner in which he treated his subject.]


The name by which the earliest of Virgil's recognised works is known tells us nothing of the subject of which it treats. The word ‘Eclogae’ simply means selections. As applied to the poems of Virgil, it designates a collection of short unconnected poems. The other name by which these poems were known in antiquity, ‘bucolica,’ indicates the form of Greek art in which they were cast and the pastoral nature of their subjects. Neither word is used by Virgil himself; but the expressions by which he characterises his art, such as ‘Sicelides Musae,’ ‘versus Syracosius,’ ‘Musa agrestis’ and ‘silvestris,’ show that he writes in a pastoral strain, and that he considered the pastoral poetry of Greece as his model. He invokes not only the ‘Sicilian Muses,’ but the ‘fountain of Arethusa.’ He speaks too of Pan, and Arcadia, and the ‘Song of Maenalus.’ His shepherd-poets are described as ‘Arcadians.’ The poets whom he introduces as his prototypes are the ‘sage of Ascra,’ and the mythical Linus, Orpheus, and Amphion. He alludes also to Theocritus under the name of the ‘Syracusan shepherd.’ The names of the shepherds who are introduced as contending in song or uttering their feelings in monologue—Corydon, Thyrsis, Menalcas, Meliboeus, Tityrus, etc.—are Greek, and for the most part taken from the pastoral idyls of Theocritus. There is also frequent mention of the shepherd's pipe, and of the musical accompaniment to which some of the songs chanted by the shepherds are set.

The general character of the poems is further indicated by the frequent use of the word ‘ludere,’ a word applied by Catullus, Horace, Propertius, Ovid, and others to the poems of youth, of a light and playful character, and, for the most part, expressive of various moods of the passion of love. Thus at the end of the Georgics Virgil speaks of himself thus:—

Carmina qui lusi pastorum, audaxque iuventa,
Tityre, te patulae cecini sub tegmine fagi.(1)

This reference shows further that the poem which stands first in order was placed there when the edition of the Eclogues was given to the world. But other references (at v. 86-87 and vi. 12) seem to imply that the separate poems were known either by distinct titles, such as Varus, the title of the sixth, or from their opening lines, as the ‘Formosum Corydon ardebat Alexim,’ and the ‘Cuium pecus? an Meliboei?’ It has been also suggested, from lines quoted in the ninth, which profess to be the opening lines of other pastoral poems, that the ten finally collected together were actual ‘selections’ from a larger number, commenced if not completed (‘necdum perfecta canebat’) by Virgil. But these passages seem more like the lines attributed to the contending poets in the third and seventh Eclogues, i.e. short unconnected specimens of pastoral song.

Nearly all the poems afford indications of the time of their composition and of the order in which they followed one another; and that order is different from the order in which they now appear. It is said, on the authority of Asconius, that three years, from 42 b.c. to 39 b.c., were given to the composition of the Eclogues. But an allusion in the tenth (line 47) to the expedition of Agrippa across the Alps in the early part of 37 b.c. proves that a later date must be assigned to that poem. The probable explanation is that Virgil had intended to end the series with the eighth, which celebrated the triumph of Pollio over the Parthini in 39 b.c.,—

A te principium, tibi desinet,—

But that his friendship for Gallus induced him to add the tenth, two years later, either before the poems were finally collected for publication, or in preparing a new edition of them. They were written at various places and at various stages of the poet's fortunes. They appear to have obtained great success when first published, and some of them were recited with applause upon the stage. The earliest in point of time were the second and third, and these, along with the fifth, may be ascribed to the year 42 b.c. The seventh, which has no allusion to contemporary events and is a mere imitative reproduction of the Greek idyl, may also belong to this earlier period, although some editors rank it as one of the latest. The first, which is founded on the loss of the poet's farm, belongs to the next year, and the ninth and sixth probably may be assigned to the same year, or to the early part of the following year. The date of the fourth is fixed by the Consulship of Pollio to the year 40 b.c.; that of the eighth to the year 39 b.c. by the triumph of Pollio over the Parthini. The opening words of the tenth show that it was the last of the series; and the reference to the expedition of Agrippa implies that it could not have been written earlier than the end of 38 b.c. or the beginning of 37 b.c. The first, second, third, and fifth, were in all probability written by the poet in his native district, the sixth, ninth, and perhaps the seventh, at the villa which had formerly belonged to Siron (‘villula quae Sironis eras’), the rest at Rome. The principle on which the poems are arranged seems to be that of alternating dialogue with monologue. The eighth, though not in dialogue, yet resembles the latter part of the fifth, in presenting two continuous songs, chanted by different shepherds. The poem first in order may have occupied its place from its greater interest in connexion with the poet's fortunes, or from the honour which it assigns to Octavianus, whose preeminence over the other competitors for supreme power had sufficiently declared itself before the first collected edition of the poems was published.

