Virgil’s Latin survives in unexpected places. The reverse of the American one-dollar bill displays three Latin phrases based on Virgilian quotations, on images of the Great Seal of the United States (designed by the Founding Fathers in 1782). Nouus ordo saeclorum‘a new order of ages’ is adapted from Virgil’s fourth Eclogue (line 5). Annuit coeptis ‘[God] looks favourably on our undertakings’ is lightly adapted from a prayer to Jupiter in the mouth of Aeneas’ son Ascanius at a critical moment in the Trojans’ war in Italy in the Aeneid (9.625). E pluribus unum ‘from many [colonies] one [nation]’ is adapted from a pseudo-Virgilian poem, the Moretum, which describes how a rustic blends together the ingredients for a kind of garlic pesto, so that ‘one colour emerges from many’, color est e pluribus unus (Moretum 102). The motto of Oklahoma, labor omnia uincit, ‘hard work overcomes all things’, is the condition of the farmer’s world in the Georgics (1.145). Further afield, the motto of the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais islibertas quae sera tamen ‘liberty, which even if late’, commemorating a late eighteenth-century liberation movement. It is an abbreviation of a line in the Eclogues in which a shepherd, formerly a slave, explains the reason why he went to Rome (Ecl. 1.27):libertas, quae sera tamen respexit inertem ‘freedom, which, though late, nevertheless looked the way of an idle man’. The original context of the line is apposite for its Brazilian transplantation, since it is an example of Virgil’s injection of contemporary social and political reality into the timeless pastoral world. Going still further afield, the motto of the Australian city of Melbourne is the Virgilian phrase uires acquirit eundo ‘it gathers strength as it goes’. Here it is perhaps better not to remember that the original subject of these words is the monstrous personification of Rumour (Fama) in the Aeneid (4.175).
For most of the last two millennia Virgil’s poetry, and in particular his epic the Aeneid, was a central monument in the literary and cultural landscape of Europe and, in more recent centuries, of those territories around the world colonized by Europe, as the previous paragraph bears witness. The Aeneid was a core text in education, and, having entered the bloodstream of the educated elite, was the inspiration for countless new works of literature, as well as the visual arts and music. The influence of Virgil’s epic was not limited to the literary and artistic. What might be called the Virgilian ‘myth of history’ has been evoked again and again in support of political programmes and manifestoes, mostly of nationalist and imperialist kinds.
In 1944 T.S. Eliot could still claim that Virgil was ‘the classic of all Europe’, in his presidential address to the newly founded Virgil Society, ‘What is a Classic?’. ‘Virgil acquires the centrality of the unique classic; he is at the centre of European civilization, in a position which no other poet can share or usurp.’1 The Virgil Society had been set up in the dark days of World War II with the aim of ‘unit[ing] all those who cherish the poetry of Virgil as the symbol of the cultural tradition of Western Europe’.2 Eliot had his own agenda when it came to the matter of tradition and the classics, but his assertion of Virgil’s continuing classic status was not absurd. Indeed the earlier part of the twentieth century had seen a reinvigorated attention to Virgil, and the bimillennium of Virgil’s birth in 1930 had been enthusiastically celebrated on both sides of the Atlantic.3 But well before the turn of the twenty-first century Virgil had comprehensively lost this status, largely as a result of the decline of Latin in schools, and partly as a result of a reaction against the ideologies of nation and empire with which the Aeneid is associated, and which have now become deeply unfashionable.
But if Virgil’s poems enjoy a much reduced visibility in the modern world, their presence pervades the literature and art of the nineteen centuries and more during which Virgil was a central author. To write a comprehensive literary and cultural history of the reception of Virgil would be little less than to write a literary and cultural history of western Europe and its former overseas possessions. This short book can attempt only to give an overall sense of the history of Virgil’s reception, together with a more detailed sampling of individual instances of that reception.
Its coverage is partial also in that it focuses on just one of Virgil’s three canonical works, the last and most ambitious. The Aeneid was preceded by the Eclogues, Virgil’s book of pastoral poetry in the line of the Hellenistic bucolic poetry of Theocritus, and theGeorgics, composed in a tradition of Greek and Roman didactic poetry going back to the archaic poet Hesiod, a poem which uses the pretext of teaching the reader how to farm in order to raise much larger issues concerning man’s place in the world. In addition there is a collection of poems formerly attributed to the young Virgil, known as the Appendix Vergiliana. Modern scholars believe almost none of these to be by Virgil, but until the Renaissance they were generally regarded as authentic and they play their own part in the reception of Virgil.4 The three major works, Eclogues, Georgics and Aeneid, form what in hindsight seems an almost pre-scripted progression in size, genre and subject-matter: from ten short, recherché poems about shepherds singing in the countryside, to a four-book poem about hard work on the farm, set within a much larger set of temporal and spatial frameworks, to the 12-book epic on the business of warfare and the foundation of cities. In the Middle Ages this tripartite career was given schematic representation in the ‘Wheel of Virgil’, which arranges the ascending analogies of the three poems in concentric circles.5 The idea of a ‘Virgilian career’, working its way up from smaller literary exercises to the full-scale epic, was influential in later centuries, a challenge taken up, for example, by Edmund Spenser and John Milton.6
As well as forming a progression, the three Virgilian poems are also tightly connected by a dense network of self-allusion. For example, the Eclogues look forward to some of the major themes of the Aeneid: exile, the return of the Golden Age, the disastrous effects of love, apotheosis. The Georgics move on from the Eclogues, but also look back to them, and the epic Aeneid contains both pastoral and didactic passages. The three works can be thought of, in a sense, as ‘one poetic space’.7 A consequence of this for the reception of Virgil is that imitation of the Aeneid is often linked to imitation of the earlier works. In particular, allusion to the fourth Eclogue, whose political and cosmic vision could almost be read as a blueprint for the Aeneid, is often found together with allusion to Virgil’s epic.
