The Country Life for the Green Generation

The Georgics and Intertextuality

If there were ever a right time to become interested in the world of Roman writings about the countryside and Farming, these early years in the second millennium would be just that moment. At long last we have begun to think seriously about the green world we live in, having lost a noticeable percent of that pristine green-ness by an evil concoction of both greed and inattention. But we are now thinking in new terms of our airs, our waters and our places, and we are even prepared to start doing something about the global damage we have been incurring.

In the Augustan period the main food supply was from grain raised north of the Black Sea, transported by a fleet of cargo ships to Italy to feed the populace. But for fresh food in the farmers' markets were the local source along with the farms of family gardens. There were also the estates of wealthy gentleman-farmers like Cicero who could afford the investment of a rural estate called a 'hortus' or garden, which was part farm and part a luxurious villa. We have today this same double source for our food supplies in the huge national producers and the local state farms, so this is a fitting time to look at another age in which agriculture was imported but still practiced in an ancient tradition, with traditional use of the land as learned from the experience of many centuries.

Roman Agriculture is one of the most neglected areas in our library of classical scholarship. We do in fact have a great deal of written material, from the little tough-minded book of Cato, through the bookish documentation of the scholarly Varro, to the well written treatise of Columella who covers in twelve legible essays the range of what the Roman farmer's life was really like. All of these are available for those who are refurbishing their erstwhile Latin in the original Latin; for a quick look check the index at The Latin Library under the author name. And along with these you can get in a single searchable file online from this websitethe Georgics of Vergil to read with your browser at ease.

I bring this to your attention as a timely suggestion to look into the world of Roman agriculture, and more specifically to enjoy an ongoing reading project with the Georgics of the master poet Vergil. Since the Renaissance educated people in the West have been relishing the fine art of Vergil's poetic language. as coupled with a hand-dirty grip on the tools and techniques of the Roman farmer's life. There are lovely scenes in the Italian countryside , but these are not the pastorals of Hellenistic gentleman poets idly adoring a lifestyle which they could not endure after a week's hard work. Vergil came from a country lifestyle in the north, his father was a wood-chopper, his grandfather Magus was a local man of Carthaginian invaision background and Vergil's generation would have known the Carthaginian authority Mago, whose lost work on farming was well known to the Romans. Going to Rome early and adopted by a crowd of gentleman politicians, Vergil entered a circle of prople knowledgable about Greek writers from Hesiod to Aretaeus to Callimachus and the Alexandrians "Experimenters", for whom agriculture and the countryside were a literary world far distant from the plowed fields in rural Italy. But he could now fuse his own countryside life with the ancient Hellenic traditions, and in doing so he produced a poetical work of unusual felicity.

The Georgics were in fact commissioned by the Emperor's new agricultural policies. There are signs of this influence in the poetry, not always pleasant signs to modern ears familiar with the work of our agricultural lobbyists. But we can read over these parts quickly and the remainder is well worth our attention as rich poetry written in a semi-didactic mode, but with a charm which has lasted through the ages. An afternoon spent in a summer garden with a glass of a modern Falernan and the bilingual Loeb edition of the Georgics in your hand, will give a gentler picture of a Roman's preferred reading than Caesar's school selections on warfare or the Horatian Odes from which meaning must be forcibly extracted word by word. Here is neither a dream under the olive branch nor shoveling manure to enrich the tilth of your field; but there is a little of both of these in a very interesting proportion.