In the earliest poems of the series the art of Virgil, like the lyrical art of Horace in his earlier Odes, is more imitative and conventional than in those written later. He seems satisfied with reproducing the form, rhythm, and diction of Theocritus, and mingling some vague expression of personal or national feeling with the sentiment of the Greek idyl. That the fifth was written after the second and third appears from the lines v. 86-87, in which Menalcas, under which name Virgil introduces himself in the Eclogues, presents his pipe to Mopsus:—

Haec nos ‘Formosum Corydon ardebat Alexin,’
Haec eadem docuit ‘Cuium pecus? an Meliboei(2)?’

From these lines also it may be inferred as probable that the second poem, ‘Formosum pastor Corydon,’ was written before the third, ‘Dic mihi, Damoeta, cuium pecus? an Meliboei?’

A tradition, quoted by Servius and referred to (though inaccurately) by Martial3, attributes the composition of the second Eclogue to the admiration excited in Virgil by the beauty of a young slave, Alexander, who was presented to him by Pollio and carefully educated by him. A similar story is told of his having received from Maecenas another slave, named Cebes, who also obtained from him a liberal education and acquired some distinction as a poet. It is not improbable that Virgil may have been warmly attached to these youths, and that there was nothing blameable in his attachment. Even Cicero, a man as far removed as possible from any sentimental weakness, writes to Atticus of the death of a favourite slave, a young Greek, and evidently, from the position he filled in Cicero's household, a boy of liberal accomplishments, in these words: ‘And, I assure you, I am a good deal distressed. For my reader, Sositheus, a charming boy, is just dead; and it has affected me more than I should have thought the death of a slave ought to affect one4.’ It remains true however that in one or two of those Eclogues in which he most closely imitates Theocritus, Virgil uses the language of serious sentiment, and once of bantering raillery, in a way which justly offends modern feeling. And this is all that can be said against him.

There are more imitations of the Greek in this and in the next poem than in any of the other Eclogues5. The scenery of the piece, in so far as it is at all definite, combines the mountains and the sea-landscape of Sicily with Italian woods and vineyards. Corydon seems to combine the features of an Italian vinedresser with the conventional character of a Sicilian shepherd. The line

Aspice aratra iugo referunt suspensa iuvenci(6)

applies rather to an Italian scene than to the pastoral district of Sicily; and this reference to ploughing seems inconsistent with the description of the fierce midsummer heat, and with the introduction of the ‘fessi messores’ in the opening lines of the poem. These inconsistencies show how little thought Virgil had for the objective consistency of his representation. The poem however, in many places, gives powerful expression to the feelings of a despairing lover. There are here, as in the Gallus, besides that vein of feeling which the Latin poet shares with Theocritus, some traces of that ‘wayward modern mood’ of longing to escape from the world and to return to some vague ideal of Nature, and to sacrifice all the gains of civilisation in exchange for the homeliest dwelling shared with the object of affection:—

O tantum libeat mecum tibi sordida rura
Atque humiles habitare casas, et figere cervos(7);

and again,

                                                            Habitarunt di quoque silvas
Dardaniusque Paris. Pallas quas condidit arces
Ipsa colat, nobis placeant ante omnia silvae(8).

The third Eclogue, which is in dialogue, and reproduces two features of the Greek idyl, the natural banter of the shepherds and the more artificial contest in song, is still more imitative and composite in character. It shows several close imitations, especially of the fourth, fifth, and eighth Idyls of Theocritus9. In this poem only Virgil, whose muse even in the Eclogues is almost always serious or plaintive, endeavours to reproduce the playfulness and vivacity of his original. Both in the bantering dialogue and in the more formal contest of the shepherds, the subjects introduced are for the most part of a conventional pastoral character, but with these topics are combined occasional references to the tastes and circumstances of the poet himself. Thus in lines 40-42,

In medio duo signa … curvus arator haberet,

allusion is made to the astronomical studies of which Virgil made fuller use in the Georgics. In the line

Pollio amat nostram quamvis est rustica Musam,

and again,

Pollio et ipse facit nova carmina(10),

he makes acknowledgment of the favour and pays honour to the poetical tastes of his earliest patron, whom he celebrates also in the fourth and eighth Eclogues. The line

Qui Bavium non odit amet tua carmina, Maevi(11)

has condemned to everlasting notoriety the unfortunate pair, who have served modern satirists as types of spiteful critics and ineffectual authors. At lines 10-11 there is, as in Eclogue ii., an apparent blending of the occupations of the Italian vinedresser with those of the Sicilian shepherd. In the contest of song there is no sustained connexion of thought, as indeed there is not in similar contests in Theocritus. These contests are supposed to reproduce the utterances of improvisatori, of whom the second speaker is called to say something, either in continuation of or in contrast to the thought of the first. The shepherds in these strains seek to glorify their own prowess, boast of their successes in love, or call attention to some picturesque aspect of their rustic life.