The Aeneid is a poem of very high quality, but that alone would not have assured it a central place in western culture. It achieved that position by being the particular kind of poem that it is, produced at a particular moment in history. It was written in the decade after the final victory of Octavian over Antony and Cleopatra at the battle of Actium in 31 BC (the ancient Life of Virgil by Aelius Donatus ascribes 11 years to the writing of the Aeneid, down to the death of Virgil in 19 BC).8 In 27 BC Octavian took on the name Augustus. This was the decade that saw the institution of the principate and the passage from the Roman Republic to a de facto monarchy under Augustus, the first Roman emperor. At this moment of refoundation and transition Virgil created an epic poem that tells of a hero who flees from the destruction of his native city, Troy, and travels to Italy in order to found a new city. The hero, Aeneas, is also the ancestor of the family (gens) into which Octavian was adopted by Julius Caesar, the gens Iulia, supposedly named after Iulus, the son of Aeneas (also known as Ascanius). Augustus was the first of the Julio-Claudian emperors, the line that came to a violent end with the death of Nero in AD 68. The city that Aeneas will found in Italy, after the end of the main narrative of theAeneid, is Lavinium, from which his son Ascanius will found the city of Alba Longa, from which in the fullness of time Romulus will found Rome itself. While the action of the Aeneid is set in a remote legendary past, it constantly looks forward, through allusion and prophecy, to the foundation and history of the city of Rome, and to the person and rule of Augustus. Aeneas, forced by circumstance into the role of king of the Trojan refugees from Troy, is also trying out the role of Roman leader that Augustus was in the business of devising for himself in the years after Actium. Aeneas’ journey to Italy, together with the whole history of Rome down to Augustus, is part of the plan of Jupiter or Fate, a way of claiming divine sanction for Augustus as the culmination of the historical process. The hero Aeneas has the added aura of being the son of the goddess Venus (and so grandson of Jupiter). On his death he will become a god, as will, in future centuries, Romulus, Julius Caesar and, in prospect from the point of view of Virgil’s reader, Augustus.
No crude propaganda text, the Aeneid is yet deeply implicated in the construction of the principate. It quickly superseded what had been the national epic of the Romans, the Annals of Ennius (239–169 BC), which narrated Roman history from Romulus down to Ennius’ own day. As the foundational epic of the Roman Empire the Aeneid becomes the central text for the five centuries of that empire’s life, and then for later states and rulers which saw themselves as in some way successors of the Roman Empire.
The Aeneid asserts its canonical status in terms of literary-cultural, as well as political, history. It tells of the foundation of empire, and is itself imperialist in its literary ambition, which is no less than to establish itself as the Latin equivalent of the Homeric epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey. In antiquity Homer was viewed as the first and greatest of Greek poets, superhuman and almost divine, the fountainhead of all later Greek (and subsequently Roman) literature. Within its 12 books the Aeneid concentrates an almost unbelievably extensive and detailed imitation of the 48 books of the two Homeric epics.9 Furthermore, as a logical consequence of the view that the Homeric poems contained the seeds of all later literature, the Aeneid contains allusions to a whole range of earlier authors and genres, both Greek and Roman, making it a consciously encyclopedic epic. The ambition – and achievement – of the Aeneid is staggering: it is perhaps not surprising that Virgil is said to have written in a letter to Augustus that he must have been almost mad to undertake such an enormous task.10
The Aeneid thus completes an important stage in what is known as the ‘Hellenization of Rome’, the complex process whereby the militarily superior Rome negotiated its relationship with the cultural superiority of Greece. Homage to Homer and at the same time an imperialist appropriation of Greek cultural goods, the Aeneid, together with other Roman literature from the end of the Republic and the age of Augustus, by Cicero, Livy, Horace, Propertius, Tibullus, Ovid, goes to form a canon of Latin texts that can claim parity with the classics of Greek literature. One sign of the classic status of these Latin texts is that they become the central point of reference for later Roman authors. After Virgil Roman epic poets continue to allude to Homer, but the intertextual centre of gravity is always the Aeneid.11 The history of imperial Roman epic, and of much post-antique epic in Latin and the vernaculars, is the history of responses to, and rewritings of, the Aeneid.
This is a book about the reception of the Aeneid, in other words the ways in which Virgil’s epic has been commented on, critiqued, and imitated, a literary text that has inspired countless later writers and artists, including many of the greatest names in the western tradition, and a text that has also been enlisted in the service of politics and ideologies. But the story told in this book is part of a longer history stretching back before the composition of the Aeneid. The post-Virgilian reception of the Aeneid may be viewed as a continuation of the reception of pre-Virgilian literature, culture and history that is performed in the Aeneid itself, as Virgil uses the vast canvas of his epic to engage with previous Greco-Roman literary tradition as well as with wider military, political and cultural histories.
