Ancient History & Civilisation



According to a legend that can be traced back to the eighth century, and which is frequently illustrated in medieval and Renaissance art, the Roman senators, considering the great physical beauty of the Emperor Augustus and the age of prosperity and peace that he had brought about, asked to be allowed to worship him as a god. Augustus demurred, and consulted the Sibyl, who answered, ‘there will come from heaven a king whose reign will be for the ages to come, so that being present in the flesh he may judge the world.’ While the emperor listened, the heavens opened and he saw a beautiful virgin holding a child in her arms, and heard a voice saying, ‘This is the altar of the Son of God.’ Augustus fell down in adoration. On the spot on the Capitol where he had the vision was later built the church of S. Maria in Ara Coeli, on the site of the ancient temple of Juno.1 In a related medieval story Virgil is said to have built a noble palace, the Salvatio Romae (‘Safekeeping of Rome’), containing wooden statues of the provinces of the empire, each carrying a bell which the statue struck when a province plotted against Rome. When asked how long the gods would allow the building to stand, Virgil answered, ‘Until a virgin shall bear a son’. The people applauded, thinking that the building would stand for ever. But the impossibility turned into reality at the birth of Christ, whereupon the building fell into ruins.2

In these stories the Emperor Augustus and his poet Virgil are associated both with the new era of pagan Roman Empire and peace, inaugurated with the principate of Augustus, and with the birth of Christ, the beginning of a new age in the history of the world that will see the end of the pagan gods. The providential coincidence of Augustan world-empire with the birth of Christ became a part of Christian ideology. Eusebius, in the time of Constantine the Great, followed by St Ambrose and Pope Leo the Great, maintained that Rome’s achievement of a world-empire leading to an age of peace was divinely ordained to open the way for the universal spread of the Christian word.3 The early Christian poet Prudentius (AD 348–after 405), whose poems ‘On the Crowns of the Martyrs’ (Peristephanon) are full of Virgilian allusions, has it that, as he is roasted on the gridiron, St Laurence tells the Roman magistrate that Christ has sanctioned Roman world-rule, which unites the peoples with one language, so that Christianity can bind the world together. Roman triumphs prepare the way for the kingdom of Christ. In another poem Prudentius tells his pagan opponent Symmachus that Constantine’s bloodless triumph over the pagan gods, identified with demons, assured the Roman people of an everlasting divine rule (Against Symmachus 1.539–44). Prudentius transfers to this new Christian empire the words with which the Virgilian Jupiter promises Venus everlasting empire for the Roman descendants of her son Aeneas (542), denique nec metas statuit, nec tempora ponit ‘he imposes no limits of space or time’ (cf. Aen. 1.278).

The, at first sight paradoxical, idea that Virgil, the poet who wrote an epic on the foundation of Rome and the heroic deeds of the ancestor of the first Roman emperor, Augustus, should also be a herald of the coming of Christ was encouraged by the history of the interpretation of Virgil’s fourth Eclogue, often labelled the ‘Messianic Eclogue’ (see Chapter 5, p. 95).4 This riddling poem, dedicated to one of the Roman consuls of 40 BC, uses oracular language to express hopes for future political and social stability after years of Roman civil war. But its annunciation of the arrival of the final age foretold in the Sibyl’s song, with the return of the Virgin (Justice), the return of the Golden Age of Saturn, and the descent from Heaven of a mysterious child, could be taken as a prophecy of a very different kind of order of things. The Church Father Lactantius, a friend of the first Christian Roman emperor Constantine I (the Great), was the first to give the poem a Christian reading, seeing in it a reference by the Cumaean Sibyl, reported by Virgil, to the Golden Age that will follow the second coming of Christ. Constantine himself in a speech at the Council of Nicaea (AD 325) interprets the eclogue as a prophecy of the birth of Christ to the Virgin Mary. The ‘death of the serpent’ in the new Golden Age announced in the eclogue is taken to refer to the serpent in the Garden of Eden. Constantine says that Virgil himself was privy to the truth that the Sibyl foretold the birth of Christ, but deliberately obscured the message for reasons of safety. The belief that Eclogue 4 contained a prophecy of Christ, whether Virgil was conscious of the fact or not, and the idea that the Sibyls were pagan prophets of Christianity, had a long life. Dante gives it a new twist when the Roman poet Statius explains to Dante’s guide Virgil, in Purgatory, that it was Virgil who set him on the path firstly to becoming a poet, and then to converting to Christianity with the fourth Eclogue (Purg. 22.70–2) ‘When you said: “Time is renewed; justice returns and the first age of man, and a new offspring descends from the sky” ’ (see also Chapter 3, p. 40). But, living and dying before the Incarnation, Virgil himself is doomed to spend eternity in Limbo, the first circle of Inferno.

The story told in the Aeneid also has some points in common with biblical plots: Aeneas, like Moses, leads his people into exile to a promised land that is also their original homeland (the Trojan ancestor Dardanus came from Italy). Moses does not live to enter his promised land; Aeneas reaches Italy, but dies centuries before the fulfilment of the divine promise to the Trojan exiles of the foundation and world-empire of the city of Rome. Ideas of advent and salvation attach to human heroes destined for godhood: Hercules, who delivers the site of Rome from the monstrous Cacus in Aeneid 8, is a forerunner of Octavian/Augustus who will deliver Rome from the monstrous gods of Egypt at the battle of Actium, as depicted on the Shield of Aeneas at the end of Aeneid 8. The terminology of biblical figuralism, the kind of ‘concrete’ prophecy whereby an Old Testament ‘type’ (e.g. Jonah in the belly of the whale) is fulfilled in a New Testament ‘antitype’ (Christ’s three days and nights in the Underworld before his resurrection), is sometimes applied, perhaps misleadingly, to this kind of figurative mirroring within the Aeneid (see Chapter 5, p. 93). But hopes and expectations of a saviour are shared by the pagan Mediterranean world of the first century BC with the Judaic Messianism out of which emerged Christianity, and it is not impossible that similarities between Virgilian and biblical plots are to be traced ultimately to shared ancient patterns of thought. There is at least a strong possibility that the fourth Eclogue draws on Jewish Messianism and eschatology as preserved in the Eastern Sibylline oracles produced by the Hellenized Jews of Egypt.5