The fifth Eclogue is also in dialogue. It brings before us a friendly interchange of song between two pastoral poets, Mopsus and Menalcas. Servius mentions that Menalcas (here, as in the ninth Eclogue) stands for Virgil himself, while Mopsus stands for his friend Aemilius Macer of Verona. Mopsus laments the cruel death of Daphnis, the legendary shepherd of Sicilian song, and Menalcas celebrates his apotheosis. Various accounts were given in antiquity of the meaning which was to be attached to this poem. One account was that Virgil here expressed his sorrow for the death of his brother Flaccus12. Though the time of his death may have coincided with that of the composition of this poem, the language of the lament and of the song celebrating the ascent of Daphnis to heaven is quite unlike the expression of a private or personal sorrow. There seems no reason to doubt another explanation which has come down from ancient times, that under this pastoral allegory Virgil laments the death and proclaims the apotheosis of Julius Caesar. It is probable13 that the poem was composed for his birthday, the 4th of July, which for the first time was celebrated with religious rites in the year 42 b.c., when the name of the month Quintilis was changed into that which it has retained ever since. The lines 25-26,

                                                                                        Nulla neque amnem
Libavit quadrupes nec graminis attigit herbam,(14)

are supposed15 to refer to a belief which had become traditional in the time of Suetonius, that the horses which had been consecrated after crossing the Rubicon had refused to feed immediately before the death of their master16. In the lines expressing the sorrow for his loss, and in those which mark out the divine office which he was destined to fulfil after death,—

Ut Baccho Cererique, tibi sic vota quotannis
Agricolae facient, damnabis tu quoque votis(17),—

as in the lines of the ninth, referring to the Julium Sidus,—

Astrum quo segetes gauderent frugibus, et quo
Duceret apricis in collibus uva colorem(18),—

allusion is made to the encouragement Caesar gave to the husbandman and vine-planter in his lifetime, and to the honour due to him as their tutelary god in heaven. And these allusions help us to understand the ‘votis iam nunc adsuesce vocari’ of the invocation in the first Georgic.

Nothing illustrates more clearly the unreal conceptions of the pastoral allegory than a comparison of the language in the ‘Lament for Daphnis,’ with the strong Roman realism of the lines at the end of the first Georgic, in which the omens portending the death of Caesar are described. Nor can anything show more clearly the want of individuality with which Virgil uses the names of the Theocritean shepherds than the fact that while the Daphnis of the fifth Eclogue represents the departed and deified soldier and statesman, the Daphnis of the ninth is a living husbandman whose fortunes were secured by the protecting star of Caesar,—

Insere, Daphni, piros, carpent tua poma nepotes(19).

The peace and tranquillity restored to the land under this protecting influence are foreshadowed in the lines 58-61—

Ergo alacris … amat bonus otia Daphnis;

and the earliest reference to the divine honours assigned in life and death to the later representatives of the name of Caesar, is heard in the jubilant shout of wild mountains, rocks, and groves to the poet—

Deus, deus ille, Menalca.

Although the treatment of the subject may be vague and conventional, yet this poem possesses the interest of being Virgil's earliest effort, directed to a subject of living and national interest; and many of the lines in the poem are unsurpassed for grace and sweetness of musical cadence by anything in Latin poetry.

There is no allusion to contemporary events by which the date of the seventh can be determined; but the absence of such allusion and the ‘purely Theocritean20’ character of the poem suggest the inference that it is a specimen of Virgil's earlier manner. Two shepherds, Corydon and Thyrsis, are introduced as joining Daphnis, who is seated under a whispering ilex; they engage in a friendly contest of song, which is listened to also by the poet himself, who here calls himself Meliboeus. They assert in alternate strains their claims to poetic honours, offer prayers and vows to Diana as the goddess of the chase and to Priapus as the god of gardens, draw rival pictures of cool retreat from the heat of summer and of cheerfulness by the winter fire, and connect the story of their loves with the varying aspect of the seasons, and with the beauty of trees sacred to different deities or native to different localities. Though the shepherds are Arcadian, the scenery is Mantuan:—

Hic viridis tenera praetexit harundine ripam
Mincius, eque sacra resonant examina quercu(21).

Meliboeus decides the contest in favour of Corydon:—

Haec memini, et victum frustra contendere Thyrsin.
Ex illo Corydon Corydon est tempore nobis(22).