Modern criticism of Latin poetry has perhaps been overly obsessed with the hunt for ‘metapoetics’, the attempt to find commentary within texts on their own processes of poetic making, but it is hard not to see in the surface plot of the Aeneid reflections of the poem’s own relationship to literary tradition, in images of transmission and translation, succession and inheritance. The overarching plot is the transfer of a people in the eastern Mediterranean to a new home in the west, in Italy, foreshadowing the later transfer of Greek literary and artistic goods from the eastern Mediterranean to Rome. More specifically, the journey from Troy to Rome reflects Virgil’s own naturalization in Latin of the Greek epics of Homer. That was understood long before the twentieth century: in the early sixteenth century Girolamo Vida, one of the most proficient of the many early modern imitators of Virgil who wrote in Latin, gives advice in his didactic poem on the Art of Poetry (1527) on the successful imitation of the ancient poets, and uses a number of images drawn from Virgil. These are practical examples of what it is that Vida is teaching, for very close verbal imitations of Virgil are put to work in quite different contexts. One of the images refers to the plot of the Aeneid as a whole: the successful imitator will put old material to new use (Art of Poetry 3.234–7), ‘just as the Trojan hero [Aeneas] transferred the kingdom of Asia and the household gods of Troy to Latium, with auspices of better fortune, for all that, at the call of fate, unwillingly, Phoenician lady [Dido], he departed from your shore.’ ‘Transferred’ is my translation of the Latin transtulit; the noun from the verb is translatio, one of whose meanings in classical Latin is indeed ‘translation’. Vida is talking not about imitation across languages but about imitation in Latin of Virgil’s Latin, but this is a useful reminder that translation (in our sense) is an important part of the reception of Virgil, important indeed for the wider literary history of the vernaculars into which the Aeneid has been translated.
There is more to be teased out of the lines quoted above from Vida: ‘unwillingly, Phoenician lady, he departed from your shore’ (inuitus, Phoenissa, tuo de litore cessit) is a light adaptation of the line in which Aeneas protests to the shade of Dido in the Underworld that he left the Carthaginian queen’s shore unwillingly (Aeneid 6.460). The Virgilian line in turn is, notoriously, a light adaptation of a line in poem 66 of Catullus, the ‘Lock of Berenice’ (a model for Pope’s Rape of the Lock), in which a lock of hair protests to its mistress, the queen of Egypt, that when it was cut off as a votive offering it had unwillingly left the queen’s head (not shore). Vida inserts the line as a lesson in a multiple process of literary transference, or reception; he will not have known that the Catullan line in turn is (literally) a translation of a Greek original by the Alexandrian poet Callimachus.
Dreams, encounters in the Underworld, and the succession of sons to fathers are other Virgilian motifs that can be read as self-commentary on the Aeneid’s own relationship to its literary predecessors, and they are in turn used as images of their own literary ancestry by imitators of Virgil. John Dryden, in ‘To the Memory of Mr. Oldham’ (the poet John Oldham), alludes to the lament for the death of the younger Marcellus at the end of Aeneid 6: ‘Once more, hail and farewell; farewell thou young, | But ah too short, Marcellus of our tongue.’ But Dryden may succeed in reaching poetic maturity, where Oldham has failed. In his translation of the Aeneid Dryden had discussed different interpretations of the lines at the end of Aeneid 6: ‘’Tis plain, that Virgil cannot mean the same Marcellus; but one of his descendants.’ Dryden translates a difficult phrase in Aeneas’ reaction to the vision of the younger Marcellus (Aen. 6.865 quantum instar in ipso!) as ‘His son, or one of his illustrious name, | How like the former, and almost the same.’ ‘The beauty and propriety of the Virgilian allusion in “To the Memory of Mr. Oldham” derive from the gentle confidence that to Virgil, Dryden would be “one of his Descendants”.’12
On the death of Virgil in 19 BC the Aeneid instantly became a school text.13 A freedman of Cicero’s friend Atticus is said to have been the first to lecture on Virgil in his school.14 The rhetorician Quintilian in the late first century AD stipulated that schoolboys should begin their reading with Homer and Virgil, even if a more mature judgement is needed for appreciating their qualities; but for that there will be time, since they will be read more than once (Education of the Orator 1.8.5). The teacher himself would read out a poetic text, pointing out features of pronunciation, expression and prosody, in advance of the pupil’s own reading. The satirist Juvenal, writing in the early second century ad, paints a picture of the badly paid schoolteacher, the grammaticus, literally ‘grammarian’, giving his lessons before dawn and having to endure the stench of the oil-lamps of his pupils, ‘so that Horace is totally discoloured and the soot sticks to blackened Virgil’ (Satire 7.226–7). Horace joins Virgil as a school-text.
This was a position that Virgil, together with a small number of other classical Latin authors, would maintain in grammar schools through the Middle Ages and Renaissance, and down to the twentieth century.15 The texts were taught both to inculcate correct linguistic knowledge and to give moral lessons. As John Brinsley’s teaching manual, Ludus literarius (1612), puts it, the boys should learn ‘to make right use of the matter of their authors, besides the Latin […] To help to furnish them with variety of the best moral matter, and with understanding wisdom and precepts of virtue, as they grow.’ This kind of teaching reinforced a view of Virgil’s texts as containing models of personal and social virtues that is very different from prevailing present-day ways of reading him.
