(This is a fuller version of the short paper for school students on "The Secret Life of Vergil", also on this page of the website.
THE SECRET LIFE OF VERGIL
Literature is not a historical library of the great books, it is a phenomenon produced at a certain time by writers and as such it always requires interpretation. What that interpretation will be is a function the time in which it is undertaken and the distance from the original work. Two hundred years ago people looked to the Classics for examples of absolute excellence since it was felt that the ancient societies of Greece and Rome had produced masterpieces which could never be duplicated. Interpretation stood in awe of the great if somewhat remote Classics which history had handed down.
This early part of this century witnessed the appearance of the social sciences along with a new and pervasive sense of social awareness. Soon literature was being analyzed as a part of society, and the cultural connections established between a work of literature and its time-frame were stressed as virtually the meaning of writing. Much modern literature was produced in this spirit, which fostered a new and perfectly valid kind of writing; but when the critics tried to apply cultural-historical standards to the literature of antiquity, everything changed. Homer was no longer a poet with a vision, but a Janus-like witness on the one hand to Mycenean times and and on the other hand to the ensuing centuries which were to build on an ancient Classical heritage. Literature was plowed through for motifs to illustrate relevance to philosophy, religion, and history, since these, rather than the art of words, were the things which really counted. Students of Classics at the middle of this century heard from their teachers a great deal about history and society, and almost nothing about the art of poetry, and esthetics found little place in this diet of harder fare!
But if we are speaking about literature as the art of written words, the putting together of ideas in matrices of sounds scored for rhythms in prose or verse, we will not be satisfied with this kind of a procedure. Something is missing, and if we view literature primarily as art, we will have to find other approach. Two ways come to mind immediately : First there is the road which penetrates by way of the complex esthetics of language, and second, there is the way of the artist as a thoughtful individual working out of a private personality. The first way is important, it was certainly the way most ancient critics viewed Greek literature, and we get a good introduction in the criticism of Dionysus of Hallicarnassus. It is difficult since it involves much analytical technique and a thorough understanding of phonetics, and cannot be treated compactly in a paper of this sort. But the second way, which is concerned with the inner-mind of the artist, is equally important, and possibly a little easier to deal with here.
When we read an ancient poet's work, if we can break through the wall of the centuries and the mask of erudite criticism, we will sooner or later realize that we are dealing with words, phrases and ideas which were put together in that exact form by an individual, who was both an creative artist and a living person. The book on our desk before us is the artistic output of some part of his life. He ate breakfast in the morning and went to bed at night just like us, but in between he focussed himself on his poem or his history or his play. It is the precise way he did that that marks his work as different from everyone else's writing and special in a telling way.
At the present time we are in command of vastly increased knowledge about Man and the world around him. Our new understanding of humanity has come about through work in sociology, anthropology, psychology and many of the sciences, so that a reasonably educated person nowadays has a greatly increased intellectual library of pertinent materials at his hands. When he reads a novel or a poem he automatically thinks in terms of the disciplines which have developed in this century, he can simultaneously overlap a historical approach with a psychological query, while savoring the phonetics and semantics of words on the page before him. Every thoughtful reader has a panoply of tools at his disposal, he can go farther than anyone in the past could even imagine, and the only danger he faces is that he may lose his intellectual balance in eager bewilderment.
Seeing the ancient writer as a person, but at the same time a special kind of person who invested work and joy in what he was doing, the modern reader will want to ask many questions. Why did this line come out just so? Is there something of personal meaning which we might be missing here? What kind of a man is it who says this kind of thing? Sitting in his study, a modern reader is able to deal on a one-to-one basis with the author, as a reader he is real and alive, sitting with a volume of poetry open before him. But the author is also real and artistically alive although in a different sense of the word, although he died many centuries ago. This relationship of reader to book is very private and personal, but one which calls for all kinds of lateral awarenesses. A great deal of learning and acuity is demanded, but the footnotes and historical details will finally melt into the background as the reader grasps the poem with a kind of spiritual lunge. Considering the complexities of the human brain and the wide scope human knowledge, an act of recognition of this sort may be much more complex than we think, but if reader can "grasp the meaning" in a flash, that will be sufficient for the moment. We don't have to monitor in detail each intellectual process which we perform, it is quite enough to read the signals and forget some of the the machinery.