These poems, in which the conventional shepherds of pastoral poetry sing of their loves, their flocks and herds, of the beauty of the seasons and of outward nature, in tones caught from Theocritus, or revive and give a new meaning to the old Sicilian dirge over ‘the woes of Daphnis,’ may be assigned to the eventful year in which the forces of the Republic finally shattered themselves against the forces of the new Empire. There is a strange contrast between these peaceful and somewhat unreal strains of Virgil and the drama which was at the same time enacted on the real stage of human affairs. No sound of the ‘storms that raged outside his happy ground’ disturbs the security with which Virgil cultivates his art. But the following year brought the trouble and unhappiness of the times home to the peaceful dwellers around Mantua, and to Virgil among the rest. Of the misery caused by the confiscations and allotments of land to the soldiers of Octavianus, the first Eclogue is a lasting record. Yet even in this poem, based as it is on genuine feeling and a real experience, Virgil seems to care only for the truth of feeling with which Tityrus and Meliboeus express themselves, without regard for consistency in the conception of the situation, the scenery, or the personages of the poem. Tityrus is at once the slave who goes to Rome to purchase his freedom, and the owner of the land and of the flocks and herds belonging to it23. He is advanced in years24, and at the same time a poet lying indolently in the shade, and making the woods ring with the sounds of ‘beautiful Amaryllis25,’ like the young shepherds in Theocritus. The scenery apparently combines some actual features of the farm in the Mantuan district—

                                                            Quamvis lapis omnia nudus
Limosoque palus obducat pascua iunco(26),

with the ideal mountain-land of pastoral song—

Maioresque cadunt altis de montibus umbrae(27).

A further inconsistency has been suggested between the time of year indicated by the ‘shade of the spreading beech’ in the first line, and that indicated by the ripe chestnuts at line 8128. The truth of the poem consists in the expression of the feelings of love which the old possessors entertained for their homes, and the sense of dismay caused by this barbarous irruption on their ancient domains:—

Impius haec tam culta novalia miles habebit?
Barbarus has segetes? En quo discordia civis
Produxit miseros(29)!

Virgil's feeling for the movement of his age, which henceforth becomes one of the main sources of his inspiration, has its origin in the effect which these events had on his personal fortunes, and in the sympathy awakened within him by the sorrows of his native district.

The ninth Eclogue, written most probably in the same year, and in form imitated from the seventh Idyl—the famous Thalysia—of Theocritus, repeats the tale of dejection and alarm among the old inhabitants of the Mantuan district,—

Nunc victi, tristes, quoniam fors omnia versat(30),—

and touches allusively on the story of the personal danger which Virgil encountered from the violence of the centurion who claimed possession of his land. The speakers in the dialogue are Moeris, a shepherd of Menalcas,—the pastoral poet, who sings of the nymphs, of the wild flowers spread over the ground, and of the brooks shaded with trees,—and Lycidas, who, like the Lycidas of the Thalysia, is also a poet:—

                                                                                                                                                                                                                  Me quoque dicunt
Vatem pastores, sed non ego credulus illis.
Nam neque adhuc Vario videor nec dicere Cinna
Digna, sed argutos inter strepere anser olores(31).

After the account of the fray, given by Moeris, and the comments of Lycidas, in which he introduces the lines referred to in the previous chapter, as having all the signs of being a real description of the situation of Virgil's farms—

qua se subducere colles incipiunt—

Moeris sings the opening lines of certain other pastoral poems, some his own, some the songs of Menalcas. Two of these—‘Tityre dum redeo’ and ‘Huc ades O Galatea’—are purely Theocritean. Two others—

Vare tuum nomen, superet modo Mantua nobis,


Daphni quid antiquos signorum suspicis ortus(32)—

indicate the new path which Virgil's art was striking out for itself. There is certainly more real substance in this poem than in most of the earlier Eclogues. Lycidas and Moeris speak about what interests them personally. The scene of the poem is apparently the road between Virgil's farm and Mantua. There seem to be no conventional and inconsistent features introduced from the scenery of Sicily or Arcadia, unless it be the ‘aequor’ of line 57—

Et nunc omne tibi stratum silet aequor(33).

But may not that be either the lake, formed by the overflow of the river, some distance above Mantua, or even the great level plain, with its long grass and corn-fields and trees, hushed in the stillness of the late afternoon?