As an authority for linguistic use, Virgil is also the most frequent source for illustrations in the ancient treatises on grammar. Domenico Comparetti, the great Italian scholar whose 1872 study of Virgil in later antiquity and the Middle Ages has not been supplanted, reckoned that ‘if all the manuscripts of [Virgil] had been lost, it would be possible from the notices given us by the ancients of the Virgilian poems, and the passages quoted from them by the grammarians alone, to reconstruct practically the whole of theBucolics, the Georgics, and the Aeneid.’16
Commentaries on Virgil started to be written soon after his death, beginning a tradition that continues down to the present day.17 Of the two ancient commentaries on Virgil to survive complete, the more important is the massive commentary by Servius (late fourth/early fifth century AD) on all three of Virgil’s poems.18 As is generally the way of commentaries, Servius incorporates and builds on the commentaries of his predecessors, in particular that by the great scholar Aelius Donatus (earlier fourth century), the teacher of St Jerome and compiler of the most important of the ancient lives of Virgil. Servius’ commentary was used throughout the Middle Ages and beyond; the first printed edition in Italy, in 1470, came only a year after the first printed edition of Virgil himself. Servius was followed by a number of Renaissance commentators; early modern editions of Virgil often print a number of commentaries together, in so-called ‘Variorum’ (‘of various authors’) editions. In these books a page typically displays a few lines of Virgil surrounded by a sea of commentary. The title-page of a 1499 Lyon edition of Virgil shows five commentators busy at their desks, with Servius, always the most important commentator, seated in the centre in the position of honour and writing at a larger desk.19 The commentaries are an integral part of the reception of Virgil, not just the deposit of a separate scholiastic tradition: the point is made in the frontispiece painted by Simone Martini for the fourteenth-century manuscript of Virgil owned by Petrarch, whose own works engage in a profound dialogue with Virgil (Plate 1)). In the painting Servius pulls aside a curtain to reveal Virgil in the act of composition. The other figures represent Virgil’s three major works: beside Servius stands the armed Aeneas, hero of the Aeneid, while below a farmer pruning a vine symbolizes the Georgics, and a shepherd the Eclogues. One of the inscriptions reads: ‘This is Servius, who recovers the mysteries of eloquent Virgil so they are revealed to leaders, shepherds and farmers.’
Servius is one of the interlocutors in the Saturnalia by Macrobius (early fifth century), learned and literary dialogues set during the Saturnalia of (?) AD 383. A central topic is the poetry of Virgil, who is praised as ‘skilled in every discipline’, and ‘keen in his pursuit of elegance of expression’.20 The discussions cover Virgil’s oratorical skill, and his profound, and infallible, astronomical, philosophical and religious learning. The Aeneid is a sacred poem whose inmost shrine is to be opened up for the worship of the learned. This view of Virgil as an almost divine being and the encyclopedic repository of profound and universal wisdom mirrors an older view of Homer as a godlike poet, the source of all literature and learning.
Macrobius’ hero-worship of the Roman poet is also a reflection of the antiquarianizing nostalgia of the Roman elite in the last century of the western empire for their city’s great and pagan past. But Virgil enjoyed star status already in his own lifetime, according to Tacitus who reports (Dialogue on Orators 13) that on the recitation of some of his verses in the theatre the audience all rose to their feet and paid homage (uenerabatur) to Virgil, who happened to be present, as if he were the Emperor Augustus (that other semi-divine human). The same verb is used in a letter by Pliny the Younger (3.7.8) of the veneration paid by the late first-century epic poet Silius Italicus (a faithful imitator of Virgil in his own epic) to the books, statues and pictures of Virgil, whose birthday (15 October) Silius celebrated more devoutly than his own, especially when he was in Naples, where he would visit Virgil’s tomb (which he had bought) as if it were a temple. Virgil’s (supposed) tomb, which survives in what is now a suburb of Naples, was the object of pilgrimage for centuries, and the subject of romantic paintings by Joseph Wright of Derby (Plate 2)).21
Virgil’s status as the incomparably great poet remained virtually unchallenged down to the seventeenth century. For Dante he is ‘my master and my author’ (Inferno 1.85). Julius Caesar Scaliger, author of one of the most influential works on poetics in the Renaissance, the Poetices libri septem (1561), says that ‘Virgil should be our example, our rule, the beginning and the end’ (Poetices 5.3). Like the relics of a saint, the materiality of the very words of Virgil is a part of their sacrosanctity, as is evident from two rather strange, to modern eyes, uses to which the text of Virgil has been put, the ‘Virgilian lots’ (sortes Vergilianae) and the cento.
The sortes Vergilianae is the practice of telling the future by opening a text of Virgil at random.22 The same thing was done with Homer, and with that other sacred text, the Bible, as in Augustine’s story (Confessions 8.29) of how on hearing the chant of tolle, lege‘pick up, read’ in a children’s game he was impelled to pick up the Bible and read the first passage he came across (Romans 13:13 f.), which told him to turn from the pleasures of the flesh to Christ. Evidence for the sortes Vergilianae in antiquity is confined to the unreliable late fourth-century Historia Augusta, which contains biographies of emperors of the second and third centuries AD. Here the sortes forecast to emperors or emperors-to-be the assumption or the loss of power, with most of the lines apparently hit upon by chance coming, not surprisingly, from the Parade of Heroes in the Underworld in Aeneid 6, the vision of the succession of the unborn souls of great Romans down to the time of Augustus. Verses on the final figure in that parade, the prematurely dead younger Marcellus, crop up more than once as predictions of short-lived rule, an indication of how easily the lament for Augustus’ young nephew, who was possibly being groomed for power when he died in 23 BC, could be taken as expressing a concern about the imperial succession – as it perhaps was already by Virgil’s first Roman readers.