What are the tools needed for a person pursing the worthwhile project of reading the Georgics at comfortable ease over a few passing years? This should be done slowly and carefully, it is not a college course with credits or praise for getting it done in time, but an ongoing and enriching literary project which has the unusual capability to connect your skills in reading an ancient language with your own perceptions about the flora and fauna of a living world around the poet Vergilius Maro on the one hand, and also the greening world coming into focus around us with now. Here are some linguistic aides and suggestions for those interested in a classical approach:

You need a text with translation since there are many technical words are needed at a glance and best grasped without a dictionary search. The Loeb series as instituted a century ago and available from Harvard University Press as a modest price, was designed for such a use as I suggest here, as intelligent reading for a person who has had some school or college experience in the Latin or Greek Language. To refresh your language work and clear out some academic quiddities, many perceptive persons have found this book useful. To get a full and searchable text of the four books of the Georgics onto your hard drive right now, you can open The Georgics HTML and copy/paste it onto your word process as an ascii file, to be opened by whatever browser you use. It is good to have the whole book on hand for reference and for word search later. If you want a translation as well, you can download a simple and straight prose version fromdactylic meter . A natural reading of the long syllables as long, whether native or long before consonants, with the shorts as short, will elicit the exact sound of the verse line, but only experience with the actual sounds will confirm these choices into a working habit. That does take time, but when done it is as natural as reading a newpaper aloud with a correct accent . If you want a translation as well, you can download a straight prose version fromTony Kline as useful with its sections marked out clearly. But for reading in a comfortable chair in the garden, the Loeb from Harvard University Press will be better.

Now let's assume that some time has passed, a sensible interval of real time as you have been browsing the Latin as you enter into your enjoyable Georgics reading project. At some point you will think of going to the Internet and doing a google search to see what is interesting in connection with the Georgics. It may come as a surprise, but you will find a number of recent books, articles and critical reviews which all display the curious and perhaps formidable word "intertextuality". Since you also find that word used in a variety of senses in the widely-used Postmodernist critical jargon, you may find yourself confused and perhaps think of closing the window to go back to your Latin reading in peace. Many have done this but closing the door rankles the imagination, and there is more to be said about this matter before it is laid to rest. So this might be a suitable place to fill in with some background material:


If the name of the Russian linguist Bahktin and the critical thinker and writer Julia Kristeva are not familiar, a careful reading of an essay Semiotics . . . . by Daniel Chandler, will be useful. This is one chapter of an online book on Semiotics or Semasiology as we once called it, which is well written and should be enlightening. This lays out the history of a line of semiotic thinking which has been widely developed in these last decades and is now used in a wide range of experimental thinking worldwide. Much of what 'Intertextuality' means, as here outlined, is interesting and culturally pertinent to the rapidly changing world in which we live, so the strangeness of some of the concepts and wording should not deter us from investigating the subject.

Note that the article does specifically caution against the idea of consciously or even incidentally making a word-connection between one point or event in a situation and another in the same or another situation, since all things are automatically pre-connected in a world-embracing sphere of consciousness. Behind each of us lies a web of language and image association, which in a sense "speaks through us" as the meaning of a larger mind-world of which we are merely a running part. Levi-Strauss says he does not write, the world is merely feeding him data which he accepts and puts with pen on paper as his conscious document. Now this may not be the whole of a very complicated and indeterminate situation, but the doctrine of Intertextuality as here defined in its broadest sense, envisions a world of complex and intertwined information of many sorts, which form the basis of the complex notions which we use unconsciously and without intentional effort in the neuron patterning of our local human brains.

Much of this is interesting, some is pertinent and convincing, but some is also developed in modern critical writing in ways which we may not find at all real. Critics have a way of weaving threads thinner and thinner until they blow away in the slightest breeze, and we may not want to investigate everything that exists in the elevated atmosphere of some of these terms:

intertextuality: quotation, plagiarism, allusion;

paratextuality: the relation between a text and its 'paratext' - that which surrounds the main body of the text ; such as titles, headings, prefaces, epigraphs, dedications, acknowledgments, footnotes, illustrations, dust jackets, etc.;

architextuality: designation of a text as part of a genre or genres

metatextuality: explicit or implicit critical commentary of one text on another text (metatextuality can be hard to distinguish from the following category);

hypotextuality the relation between a text and a preceding 'hypotext' - a text or genre on which it is based but which it transforms, modifies, elaborates or extends (including parody, spoof, sequel, translation).

hypertextuality and transtextuality may also be added to this list as possible developments.

