felix dies tibi sit! - Happy Birthday Virgil!
I am a great fan of Virgil. In my opinion, he is one of the greatest poets ever, not just because of the sheer beauty of his poetry, but also the fact that his poetry is incredibly moving. I have shed tears over Virgil’s poetry. On his 2091st birthday (a little like Bilbo Baggins’ eleventy-first affair), I add him to my Blog’s Who’s Who category.
Virgil was born in Mantua in 70 BCE, in an Italy still reeling from the Social War. The Latins and Italian allies were now citizens, but not necessarily fully integrated as far as incorporation into the voting tribes went. Still, Rome was moving towards being the great centre of a tota Italia, the hub of the empire. Virgil, however, shows an acute awareness of a Rome/Italy gulf in his works, the Eclogues and the final heart-rending four books of the Aeneid, which blur into a tragic image of civil war.
We know very little of the great poet’s life. Macrobius says that he was the son of poor man, but other evidence suggests he was son of an eques. I shall, therefore, in this article discuss his beautiful works.
The Eclogues are a truly charming work in the bucolic idyll genre, a Greek form of poetry set in the country which could have shepherds talking about their beloved, their farm, or drinking merrily with friends. The first Eclogue, however, is one of the most moving poems I have ever read. Set in the country it certainly is, but the harsh reality of the post-civil war veteran settlements and evictions invades upon the poem’s initially pretty country scene. Tityrus delights in the farm he has been given, but friend Meliboeus has lost his farm and his new-born lambs have had to be abandoned. The divine youth for Tityrus has been responsible for Meliboeus’ plight. There is a very sad reality to the poem, although it ends on a warm note as Tityrus offers Meliboeus a place to stay and food. Eclogue 6 is a delight. Silenus is sleeping off his hangover, when two shepherd friends find him. Silenus is renowned for his poetic creations and singing, so before he wakes up, they tie him up, and once he is awake make a song the condition of his release. The song meanders beautifully through different scenes and settings to the delight of his friends. I shall deal with just one more. The fourth Eclogue deals with a ‘promised youth and saviour’ and has been read as prophetic of Christ’s coming. I can certainly see why. However, given the dating of the poems, late 40s BCE, with the Republic on its knees and politics uneasily divided between Antony and Octavian (and Lepidus, but he was not exactly effectual), it reads more like a prayer for Rome’s survival.
Virgil was incredibly touched by the world that surrounded him, not just the political climate, but also the natural world. His next poem, the Georgics (the Greek for ‘farming matters’. The charm of the countryside is exquisitely captured, especially his description of bees. However, the poem in four books also reflects a golden age of simplicity that was a central part of Roman identity. Romans believed in an early simpler age, when their greatest magistrates were called up to serve their country while tilling their fields. The great Cincinnatus, returned happily to his farm after his great success. As Rome began to recover from civil war, this image gained renewed strength, a longing Virgil very movingly taps into.
Now, finally the Aeneid. It is very easy to say, ‘he’s no Homer’, or to see it purely in light of a ‘how effectively did he adapt Homer’ question, even Virgil asked for it to be burned. But aren’t we glad he did not. It is a fantastic poem. Deeply full of pathos, even Stoical, in its creation of a hero, who must fight for the greater good of his people, not yet born, but who will become the greatness that is Rome. Aeneas battles with his misery and appointed task. And he achieves it. No room for a moody teenager aware of his own prowess storming off the battlefield, because he doesn’t get a pat on the back (okay, being a bit unfair to Achilles there. He did have to work with Agamemnon, after all. But he does rather thrown his toys out of the pram). Then, Aeneas must weather the final battle for the place he is told will be posterity’s glory. Did Virgil like Augustus? So much ink has been spilt on this. What I shall say is that I think he certainly admired Augustus for the peace he brought. However, the blood and tragedy that had preceded it, even the loss of an Italy, defined independently of Rome, should not be forgotten. The Aeneid ends with the bleak slaying of Turnus, Aeneas’ principal rival. Was it unfinished? Or was Virgil simply saying that a nasty, brutal war had been won. The leader of the opposition was dead. Is he inviting us to question whether it is really a moment to rejoice?
I would like to end with a reminiscence of a lecture I attended on Virgil’s Georgics given by the great Professor Oliver Lyne (or ROAM Lyne as we used to call him after his initials). Reading us the exquisite dying soliloquy of Eurydice in the final book of the poem, as she is pulled back into the Underworld after Orpheus looks back, miserable with incomprehension at his folly, he concluded:
“I really do think at times that Virgil is quite as great as Homer.”