When we read modern authors and raise questions about them as individuals, we face an embarrassing richness of information. Biographies, autobiographies, appreciations in critical reviews, retrospectives and final assessments made years later will have to be sifted through to get the basic facts. But with the ancient writers, we have the inverse situation, since almost nothing is known about most Classical authors, and the little that has been preserved is often so strangely skewed that we don't know what to make of it. Vergil is one of the world's outstanding artists in language, for twenty centuries men and women have praised and revered his art. We know Vergil as an Augustan virtuoso, but also a Roman schooltext, as as a prophet, a wizard and necromancer, even a guide through a medieval Hell. And he is also a pure-poet of empyrean genius. But when one looks for traces of the man, of his life, of what he thought and how he lived, we find almost nothing. A very slim section appended to the Appendix Vergiliana printed by the Oxford University Press in l957, contains some ancient lives of Vergil, which were put together in the Fourth Century. by grammarians for Roman school-use. These short biographies seem quite superficial, but their information goes back at least in part to sources in Vergil's world, and is possible that there may be germs of truth in with the chaff. The problem is to select the parts which appear to be reasonably truthful, and also in some way enlightening to us. The material in the Vitae Vergilianae has been studied by serious scholars since the Renaissance, but each generation of critics has selected the things which were consonant with the interests of his age. Approaching this old material with a new spirit, in an approach which uses the information and techniques which we have at hand in this wide-scoped age of ours, we can glean new insight into Vergil as a person and into some of the subtler nuances of his work.
From the Vitae Vergilianae we can glean a certain amount of information about Vergil's origins and background. He was born and reared near Mantua, in a country town about three miles distant named Andes, in the Venetian territory. Vergil is shown to us, as to urbane Romans, as a good example of a country boy, but he is in good company in the spectrum of Roman literary history, since most prominent Latin authors came from outside Rome, many from outside Italy. His parents were in very modest circumstances (modicis parentibus)2, his father was either a potter (figulus )3, or a hired 1man (mercennarius) according to Donatus working for "one Magus, a viator". Apparently the scholiasts had no idea that a 'viator' was a bailiff or sheriff of sorts assisting magistrates in their duties, and glossed it as 'negotiatoris' or in another MS 'mercatoris". In any case this Magus was either a minor official or possibly a businessman, but exactly what duties he hired Vergil's father for remains unclear. The situation is further complicated by the fact that Servius gives Vergil's mother's name as Magia, Probus as Magia Polla, and Focas says she was not the youngest daughter of Magius.
From this curious mixture of identities, we can say that Vergil's mother Polla was the daughter of Magus, a bailiff or less plausibly a merchant, and that the poet's father worked for a while for this same Magus in a fairly menial capacity, after a while becoming his son-in-law 'ob industriam'10, and considerably adding to the family income by buying woodlots and tending beehives. The countryside boy Vergil must have been influenced by this family background, we see here the beginnings of a familiarity with fields and farmers which later appeared in a literary guise in the Eclogues, as well as the detailed knowledge of bee keeping which served him well in the Georgics.
In the Aeolus episode of the first book of the Aeneid, we watch at close range the tendering of a bribe, and its eager receipt by the very image of a minor public official, bowing and scraping with Uriah Heepish self-abasement. This whole scene sounds as if it came from close observation of life, and one suspects that an impressionable young boy had filed away in his memory some questionable scene involving his "bailiff" grandfather Magus. Butr this would be sheer supposition, were it not compared with a literary detail in the Aeneid, where Aeneas confronts one "Magus". This man is described as sly, cowardly and wealthy, and he tries to bribe Aeneas with promises of gold and silver bars in his lofty mansion, which infuriates the honest hero. Aeneas tells him to keep the gold "for his sons", and then drives his sword into his throat right up to the hilt. There is more here than has met scholarly eyes. A warrior conveniently named Magus offers bribes of money which should have gone to his "sons", specifically to Vergil's father and eventually to Vergil and his half brother (of whom more later). With more than casual anger, Aeneas-Vergil with his left hand grabs the briber's helmet, bends back his head, and while he is still speaking, jams his knife into Magus' throat. Bribes were common in the Roman world, a Roman who had lived to maturity might take them with a grain of salt. In this case some special kind of fury is involved, and the scene terminates with an especially savage note. Without the name Magus as a key, we would never have noticed this episode, with the key of his name, it is hard not to see the kind of buried resentment which, started in childhood, tends to persist throughout life. Aeolus and Magus get special note as men eagerly involved with bribes, and the tone of both episodes seems to have some elements of personal experience beyond the range of literary figure..
Another statement about Vergil's father was that he was a potter (figulus), which Focas' Vita picks up and develops into a silly conceit: The son of the potter (fig-ulus) has fashioned (finxit) poetry. But if the father as potter who did better work than commercial cookware, the son might naturally absorb ideas about form, decoration, and above all about artistic carefulness, things which modern potters prize asalmost mystical elements of the craft. The potter learns "centering" as he throws the clay onto the wheel. This word has come to have a deep spiritual meaning, both in the West and in traditional Oriental pottery. In fact Vergil's writing is always perfectly centered on the material which each episode contains, close reading of Vergil's entire opus reveals amazingly regular patterns of artistic focus and centering.
Vergil lost his parents when he was "grown up" (grandis), a brother Silo when he was young and another brother Flaccus when he was adult. He was said to have mentioned the death of this last brother under the name Daphnis in Eclogue 5.20. There was also a half-brother Valerius Proculus, who received half of Vergil's estate in his will, while Augustus received a quarter, Maecenas a twelfth, and the editors of the Aeneid Varius and Tucca the remainder. This half-brother must have been dear to him to receive such a large inheritance, and Vergil seems to have had no hesitation about putting emperor and patron after his brother in the will.