We can dismiss part of this growing body of critical terminology as vapid invention. But the idea of Intertextuality is worth mentioning in connection with teh Georgics because a shred of this new thinking has been pared off from the fabric of the New Thought, and has fastened itself somehow onto the philological studies our the classical authors, although in a very narrow and restricted aspect. When you search on the web for the Georgics, you will find the word 'Intertextuality' appearing as a term or often employed without special mention, and this question will naturally arise:

What is the meaning of INTETEXTUALITY in this poetry? Where did it come from? And what does it mean?

By way of explanation, note that ever since the Renaissance, scholars in every major edition of a classical author, have compiled lists of literary Sources and Imitation which go into a critical Appendix on the printed text below the text. Ribbeck's major of Vergil edition and will include every possible scrap of parallel wording from all sources from Homer down to Alexandria and the Augustan Age, along with Imitations and Effects from Silver Age down to the end of the Empire, even into the new world of the Latinate Renaissance. Taken all together, this tabulation was felt to present a "history" or evolutionary view of a written text, an account of its lifespan from ancient start to the final finish. Taken as a work of philological exactitude and detailed research in unlikely as well as unlikely places, this can be seen as a tribute to scholarly diligence in the art of searching. Yet there was slim theory to this, that would come later, as follows.

At the present time we find a new surge of interest in the use of Intertextuality as a working tool in the study of Classical authors. This combines the theoretical work os semiotics as described above, with a the developed techniques of modern philological research in the field of Classical Antiquity. But this is not at all like the l9th century interest in Sources and Effects. It involves the notion of working relationship between the mind of an author as he was engaged in writing his text, and a conscious act of "reference" to his sources as a working part of his artistic process. The author not only recognizes the source of the materials he is putting on paper or papyrus, he assumes that his readers will be able to follow the path of this literary conhnection, and he thus produces a reference or an "allusion" as an unwritten footnotes to the text of what he is at that moment writing.

Such an act of "reference" or of "allusion" must be based on having a highly developed literary readership, if a reader is expected to grasp instantly the "reference" to a pertinent past document, and instantly see the quality of the reference to which the author was virtually "pointing". Contrary to opinion of Daniel Chandler as above, who felt that a direct reference is impossible or at least unwanted and fallacious, the modern classical scholars whom I am going to refer to here, assume that the reference is in fact a part of the written text as a working element, and they pursue that view with detailed and sustained attention reinforced by a full arsenal from the craft of the of the modern philological scholar.


There are three book length studies of Vergil's Georgics which work directly or indirectly with the idea of Intertextuality, but since they are written for those in full command of the equipment of modern classical scholarship and probably exhausting for the literary reader in their exhaustiveness, I will try to outline their scope in three Reviews which I can link to online.

Let me refer first to a review of a book from Harvard's Richard Thomas, who has been working in this direction with the Georgics for a number of years, finally bringing together his previous work in a single volume with his later additions. This is the most exhaustive and formal statement of the doctrine of Intertextuality for the Georgics. His full treatment in this book is formidable and beyond the range of anyone but an advanced classical student. But the notions which may have value for the literary reader, must be put into a somewhat simpler form to be usable. I think the review will give a brief sense of his character of work.

Richard F. Thomas, Reading Virgil and His Texts: Studies in Intertextuality.   Ann Arbor:  The University of Michigan Press, 1999.  Pp. 351.  ISBN 0-472-10897-2.

Reviewed by David Meban, University of Toronto. The Review

Similar in thrust is the work of Joseph Farrell from Penn, but he goes beyond the idea of simple "Reference" and adds the term "Allusion", as an important consciously stated reference to a source outside the text which he is examining. This goes much further in the direction of conscious directing, it assumes the Vergil was not only writing his lines of verse, but also directing the educated reader with a nod if not a wink to the source materials from which he drew ideas or patterns for his composition at hand. Farrell's material is documented with admirable detail, the book reads hard and formidable and is not for any interested reader of Vergil, but this review should be enough to indicate that his views. Whether the fact of "literary allusion" is a matter to be taken seriously in the reading of an ancient author, or is a modern offshoot of the Postmodernist atmosphere generated by Kristeva and others, is disputable. But Farrell's views are current and should be considered, if not immediately appreciated by the seriously interested classical reader.