But the Aeneid maintained its hold on the consciousness of Christians of the late-antique western Roman Empire not so much because of parallels with biblical stories or because Virgil was thought to have been privy to Christian revelation before the birth of Christ, but for the simple fact that it continued to be the central text in ancient education, based on the reading of the poets. Augustine, albeit in a passage of some irony, speaks of ‘Virgil, whom small children read, it would seem so that this great poet, of all poets the most famous and the best, should be drunk in by tender minds and not easily erased by forgetfulness’ (City of God 1.3). The revolution in belief system brought about by the introduction of Christianity had major consequences for the reception of a poem whose characters include the pagan gods traditional in the divine machinery of ancient epic, and which celebrates the foundation of the earthly Roman Empire. But in other respects the mixture of homage, correction and criticism found in Christian imitations and rewritings of the Virgilian epic continued the practice of the earlier, non-Christian, poetic successors of Virgil, and in particular Ovid, Lucan and Statius, whose epics were also intensively imitated in Christian epics in both Latin and the vernaculars, from late antiquity down to the Renaissance. And as long as epic continued to be a major genre in the Latinate west, the Aeneid, as the great Latin classic of the genre, provided a storehouse of themes, motifs and diction.

A long line of epics on biblical subjects begins with a series of Latin verse paraphrases of the Old and New Testaments.6 The earliest, Juvencus’ Four Books of The Gospels (c. AD 330), recasts the humble language of the Christian gospels in the culturally prestigious form of Virgilian epic. The polemical overbidding of the pagan epic models is made clear in the Preface, in which Juvencus acknowledges the power of the poems of Homer and Virgil to bestow fame and glory both on their heroes and the poets themselves, but whose words will last only until the end of the world. By contrast the subject of Juvencus’ epic, the word of God, is truly eternal, as Matthew tells us (24:35): ‘Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away.’ Furthermore, while the pagan poets weave falsehoods into their narratives, Juvencus deals in nothing but the pure truths of the life of Christ.7

As well as drawing continuously on the Virgilian store of vocabulary and phrasing, Juvencus, like his successors in the field of biblical paraphrase such as Sedulius’ Paschal Song (c. AD 435, based on the Gospels), and Arator’s History of the Apostles (AD 544, on the Acts of the Apostles), imitates particular passages of the Aeneid, as well as a wide range of other classical Latin poetry. Awareness of the Virgilian models may prompt further interpretative effort on the part of the reader. Juvencus elevates the storm on the Lake of Galilee (Matth. 8:16–27) into a hyperbolical epic storm (Evang. 1.25–38), drawing on the storm that assails the Trojans at the beginning of the Aeneid (1.81–123). The waves strike the sky, and the sea-bed is opened up (with 32 disiectoque aperitur terra profundocf. Aen. 1.107 terram inter fluctus aperit). Aeneas is helpless in the storm, and only a god, Neptune, has power to command the winds and calm the seas. Juvencus’ hero, the man-god Jesus, can do this himself. Another example: Christ is brought bound before Pilate in the words with which Aeneas narrates the capture by the Trojans of the Greek trickster Sinon in Aeneid 2 (Evang. 4.589–90, based on Aen. 2.57–8). For such a scene the capture of Sinon is in fact the only possible model in the Aeneid, but that does not preclude further allusive point. One can read it as ‘contrast-imitation’ (the innocent Jesus is pointedly the opposite of the devious Sinon), but the allusion may also be pressed for similarities: neither character is what they seem to their immediate audience. The theme of sacrifice is also shared: Sinon claims (falsely) that he has escaped from being sacrificed by his fellow-Greeks as an offering for a safe return to Greece, and Jesus will sacrifice himself to save mankind.

The limits of interpretability are tested by the cento, that peculiar testament to the authority and re-usability of the Virgilian text (see Chapter 1, pp. 10–11). The earliest biblical cento is that by Proba, Old and New Testament narratives patched together from fragments of Virgil in 694 lines, written between AD 353 and 370.8 In the Prologue Proba announces that she will ‘say that Virgil has sung of Christ’s holy gifts’, not through a claim that he somehow had access to Christian truth, but through the manipulation of Virgil to yield Proba’s own Christian message. But it is hard not to feel that Proba senses that Christian truths are already hidden in Virgil. Her call for inspiration quotes lines from the Speech of Anchises in the Underworld on the world-soul and on the celestial origin of the individual soul (Aen. 6.726–7 and 731–2), lines which were often read as in conformity with Christian doctrine on the Holy Spirit and the immortality of the soul. For the storm on the Lake of Galilee Proba, like Juvencus, draws on the storm inAeneid1, and applies to Jesus fragments of the lines describing Neptune’s calming of the storm. The serpent in the Garden of Eden is stitched together from various Virgilian creatures of evil to whom allusion is also made in later Christianizing narratives in the Virgilian tradition: the serpents that kill Laocoon in Aeneid 2, the Fury Allecto in Book 7, and the monster Cacus in Book 8. The language used by King Evander in praise of Cacus’ slayer, the man-god Hercules, lends itself naturally to the account of the advent of Christ, combined with allusion to the divine child of Eclogue 4: 338–40 ‘your offspring has come down from high heaven, and in answer to our prayers time has at last brought us too the help and presence of a god’ (Ecl. 4.7 and Aen. 8.200–1). There is a long history of the Christian Hercules, the story of the son of the supreme god, who has a career on earth as a man before ascending to Heaven as a god, and whose labours include a harrowing of Hell.9