Vergil assumed the toga virilis at the age of seventeen, Donatus notes that the same consuls were in office then as the time of his birth, an item which was probably interesting to the Romans, but seems less important to us than the fact that on the very day of this ceremony, the great poet Lucretius died. Since Probus notes that Vergil had over a period followed the Epicurean sect, it may be assumed that the coincidence of these two dates is meaningful, either because Vergil was already interested in Epicurean philosophy through his reading of Lucretius, or because he was later to become involved with it. He planned in later life, after finishing the Aeneid, to devote himself entirely to philosophy, which can be assumed to be Epicurean, since no shift of allegiance to Stoicism is mentioned in any ancient document.
It does not seem important that Vergil as an infant was not given to crying, and had a mild temperament, unless these characteristics can be may be seen as foreshadowing the shy and reclusive manner of the poet in his maturity. But in his younger years, about the time he came to Rome, he was described as being tall and strongly built (corpore et statura fuit grandis), dark of complexion (aquilus), with a countrified appearance (facie rusticana). Exactly what a countrified appearance meant to ancient Roman eyes is hard to say, we could point to the redheaded Oscans or Catullus' jocular list of local characteristics in Poem 39, but it does seem important that, at least from a citified point of view, he was clearly a country boy and apparently made no to attempt to conceal his origins. This may not have been easy in a period which picked the term "urbane" as a general mark of approval. Vergil was further described as sickly, having stomach trouble, headaches, and "jaw trouble", which probably means painfully infected teeth and periodontal disease. He vomited blood, which would point to ulcers, and fits in well with other symptoms as coming, at least in part, from a nervous disposition.
But his country appearance surfaced in other ways. One authority described him as being very slow in speech (tardissimum), and sounding like an uneducated person (indocto similis), which can be taken to explain why after his law studied were finished, he plead one case and never undertook another. Writers are generally persons of high verbal fluency, but Vergil apparently did not fit this pattern. The remark about sounding like "an uneducated person" might stem not only from the natural way he spoke in a rhetorically trained world, but from his actual choice of words, which M. Agrippa later described as "common". The ways in which Vergil employed in his poetry the common words of the populus minutus, will be discussed later. At a later date, when he was involved with reading before the Emperor and the court, he was said to read with remarkable smoothness and charm, and when he was doing a four-day reading for Augustus who was suffering from tooth trouble, he was quick to interrupt his substitute reader, Maecenas when his voice was displeasing to him. Putting this all together, we see a young man who is countrified in his normal manner of speech, hesitating and slow in pace, yet phonetically aware and impatient of readers who did not come up to his own exact standards of delivery, which were much appreciated by the literary court. In a period of fast and facile talkers, well schooled in Rhetorical Art, Vergil stayed true to his rural background while at the same time paying exact attention to the sounds and rhythms of his finely crafted verses. Part of this attentiveness to sound would have come from his reading of well known Greek critics of the period, such as Dionysus, whose extant Greek textbook On Composition was published at Rome in Vergil's later lifetime. Dionysos is very clear about the paramount importance of sound and rhythm in all literature, from oratory to poetry, and these are the very things which serious study of Vergil's art immediately makes clear. It might almost be said that Vergil writes poetry with a musicality approaching the complexities of sixteenth century polyphony.
Vergil's studies have an unexpected breadth. He studied law to the point being competent to plead a case at least once, he also studied medicine and mathematics, and was a student of Epicurean philosophy,in which capacity he presumably was introduced to Lucretius' work. Having a command of Greek, he had a window into seven centuries of Greek thought, as well as access to the band of educated Greeks who were making a mark at Rome in intellectual circles. Add to this a background in the north country, and observations about people and human nature gathered in the country and later while living in a metropolitan area, and we have a very liberally educated young man with a wide spread of studies and interests. We have detailed information about Vergil's personal life, even in the kinds of intimate matters which are generally obscured by the passage of time. After noting that Vergil was not much interested in food of liquor, Donatus remarks that he was of a sexual cast which rather inclined to boys, mentioning one boy as a highly educated slave given to him as a gift, and another a slave who was actually a poet. This was probably not the conventional Roman gentleman's noncommittal bisexuality, but rather Vergil's own sexual preference. There are no stories about any involvement with women, other than the story that Vergil had been with one Plotia Hieria, but she stated many years later that when Vergil was invited by Varius to share her (sexually), he absolutely refused. No protracted hetero-sexual affaires or leanings toward conventional romance or marriage are recorded or even hinted at.
