Then there are all the famous cities, laboriously built, all the towns piled up by human hand on sheer rocks, with rivers gliding beneath their ancient walls. Shall I mention the Adriatic and the Tuscan seas? Or the great lakes?— you, Como the greatest lake, and you, lake Garda, whose rising waves imitate the roar of the sea? Or shall I mention the harbours, and the dykes imposed on the Lucrine lake, and the sea crashing out its indignation?.. .This same land brings forth from her veins streams of silver and mines of bronze, and pours out floods of gold. This was the land that produced a fierce breed of men, the Marsians and the Sabine race, the Ligurians used to hardship and the Volscians with their javelins, this the land that produced the Decii, the Marii, the great Camilli, and the Scipios toughened in war, and you, greatest Caesar, who now victorious on the furthest shores of Asia drive off the unwarlike Indians from the hills of Rome.
'Praise of Italy', Georgics, 2.155-76
The Roman poet Virgil is said to have been born on 15 October 70 BCE in Andes, a village near Mantua; the late-antique writer Macrobius said that he was 'born in the Veneto of country parents and brought up amongst the woods and shrubs'.1 He was educated in Cremona and Milan before going to Rome; he then for a while became part of an Epicurean community in Naples, a sect which advocated philosophical retreat from urban society and politics. In the late 40s he was writing his first major work, the Eclogues (probably published in 39-38 BCE), a book often pastoral poems one of whose subjects is the confiscations of land in 42
BCE for the settlement of veterans by Octavian (the future Augustus) after the civil war against the murderers of Julius Caesar. According to the ancient biographical tradition, Virgil's father's farm was one of those confiscated.
Virgil now came into the circle of the literary patron and intimate of Octavian, Maecenas, to whom he dedicated his four-book Georgics, in form a didactic poem on farming, probably published in 29 BCE, the year of Octavian's triple triumph two years after the decisive battle of Actium in which Octavian had defeated Antony and Cleopatra and so brought to an end two decades of civil war. During the last ten years of his life Virgil was working on the Aeneid, an epic in the Homeric manner on the wanderings and wars of the Trojan hero Aeneas, archetypal city-founder and ancestor of Augustus (the name taken by Octavian in 27 BCE, when he consolidated his rule in Rome). On returning from a journey to Greece Virgil died of a fever at Brindisi on 20 September 19 BCE, with the Aeneid lacking its final touches. His dying wish that the poem be burned was overruled by Augustus.
Virgil was immediately canonized as the national poet of Rome, and his works, above all the Aeneid, became the central classics of the later Western tradition. Indeed the history of the classical tradition could largely be written in terms of a history of the reception of Virgil. In all three of his major works he reveals a deep interest in the individual's relationship to his wider environment and to the natural world. Virgil's complex and sympathetic sensibility has left its mark on the ways in which succeeding generations of Europeans and North Americans have conceptualized and visualized the place of their culture and society in the world. It is difficult to generalize about the nature of this influence, since Virgil was a poet, not a systematic thinker. One of the marks of his greatness as a poet is his openness to the whole range of ancient traditions and attitudes, popular and philosophical, concerning the natural world and man's place in it. Furthermore, attitudes to man and his environment are to an extent determined by the different genres in which Virgil worked.
The three major works form a seemingly inevitable sequence, sometimes viewed in antiquity as reflecting the history of human civilization, from a pastoral to an agricultural to an urban way of life. The Eclogues stage a simple form of human society: individual herdsmen bonded to each other by friendship, ideally enjoying a close and unproblematic relationship with the animals they tend and the landscape they inhabit. The Georgics deal with the expertise and technology required to farm the land; the relationship of man to nature—animal, mineral, and vegetable—is now as much one of an imperialist and militaristic domination, as of a more collaborative coexistence. The Aeneid's ultimate subject is the foundation of the great city of Rome and of a people whose military machine will conquer the world. But it is also a poem about Italy, and the agricultural societies and landscapes of Italy (like many famous Romans born outside the capital, Virgil felt a loyalty both to Rome and to his home town, Mantua); echoes of the earlier Eclogues and Georgics are not out of place in a poem written for an urban ruling élite many of whom had working country estates and a real interest in agriculture,2 and the walls of whose houses were painted with romantic landscapes.3
For much of the last two thousand years the pastoral idea has been a mainly Virgilian tradition. The inaccessibility to Greekless centuries of Virgil's own model, Theocritus' Bucolics, obscured the origins of pastoral as a semi-realist, earthy genre. Virgil is often credited with the invention in his Eclogues of 'Arcadia', a dream landscape which men attempt to enter either through art or direct manipulation of their physical surroundings.4 While the world of the Eclogues is a more stylized and artificial creation than its Theocritean predecessor, Arcadia is but one of the Virgilian pastoral landscapes, and arguably marginal. The modern notion of an idyllic Arcadia is the product of a Renaissance elaboration of Virgilian hints, above all in the Italian poet Jacopo Sannazaro's Arcadia.