The Virgilian cento has a long life. A late example is by the prolific Aberdonian, and Laudian clergyman, Alexander Ross (1591–1654), who has earned a minor notoriety because of his belated defence of Aristotelian cosmology against the Copernican heliocentrism. His 13-book ‘Christiad of the Evangelizing Virgil’ (London, 1638)10 recounts the prophecies and narratives of the life of Jesus in both Testaments ‘on the lofty-sounding divine trumpet of Maro, blown by Alexander Ross of Aberdeen’. A couplet on the title-page encapsulates the diversion of Virgilian material to its Christian subject: ‘Virgil sung of arms and the man, I sing of acts and God: let the arms of the man give way, while I tell of the acts of God’ (Arma virumque Maro cecinit, nos acta Deumque; | Cedant arma Viri, dum loquor acta Dei) (Fig. 12).11

Eclogue 4 and the Aeneid share with the Bible a habit of recording prophecies. The Aeneid contains a number of passages that present what for Virgil’s readers was past Roman history as prophecy delivered in the remote legendary past of Aeneas. The first and grandest of these prophecies, Jupiter’s unrolling to Venus of the whole future history of Rome down to a new age of peace under Augustus, with the promise of unending empire for the descendants of Aeneas (Aen. 1.257–96), was frequently adapted to Christian prophetic ends. We have already seen Prudentius so using it. In another of the early Christian biblical epics, Avitus’ On the Deeds of Spiritual History (c. AD 494, from the Creation to the Crossing of the Red Sea), Jupiter’s prophecy is adapted for God’s promise to the newly wed Adam and Eve of eternal life and endless generations of progeny (1.171–8):

Live in harmony and fill the world, and may the happy seed of your offspring grow and be long-lived: may their years not be numbered, and may their life have no end. I have given you progeny without end (non annis numerus, uitae nec terminus esto. | progeniem sine fine dedi), which you will behold for all time, you who are established as the first author of the race. Let your great-grandson sow his grandsons and raise them up through the centuries, and may he count his living ancestors, and may long-lived sons bring children into the world before their parents’ eye (inque ora parentum | ducant annosi natorum pignora nati).

The last line incorporates allusion to another major prophecy in the Aeneid, Apollo’s promise of world-rule to Aeneas and all his descendants, Aen. 3.98 ‘his sons’ sons and those who will be born of them’ (et nati natorum et qui nascentur ab illis). But this prophecy in the Garden of Eden will be derailed by the Fall and the introduction of death into the world. By the late fifth century the Virgilian Jupiter’s prophecy of everlasting Roman empire will have come to sound very hollow. Avitus’ imitation perhaps registers that failure.

Fig. 12. Title page to Alexander Ross, Virgilii Evangelisantis Christiados Libri XIII (London, 1638).

More usually the confidence of Jupiter’s speech is transferred to the certainties of the Christian age of grace and the second coming, a divine empire without limits in time or space. As Milton’s Michael brings to an end his prophetic review to Adam of the whole of history after the Fall in the last book of Paradise Lost, he tells of the second coming of Christ, to ‘raise | From the conflagrant mass, purged and refined, | New heavens, new earth, ages of endless date | Founded in righteousness and peace and love, | To bring forth fruits, joy and eternal bliss’ (12.547–51; see Chapter 2, p. 44).

The contrast between pagan and Christian ideologies of empire is the underlying theme of Augustine’s City of God, written after the sack of Rome in AD 410 as an answer to those who saw in the catastrophe punishment for neglect of the pagan gods.12 In an exhortation to the Romans to abandon the cult of the pagan gods (City of God 2.29), Augustine asserts that the true fatherland is that for which Christian martyrs have spilt their blood, and he repeats the words with which Aeneas praised the noble souls who died in battle to win Italy for the Trojans, those who ‘with their blood secured this fatherland for us’ (Aen. 11.24–5). In the heavenly fatherland they will find not the pagan tokens of eternal empire, but the one true god, who ‘sets no limits in space or time to his power, and will grant empire without end’ (nec metas rerum nec tempora ponit, | imperium sine fine dabit, lightly adapting Aen. 1.278–9).

Augustine subjects Roman history and Roman religion to a searching and learned critique to show up the emptiness and turpitude of belief in the pagan gods. The contrast between the values of the (Roman) earthly city and the Christian city of God, and the need to exercise care in distinguishing between Christian and pagan values, is brought out by the juxtaposition of biblical and Virgilian quotations in the Preface of the City of God. Augustine acknowledges the difficulty of convincing the proud of the power of humility (uirtus humilitatis), and quotes Proverbs 3:34: ‘God withstands the proud, but gives grace to the humble’. This Christian truth is aped by pagans, and Augustine quotes one of the most famous, and most controversial, lines in the Aeneid, Anchises’ definition of the Roman mission as ‘to spare the conquered and war down the proud’ (Aen. 6.853 parcere subiectis et debellare superbos). Modern readers of the Aeneid often point to an apparent contradiction with Aeneas’ final action in the poem when he savagely strikes down the fallen and suppliant Turnus (see Chapter 4, pp. 82–4). Augustine spies a contradiction within the context of the speech of Anchises itself, in which a policy of being harsh with the proud and accommodating to the humbled is spoken as an expression of the praise that the proud pagan spirit loves to hear spoken of itself. Virgilian quotations are frequent in Augustine’s critique of Roman imperialism in the first five books of the City of God, fading away in later books as Rome is put in perspective by other empires, and with an increasing focus on the history of Israel.