However, the Historia Augusta apart, the sortes Vergilianae seem essentially to be a Renaissance invention. The most famous English example is the story that during the English Civil War Charles I took the sortes in the Bodleian Library in Oxford, and hit upon the lines from Dido’s curse in which she prays that if Aeneas is fated to reach Italy he should not live to enjoy his kingdom, but die before his time and lie unburied on the sand (Aen. 4.615–20). In Ben Jonson’s play Poetaster (1601) Augustus appears as the first practitioner of the sortes when he asks Virgil to read from his Aeneid ‘where first by chance | We here have turned thy book.’ The passage chosen at random is that in Aeneid 4 describing the appearance of the monster Rumour after the union of Dido and Aeneas in the cave. The real-life fulfilment of the oracular text is instantaneous, with the entry of an informer, a purveyor of malicious rumour. In a comic example in Rabelais’ Tiers livre (1536) Pantagruel and Panurge take the sortes Vergilianae in order to try and answer Panurge’s question of whether to marry or not to marry. At the third taking of the lots they alight on Aeneid 11.782, ‘she [the Amazonian warrior Camilla] raged with a woman’s passion for booty and for spoil’, which Pantagruel takes to mean that Panurge’s wife will steal his goods and rob him. When Panurge does not agree, they turn to other methods of divination.
The sortes Vergilianae work by asking a fragment of Virgil’s text to point to an event which was not included in the reference of that fragment in its original context. The cento (from the Greek kentron ‘piece of patchwork’) recombines a series of fragments of a text in order to produce another text meaning something different from the original. It is related to the literary pastiche, from Italian pasticcio ‘pie containing a mixture of meat and pasta’, a text cobbled together from bits and pieces from a variety of sources, usually to humorous effect. The cento is a stricter form, both because the fragments are taken from a single author and because the rules for the selection and combination are more rigorous: the unit of recombination is a half-line, a line, or a line and a half, rarely a longer segment. For an example of how this works in practice see the cento passage quoted below, p. 177. Most centos in Latin are patched out of fragments of Virgil, and the less numerous Greek examples are stitched together from fragments of Homer. In other words, the cento is an act of homage to a canonical and almost sacred text, even if parodic, and it depends for its effect on its readers’ deep familiarity with that text.23
Latin centos include the ‘Nuptial Cento’ (Cento Nuptialis) of the fourth-century Ausonius, a parodistic diversion of the words of Virgil to track the stages of a wedding (see below pp. 177–8), as well a number of centos on mythological subjects, including the late third-century Medea ascribed to a Hosidius Geta. In this extreme form of intertextuality allusive effects that reach deeper than the verbal surface cannot be ruled out: Geta draws heavily on Virgil’s account of the abandoned Dido in constructing his tragedy on the subject of the abandoned and vengeful Medea, triggering the reader’s recognition of Virgil’s own extensive allusions to the story of Medea in his Dido narrative.
The cento is also a means of making Virgil speak the truths of Christianity. The first Christian cento, of the 350s or 360s AD, is by a woman, Faltonia Betitia Proba, who uses Virgilian language to retell Old and New Testament episodes from the Creation to the Crucifixion. Proba may have written her cento to get round a ban by the apostate emperor Julian on the teaching of pagan literature by Christians. The Christian cento is part of the wider phenomenon of the ‘Christianization’ of Virgil, in part to enlist the authority of the canonical Roman poet for Christian ends, and in part reflecting a belief that Virgil was in some sense a Christian before Christianity (see Chapter 6). The only surviving Homeric cento of any length is a biblical epic, and it was also composed by a woman, the Byzantine empress Eudocia (early fifth century). The Virgilian cento enjoyed a revival in the Renaissance, on subjects both sacred and erotic (for examples of each see below pp. 132, 178), and panegyrical, as in the late seventeenth-century cento panegyrics on the Hapsburg emperors Rudolf I and Rudolf II.
When Julius Caesar Scaliger said in his Poetices that in poetry Virgil was the beginning and end, he was passing a judgement in a long-standing debate as to the relative merits of Homer and Virgil. So long as post-antique western Europe, its Latin culture continuous with that of Roman antiquity, was to all intents and purposes Greekless, Virgil reigned supreme. But with the growing knowledge of Greek from the fifteenth century onwards the Homeric epics once more became available (as they had been to Virgil and educated Romans in classical antiquity), and a proper comparison of Homer and Virgil became possible, and indeed almost de rigueur, reviving a debate that goes back to Virgil’s lifetime.24 Even before the Aeneid was finished the elegist Propertius declared that ‘something greater than the Iliad is being born’ (Propertius 2.34.66). The rhetorician Quintilian tells how he asked his teacher who he thought came nearest to Homer. The reply was ‘Virgil comes second, but he is nearer to the first than to the third’ (Education of the Orator 10.1.86). Quintilian’s own gloss on this judgement lays out some of the terms that will figure in later assessments of the relative qualities and virtues of the two: ‘though we must yield to Homer’s divine and immortal genius, there is more care and craftsmanship in Virgil, if only because he had to work harder at it; and maybe our poet’s uniformly high level compensates for his inferiority to Homer’s greatest passages.’ Juvenal has a satirical picture of a blue-stocking at a party, pitting the two poets against each other and weighing Homer in one scale and Virgil in the other (Satire 6.434–7). Macrobius in the Saturnalia divides a long list of Homeric parallels in Virgil into three sections: passages in which Virgil improves on Homer, passages in which he equals his model, and passages in which he falls short.