Donatus adds that Vergil was so pure in life, in speech and in spirit, that he was nicknamed "Parthenias" or "The Maiden" at Naples, where he habitually lived. When on rare occasions he went to Rome, we would flee from his fans into the nearest house if he were recognized in public. His extreme shyness in public was already notable, but the term "Parthenias", which the scholiast amplifies with the comment "id est virginalis", would seem to refer not only to modesty of character, but to physical mannerism and manner. That the finest poet of Rome, who became one of the famous poets of world-literature, should have been called "The Maiden" in his own town, is interesting. Is he girlish in manner, or modest like a girl, or does he have the effeminate manner which Roman Satire often notes as going with homosexual patterns? (Or are we dealing with a severity of manner which recalls the chastity of Artemis or of Athena?)
There is one other possibility. If the men in the streets at Naples wanted to characterize Vergil as maidenly, they would surely have used the normal Greek feminine noun 'parthenos' "a maiden". But the word which Donatus records is 'Parthenias', a rarish word in Greek meaning "son of a concubine, or (plural) the youths born at Sparta during the Messenian Wars". (The word is used only twice, by Aristotle and Strabo.) Were there any trace of this ancient meaning in this word, it would imply that Polla Magia was known as promiscuous, and her son the poet was publically called "bastard", or more mildly "love-child". Pursuing this vein of inquiry, we would like to know more about the half-brother (frater alio patre) Valerius Proculus, to whom Vergil left in his will half his estate. Who was his father? Did Vergil's father die and leave his mother to remarry, or re-mate? Since this is something not mentioned in ancient sources, it remains a mystery. It seems far-fetched to think that townspeople in Naples would employ a word as rare a term "Parthenias" to mark as common an occurrence as illegitimacy, but on the other hand some words which our lexicographers find rare may have been in current use and well known to the bilingual Neapolitans. A number of Greek terms casually used by Cicero in his informal correspondence are unusual or even unique, and perhaps our list of the commonly used Greek locutions is not on the same list as the one Augustan Romans used.
A less strained possibility is that the Greek speaking Neapolitans transferred the ending from the common, literary word neanias "young man" (which was in fact what Vergil was) and grafted it onto parthenos to produce "Parthenias', which was what Vergil may have seemed to them. This in a general way accords with the sexual preference which Donatan biographical materials ascribe to Vergil.
But a third possibility claims our attention. Parthenope was the ancient name of Naples, which was founded by a settlement from Cumae. Later a new town was built adjacent to it with new settlers from Greece and called Nea-polis or "New Town". Parthenope was renamed Palaeopolis or "Old Town", and finally the name Parthenope was lost. Naples, or preferably Parthenope in the mind of the poet Vergil, as he searchws for ancient origins for the Roman state preparing the historical background for the Aeneid, was an important place. It had ancient connections with Cumae, which place figures impressively in the Aeneid, he habitually resided there, coming to Rome only rarely, and his bones were transferred to Naples and buried outside the city with an inscription mentioning Parthenope as his final resting place. That a man who lived in Naples and presumably wished Naples to be his final resting place, should be called in the streets "The Young Man (neanias) of Parthenope (Naples)" would be quite natural. But then why do the biographers mention this term in connection with his modest and pure (i.e. girlish) manner? Because they have lost the sense of the tradition involving Parthenope and Naples with Vergil, and look to the Greek word parthenos itself, without reference to the city name, for meaning. The scholiast obediently follows this line of thought with his dry comment: "id est virginalis"35.
To summarize: Of these three possibilities, the first is the most interesting for the variety of biographical innuendoes which it suggests. The second should be considered, but probably dismissed as obscure, unless it were found to be common Roman parlance á la Grecque. The third is the least impossible, and since it has one foot in Vergil's middle years and the other in his grave, and it may well represent the truth of the matter. It has archaism on its side, as well as a literary flair, which makes it sound like something that Vergil would have liked.
Coming next to biographical matters which bear on Vergil's poetry, we find richer materials at hand. It is striking that Donatus records Vergil's formal coming of age at seventeen as occurring on the very day that Lucretius died. This must have seemed significant for the later Roman world, beside the fact that the same consuls were in office on Vergil's first and seventeenth birthday. More to the point, what effect this would have had on the young poet, who had presumably read Lucretius' poetry carefully by that time? From Lucretius it is quite natural that he would have had a firm introduction to Epicurean philosophy, the Probian life specifically notes that "in his reading in the liberal arts (libero otio), he followed the sect of Epicurus". Moreover, in the year of his death, he had decided to live in Greece and Asia and employ a three year period for final correction of the Aeneid, "so that the remainder of his life might be free for philosophy alone" . Since there is no mention of a shift of philosophical sensibilities in any of the ancient sources, it must be assumed that he was planning to devote himself to Epicurean thought.
This stands in contradistinction to the opinion of scholars who have maintained that Vergil was, at least in his mature years, a confirmed Stoic. This view seems based on the fact that since Dido is sensual and uncontrolled, she must be an intuitive Epicurean, but since Aeneas controls his passions, he is of the Stoic persuasion. Since Vergil places Aeneas at the center of his Roman myth-history, a position of supreme importance, so it is assumed that whatever Aeneas suggests in his behavior, Vergil himself must believe!. The argument for Vergil the Stoic Philosopher is based on little more than this.