In his Confessions Augustine famously remembers how as a schoolboy learning to read and write he was made to memorize the wanderings of Aeneas, oblivious to his own spiritual wandering, and how he wept for the death of Dido, because of her love for Aeneas, but did not weep for his own spiritual death, the result of not loving the true god but whoring after strange gods (1.13.20–1).13 The terms used here hint at an allegorical reading of the Aeneid as a tale not about the sufferings of legendary characters but about the wandering soul in search of its spiritual fatherland. This episode in Augustine’s autobiography is one of a number of references and allusions to the Aeneid that, intermittently, construct a life as a version of the story of Aeneas. Virgilian fiction and autobiography coincide when Augustine comes to Carthage to study rhetoric and finds himself seething in a cauldron of lustful love (3.1.1). Later he leaves Carthage for Rome, abandoning a woman wild with grief on the shore (5.8.15). This is not Dido, but his mother Monica, who will in the next book follow her son to Rome, ‘a mother made brave by her piety, following me on land and sea’, fortified by the key Virgilian virtue to emulate the mother of Euryalus who alone of the Trojan mothers followed her son by land and sea (Aen. 9.492). Augustine immediately ‘corrects’ the inauspicious Virgilian model (Euryalus dies a premature death) by comparing his mother to the widow whose dead son was brought back to life by Jesus (Luke 7:12–15). In his last extended conversation with his mother shortly before her death, son and mother look forward to the eternal and blissful life of the saints (9.10.23–6), a contrast with the vision of the future of the earthly city that Anchises reveals to his son in Aeneid 6. An even more interiorized version of the Virgilian Underworld is suggested as, in his search for God, Augustine passes beyond the senses of seeing and hearing into the fields and broad palaces of memory (10.8.12 campos et lata praetoria memoriae), where Heaven, earth and sea present themselves to him, and where he can hold, as if present, all things in his past experience and, based on those, images of possible future actions and hopes. Aeneas in his journey through the Underworld comes finally to the Elysian Fields (Aen. 6.640campos), where his father reveals to him the secrets of the universe, before presenting him with a pageant of heroes from the whole sweep of Roman history.14 The epic Underworld is always a place of collective memory and tradition.

Gods and heroes

Epic, the grandest of the genres of ancient literature, is a suitable vehicle for the propagation of the power and universality claimed by the Christian message, and for the proclamation of the glory of God. But in several respects there is a dissonance between the expectations raised by the classical, and more specifically Virgilian, model, and Christian views of history and Christian values.

One problem is the polytheism of the classical epic model, and not just because of the danger of doctrinal error. The typical epic plot involves the interaction of a number of divine, as well as human, characters, and monotheism threatens narrative impoverishment.15 However, the persons of the Trinity, or at least the interactions between Father and Son, give some scope for narrative interest, as well as allowing the development of one of the fundamental epic themes, that of fathers and sons, as in the important scenes in Milton’s Paradise Lost between God the Father and God the Son.

An alternative epic divine machinery can be supplied through the deployment of angels and demons. The strong dualism that marks the Aeneid, a struggle between the providential designs of the supreme god Jupiter and Juno’s recurrent summoning of chthonic and Hellish forces in order to thwart Jovian Fate, means that the Virgilian plot is easily adaptable to the Christian dualisms of good and evil, Heaven and Hell, God and the Devil. Compared to the Homeric Zeus, the head of a squabbling Olympian household, the loftiness and superior power of Virgil’s Father Jupiter brings him closer to the status of the biblical god, who in Christian epic may be given the pagan labels of rector Olympi ‘ruler of Olympus’, summus tonans ‘supreme thunderer’, or simply Jupiter.

The epic hero and his goals also present a problem for Christian narratives. But here there is continuity as well as rupture, for the epic hero has always been problematic, from Homer onwards. Indeed it is in the nature of the epic hero to be problematic, as he tests the limits of humanity at its borders with the divine and the bestial, undergoes the strain between his own ambitions and the needs of the collectivity that he leads or defends, and tries (or does not) to channel his own excessive emotions and desires to socially useful ends. The nature of heroic virtue is constantly being questioned. The greatest of Homeric heroes, Achilles, is perhaps the most problematic of all. The history of epic is the history of the ongoing reception, reassessment and correction of models of heroism. The character of Odysseus in the Odyssey is developed very probably in conscious reaction to the patterns of heroism on the battlefield in the Iliad: a hero confronting difficulties that require the application of intelligence rather than military prowess, and coming home to reclaim a home and a wife from the usurping suitors rather than going overseas to besiege and sack an enemy city, needs a different package of skills and values from an Agamemnon or an Achilles.

Virgil in turn critiques and corrects the heroic models of both the Iliad and the Odyssey, as Aeneas plays the roles, often very closely, of a range of Homeric characters: most obviously Odysseus (in Aeneid 1–6) and Achilles (in 7–12), but also Agamemnon, Menelaus, Paris (at least in the false perspective of Iarbas and Turnus) and Telemachus, not forgetting his own Homeric self (Aeneas is an important second-rank hero in the Iliad). The Homeric models pass through the cultural, historical and political filters of Virgil’s own day, and are overlaid with the expectations required of the Roman general or of the new emperor Augustus, and bear the traces of the appropriation by classical and Hellenistic schools of philosophy of the heroes of legend, Ulysses and Hercules above all, as models for philosophical definitions of virtue.16 For example, Aeneas is a Ulysses minus the Homeric hero’s crafty ‘Greek’ cunning, an attribute suspect to the Roman mind. He is an Achilles minus the latter’s obsession with honour and fame. A hero without a strong desire for personal glory is an implicit comment on the disastrous effects of the competition for glory that drove the leading Romans in the last decades of the Republic.