We may find this kind of evaluative comparison of authors a distraction from more interesting forms of literary criticism, but it was deeply embedded in ancient ways of thinking about literature, and continued for centuries after. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the palm usually went to Virgil, frequently with extravagant expressions of praise. Girolamo Vida ends his Latin didactic poem on the Art of Poetry, which might more accurately be labelled ‘On the Art of Writing Poetry in the Manner of Virgil’, with a full-scale hymn to his poetic god, calling on Virgil to ‘pour your poetic ardour into our pure breasts’, an equation of imitation and inspiration very far from Romantic ideas of originality. Homer was particularly found wanting in his lapses from literary decorum and in his repetitiousness – what we now identify as the formulaic manner of an oral tradition. Two of those who demurred from the prevailing ‘Maronolatry’ (‘idolization of Virgil’; Maro is the last name of Publius Vergilius Maro) were both great translators, and deserve a hearing because of their very close engagement with the ancient texts. George Chapman (1559?–1634), translator of both the Iliad and the Odyssey, the latter a famous moment of revelation for Keats (‘On first looking into Chapman’s Homer’), says that ‘Homer’s poems were writ from a free fury, and absolute and full soul, Virgil’s out of a courtly, laborious, and altogether imitatory spirit’, and he goes on to hammer home the point about Virgil’s total dependence on Homer.
John Dryden wrote probably the best English translation of Virgil, a poet with whom he shows a deep sympathy in his own works. Yet after translating the first book of the Iliad at the end of his life (published in his Fables Ancient and Modern, 1700), Dryden claimed that ‘I have found by trial, Homer a more pleasing task than Virgil […] For the Grecian is more according to my genius, than the Latin poet […] Virgil was of a quiet, sedate temper; Homer was violent, impetuous, and full of fire. The chief talent of Virgil was propriety of thought, and ornament of words: Homer was rapid in his thoughts and took all the liberties both of numbers, and of expression, which his language and the age in which he lived allowed him.’
Genius, freedom, inspiration: these are some of the key terms in the almost complete revolution in the comparative ranking of Virgil and Homer that was taking place by the end of the eighteenth century. For the Romantics Homer was the original genius, Virgil a late-coming imitator, servile not only in his dependence on Homer, but, even worse, a lackey of the autocrat Augustus.25 In England the Augustanism of the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries had been guided not just by a desire to match the aesthetic standards of the poets of the time of Augustus, Virgil and Horace chief among them, but also by the analogy perceived between Augustus’ establishment after civil war of a settled form of government and the Restoration of Charles II and the re-imposition of a peaceful and prosperous monarchy after the English Civil War. A Royalist Virgil became less acceptable after the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and the introduction of a constitutional monarchy. Whig republicanism idealized the liberty of Republican Rome, swept away by the autocrat Augustus. A poem of 1740 is an early expression of the reaction against the politics of Horace and Virgil: ‘Were they not flattering, soothing tools? | Fit to praise tyrants, and gull fools.’26 The critic John Upton explained Virgil’s desire to burn the Aeneid on his deathbed as the result of a guilty conscience, ‘because it flattered the subverter of the constitution’.27 For readers of this way of thinking, the great Roman poem of freedom is Lucan’s epic on the civil war, the Bellum Civile, a protest written in the reign of Nero against the enslavement of free Romans by Julius Caesar and the Julio-Claudian emperors who followed him, an epic which modern critics often categorize as an ‘anti-Aeneid’.
Add to this the growing fashion for the sublime and the rejection of the order and regularity of Augustanism. In the preface to Christopher Pitt’s 1763 translation of the Aeneid (1763) the poet and critic Joseph Warton makes a striking comparison between Homer and Virgil:
He that peruses Homer, is like the traveller that surveys mount Atlas; the vastness and roughness of its rocks, the solemn gloominess of its pines and cedars, the everlasting snows that cover its head, the torrents that rush down its sides, and the wild beasts that roar in its caverns, all contribute to strike the imagination with inexpressible astonishment and awe. While reading the Aeneid is like beholding the Capitoline hill at Rome, on which stood many edifices of exquisite architecture, and whose top was crowned with the famous temple of Jupiter, adorned with the spoils of conquered Greece.28
The contrast here between nature and artifice, between the original and the copy, is seen at its sharpest in Germany, in the worship of the new god Nature and its high priest Homer from the later eighteenth century. The consequent denigration of Virgil was reinforced by the association of Augustan Rome with Louis XIV’s France.29 August Schlegel, one of the leading figures in German Romanticism and translator of that other great child of Nature, Shakespeare, described Virgil as a ‘skilful worker in mosaic’ (‘geschickter Mosaikarbeiter’), reducing him to little better than a composer of centos. Hegel said that ‘Virgil seems to have copied Greek models completely, imitating them slavishly and lifelessly, and so they appear as plagiarisms more or less devoid of spirit.’30In Germany Virgil’s reputation did not really recover until the twentieth century, a landmark in his rehabilitation being what is still one of the best studies of the Aeneid, Virgils epische Technik, by the great scholar Richard Heinze, published in 1903.31
In England Virgil’s reputation never went into the near-total eclipse that it did in Germany, but some of the biggest names in English poetry did not pull their punches. Samuel Taylor Coleridge asked, ‘If you take from Virgil his diction and metre, what do you leave him?’, and Byron in a letter of 1817 referred to Mantua as the birthplace of that ‘harmonious plagiary and miserable flatterer, whose cursed hexameters were drilled into me at Harrow’. A late and maverick example of Virgil-bashing is Robert Graves’ ‘The Virgil cult’ (1961),32 in which Graves reacts violently against T.S. Eliot’s claim that Virgil was the canonical writer of the west. Graves lambasts Virgil’s ‘pliability, his subservience; his narrowness; his denial of that stubborn imaginative freedom which the true poets who preceded him had prized’, and accusing him of helping to perpetuate Augustus’ ‘divine mystique’.