A detailed listing of the older literature on this subject was put together many years ago by A.S. Pease, who noted concurrence of most l9th and 20th century opinion about Vergil's "Stoicism". Both Servius and Donatus note Stoic and Epicurean traits in Vergil's writings, remarking that this is not important since poetry and not philosophy is Vergil's aim. But philosophy held high interest for l9th century critics, especially in discussing the formalities of ancient cults and differences amongst their tenets, while the purely literary art of poetry was largely left to shift for itself. In the evidence about Vergil's views which comes directly from the Roman world, hhe is categorized as an Epicurean in early life. To mark him later as a Stoic on the evidence of his treatment of Aeneas, is slim as argument and unconvincing as historical criticism. Even the Roman critics knew that poets are rarely philosophers, with the unique exception of Lucretius. If Vergil were of any philsophical school, he would certainly have been an Epicurean.
In it own spiritual development, modern Western society has until recently guised itself as uniformly "Stoic", only in the second half of this century have "Neo-Epicurean" tendencies asserted themselves. Scholarship has a heavy investment in the traditional virtues of its society, and the question of Vergil's Stoicism certainly stems from an awareness of what was acceptable to modern critics, not to the age of the poet Vergil.. A similar preference for the Apollonian as against the Dionysian in Greek culture has lasted through most of the nineteenth century, and has persisted intact to the present time in the stuffier corners of Classical Scholarship.
Every college student who reads Vergil knows that he wrote many verses in the earlier part of the day, reducing them to a mere handful in the afternoon, thus proving his care and attention to craft. But theoriginal statement in Donatus is somewhat different: "In composing the Georgics (sic), the verses which he had thought out (meditatos) early in the morning, he dictated later, and throughout the day reworked and reduced to a very few". He worked out sections early in the morning, thinking and composing in his mind or aloud, and only later when he had these on paper, did he start to revise and rework. The difference in this statement is in the improvising freedom of his unwritten, early-morning composition, which is the most important work for a creatiive artist. This is no eager scribe who automatically writes mornings and reworks afternoons, that role was to be reserved for a Statius or a Silius in later Roman generations.
Directly connected with the above remark, is a curious detail: "He himself said, with some reason (non absurde),that he fashioned his poetry like a mother bear, giving birth and then licking her cubs into shape", a remark for which which Aulus Gelliusnmay be the source, although his wording is slightly different. Artists often maintain that their work is their progeny, but for a man who never married and had children, who disliked women and procreative sexuality, inclining rather to his educated slave boys, this remark about "giving birth to" his poetry is especially meaningful. To artists books are not just books but intimate parts of the self, children in fact, and it may have been in this spirit that Vergil wished his Aeneid burned when he realized he was dying, since his work was not finally corrected, and thus his "children", as a part of himself, were imperfect.
Of the construction of the Aeneid we have interesting insights: "The Aeneid was written out first in prose, and laid out in twelve books; then he started to work on sections as the spirit moved him, not developing a fixed order". The fact that Vergil worked on various parts as the spirit moved him, ignoring for the moment overall order, suits the spirit of a sensitive artist. But it is indeed a surprise to hear that the whole story was written out in prose, either fully or at least in outline, with the books outlined as we have them. Was the immortal Vergil merely a "versifier" of a story-line?
If this seems odd, we should remember that ancient reading rates were considerably slower than ours, and even long books were short by today's standards. We have learned to read by skimming, we can outline a thousand page book adroitly, but in Vergil's time this was not possible with the reading skills which the Romans possessed. Romans always read aloud, a wonderful exercise in voicing the lines musically, but clearly an impediment in developing a complicated overview of a long book project, which is best done visually. Lacking fast reading skills, and therefore being less capable of surveying overall plan and order, the ancient writer will have to outline his work carefully. If he then frees himself from his outline by working on various sections at will, he can regain spontaneity while at the same time respecting architectonic plan. This is precisely what Vergil seems to have been doing.
Let us continue with Donatus' paragraph on composition: "Lest he lose his speed (impetum), he passed over parts which were not finished, jokingly remarking that he left the "props" (tibicines) in place to shore up the weight until the solid columns were put in place."If the idea of props did not come from Vitruvius, whose work on architecture was published some ten years before Vergil's death, it must have been drawn by the poet from observation of construction crews at work on Roman building projects. Vergil sees his Aeneid as a construction made up of various parts, temporary and permanent, which congrue to form an artistic whole, like a major monument of Roman architecture.
Frank Lloyd Wright said in a lecture in l939 "Every great architect is - - -necessarily- - - a great poet. He must be a great original interpreter of his time, his day, his age." Much of Wright's remarkable architectural output stems from this conviction, and it is an engaging thought to consider the possibility of a poet having architectural and architectonic convictions. If as most people have felt, there is much poetry in the structure of the Parthenon, it would not seem surprising that there should be artistic architectonic considerations in the Aeneid, nor would it be surprising to find a poet savoring architecture, understanding something of its ways, and symbolically entering architectural elements into his creative thinking.
