Page images
PDF
EPUB

2. It is uncertain how long Virgil remained at Rome. His stay there may have been interrupted by the outbreak of the Civil War in 49 B.C.; and he is said (though on no certain authority) to have studied at Neapolis (Naples) under one Parthenius. In B.C. 43 we find him at Mantua, engaged upon the Eclogues. In 41 B.C. he was ejected from his paternal farm by one of the soldiers to whom the Triumvirs Antonius, Octavianus, and Lepidus had assigned grants of land in Cisalpine Gaul. To this trouble Eclogues i and ix refer. Ecl. i speaks of a journey to Rome and restitution of the farm; Ecl. ix only alludes to ejection from it. If therefore Ecl. i is the earlier poem, it is necessary to suppose that he was a second time turned out, and that Ecl. ix refers to this second ejection. But probably Ecl. ix, containing a complaint of injury, was written earlier than Ecl. i, expressing gratitude for the redress of the injury. Ecl. iv and viii are complimentary to Pollio and Gallus, two friends who, holding important offices in the district, had backed the poet's application to Octavianus for the restitution of his farm; and Ecl. vi was perhaps a mark of gratitude to Varus, who had also assisted him. Ecl. v, which alludes to the apotheosis of Julius Caesar, may have been written 43-41 B.C.; and it must be later than Ecl. ii and iii, which are alluded to in it (ll. 86-7). Tradition connects Ecl. ii with Pollio, and Ecl. iii speaks of him (1. 84) as encouraging the poet and one or both of these poems may have been written in 43 B.C., the year of Pollio's term of office as 'legatus' in Cisalpine Gaul. Ecl. ix (according to the view just given) was written in 41 B.C.; Ecl. i, iv, and perhaps vi, in 40 B.C., after the restitution of Virgil's farm; and Ecl. viii in 39 B.C., the year of Pollio's return in triumph from Illyria; Ecl. x, written about 38-37 B.C. when Agrippa was commanding an expedition across the Rhine into Gaul, being the last of the series. The composition of the Eclogues thus falls between the years 43 and 37 B.C.: their order (excluding Ecl. vii, which gives no indication of date) being presumably ii, iii, v, ix, i, iv, vi, viii, x.

3. In some difficulty connected with his farm, Virgil had been assisted by C. Cilnius Maecenas, the famous patron of his later years, in compliment to whom, and at whose suggestion', he

1 G. iii. 40-1:

Interea Dryadum silvas saltusque sequamur
Intactos, tua, Maecenas, haud mollia iussa.

undertook the ' Georgics,' an agricultural poem based on the didactic poetry of Hesiod, Nicander and Aratus, as the Eclogues upon the pastoral poetry of Theocritus. The Georgics were read by Virgil and Maecenas to Augustus on his return from the East in 29 B.C.: and if, as Suetonius tells us, Virgil was engaged upon them for seven years, he began them in 36 B.C., a date intrinsically probable from the completion of the Eclogues in 37 B.C., and incidentally confirmed by the allusion in G. ii. 161 to the Julian harbour constructed in that year. At the end of G. iv Virgil himself states that much of them was written at Naples; and from G. iii. 10 it has been inferred that he had visited Greece: though the words 'Aonio deducam vertice Musas' need not imply more than 'Ascraeumque cano Romana per oppida carmen' (G. ii. 176)—i.e., the imitation and adaptation of Greek models. The only recorded visit of Virgil to Greece is that at the end of his life but there is some difficulty in connecting with this the ode (i. 3) in which Horace speaks of the visit of his friend Vergilius to Attica, and an earlier visit is at any rate possible.

·

4. The remaining ten years of Virgil's life (29-19 B.C.) were devoted to the ‘Aeneid,' the most enduring monument not only of his own fame, but of the fortunes of Rome; the epic of the Roman empire; the sacred book of the Roman religion, as summed up in the conception of Fortuna Urbis,' with its visible embodiment in the person of the Emperor; the expression of all the varied beliefs of the time-national, religious, historical, mythological; the 'Gesta Populi Romani,' as some called it on its first appearance. Ten or twelve years before, as we learn from Ecl. vi. 3-5, Virgil had thought of singing 'reges et proelia'; but the idea of an epic poem did not probably take definite shape in his mind before 29 B.C., in which year he writes (G. iii. 46-48) that he intends to celebrate Caesar's exploits. In the year 26 B.C., Augustus, then absent on a campaign in Spain, wrote to ask for a sight of the first draft of the poem or of selected passages from it: Virgil replied1 that he had not yet completed anything worthy of his great undertaking or of the Emperor's ears: but three or four years after he consented to read three books (Aen. iv, vi and another) to the Emperor, the date being approximately determined by the death B.C. 23 ofthe young

1 The poet's reply, or what purports to be such, is preserved by Macrobius, Sat. i. 24. II.

Marcellus, to whose memory the famous passage vi. 860-886 was inserted. According to Suetonius, Virgil first drafted the story in prose, and then wrote different parts of it in no certain order, as the fancy took him the division into twelve books being part of his original plan. Internal evidence bears out this statement: thus e.g. Book ix, where Nisus and Euryalus are introduced as though for the first time, was perhaps written before Book v, where they take a prominent part in the games1. Books iv and vi, as has been stated, were in a finished state about 23 B.C. Book iii was perhaps written before Book ii, or at any rate before Creusa's prophecy (ii. 775 sqq.) which is unnoticed in Book iii. The poet never lived to carry out his intended revision and correction of the whole epic: and the wonder is not that inconsistencies are found in it, but that the story is, on the whole, so consistently and harmoniously worked out.