The sixth Eclogue was written probably about the same time and at the same place, the villa of Siron, in which Virgil had taken refuge with his family. It is inscribed with the name of Varus, who is said to have been a fellow-student of Virgil under the tuition of Siron. But, with the exception of the dedicatory lines, there is no reference to the circumstances of the time. Though abounding with rich pastoral illustrations, the poem is rather a mythological and semi-philosophical idyl than a pure pastoral poem. It consists mainly of a song of Silenus, in which an account is given of the creation of the world in accordance with the Lucretian philosophy; and, in connexion with this theme (as is done also by Ovid in his Metamorphoses), some of the oldest mythological traditions, such as the tale of Pyrrha and Deucalion, the reign of Saturn on earth, the theft and punishment of Prometheus, etc., are introduced. The opening lines—Namque canebat uti—are imitated from the song of Orpheus in the first book of the Argonautics34, but they bear unmistakable traces also of the study of Lucretius. There seems no trace of the language of Theocritus in the poem.

Three points of interest may be noted in this song: (1) Virgil here, as in Georgic ii. 475, etc., regards the revelation of physical knowledge as a fitting theme for poetic treatment. So in the first Aeneid, the ‘Song of Iopas’ is said to be about ‘the wandering moon and the toils of the sun; the origin of man and beast, water and fire,’ etc. The revelation of the secrets of Nature seems to float before the imagination of Virgil as the highest consummation of his poetic faculty. (2) We note here how, as afterwards in the Georgics, he accepts the philosophical ideas of creation, side by side with the supernatural tales of mythology. He seems to regard such tales as those here introduced as part of the religious traditions of the human race, and as a link which connects man with the gods. In the Georgics we find also the same effort to reconcile, or at least to combine, the conceptions of science with mythological fancies. In this effort we recognise the influence of other Alexandrine poets rather than of Theocritus. (3) The introduction of Gallus in the midst of the mythological figures of the poem, and the account of the honour paid to him by the Muses and of the office assigned to him by Linus, are characteristic of the art of the Eclogues, which is not so much allegorical as composite. It brings together in the same representation facts, personages, and places from actual life and the figures and scenes of a kind of fairy-land. In the tenth Eclogue Gallus is thus identified with the Daphnis of Sicilian song, and is represented as the object of care to the Naiads and Pan and Apollo. While Pollio is the patron whose protection and encouragement Virgil most cordially acknowledges in his earlier poems, Gallus is the man among his contemporaries who has most powerfully touched his imagination and gained his affections.

The Eclogue composed next in order of time is the ‘Pollio.’ It was written in the consulship of Pollio, b.c. 40, immediately after the reconciliation between Antony and Octavianus effected by the treaty of Brundisium, and gives expression to that vague hope of a new era of peace and prosperity which recurs so often in the poetry of this age. In consequence of the interpretation given to it in a later age, this poem has acquired an importance connected with Virgil's religious belief second only to the importance of the sixth Aeneid. Early Christian writers, perceiving a parallel between expressions and ideas in this poem and those in the Messianic prophecies, believed that Virgil was here the unconscious vehicle of Divine inspiration, and that he prophesies of the new era which was to begin with the birth of Christ. And though, as Conington and others have pointed out, the picture of the Golden Age given in the poem is drawn immediately from Classical and not from Hebrew sources, yet there is no parallel in Classical poetry to that which is the leading idea of the poem, the coincidence of the commencement of this new era with the birth of a child whom a marvellous career awaited.

The poem begins with an invocation to the Sicilian Muses and with the declaration that, though the strain is still pastoral, yet it is to be in a higher mood, and worthy of the Consul to whom it is addressed. Then follows the announcement of the birth of a new era. The world after passing through a cycle of ages, each presided over by a special deity, had reached the last of the cycle, presided over by Apollo, and was about to return back to the Golden or Saturnian Age of peace and innocence, into which the human race was originally born. A new race of men was to spring from heaven. The first-born of this new stock was destined hereafter to be a partaker of the life of the gods and to ‘rule over a world in peace with the virtues of his father.’ Then follow the rural and pastoral images of the Golden Age, like those given in the first Georgic in the description of the early world before the reign of Jove. The full glory of the age should not be reached till this child should attain the maturity of manhood. In the meantime some traces of ‘man's original sin’ (‘priscae vestigia fraudis’) should still urge him to brave the dangers of the sea, to surround his cities with walls, and to plough the earth into furrows. There should be a second expedition of the Argonauts, and a new Achilles should be sent against another Troy. The romantic adventures of the heroic age were to precede the rest, innocence, and spontaneous abundance of the age of Saturn. Next the child is called upon to prepare himself for the ‘magni honores’—the great offices of state which awaited him; and the poet prays that his own life and inspiration may be prolonged so far as to enable him to celebrate his career.

There seem to be no traces of imitation of Theocritus in this poem. The rhythm which in the other Eclogues reproduces the Theocritean cadences is in this more stately and uniform, recalling those of Catullus in his longest poem. The substance of the poem is quite unlike anything in the Sicilian idyl. Though this substance does not stand out in the clear light of reality, but is partially revealed through a haze of pastoral images and legendary associations, yet it is not altogether unmeaning. The anticipation of a new era was widely spread and vividly felt over the world; and this anticipation—the state of men's minds at and subsequent to the time when this poem was written—probably contributed to the acceptance of the great political and spiritual changes which awaited the world35.