The ongoing revaluation of the epic hero is given fresh impetus by the new kinds of heroism required by the Christian revolution of hierarchies and values. On the one hand, the Christian epic hero has access to supernatural sources of power denied to the pagan hero, and, on the other, the earthly goals of the pagan hero are devalued. Milton’s Paradise Lost sums up much of the previous history of the Christian rewriting of epic heroism.17 The programmatic statement comes at the beginning of Book 9 as Milton starts on the narrative of the Fall, 9.13–15 ‘Sad task, yet argument | Not less but more heroic than the wrath | of stern Achilles on his foe pursued’; and he protests that he is (27–33) ‘Not sedulous by nature to indite | Wars, hitherto the only argument | Heroic deemed, chief mastery to dissect | With long and tedious havoc fabled knights | In battles feigned; the better fortitude | Of patience and heroic martyrdom | Unsung.’ Milton is somewhat disingenuous here, turning a blind eye to the vast amount of biblical epic that had accumulated by the seventeenth century. Moreover patience is already a defining characteristic of Homer’s ‘much-enduring’, polutlas, Odysseus, and this aspect of the suffering hero was emphasized by Cynic-Stoic interpretations of both Odysseus and Hercules, which feed into Virgil’s Aeneas, who conforms in some respects to a Hellenistic ideal of the ‘suffering king’.18 Aeneas is associated with the giant Atlas, who patiently holds up the heavens, and whose name is from the same root as Odysseus’ epithet polu-tlas.19

Christianity teaches the virtues of humility and obscurity, and mounts a radical critique of the earthly fame and glory that form a core value of pagan epic (even if in its history on earth the Christian Church has often seemed oblivious to its own teaching). This has generic consequences: the lowly characters of Virgil’s pastoral Eclogues and the values of a peaceful and unambitious life on the farm in the Georgics are suitable texts for a ‘georgics and bucolics of the soul’.20 The first writer of a biblical epic, Juvencus, incorporates allusions to the Eclogues and Georgics, as well as the Aeneid, developing biblical imagery of Jesus as shepherd and as harvester. Paraphrasing Jesus’ statement to his disciples that (Matthew 9:37) ‘The harvest truly is plenteous, but the labourers are few’, Juvencus alludes to the opening of the Georgics, announcing the subject-matter of ‘what makes the crops flourish’.

A complex working of lowly pastoral into elevated epic is found in one of the best of the neo-Latin biblical epics of the Renaissance, the De Partu Virginis ‘The Virgin Birth’ (1526), by Jacopo Sannazaro, better known today as the author of the Arcadia (in Italian), the single most important work of vernacular Renaissance pastoral.21 Book 3 of the De Partu, which tells of events after the birth of Christ, opens with a standard epic scene, the descent from Heaven (of a god or a god’s messenger), which is also a social and generic descent. God the Father, looking and sounding very like Jupiter in council at the beginning of Aeneid 10, summons his angels and orders them to go down to the site of the nativity (72–5): ‘First of all, bring radiance to the bed of straw beneath the hard rocks of the tiny cave, search out the blessed spot with its simple reeds. All together humbly approach the new cradle.’ ‘Hard rocks’, ‘simple reeds’, ‘humbly’ signal the humble pastoral setting of the lowly cradle of the heavenly king. God the Father then brings the shepherds to the cave, where they sing (142) ‘a song unfamiliar to the woods [of pastoral poetry]’. For those who know their Virgil this song is very far from unfamiliar, being a reworking of the fourth, ‘Messianic’, Eclogue, long believed to be a prophecy of the birth of Christ. The last line of the shepherds’ song in Sannazaro, 232 ‘dear offspring of God, a mighty addition to the sky’ (cara dei soboles, magnum coeli incrementum) adapts one of the grandest lines in Eclogue 4, 49 cara deum suboles, magnum Iouis incrementum. Eclogue 4 repeatedly uses magnus and maior, ‘big’, ‘bigger’, to mark this eclogue’s elevation above the usual height of pastoral poetry.

The generic play that begins in the Eclogues continues in both the Georgics and the Aeneid, where, for example, the Arcadian king Evander’s small settlement, in the time of Aeneas, on the site of what one day will be Rome, is a quasi-pastoral origin of the epic grandeur of Augustan Rome. In the Aeneid a pastoral or georgic simplicity sometimes represents an alternative to, or precursor of, epic achievement. A more radical reassessment of the hierarchy of genres is made possible within a Christian world-view, for example in the highly Virgilian epic in six books on the life of Christ by Girolamo Vida (1535), a poem much read until the end of the eighteenth century. The Christiad is an exemplification of Vida’s own prescriptions on how to write poetry in his earlier didactic poem On the Art of Poetry, which is more precisely a manual on how to write poetry in the manner of Virgil (see Chapter 1, p. 6).

Christ is the hero, often referred to as heros, of the Christiad, but his heroism is of a very different kind from that of an Achilles, an Odysseus or an Aeneas. A radical inversion of Virgilian patterns of heroism occurs at a climactic point in Vida’s Christiad. As Christ hangs on the cross, the angels muster for war in a repetition of the war in Heaven against Lucifer and the rebel angels, but they are prevented by God the Father, who sends the personification of Clemency to recall them. The angels are reduced to being spectators of the Crucifixion, and a long simile (5.694–702) compares the situation to a duel between two well-matched young warriors, in which one falls, prompting his faithful companions to rise to their feet, but unable to intervene. Readers who know their Virgil will not miss the allusion to the final duel between Aeneas and Turnus, where the Italians rise with a groan when Turnus is brought down by Aeneas’ spear-throw. The effect is twofold. First, this is a conflict, between Christ and his enemies, that is not to be decided by force of arms (Vida’s abortive war in Heaven is even more of a farce than Milton’s). Second, and shockingly, Christ is implicitly compared to the loser in the Aeneid. But this is an epic where defeat and disgrace are paradoxically the means to triumph, where the youthful victim of a funus acerbum, ‘premature death’, is the true victor. At the end of the sixth and last book Christ’s reception by the angels in Heaven is compared to the return to Rome of a triumphing consul (6.701–7). As in Spenser’s Legend of Holiness, the goal of this epic is not an earthly city, but the walls of Heaven.