5. In the year 19 B.C. Virgil, then in his 51st year, set out to travel in Greece and Asia, intending to devote three years to the completion and correction of the Aeneid. At Athens he met Augustus returning from the East and decided to go back with the Emperor to Rome: but was taken ill at Megara and died at Brundisium on Sept. 21st. His ashes were taken to Naples and buried in a tomb on the way to Puteoli, upon which was inscribed the pithy but comprehensive epitaph:

Mantua me genuit, Calabri rapuere, tenet nunc
Parthenope; cecini pascua, rura, duces.

He is said to have acquired, from imperial and other benefactions, a considerable fortune: half of which he left to his half-brother, a quarter to Augustus, and a twelfth to Maecenas and each of his friends Varius and Tucca. To the two latter, as literary executors, he left all his writings on the understanding that they should publish nothing which he had not already published. Fortunately for literature, they saw that the truest friendship would be shown in disregarding such requests, and proceeded to edit the Aeneid with only such corrections as were absolutely necessary, leaving unfinished lines and inconsistencies of detail exactly as they found them. In what they did and in what they left undone, they were faithful to their friend's memory. Nor is the tradition improbable that they acted under the instructions, or at least with the sanction,

1 Aen. ix. 176-181; v. 294–361.

of the Emperor himself: for besides the friendly interest which he is known to have taken in Virgil and his work, Augustus was fully capable of discerning the merits of that work and its probable value as a testimony to his own renown. Policy, no less than literary taste, would determine so shrewd a ruler to encourage such 'vates sacri' as Virgil and Horace.

6. The poetical reputation accorded to Virgil was immediate and lasting. The friendly prediction of Propertius written while the Aeneid was in progress

Cedite Romani scriptores, cedite Graii;

Nescio quid maius nascitur Iliade—

hardly outdid the estimate actually formed of it upon its appearance. From all literary circles in Rome, and particularly from poets, Virgil won immediate and unstinting appreciation. Ovid writes of him

Tityrus et fruges Aeneïaque arma legentur,
Roma triumphati dum caput orbis erit:

and later Roman poets, with the exception perhaps of Lucan, paid him the sincere flattery of undisguised imitation. Juvenal has many references to familiar passages in the Aeneid: Martial, among other tributes of admiration, says that Virgil might have surpassed Horace in lyric and Varius in dramatic poetry: and Pliny the younger tells us that among the busts, etc. possessed by the poet Silius Italicus were those 'Vergilii ante omnes, cuius natalem religiosius quam sui celebravit, Neapoli maxime, ubi monumentum eius adire ut templum solebat.' But perhaps the greatest testimonies of literary genius to his influence are the frequent imitation of his style in the language of Tacitus, and the homage paid by Dante, as by a disciple to his master. His writings soon became, and continued into the Middle Ages to be, the great text-book of education and, together with the events of his life, supplied material for lectures, essays and comments to a long series of grammarians and collectors of literary gossip like Aulus Gellius and Macrobius. His name in due course became the centre of various popular traditions: some of which represented him as an enchanter or magician, others as a Christian teacher. The association of his name with magic powers may have been suggested partly by Ecl. viii (Pharmaceutria), partly by the account of the

world below in Aen. vi, partly by his mother's name Magia: and perhaps led to the peculiar mode of divination known as the 'Sortes Virgilianae '-i.e., opening the poems at random to find some omen for the future. The other class of traditions originated in the supposed connection of Ecl. iv ('the Messianic Eclogue') with prophecies of Christ, which took a strong hold on the imagination of Christendom, and may have contributed to Dante's selection of Virgil as a guide through the 'Inferno' and 'Purgatorio.'

7. For questions affecting the literary criticism of Virgil's poetry, the student is referred to Professor Sellar's volume on 'The Roman Poets of the Augustan Age,' Professor Nettleship's 'Suggestions Introductory to a Study of the Aeneid,' and the Introductions in Professor Conington's edition. A word may here be said on two points which are often insisted upon in disparagement of Virgil's fame. Want of originality is the commonest, as it is the easiest, charge. The borrowed element lies upon the surface. The Eclogues reflect, or rather reproduce Theocritus; the Georgics are, as Virgil himself calls them, Ascraeum carmen, a reminiscence of Hesiod; and the Aeneid is full of imitations of Homer, which to modern taste seem crude and inartistic. But the ideas of Virgil's own time were different. Imitation of Greek models was characteristic of all Roman literature. And as the only great presentment of heroic times open to Virgil was that of the Homeric poems, it would have seemed impossible for him to cast his epic in any other mould than that of the Iliad and Odyssey. To reproduce their form in Roman outline, use their details, absorb their spirit, surpass if possible their effect, would be his first and most natural ambition;' as indeed he himself expresses it (G. iii. 10)—

Primus ego in patriam mecum, modo vita supersit,
Aonio rediens deducam vertice Musas.

So Horace lays down his canon of success in poetry—

Vos exemplaria Graeca

Nocturna versate manu, versate diurna :

and estimates in language not unlike Virgil's his own title to poetic fame

Dicar . . ex humili potens

Princeps Aeolium carmen ad Italos
Deduxisse modos. (Od. iii. 30. 10.)

« PreviousContinue »