Two questions which have been much discussed in connexion with this poem remain to be noticed; (1) who is the child born in the consulship of Pollio of whom this marvellous career is predicted? (2) is it at all probable that Virgil, directly or indirectly, had any knowledge of the Messianic prophecies or ideas?

In answer to the first we may put aside at once the supposition that the prediction is made of the child who was born in that year to Octavianus and Scribonia. The words ‘nascenti puero’ are altogether inapplicable to the notorious and unfortunate Julia, who was the child of that marriage. If Virgil was sanguine enough to predict the sex of the child, we can hardly imagine him allowing the words to stand after his prediction had been falsified. We may equally dismiss the supposition that the child spoken of was the offspring of the marriage of Antony and Octavia. Not to mention other considerations adverse to this supposition36, it would have been impossible for Virgil, the devoted partisan of Caesar, to pay this special compliment to Antony, even after he became so closely connected with his rival. There remains a third supposition, that the child spoken of is the son of Pollio, Asinius Gallus, who plays an important part in the reign of Tiberius. This last interpretation is supported by the authority of Asconius, who professed to have heard it from Asinius Gallus himself. The objection to this interpretation is that Virgil was not likely to assign to the child of one who, as compared with Octavianus and Antony, was only a secondary personage in public affairs, the position of ‘future ruler of the world’ and the function of being ‘the regenerator of his age.’ Still less could a poem bearing this meaning have been allowed to retain its place among Virgil's works after the ascendency of Augustus became undisputed. Further, the line

Cara deum suboles, magnum Iovis incrementum

(whatever may be its exact meaning37) appears an extreme exaggeration when specially applied to the actual son of a mortal father and mother. These difficulties have led some interpreters to suppose that the child spoken of is an ideal or imaginary representative of the future race. But if we look more closely at the poem, we find that the child is not really spoken of as the future regenerator of the age; he is merely the firstborn of the new race, which was to be nearer to the gods both in origin and in actual communion with them. Again, the words

Pacatumque reget patriis virtutibus orbem(38)

would not convey the same idea in the year 40 b.c. as they would ten or twenty years later. At the time when the poem was written the consulship was still the highest recognised position in the State. The Consuls for the year, nominally at least, wielded the whole power of the Empire. The words ‘reget orbem’ remain as a token that the Republic was not yet entirely extinct. The child is called upon to prepare himself for the great offices of State in the hope that he should in time hold the high place which was now held by his father. The words ‘patriis virtutibus’ imply that he is no ideal being, but the actual son of a well-known father. Virgil takes occasion in this poem to commemorate the attainment of the highest office by his patron, to celebrate the birth of the son born in the year of his consulship, and at the same time to express, by mystical and obscure allusions, the trust that the peace of Brundisium was the inauguration of that new era for which the hearts of men all over the world were longing.

In turning to the second question, discussed in connexion with this Eclogue, the great amount and recondite character of Virgil's learning, especially of that derived from Alexandrine sources, must be kept in view. Macrobius testifies to this in several places. Thus he writes, ‘for this poet was learned with not only a minute conscientiousness, but even with a kind of reserve and mystery, so that he introduced into his works much knowledge the sources of which are difficult to discover39.’ In another place he speaks of those things, ‘what he had introduced from the most recondite learning of the Greeks40.’ And again he says, ‘this story Virgil has dug out from the most recondite Greek literature41.’ It is indeed most improbable that Virgil had a direct knowledge of the Septuagint. If he had this knowledge it would have shown itself by other allusions in other parts of his works. But it is quite possible that, through other channels of Alexandrine learning, the ideas and the language of Hebrew prophecy may have become indirectly known to him. One channel by which this may have reached him would be the new Sibylline prophecies, manufactured in the East and probably reflecting Jewish as well as other Oriental ideas, which poured into Rome after the old Sibylline books had perished in the burning of the Capitol during the first Civil War.

Still, admitting these possibilities, we are not called upon to go beyond classical sources for the general substance and idea of this poem. It has more in common with the myth in the Politicus of Plato than with the Prophecies of Isaiah. The state of the world at the time when the poem was written produced the longing for an era of restoration and a return to a lost ideal of innocence and happiness, and the wish became father to the thought.