After Actium when Augustus was resting at Atella with tooth trouble, Vergil read the Georgics to him for a period of four days, during which time Maecenas took turns reading; but Vergil was apparently dissatisfied with his delivery, while he himself spoke with "remarkable sweetness and charmingness ". Julius Montanus, a poet of Ovid's time known chiefly for his poetical sunrises and sunsets, remarked that he would be glad to steal parts from Vergil, if he had his voice and delivery (os et hypocrisin); but when Vergil read these verses, they sounded fine, without him they were mute and lifeless (mutos et inanes). This remark points to the acousticity of Latin poetry, which everyone then read aloud since silent reading was not to become common until the Fifth Century. But only a master like Vergil could read really well. We seem to have lost the thread of this tradition in an age when most students cannot read hexameters in Latin without stumbling, while their teachers elocute as if poised on a rocking horse. Even recorded "readings" of Latin are generally unesthetic and unmusical, and would certainly shock Vergil's intensely acoustic ear. Much writing in our time has been written to be read silently, and reading aloud adds little to it. This is perfectly acceptable as part of our cultural tradition. But treating musical poets like Vergil as if they were written to be read, is a little like inviting a friend over of an evening for a Beethoven late Quartet, and handing him a score in silence. Is this not what we have been doing with Vergil in our schools for over a century, after memorization and reciting disappeared from American classrooms?
After recounting Vergil's famous reading of verses from Book VI, Donatus remarks that Vergil did recite verses to many different kinds of people, but infrequently, and it was generally the verses that he had questions about, in order to hear their criticisms. Here is certainly no posturing poet-laureate of Rome, but rather an act of direct self-criticism, done with pleasing simplicity and ingenuousness. Artistic grandeur is a result of greatness of mind, not grandness of mannerism or style. The unfinished half-lines have teased critics and scholars for centuries, surely they presented a problem for the author himself. But Vergil's secretary and freedman Eros told the story years later that he had on the spot completed two verses, which so pleased the master that he immediately had them entered into his text. Vergil seems to have been so little affected by literary egotism that the verses stand approved in all our texts.
Even in his lifetime Vergil had critics and literary enemies. Donatus records several instances, which deserve careful attention, since they represent authentic Roman attitudes from the Augustan period. Parodies of Vergilian locutions include :
Tityre, si toga calda tibi est, quo tegmine fagi?
The parody points to the fact that 'tegmen' is a word which Vergil uses often in his work, and strikingly (if not laughably) at Eclogue 1,1 and Georgics IV 566. 'Tegmen" in Roman ordinary speech refers to clothing, it is a garment, a "cloak", but when used again and again of trees it becomes funny. An "elm-tree cloak" is likely to be chilly indeed! This comment demonstrates Vergil's habit of taking words from daily life and using them in new ways, a matter which offended no less a personage than M. Vipsanius Agrippa. Romans were not accustomed to common locutions in their poetry.
But there is something genuinely comical in the parody on the first line of the third Eclogue:
Dic mihi Damoeta, cuium pecus, anne Meliboei?
Now the adjective 'cuius -a -um' "whose's (sic)" was actually used in Roman comedy, so it is not as novel or ungrammatical as it might seem at first hearing. The opinion of most lexicographers is that Vergil is indulging in an affected archaism, but the parodic comment points to something quite different:
"Dic mihi Damoeta, cuium pecus"... anne Latinum?
Non. Verum Aegonis nostri, sic rure loquuntur.
The first question in the commentator's mind is whether it is Latin at all, not archaic Latin or an affected use of ancient wording. But the second line is even more telling: "It's just our fellow Aegon's line, that's the way they talk in the countryside". Vergil was from the rural north, Donatus had mentioned before that he had a countrified expression (facies), and that his speech was very slow and "almost like an illiterate". Living in a fast talking city world, where rhetoric was a part of every man's training and urbanity a mark of culture, Vergil was sure to be marked out as cut from a different piece of cloth.
A remark from M. Vipsanius (Agrippa), an able minister of war and farsighted friend to geography, but no litterateur, states that Vergil was merely "supported by Maecenas, and in fact the inventor of a new "tastelesness" or 'cacozelia', which was neither Overblown or Terse, but used common words and hence escaped notice". There is more in this remark than casual literary perversity. Agrippa is aware of the literary feud between the Ciceronian Asiatic stylist and the Caesarian Atticists, both of which are probably repugnant to his action-oriented, military background. But he carefully places Vergil somewhere in between, accusing him surprisingly of "tastelesness" or "eagerly pursuing the ugly (caco+zelia)", which he ascribes to the use of ordinary words in a poetical matrix.