The poetic ‘summits’ chosen by Joseph Warton in his comparison of Homer and Virgil, Mount Atlas and the Capitoline Hill, in fact both feature in the landscape of the Aeneid. The description of the man-mountain Atlas at Aeneid 4.246–51 is one of the most striking and hyperbolical – indeed sublime – images in the poem;33 and when Aeneas visits what will one day be the Roman Capitol in Aeneid 8 it is the scene of mysterious and terrifying divine manifestations of a kind that well exemplifies the ‘judicious obscurity’ that Edmund Burke identifies as a source of sublimity in his A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757).34 Any simple opposition of the sublimity of Homer and the craftsmanship of Virgil (a literary-critical polarity that goes back to the ancient opposition of ingenium ‘natural gifts, genius’ and ars ‘art, technique’) quickly breaks down, as such oppositions always do. The increasing unease felt in the eighteenth century with the politics of the Aeneid had the effect of diverting attention to the discovery of features of the poem that were more in tune with the interests of the age, and to a focus on the ‘sublime’, the ‘pathetic’ and the ‘picturesque’.35 Joseph Warton does indeed comment that Virgil’s description of Mount Atlas is ‘very sublime and picturesque’; the storm that opens the narrative in Aeneid 1 and the description of Etna in Aeneid 3 were also recognized as set-pieces of sublimity. The eighteenth century responded to the emotional qualities of the Aeneid: Warton notes that ‘the art of Virgil is never so powerfully felt, as when he attempts to move the passions, especially the more tender one. The pathetic was the grand distinguishing characteristic of his genius and temper.’36
Pathos in the sense of the arousal of emotions shades over into a view of Virgil as a poet of an acutely tender sensibility, the Virgil to which many nineteenth-century readers responded.37 Already at the end of the eighteenth century the influential Scottish rhetorician and literary critic Hugh Blair asserted that ‘The principal and distinguishing excellency of Virgil, and which […] he possesses beyond all poets, is tenderness. Nature had endowed him with exquisite sensibility; he felt every affecting circumstance in the scenes he describes; and, by a single stroke, he knows how to reach the heart.’38 This is the side of Virgil highlighted by the great French critic Charles Sainte Beuve in his Étude sur Virgile (1857), which draws out the poet’s humanité, pitié, sensibilité,andtendresse profonde. Tennyson casts Virgilian sensibility in a solemn light in his poem ‘To Virgil’, written at the request of the Mantuans for the nineteenth centenary of Virgil’s death in 1881. After evoking the laughter of the pastoral world of the Ecloguesand the Golden Age of Eclogue 4, the poem turns towards thoughts of loss and impermanence with the following stanza (vv. 21–4):
Thou that seest Universal
Nature moved by Universal Mind;
Thou majestic in thy sadness
At the doubtful doom of human kind.
This generalized melancholy at the human lot is associated above all with one of the most famous lines in the Aeneid, and one of the hardest to translate, a line spoken by Aeneas as he looks at scenes depicting the sufferings of the Trojan War in the temple of Juno in Carthage in Book 1 (462), sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt. Here is the translation of John Campbell Shairp, a nineteenth-century Professor of Poetry at Oxford, ‘Tears there are for human things | And hearts are touched by mortal sufferings,’ 13 words for Virgil’s seven.39 Shairp was a protégé of Matthew Arnold, who found in the Aeneid ‘an ineffable melancholy’ and ‘a sweet, a touching sadness’, which Arnold also saw as a testimony to the Aeneid’s incompleteness, a melancholy rooted in ‘the haunting, the irresistible self-dissatisfaction of his heart, when he desired on his death-bed that his poem might be destroyed’.40 The mysterious phrase lacrimae rerum (‘tears for things’, ‘tears of things’?) has come to be a motto for a world-view felt as a peculiarly Virgilian sensibility, expressing something, quite what is a matter for varied and conflicting views, about a tearfulness and sadness inherent in the nature of the world and/or in man’s experience of the world.41
If the paths of the political and the pathetic diverged in the eighteenth century, they came together again in the twentieth. A soft-focus Tennysonian indulgence in the melancholy of things could not survive the horrors of World War I. A far more bitter response to the dehumanizing effects of war is registered in Wilfred Owen’s ‘Arms and the Boy’, whose title satirizes the Virgilian heroic ‘Arms and the man’.42 But Virgil too becomes an uncompromised poet of the pity of war if a distance is set between those passages in theAeneid where he celebrates the foundation and growth to world-empire of Rome and her ruling family, and those where he laments the premature deaths of those caught up in Aeneas’ Roman destiny, Dido and all those young men who die in battle in the second half of the poem. Dominating criticism of the Aeneid in the second half of the twentieth century was some version of a ‘two voices’ reading of the poem, which sees the poem as split between a ‘public voice’ of triumph, celebrating the Roman establishment of peace and order and civilization, and a ‘private voice’ of regret for what is lost along the way.43
‘The two voices of Virgil’s Aeneid’ is the title of a classic article of 1963 by Adam Parry,44 for whom the emotions of grief are sublimated aesthetically in ‘an artistic finality of vision’. Parry ends: ‘The Aeneid enforces the fine paradox that all the wonders of the most powerful institution the world has ever known are not necessarily of greater importance than the emptiness of human suffering.’ A New-Critical savouring of ‘fine paradox’ will not satisfy those who insist that the aesthetic cannot be detached from the political. In what has become the prevalent reading in the English-speaking world the ‘other’ voice of the Aeneid is read as a voice of political criticism, dissent or even downright opposition to the brave new world of Augustus’ Rome.