There still remain the eighth and tenth Eclogues to be examined. The first, like the fourth, is associated with the name of Pollio, the second with that of Gallus. The date of the eighth is fixed to 39 b.c. by the victory of Pollio in Illyria and by his subsequent triumph over the Parthini. The words

                                                                                                                                                                                    Accipe iussis
Carmina coepta tuis(42)

testify to the personal influence under which Virgil wrote these poems. The title of ‘Pharmaceutria,’ by which the poem is known, indicates that Virgil professes to reproduce, in an Italian form, that passionate tale of city life which forms the subject of the second idyl of Theocritus. But while the subject and burden of the second of the two songs contained in this Eclogue are suggested by that idyl, the poem is very far from being a mere imitative reproduction of it.

Two shepherds, Damon and Alphesiboeus, meet in the early dawn—

Cum ros in tenera pecori gratissimus herba(43),

(one of those touches of truthful description which reappear in the account of the pastoral occupations in Georgic iii). They each sing of incidents which may have been taken from actual life, or may have formed the subject of popular songs traditional among the peasantry of the district. In the first of these songs Damon gives vent to his despair in consequence of the marriage of his old love Nysa with his rival Mopsus. Though the shepherds who sing together bear the Greek names of Damon and Alphesiboeus, though they speak of Rhodope and Tmaros and Maenalus, of Orpheus and Arion, though expressions and lines are close translations, and one a mistranslation, from the Greek …, and though the mode by which the lover determines to end his sorrows,

Praeceps aerii specula de montis in undas

is more appropriate to a shepherd inhabiting the rocks over-hanging the Sicilian seas than to one dwelling in the plain of Mantua,...

(The entire section is 15316 words.)

H. J. Rose (essay date 1942)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: “Molle atque facetum” in The “Eclogues” of Vergil, University of California Press, 1942, pp. 24-44.

[In the following essay, Rose reviews contemporary issues surrounding Vergil's Eclogues, commenting in particular on the criticism of Horace and on political and economic factors that may have influenced Vergil's poetry.]

In trying to appreciate an ancient work, or any work not of our own age and country, it is often useful to discover what the critics said about it when it was new. It is our good fortune to have a contemporary mention of the Eclogues by no less a connoisseur than Horace, who says, in a passage mentioned at the end of...

(The entire section is 8743 words.)

Bruno Snell (essay date 1953)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: “Arcadia: The Discovery of a Spiritual Landscape” in Virgil: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Steele Commager, Prentice Hall, Inc., 1966, pp. 14-27.

[In the essay below, originally published in 1953, Snell investigates Vergil's manipulation of the pastoral Arcadian setting in the Eclogues, contending that Vergil synthesized Theocritus' s Arcadia with the mythological world.]

Arcadia was discovered in the year 42 or 41 b.c. Not, of course, the Arcadia of which the encyclopedia says: ‘The central alpine region of the Peloponnesus, limited off on all sides from the other areas of the peninsula by mountains, some of them very high. In the...

(The entire section is 6011 words.)

Charles Paul Segal (essay date 1965)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: “Tamen Catabitis, Arcades—Exile and Arcadia in Eclogues One and Nine,” Arion, Vol. IV, No. 2, Summer, 1965 pp. 237-66.

[In the following essay, Segal studies the literary relationship between Eclogues One and Nine, emphasizing that Vergil's treatment of political issues in these poems is that of a poet rather than of a historian.]

One of the difficulties hampering students of Vergil's Eclogues has been a certain loss of perspective about the relations between poetry and biography. While no one would deny that Vergil's writing of the Eclogues has some definite relation to certain political circumstances, that relation is...

(The entire section is 13171 words.)

L. P. Wilkinson (essay date 1966)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: “Virgil and the Evictions,” Hermes: Zeitschrift Für Klassiche Philologie, Vol. 94, No. 3, July, 1966, pp. 320-24.

[In the essay below, Wilkinson examines the relationship between the subject of Eclogues One and Nine and political events in Vergil's life. Wilkinson stresses that despite the influence of Vergil's personal situation (such as the threat of eviction of his family) on his writing, these Ecloguesshould not be read as straight allegories.]

An apology is needed for returning to the question of the Ninth and First Eclogues. But it does seem that an intelligible story emerges if we interpret the poems in the light of pastoral...

(The entire section is 2091 words.)

John B. Van Sickle (essay date 1967)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Unity of the Eclogues: Arcadian Forest, Theocritiean Trees,” Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association, 1967, Vol. 90, pp. 491-508.

[In the essay that follows, Van Sickle analyzes the significance of Arcadia in Vergil's Eclogues and argues that it serves as a poetic symbol used to emphasize the unity of the work as a whole.]

The idea of a Liber Bucolicorum, the principle of artistic unity by which the Eclogues form a book, is a kind of philosopher's stone of classical scholarship.1 Accounts are legion and contradictory.2 The book itself, however, closes with a representation...