Farrell, Joseph, Vergil's 'Georgics' and the Traditions of Ancient Epic: The Art of Allusion in Literary History, New York, O.U.P., 1991, pp. xiii & 389.

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2000.08.30. Peter Toohey,Department of Classics & Ancient History, University of New England, Australia.< The Review /p>

A third scholarly approach is similar but different in the way it deals with the materials. Monica Gale is a Professor at Dublin, her approach deals with the relationship of Vergil's Georgics to Lucretius' De Rerum Natura, On the Nature of Things. It has always been perfectly clear that Lucretius had a great effect on the mind of Vergil since his youth, the Donatan Vita states that Vergil had planned to spend the rest of his days after burning the Aeneid MS, with the Epicurean philosophy of Lucretius, and there are hundreds of verbal effects in his writing which show the profound influence Lucretius had on his thinking and language. This has always been obvious and well understood.

But Gale goes much further in trying to determine Vergil's philosophical program in writing the Georgics, by citing with elaborate discussion the meaning of parallels between points in the Georgics and over six hundred cited parallels in Lucretius' DRN. Did Vergil draw from the intellectual freedom and enlightenment of the DRN, a positive approach to the world as viewed from the position of the ideal "farmer" as a Roman citizen? Or was the labor and sense of frustration and disappointment of a person working close to the earth with uneasy weather and crop failure - - - was this all too much for him to bear?

Was the weariness greater than the liberation? Was Vergil optimistic or pessimistic, at least philosophically?

But as the book progresses, and perhaps it is to Gale's credit that no clear answer evolves. The returns from her long and laborious work of scholarship seem to be an intellectual draw between optimism and pessimism. But this is alldependent on whether we are trying to see Vergil as a serious philosophical thinker or a sensitive and concerned poet. The fact that he was interested in Lucretius' philosophy does not mean that he was a deep ssocial and philosophical thinker himself. Isn't it enough to be a poet, which is the way the world has always seen P. Vergilius Maro, without interrogating him as to his philosophical convictions and findings?

Monica R. Gale. Virgil on the Nature of Things: The Georgics, Lucretius, and the Didactic Tradition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. xiv + 321 pp. .

American Journal of Philology 123.2 (2002) 301-305. Reviewed by W. R. Johnson, University of Chicago.The Review


Now that we have had a quick look at the ubiquitous appearance of the term Intertextuality in relation to the poet Vergil's remarkable piece of nature-society-agriculture poetry in the Georgics, I think we can return to the reading of the Latin verse of the Georgics. It can be read in just the same traditional way as it was read by twenty generations of literary readers and scholars since the thirteenth century Renaissance, just as a matter of literary pleasure and spiritual enhancement. Especially at the present time, as we now contemplate the biological world again in its renewable and Green spirited splendor, this Poem comes into view as a restatement of faith in the valuable-ness of our planet and what the earth brings to us for our daily bread, as well as for our esthetic and spiritual diet.

I think it may be time for me to close this cautionary academic essay, while we go back to reading the text of Vergil's Georgics with a renewed spirit and enthusiasm, as we reconnect ourselves with the greening biological planet which is our solace as well as our homeland. I must say I have a deep a pleasure in my summer gardening, in my own personal hortulus in the corner of my front yard against a stone wall piled by farmers two centuries ago. This plot of land raises both body and heart as and gives a similar sense of pleasure as I receive in reading through the winter months the dactylic hexameters of the Roman poet Vergil the Gardener. This plot of land and this little book of a few hundred pages do go well together , surprisingly well considering the immense changes in culture we have seen in the last two hundred years, and after the lapse between than and now of some two thousand intervening years.

William Harris
Prof. Em. Middlebury College