Central to Virgil's pastoral vision is a sense of life in harmony with nature, but under threat from disruptions both external, in the shape of civil war and land confiscations, and internal, above all in the form of erotic passion. Perfection may wear either a private face, in the shepherd happy with his girlfriend and whose love songs are echoed back by a sympathetic nature (Eclogue 1), or a public face, in the apotheosed hero at whose ascension all nature rejoices (Eclogue 5), alluding to the deification of Julius Caesar. The idea that the natural world flourishes or fails in sympathy with the justice or injustice of the city and its rulers is an ancient one, and deeply embedded in the political imagery of all Virgil's works. Virgil is also chiefly responsible for the widespread currency in the Western tradition of the Hesiodic idea of the Golden Age, both as a primitive Eden, but also as a paradise to be regained through the intervention of a salvific ruler (Eclogue 4; Aeneid 6.791-4).5 In the Eclogues philosophical (Epicurean and Stoic) notions of a life lived according to nature intersect with a popular moralizing tradition that opposes the simple and contented life of the countryside to the discontented luxury of the city; this complex of ideas also plays an important role in the Georgics' advocacy of a virtuous life on the farm, programmatically in the epilogue of the second book, and, in more nuanced forms, in the various pictures of life in primitive Italy in the Aeneid.
The last two books of the Georgics deal with animals, viewed from two very different perspectives. On the one hand animals are to be exploited without mercy for their utility to mankind. The old horse is to be put away without pity. On the other hand there is a sustained and often sentimental anthropomorphism in the description of animal behaviour and feeling, which reaches a climax with the instructions on bee-keeping in book four, where the hive is at times a miniature replica of an idealized Roman society. The view that the bees are a uniquely advanced species goes back at least to Aristotle, but in general pagan antiquity, in contrast to the speciesism prevalent in Christian cultures, accommodated a wide range of views favourable, at least in theory, to the claims to respect of the animal kingdom.
History and an acute sense of time enter the landscape in the Georgics and the Aeneid. The environment bears the traces of the lives of past generations, evoking a patriotic and antiquarian nostalgia, as in the description in the opening quotation of the rivers flowing at the foot of the ancient walls of hill-towns perched on their rocky prominences. The landscape may bring a remote past before the eyes of the present day, but it may also be changed beyond recognition. In Aeneid 8 Aeneas visits the site of Rome, hundreds of years before the birth of Romulus and Remus, and is guided by the virtuous Arcadian king who then lived at the place round a settlement of primitive huts set amid scrub and cattle. But the narrator Virgil constantly reminds his contemporary reader of the marble and gilt buildings that now dazzle the eye. There is a typical Roman pride in the staggering growth of their civilization from humble beginnings, but also a nostalgia for a simpler and more virtuous past when luxury held no temptations, and also a half-conscious anxiety that the process might be reversed, and Rome return to the semi-pastoral landscape over which Edward Gibbon would have gazed as he sat on the Capitol while the barefooted friars sang Vespers, and came to the idea of writing The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.
Virgil's sense of the past merges with a post-classical nostalgia for antiquity in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century landscape painters such as Poussin and Claude Lorrain, both profoundly influenced by Virgil. Claude's paintings were particularly popular in England, where their look and classical associations were imitated in the art of landscape gardening. Some landscape gardens, such as that at Stourhead, were designed to an explicitly Virgilian programme.6 A Virgilian vision of the world was also transmitted through eighteenth-century descriptive poetry modelled on the Georgics, particularly in James Thomson's very popular The Seasons.1 Virgil's view of man's relationship to his environment is multifaceted. The Roman empire is now the historical realization of a Stoically coloured cosmic sympathy between man and the natural world, now the violent and morally questionable subjugation of indignant peoples and landscapes. Man cuts down the forest to bring the blessings of agriculture, but trees are also sacred living objects that should not be violated. The urban landscape is proof of man's cultural and political progress, but the city is also the scene of the luxurious corruption of a virtuous primitivism. Human science and technology are objects of wonder and admiration, but there is a place for mystery and awe in approaching the secrets of the natural world. One could accuse Virgil of inconsistency, or one could see in him a supremely sensitive commentator on the complexities and dilemmas of an advanced urban civilization. For all the great differences between Rome of the late first century BCE and a post-Christian and high-technology global society of the twenty-first century, some of these complexities are still familiar.
1 Saturnalia, 5.2.1.
2 On the upper-class Roman's relationship to the natural world see G.B. Miles, Virgil's Georgics: A New Interpretation, chap. 1.
3 On Roman landscape painting and its cultural contexts see E.W.Leach, The Rhetoric of Space. Literary and Artistic Representations of Landscape in Republican and Augustan Rome, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988.
4 B.Snell, 'Arcadia: The Discovery of a Spiritual Landscape', in The Discovery of the Mind, Oxford: Blackwell, chap. 13, 1953.
5 P.A.Johnston, Vergil's Agricultural Golden Age: A Study of the Georgics, Leiden: Brill, 1980; H.Levin, The Myth of the Golden Age in the Renaissance, London: Faber & Faber, 1970.
6 M.J.H.Liversidge, 'Virgil in Art', in C.Martindale (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Virgil, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 99-101, 1997.
7 L.P.Wilkinson, The Georgics of Virgil. A Critical Survey, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 299-305, 1969.
Virgil's major writings
Georgics, trans. L.P.Wilkinson, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1982. Eclogues, trans. G.Lee, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1984. Aeneid, trans. D.West, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1991.
Jenkyns, R., Virgil's Experience. Nature and History; Times, Names, and Places,
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998. Miles, G.B., Virgil's Georgics: A New Interpretation, Berkeley and Los Angeles,
CA, and London: University of California Press, 1980. Putnam, M.C.J., Virgil's Pastoral Art: Studies in the Eclogues, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1970.
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