(The entire section is 7778 words.)

Eleanor Winsor Leach (essay date 1968)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Unity of Eclogue 6,” Latomus, 1968, Vol. XXVII, No. 1, January-March, pp. 13-32.

[In the essay below, Leach studies the Song of Silenus in the Sixth Eclogue and explores the principles of unity in its thematic elements and mythological language. Furthermore, Leach demonstrates how these uniting principles may be applied to the poem as a whole.]

Principles of unity in Eclogue 6 have been sought on many different bases, but chiefly by investigation of the rationale governing the selection and arrangement of myths in the Song of Silenus1. Scholars have generally agreed that both the myths and Vergil's stylistic treatment of...

(The entire section is 8159 words.)

Charles Segal (essay date 1969)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: “Vergil's Sixth Eclogue and the Problem of Evil,” Proceedings: American Philological Association, Vol. 100, 1969, pp. 407-35.

[In the essay that follows, Segal analyzes the moral outlook of the poem and asserts that in the Sixth EclogueVergil uses the pastoral mode to point out a correlation between disorder in the universe and man's evil nature.]


Eclogue 6 is one of Vergil's most ambitious and most difficult short poems.1 Grand themes are its concern: passion, violence, cosmic and poetic creation, the relation between man and nature. No one formulation of the many subtle and complex relationships...

(The entire section is 11486 words.)

Michael C. J. Putnam (essay date 1970)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: An introduction to Virgil's Pastoral Art: Studies in the“Eclogues,” Princeton University Press, 1970, pp. 3-19.

[In the essay below, Putnam discusses some of the major critical issues surrounding Vergil's Eclogues,arguing that one of the most appealing and pertinent aspects of the collection is Vergil's effort to identify the role of the individual within a restrictive society.]

The notion of Virgil as gentle poet of simple charm has been slow to die.1 We accept melancholy as the poet's dominant characteristic, yet we assume its incorporation in a stance which is poised, reserved, aloof—“classical,” in a word. Though evil continues...

(The entire section is 5698 words.)

R. W. Garson (essay date 1971)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: “Theocritean Elements in Virgil's Eclogues,” The Classical Quarterly, 1971, New Series, Vol. XXI, No. 1, May, pp. 188-203.

[In the following essay, Garson focuses on Eclogues 2, 3, 5, 7, and 8, examining their poetics as well as their Theocritean elements.]

Much of the early scholarship on Virgilian borrowings from Theocritus offered mere lists of parallel passages and, where criticism was attempted at all, the Eclogues often attracted such uncomplimentary labels as ‘cento’ or ‘pastiche’. In more recent scholarship the tendency to concentrate on insoluble problems and arithmetical correspondences lingers and, while some critical...

(The entire section is 9297 words.)

Gordon Williams (essay date 1974)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: “A Version of Pastoral: Virgil, Eclogue 4” in Quality and Pleasure in Latin Poetry, edited by Tony Woodman and David West, Cambridge University Press, 1974, pp. 31-47.

[In the essay below, Williams offers a line-by-line analysis of Eclogue 4, contending that the poem's meaning is linked to its historical significance: it is concerned primarily with the establishment of peace in the Roman world, the end of civil war, and the onset of a new era.]

Sicelides Musae, paulo maiora canamus:
non omnis arbusta iuuant humilesque myricae—
si canimus siluas, siluae sint consule dignae.
Vltima Cumaei uenit iam carminis aetas:
magnus ab...

(The entire section is 9844 words.)

Robert Coleman (essay date 1977)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: An introduction to Vergil: “Eclogues”, Cambridge University Press, 1977, pp. 1-40.

[In the following essay, Coleman identifies elements of Theocritus's pastoral poetry that would later influence Vergil and discusses the chronology and arrangement of the Eclogues. Coleman concludes his overview of the Ecloguesby observing that although Vergil's range of themes is somewhat conventional, his details are almost entirely original, and his poetic technique is mature.]


The pastoral myth is the creation of a highly civilized urban sensibility. It is a reaction against certain aspects of the...

(The entire section is 14315 words.)

Paul Alpers (essay date 1979)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: “Eclogue 1: An Introduction to Virgilian Pastoral” in The Singer of the “Eclogues”: A Study of Virgilian Pastoral, University of California Press, 1979, pp. 65-95.

[In the essay below, Alpers presents a detailed analysis of Vergil's Eclogue One and maintains that the poem suspends potential conflicts, thereby achieving a certain harmony.]


Virgil's first eclogue is a problematic poem, yet it has always been felt to be a representative pastoral. It is perhaps too neat to say that it is representative because problematic, and yet no less an authority than Sidney feels something of the sort: “Is it then the...

(The entire section is 11104 words.)