We cannot quarrel with Agrippa and his literary taste, which is entirely personal. On the other hand our scholarly tradition has always been aware of Vergil's poeticisms, while hardly cognizant of his common words and phrases. The fact that an unliterary man of action like Agrippa could object to the "commonness" of Vergil's locutions tells us the kind of thing that only a native speaker of the Augustan Age could know. The two examples discussed above as critical parody fall within Agrippa's strictures, since 'cuium' is noted as country diction, and 'tegmen' is an ordinary word used in a novel poetic manner. These are exactly the kind of things which Agrippa meant. Whether these innovations are "tasteless" is not important to us in our estimation of Vergil's art, but they surely represented a new direction in Augustan poetry, and one which we (at the other end of two millennia) are not fully aware of. Careful and exact reading of Augustan writing will probably turn up more of these "common words" drawn by Vergil into his poetical diction. When we understand the novelty of their use, we will certainly gain a far deeper appreciation of the multi-directional ways in which this consummate artist worked.
Our society is painfully conscious of the act of plagiarism, we ostracize our college students in ignominy for it, we bring lawsuits in high dudgeon to protect our books, our reputation and our income. But in the area of academic literary criticism, we accept and even seem to admire words, lines and ideas lifted from others' books. We speak of the continuous tradition of the literary world, which permits the Elisabethan Samuel Daniel to incorporate a whole poem of Catullus in one of his, without even a footnote. We point to Vergil's Homeric reminiscences as artistic traditionalism, just as we footnote the Later Roman writers who pilfered from Vergil, much in the manner of the medieval masons who "derived" their material from the blocks of the Colosseum. Ancient writers did borrow a great deal, and we seem to have accepted that practice as entirely normal.
It is, then, surprising to find that Romans of the Augustan Age considered literary borrowing to be nothing but plagiarism. Two extensive collections of Vergil's "thefts" are mentioned, and Asconius Pedianus, even though he is defending Vergil, faults him for lack of historicity and for the lines taken from Homer. Donatus mentions such borrowings as "this crime" (crimen), even as he rises in the author's defense. We are not likely to take these criticisms seriously, since we have our own ideas about cumulative literary traditions. We know that the Greeks made use of everything that had gone before, and we are aware of the many modes of artistic originality. Who more than Bach drew on everything that Baroque music had invented, yet who is more grandly original in his art?
What Donatus' citations do indicate, is that in the Augustan period there was criticism of borrowing or even showing similarities in poetry. This points to considerable shortsightedness and narrowmindedness in some segments of the Augustan world. To call Vergil less of a poet for his borrowings is indeed petty, but it is a criticism which stems from his own time, and probably was produced by a Roman fear of being overcome by the weight of Greek literary precedents. An author of genuine poetic feeling like Propertius does get mired down in the myths he draws from his Greek sources, and perhaps Latin literature would have been more original and more lively if the major authors had gone it on their own and worked without the crutch of the Greek models. American literature faltered badly under similar mis-influences until the middle of the l9th century, when Americans invented for themselves a genuinely American diction and flavor. But the Romans never seemed to value the Roman flavor, and we can only speculate from an imaginary extrapolation of Plautus and Petronius what an authentic and native "Roman Literature" would have been like.
Donatus adds, as a closing note to his biography, Vergil's own quoted reply to his critics' charge of "this crime" of plagiarism: " 'Why don't they try theft of this kind themselves? Because they will find out that it is easier to steal a line from Homer than his club from Heracles', at which point he declined to comment further on the matter".This remark is presented as a direct quote from the poet, it has the kind of clever ring which Donatus would never have been adroit enough to fabricate, and it deserves close attention. We know that Vergil used many Homeric lines, we generally assume that they are "reminiscences", lines designed to catch a Homeric flavor in a Roman context. But Vergil has just told us that these lines are almost unstealable, his detractors themselves would never be able to steal them, it would be like taking a weapon away from an armed hero, difficult and dangerous. What does he mean?
We know that half of the value of Vergil's poetry lies in that which is written in between the lines. He often speaks on two levels, so that a heroic story can encapsulate a very personal vision. We have good reason to suspect that Vergil has invested much subtlety in his act of "stealing" lines from Homer, but exactly what this subtlety consists of is hard to say. Scholars have spent most of their researching effort in tracking down the similarities between the Aeneid and the Iliad, we have not been sufficiently aware of the kinds of minor differences of treatment which made the lines worth taking in the first place. If one were to follow the gist of this last quote from the author of the Aeneid, one would have to adopt a entirely new approach to the study of Vergil's Homerisms, and look for the "significant degree-of-difference", rather than pat ourselves on the back for having discovered another "capped quotation". We know how completely Ovid has transmuted the materials of Greek mythology to the needs and uses of his own time. If we take the trouble to search for similar evidence of artistic transmutation in Vergil's use of Homeric materials, we will probably find much finer and more meaningful devices than we thought. Decorative trimming does not befit the art of Vergil in any way, between the patches of familiar Homeric topography and Vergil's innate sense of innerness, lies without question something rich and strange.