Although the glory to which Christ’s story tends is not of an earthly kind, the propagation of the Christian message does depend on the world-wide spread on earth of the word about the Word incarnate, crystallized in the Gospels. This is not the kind of fame that attaches to great warriors and kings, nor is it controlled by the epic poets who celebrate the great of the earth. In an insightful engagement with and revaluation of the Virgilian discourse of fama, both ‘renown, fame’ and ‘gossip, rumour’, Vida tells of the unsuccessful struggle by the elite priests of Jerusalem to stamp out the (true) rumours of the resurrection of Christ, which spread as irrepressibly as Fama ‘Rumour’ in Aeneid 4 (Christiad 6.392–404). But this is the babbling of the many-headed beast, themultiplex uulgi sermo, that has now been revalued as Gospel truth. In generic terms this is also a deliberate lowering of the sublime language of epic to the sermo humilis, the ‘lowly speech’ privileged by Christianity with its attachment to the humble and the common.22

Vida himself is not immune to the allure of more self-centred kinds of fame. In an interview at the end of the Christiad that alludes to father Jupiter’s prophecy to his daughter Venus of the future glory of Rome in Aeneid 1, God the Father reassures his Son that the name and teachings of Christ will fill the world, bringing about a new Golden Age. God looks 15 centuries into the future when a song on the Passion will sound out in Cremona (Vida’s birthplace) – the poem that we are reading at this very moment. This is the supreme accolade for a poet who has clearly felt the desire for praise that Vida identifies as an indispensable incentive for the boy who would become a poet in his instruction on the education of the poet in the first book of the The Art of Poetry. Vida uses a phrase,laudis succensus amore ‘fired by the love of praise’ (1.7), borrowed from Virgil’s description of the boy Ascanius’ desire for success in the hunt, Aen. 7.496 ipse etiam eximiae laudis succensus amore ‘himself fired by the love of outstanding praise’. That ‘love of praise’ leads to the disastrous shooting of Sylvia’s stag, provoking war between the Italian farmers and the Trojans. Does the allusion convey a warning to Vida and his ambitious readers against excessive pride in poetic achievement, and a lesson in the need for a proper Christian humility, nowhere greater than in writing a Virgilian epic on the life of Christ?

Milton’s Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained emerge from a tradition of biblical epic going back over a millennium; Milton knew and admired Vida’s works, and the Christiad is one of the myriad of sources on which Milton drew in his own Christian epics.Paradise Lost is also a profoundly classicizing poem, and with it Milton succeeded in creating the central classic of English poetry. Although written from the political margins of what became the new Augustanism of the restored monarchy, Paradise Lostsoon claimed a literary and cultural authority analogous to that of the Aeneid within imperial Roman culture. Like the Aeneid, Paradise Lost is an encyclopedic poem, encyclopedic not least in registering the multiplicity of ways in which the Aeneid had been assimilated, critiqued and overbidden in earlier responses by Christian writers. But, just as the Aeneid engages in an immediate and detailed encounter with the founding texts of Greco-Roman literature, the Iliad and Odyssey, so Paradise Lost confronts theAeneid itself head-on in an epic tussle between the Roman and Christian poets.23

Milton’s adaptation of Virgilian narrative structures to a biblical plot followed a path well trodden in the Renaissance. I end this section with two further examples which perhaps do not deserve the almost total oblivion into which they have fallen. A highly classicizing neo-Latin example is the two-book Joseph by Girolamo Fracastoro (?1478–1553), the author of the better-known Syphilis, the poem that gave its name to the disease (see Chapter 7, pp. 160–3).24 The proem presents its hero as a ‘pious young man’, whose career mimics that of Aeneas, one of suffering followed by victory and the foundation of a race from which in time will come a greater historical consummation: ‘Tell me, Muses, of all that he endured, until finally victorious he might exercise great rule (imperium) in Egypt and found a blessed people, whence came the salvation of mankind, the hope of a future life, and the unbarring of the locked gate of Olympus.’ The main narrative begins with one of the countless rewritings of Juno’s summoning of the forces of Hell against the Trojans at the beginning of the second half of the Aeneid, as Pluto/Satan, hostile to the race of Abraham, uses the Fury Allecto to sow envy and hatred in the brothers of Joseph, who proceed to put him in the well. The Hellish plot is then countered by a switch to Heaven, where God is found watching events on earth, just as in Aeneid 1 the sequence of the storm and its aftermath, unleashed by Juno and the Hellish winds of Aeolus is followed by the scene in Heaven between Jupiter and Venus, after which Jupiter sends down Mercury to make the Carthaginians hospitable towards the Trojans. Fracastoro’s God sends down an angel, the biblical equivalent of the pagan messenger-god Mercury,25 who foretells the history of his people to Joseph, down to the entry into the Promised Land and beyond, to the coming of Christ. Potiphar’s wife plays the role of Dido, attempting to derail Joseph’s career through an erotic furor that is engineered by a Hellish agent of Pluto, another avatar of the Virgilian Allecto. This ‘combinatorial imitation’ of both Venus’ supernatural infatuation of Dido in Aeneid 1 and Allecto’s infuriation of Queen Amata in Aeneid 7 is eased by the detailed correspondences between those two episodes in the Aeneid.

