Publius Vergilius Maro, the talented young Mantuan best known to the modern world as Virgil, the poet of the Aeneid (c. 29- 19 b.c.e.), began his career by writing ten pastorals in the style of the third century Greek poet Theocritus. His achievement extended the range of the Latin language into the rarefied literary territory of his Greek predecessor even as he portrayed Augustus’s Italy as a neo-Roman Arcadia. This harmonized well with the aims of the emperor. Augustus had, after all, stabilized Rome following the chaos of the civil war and the Gracchan land reforms. Then, having defeated Marcus Antonius, Augustus set about creating a popular myth of Rome and Italy as he would have liked them always to be seen.
Augustus commissioned and supervised the building of the Ara Pacis, the “Altar of Peace,” which contemporary tourists in Rome can see fully reassembled within a glass pavilion commissioned by Benito Mussolini. This monument to Augustan peace pairs the mythic harmony of a powerful senate (which was, in fact, virtually powerless after the accession of Augustus) with the bounty of the goddess Italia and the chubby infants Romulus and Remus. Deeply carved marble could not, however, disguise the reality that on Augustus’s accession to the throne, Rome was a city of mud-brick, not marble; discontented veterans of various vintages had pillaged its countryside after being promised, but not given, homestead farms. Grain riots in the city itself were common, primarily because uncertainty and war had made plantings irregular and harvests meager.
Virgil (or, more properly, Vergil), a country boy fresh from the village of Andes near Mantua, entered Rome against this chaotic background. He joined the circle of Gaius Maecenas, who was also the patron of the distinguished poets Quintus Horatius Flaccus (Horace) and Publius Ovidius Naso (Ovid). Vergil’s affection for the Italian countryside was genuine, and he set about writing the collection called Eclogues, then the Georgics, a farmer’s calendar based on Erga kai Emerai (c. 700 b.c.e.; Works and Days, 1618) by the Greek poet Hesiod. Vergil’s use of such sources was homage to distinguished literary predecessors, but it was also a test of Vergil as a Latin poet. His challenge was to adapt and refashion Greek verse to Roman sensibility, and to do this in the most exalted vocabulary and meter. Vergil gave Greek titles to his pastoral collections, but both the Eclogues and the Georgics are thoroughly Roman in spirit despite their Greek inspirations.
Much goes on beneath the surface in the ten poems known as the Eclogues, and David Ferry’s translation frequently captures the tension just beneath the placid surface. For example, the first eclogue contrasts the situations of two shepherd farmers with the Theocritean names Tityrus and Meliboeus. Tityrus plays his rustic pipe, at ease amid the abundance of his land, declaring that deus nobis haec otia fecit, “a god [presumably Augustus] gave me this peace,” as Ferry renders it, though otium also carries the implication of an indolent rest. Meliboeus, quick to assert that he does not maliciously envy Tityrus, describes his own situation in contrast. His livestock fail to produce and he has to leave his farm, as do others in his circumstance. These unfortunates go to the four corners of the earth.
. . . ibimus Afros,
pars Scythiam et rapidum cretae ueniemus Oaxen
et penitus toto diuisos orbe Britannos.
. . . we . . . go . . .
. . . to. . . Africa,
Some to Scythia, some to the region where
Oaxes rushes over its chalky bed,
Some as far away as among the Britons, . . .
The first eclogue could hardly be a better masque for Augustus’s Italy. After he had defeated Brutus and Cassius at Philippi in 42 b.c.e., Augustus needed land to provide the homesteads he had promised to his veterans. The most fortunate ones got farms in Italy, often by forced removal of the previous tenants, who were frequently those who had supported Brutus or Cassius. A select few (like Tityrus) could remain because of the emperor’s personal intervention. Still, the man who gave Tityrus otium to play his pipe also caused the displacement of Meliboeus. While placidity prevails, unhappiness is also present. Both men are aware that the day the poem celebrates is the last of a historical period. They have a dislocating awareness, all too frequently recognizable to modern readers, that something once very agreeable will never again be as it had been. There is the promise represented by Tityrus, who is happy with his new love Amaryllis, but there is also the poignant sadness of Meliboeus going forward into an unknown future.
This is merely one example of the paradoxical tension in Vergil’s vision of Arcadia. The...
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