It is easy enough to sense in this the desire on the part of the tender liberal consciences of modern scholars to make Virgil ‘one of us’, and to save what by any standards is a great work of literature from the taint of having been written to the order of, or, even worse, in whole-hearted support of, an autocratic regime. One may compare versions of a ‘republican Virgil’ found in eighteenth-century criticism, reflecting the discomfort with a Royalist Virgil discussed above. Joseph Trapp, translator of the Aeneid into blank verse, says that ‘It appears from many […] passages that Virgil was a republican in his heart, as all honest men among the Romans then were; because a republic was the ancient established form of their government. But because he found that government utterly overturned, he wisely endeavoured to conciliate the affections of the people to that of Augustus.’45 Edward Gibbon, in his Critical Observations on the Sixth Book of the Aeneid (London, 1770, pp. 12–13) adduces the figure of Mezentius, the monstrous Etruscan tyrant killed by Aeneas in Aeneid 10, as evidence that Virgil shared Milton’s support for ‘the daring pretensions of the people, to punish as well as to resist a tyrant. Such opinions, published by a writer, whom we are taught to consider as the creature of Augustus, have a right to surprise us: yet they are strongly expressive of the temper of the times; the Republic was subverted, but the minds of the Romans were still Republican.’
In the later twentieth century critics of Virgil have been somewhat schematically divided into ‘optimists’ and ‘pessimists’. The optimists, also known as the ‘European School’ because of a series of continental, mostly German, studies, read the Aeneid as a text offering a positive account of Roman and Augustan history, while the pessimists, also known as the ‘Harvard School’ because of a seminal article written by Wendell Clausen who spent most of his career at Harvard,46 find in the poem a dark message about Roman history and Augustan politics. More recently Craig Kallendorf, doyen of studies on the Renaissance reception of Virgil, has attempted to rebalance the history of the reception of the Aeneid by finding in early modern criticism and imitation of theAeneidanticipations of a pessimist reading.47 Richard Thomas, himself a noted Harvard Virgilian, has argued that what must still be acknowledged as a predominantly ‘optimist’ pre-twentieth century reception of the Aeneid amounts to little less than a conspiracy to cover up the secret that Virgil was not a fully committed panegyrist of Augustus.48
This debate over the politics and ideology of the Aeneid is doubtless felt as a more burning issue inside the academy than outside. Despite the recovery of the poem’s reputation from the negative judgements of the age of Romanticism and Revolution, it is true that the Homeric epics have enjoyed a greater popularity than the Aeneid in the modern age, and that they have been put to a wider range of uses in literary, cultural and intellectual spheres, a story told adroitly in Edith Hall’s The Return of Ulysses, to which the present volume is a companion. For example, the Aeneid, unlike the Odyssey, has had a very limited reception in film49 – a couple of silent films, now lost, on Dido and Lavinia, a 1962 sword-and-sandal movie The Avenger with Steve Reeves as Aeneas, a 1987 art filmDidone non è morta directed by Lina Mangiacapre, an Italian television series based on the Aeneid. And there is the popular science-fiction series Battleship Galactica, with its rather Virgilian plot-line of a leader guiding the remnants of a destroyed civilization towards a fated new home.50
I do not foresee a time when the Aeneid could again be labelled the central classic for contemporary culture. Yet Virgil has found a prominent place in the memorial for what has become one of the defining moments of the first century of the third millennium. In the National September 11 Memorial Museum, built underground on the site of the twin towers, the wall in front of the repository containing the remains of those victims as yet unidentified, bears an inscription in steel letters reforged from salvaged World Trade Center steel: ‘No day shall erase you from the memory of time.’ This is the pathos-laden line with which, in a rare moment of direct authorial engagement with his characters, Virgil addresses Nisus and Euryalus, two young Trojans who have been killed on a night expedition, Aeneid 9.447 nulla dies umquam memori uos eximet aeuo.
And if the Aeneid is no longer a central classic, there are signs of a continuing and flourishing longevity at a more local level: for example, the stream of new translations, which shows no signs of drying up; or the importance of Virgil for the Noble laureate Seamus Heaney, the sales of whose poetry have, unusually for the late twentieth and twenty-first centuries, broken through into something like a popular market. And the pockets of interest may not always be in expected places: a recent study of Virgil’s presence in contemporary women’s writing, in novels by, for example, Margaret Drabble, A.S. Byatt, and Ursula Le Guin, and poetry by Ruth Fainlight, Eavan Boland and others, points to the paradox that ‘for the first time in literary history it is women writers who are creating and defining this new aetas Vergiliana [‘Virgilian Age’]’, when Virgil’s works, and in particular the epic Aeneid, have for so long been associated with a masculine and patriarchal order of things.51
That the Aeneid should have been interpreted and assessed in such a bewildering diversity of ways, and appropriated by so wide a range of readers and writers, over the last two thousand years might be seen only as proof of the fact that ‘meaning is only realized at the point of reception’, as the modern theory of reception will have it. On the other hand it might be taken as an index of the inexhaustible complexity of the Aeneid itself, a text to which could be applied Walt Whitman’s defiant boast in Song of Myself:
Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself.
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)