As an English-language classical epic on a biblical theme Paradise Lost has a predecessor in Abraham Cowley’s Davideis (first published 1656), of which only four books (the first also in a Latin version by Cowley) were completed of a projected 12, ‘after the pattern of our master Virgil’, as Cowley says.26 Like the Aeneid the Davideis launches in medias res at a point where a temporary lessening of Saul’s hostility to David is suddenly reversed by the intervention of the Devil and his agent, the personification of Envy. Compare the opening of the Aeneid, where the Trojans, temporarily in a cheerful mood on setting sail from Sicily, are confronted with the sudden violence of the storm unleashed by their divine enemy, Juno. But the main model for Envy’s mission from the Council of Devils to inspire the sleeping Saul with renewed enmity against David is once more the Juno and Allecto sequence at the beginning of the second half of the Aeneid. The contrast between the opening sequence of the Council of Devils in Hell and Envy’s assault on Saul, and the following scene in Heaven, introduced with a description of a supra-celestial realm of light that pointedly counterbalances the description of Hell’s nocturnal horror, is broadly comparable to the contrast in the first book of theAeneid between the Cave of the Winds, a place of elemental turmoil with hints of an Underworld setting, and the appearance, after the storm, of Jupiter, the god of bright air and calmer of storms, ‘at the summit of Heaven’. Cowley’s schematic – and Virgilian – contrast between Hell and Heaven is also replicated on a much grander scale in the contrast in Paradise Lost between the first two books, set in the darkness visible of Hell, and the ascent in the third book with the poet to the ‘pure Empyrean’, the seat of God the Father and God the Son.

The ‘Proposition’ of the Davideis advertises that we are embarking on a Virgilian epic:

I sing the man who Judah’s sceptre bore

In that right hand which held the crook before;

Who from best poet, best of kings did grow;

The two chief gifts heav’n could on man bestow.

Much danger first, much toil did he sustain,

Whilst Saul and Hell crossed his strong fate in vain.

Nor did his crown less painful work afford;

Less exercise his patience, or his sword;

So long her conqu’ror fortune’s spite pursued;

Till with unwearied virtue he subdued

All homebred malice, and all foreign boasts;

Their strength was armies, his the Lord of Hosts.

(Davideis 1.1–12)

This closely tracks the proem of the Aeneid, announcing the subject with a first-person singular verb (arma uirumque cano), followed by a relative clause introducing a summary of the hero’s trials and sufferings, until such time (‘Till’, dum) as he achieves his goal. The contrast in the first two lines between David’s ‘crook’ and ‘sceptre’ hints at a progression from pastoral (David as shepherd) to epic (David as king), generic play of a kind that has precedent in the Aeneid and many other texts in the Virgilian tradition.

Anima naturaliter Christiana

The idea that the Aeneid is a work peculiarly alive to the impending revolution in history brought about by the advent of Christianity continued into the nineteenth century; Ste-Beuve, proponent of Virgil as the poet of tender humanity, opined that ‘Even the coming of Christ has nothing to surprise one, when one has read Virgil.’27 But it was an idea which saw a striking revival in the twentieth century in the decades following World War I.28 It was fostered by a widespread sense of the relevance of the age of Augustus to the modern world, not now as a model for a new peak of cultural and artistic perfection and urbanity, as in the various Augustanisms of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but as an age of transition and crisis following a destructive war. A wider consciousness of Virgil was raised by the bimillennium of the poet’s birth in October 1930, celebrated with particular enthusiasm in Italy where the Mussolini government was at the peak of its popularity. In Germany there was a wave of interest in, accompanied by translations of, the Eclogues, with a particular focus on the fourth Eclogue, accompanied by a conviction that Virgil’s prophecy of the return of the Golden Age was a profound expression of the hopes and longings of an age of crisis, a symptom of millenarian tendencies of the time that found perverted expression in the Nazi ideology of the Third Reich.

One of the most influential books on Virgil of the period was written by an outspoken anti-Nazi, Theodor Haecker: Vergil. Vater des Abendlandes (1931; published in English as Virgil: Father of the West in 1934). For Haecker the pious and humble hero Aeneas in whom, according to Haecker, there develops (1931: 87) ‘a longing, prepared for self-sacrifice, for a second homeland’, is like Abraham, the ‘father of faith, fated to leave his homeland’. Virgil is the poet of what Haecker calls an ‘adventist paganism’; the famous Virgilian phrase sunt lacrimae rerum prepare the way for Christ’s tears in the Garden of Gethsemane (117). In the last chapter Haecker develops a version of the early Christian belief that Virgil had a presentiment of the Incarnation, and that he was singled out by Providence in the adventist spirit of his times to give shape to a mythical material that was related to the eternal truth of the patriarchs and prophets. Virgil was an anima naturaliter Christiana ‘a soul by nature Christian’, the phrase used as the title of the last chapter of the book.

That phrase was used by Tertullian to refer not to Virgil, but to the natural propensity of any human soul to talk of one god (Apologeticus 17.5). It has enjoyed a certain currency with reference to Virgil, not least because it was picked up by T.S. Eliot in a lecture on ‘Vergil and the Christian world’ (1951),29 heavily dependent on Haecker to the point of plagiarism. Eliot also appeals to Dante, whose assignment in the Divine Comedy to Virgil of ‘the role of guide and teacher as far as the barrier which Vergil was not allowed to pass […] is an exact statement of Vergil’s relation to the Christian world’. Eliot varies the Old Testament analogy, comparing Aeneas not to Abraham, but to Job; and the analogy with Christ is also explicit: the destiny imposed on Aeneas ‘is a very heavy cross to bear’.