Several curious contexts in which Vergil treats the Sibylline oracle are to be found in the Aeneid. As preface to this topic, it should be noted that Vergil's favorite residence, Naples, had been founded by settlers from Cumae, the home of the Sibylline cult. Undertones from this source seem to be surfacing in the following lines:
"When you come to the city of Cumae... you will see a crazed priestess, a girl who, seated under a rock, sings out the fates, and puts down names and messages on leaves (foliis). And the poems which she writes on the leaves, she puts in order and leaves there in the cave, where stay unmoved, not losing their order. But when the door swings on its pivot, and the wind drives in, and the door disturbs the tender fronds, she takes no care to grab the poems floating around in the cave, or get them back in their place or to join them all together".
The detail employed in this strange passage marks it as something with private, subterranean meaning. Vergil is reminiscing about his own methods of composition, and the priestess' disassociated thoughts, put down on leaves (or paper) and arranged in a specific order, is not unlike his own compositional processes. He had a predetermined order worked out in a prose version, but he worked on pieces at random as the fancy struck him. But now a door opens in the breeze, it is much more likely the door to our gentleman writer's study than the Sibyl's cave, and the papers are scattered to the winds. What is the artist's reaction? Is it to desperately grab after the fleeting sheets, try to restore the order in which they had all been laid out on the table? The oracle despises such undignified haste, she leaves the papers where they lie, she has unworldly things of far greater importance on her mind. And so does the poet.
One thinks of James Joyce's bits and scraps of paper which were to become his books, all laid out on his bed; or of the Japanese master who laid all his scrolls out on the lawn on a fine spring morning, and when it began to rain, left them there. In order to work, one needs pencil and paper, scraps for ideas and notes for references, but when all is said and done, the real artist and the real thinker despises all this editorial claptrap, which stands between him and his dream. It is better to let the papers go and start again from thought, from the dominant idea. Vergil seems to be saying something of this sort in his description of the "Mad Lady of Cumae", a suitable reflection from the only slightly crazy poet from Cumaean Parthenope.
In even more specific terms the Lady of Cumae speaks to Aeneas later in the Aeneid:
" 'Just don't entrust your poems to the leaves, lest they spin in a whirl, the playthings of the blowing winds. I beg you, sing them yourself.' That was all she said..
The meaning is explicit: Written form is insufficient, it changes and its parts are lost, textual variants creep in, and misunderstandings ensue. (This has been the history of Vergil's text for two thousand years.) Keep things in your mind and sing your poems yourself. The poem is alive issuing from the mouth of the author, the danger of writing is twofold: it disorders the creative process, and later distorts the finished work. Vergil is speaking clearly, it only seems strange to us because we have few such cadences from the informal side of creative minds. As MacLuhan told us many years ago, we live in a print-culture, with little interest or involvement in the bardic word.
To return to the initial premise of this paper, it is surprising how much detailed information can be gleaned from the scrappy Vitae Vergilianae. .. if one uses the general scope of his own culture as a starting point, rather than the narrow tradition of historical, academic scholarship. Some of the points that have been made in this paper are problematic, some are only meant as suggestions; but many certainly can hold water in the cultural sea in which are living near the end of this confusing century. Our sensibilities are radically different from those of the l960's, many things we can discuss easily would have been unthinkable in l940, while the neat and orderly world of the first half of this century, rooted as it was in the firm values of the preceding era, seems to many of us completely incomprehensible. The world has changed since l9l4 with an accelerating acceleration, and this, to those who have been able to keep pace, has changed the face of history. Everything seems to have been touched by change, from time and space and matter, to esthetics and the meaning of art.
Not that the Classical past has really vanished. It is all there in far better record than at any previous time in history. When the library at Alexandria burned, it is said that 200,000 volumes were lost, but any small Liberal Arts College has more than that today. With microfilm, microfiche, computerized storage, computerized photographs, documents and artwork, we are in a new state of intellectual awareness. It would only be surprising if we retained the mental cast of an earlier world, if we had thought nothing new and different on our own, in this new world of ours.
As test case for this hypothesis, stands the analysis of the Vitae Vergilianae presented in this study. All of the material is ancient, it has all been gone over with a fine toothed comb for hundreds of years, and with especially careful attention since the middle of the last century when Classical studies started to operate on a "scientific" basis. The views put forth in this paper would probably have been largely incomprehensible, or at least antipathetic, to most of the sincere and learned scholars of the past. But this is a healthy condition, this shows that as times change the standards of judgment also change. Even the Classics, firmly rooted as they seem in a fossilized "Ancient World", are in process of what becomes at times violent reinterpretation, and this must be understood as the normal course of man's development. Heracleitos had told us in the Fifth Century before Christ that all is continual change and flux, and it should not have taken the authenticity of an Einstein to inform us of the fact that we are at this moment taking our esthetic measurements in a world in which we, as well as what 2we are studying, are in flight. The best criticism which we can manage is judgment taken at a given moment in time, conscious of where it stands and where the accelerating curve of the ages is taking it..