A curious example in a scholarly journal of an adventist reading of the Aeneid which is also a belated example of a ‘pilgrim’s progress’ interpretation of Aeneas’ career (see Chapter 4, p. 87) is the 1959 article ‘The spiritual itinerary of Virgil’s Aeneas’, by Francis A. Sullivan, SJ. Sullivan sets out to show that Aeneas is ‘a pre-Christian religious hero’. Stressing the religious dimension of Aeneas’ pietas, Sullivan traces a spiritual progress through the ‘drama of conversion’ and the ‘dark night of the soul’ on the night of Troy’s fall. Using a schema of the kind beloved of the Neoplatonists, Sullivan applies to ‘Aeneas’ spiritual itinerarium’ a three-fold path of Purgative, Illuminative and Unitive ways to God. Aeneas is ‘a tired dust-covered pilgrim’. This kind of reading usually runs out of steam after Aeneas’ initiatory experience in the Underworld in Aeneid 6, but Sullivan continues, seeing in Aeneas’ visit to Pallanteum in Book 8 a ‘vital contact with the living memory and cult of Hercules, the toiling benefactor of mankind, who had chosen between Way of Pleasure and Way of Virtue’, a reference to the Choice of Hercules at the Cross-Roads, a philosophical personification allegory that goes back to the fifth century BC.30 The ‘adventist’ thrust of Sullivan’s reading becomes clear when he describes Virgil as ‘groping towards the Christian idea of grace’.

These twentieth-century views of the Aeneid do not place it at the culmination of a historical process, whether as marking the peak of Rome’s literature and culture, the major monument of an Augustanism to be emulated by later centuries, or as the text that announces the resolution of decades of military and political conflict in the new Golden Age of the pax Augusta. Rather the Aeneid and its author are placed at a point of transition, between two worlds, between the old order of the pagan Greco-Roman world and the new Christian order, towards which history is somehow groping in the darkness. This between-ness is registered by writers and scholars alike. Eliot, in the footsteps of Haecker, says that Virgil has ‘a significant, a unique place, at the end of the pre-Christian and at the beginning of the Christian world’.31 Hermann Broch commented in 1939 on his novel in progress, The Death of Virgil: ‘Virgil, standing on the threshold between two ages, […] summed up antiquity, as he anticipated Christianity.’32 The scholar Bruno Snell in a classic article ‘Arcadia’ (1945) locates the between-ness in the fourth Eclogue: ‘it is not contingent alone on the prophecy of the fourth Eclogue that Virgil was regarded by the Middle Ages as a forerunner of Christianity. His Arcadia is not only a midway-land between myth and reality, but also a midway-land between the ages, a here in the beyond, a land of the soul that is longing for its distant home.’33 The language is similar to that used by Haecker in his account of Aeneas’ dawning longing for a new spiritual home. Finally, Friedrich Klingner, one of the most influential Virgilians of the middle of the last century, claims that Virgil lived through ‘a boundary situation between the ages, surrounded by the horror of the end, of nothingness’.34

Statements of this kind do speak to something fundamental to the conception of the Aeneid, to the extent that mobility and communication across time and space are central themes in the Aeneid. At the level of the primary plot the poem is about a hero in transition between one home, now lost, and another, whose fullest realization lies far beyond his own lifetime. The legendary passage between two worlds reflects the transition that Rome was undergoing in Virgil’s own day between one political order and another, and, in our age of self-reflexive readings, we readily discern the transition involved in the appropriation of the cultural and literary goods of the Greek world, as Virgil creates one of the monuments of what we know as Augustan literature. In the 1930s to 1950s this transitional quality of the poem was referred to the passage from paganism to Christianity.

There is a final twist, a reception of the adventist reception of the Aeneid in the modern reading of another Roman poet of the Augustan age. Hermann Broch’s The Death of Virgil was published in 1945, another year of transition, from the war years to the post-war world. That year also saw the publication of Hermann Fränkel’s Ovid. A Poet between Two Worlds. The German Fränkel, like the Austrian Broch, was a refugee from the old world in the new.35 Fränkel curiously makes no reference to the view of Virgil as a poet between two worlds, but he must have been very well aware of the views of Haecker and others, to which his own formulations on Ovid cannot help being indebted: ‘[Ovid’s] place in the history of mankind was between two worlds, between the wonderful self-contained world of Antiquity and that newer one which was to bring Christianity and a different civilization, but which began with empty disillusion and dumb, hopeless confusion […] It was Ovid’s mission to sing the song of Dawn and to perpetuate the fugitive beauty of the uniquely precious moment of transition.’36 No Ovidian today would take seriously this view of Ovid’s place in the history of the world. But Fränkel does diagnose persuasively a quality in Ovid of being betwixt and between, a quality which from a historical perspective operates at both the national and the personal level. The Aeneid’s narrative of transition from east to west, Greece to Rome, from Republic to Empire is repeated with variation in the Metamorphoses, and in the exile poetry Ovid mythologizes his own woes as a reversal of Aeneas’ journey from Troy to Italy. The sense of the painful transition from civilized Rome to wild Tomis is constant in the Tristia and Ex Ponto. That a book could be written about Ovid as a poet between two worlds is in itself a comment on Ovid’s response to the ‘transitionality’ of the Aeneid. In this respect, as in others, Ovid, one of Virgil’s earliest readers, is also one of his best. And the ‘transitionality’ of Ovid has spawned its own subgenre of ‘Ovid between two worlds’ novels.37 In David Malouf’s An Imaginary Life (1978) the exiled Ovid makes the further passages from hyper-civilization to primitivism and, finally, a oneness with nature, and from the sophistication of adulthood to the simplicity of childhood. This personal journey is overlaid with a version of ‘between the pagan and Christian worlds’: Malouf’s Ovid introduces himself as (19) ‘born […] between two cycles of time, the millennium of the old gods, that shudders to its end, and a new era that will come to its crisis at some far point in the future I can barely conceive of.’ In the Romanian exile Vintalia Horia’s novel Dieu est né en exil (1960) Ovid’s secret journal in exile records his interest in religion, including his meeting with the Dacian priest of the monotheistic religion of Zalmoxis, and his acquaintance with the Greek physician Theodore, who tells him of the birth of a miraculous child-saviour that he had witnessed in Bethlehem. At the end Ovid concludes that he is living in a transitional age, ‘the time of waiting’.

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