Episode 52: White Flowers Die

Virgil’s Eclogues (c. 38 BCE) are poems about country life. Far from being innocent celebrations, though, they are often cryptic, and filled with a haunting darkness.

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Virgil’s Eclogues

Hello, and welcome to Literature and History. Episode 52: White Flowers Die. This is the first of six programs on Rome’s most famous author, Publius Vergilius Maro, known to us today as Virgil, and this show is on Virgil’s Eclogues, a collection of ten poems that he put into circulation around 38 or 37 BCE. This episode, and the next five, will allow us to explore the works of Virgil with a fair amount of detail – not only the Aeneid, the undisputed epic poem of Rome, but also the works that Virgil issued in the decade before composing the Aeneid – two collections of poems that also ended up being tremendously influential in literary history. Before we get into the Eclogues today, I want to tell you a bit about Virgil’s life – what we know about it, at least – where he came from, what his education was like, and moreover how a provincial from the distant north of modern day Italy survived a series of massive civil wars, navigated a complex and evolving patronage system, and became, along with Homer, the Deuteronomist, and St. Paul, one of the most important writers in human history. [music]

Virgil’s Early Life

Lago Superiore, Mantova - panoramio

Lago Superiore near modern day Mantova (Mantua). Virgil’s childhood was spent along rivers and wetlands near here. Photo by Gilles Guillamot.

Virgil lived from 70-19 BCE, and thus, like his near contemporary Horace, Virgil watched the collapse of the republic and the birth of the principate. Unlike Horace, however, Virgil had little to say about himself. As biographer Peter Levi writes, “Virgil is an intensely personal poet, yet he is anonymous. The lives that we have of him were written in late antiquity and are full of fantasies.”1 As with a number of other Latin writers from the same period, scholars have traditionally tried to pin down biographical facts about Virgil from his poems, attesting that in this or that Eclogue, one of the speakers is Virgil himself, speaking frankly of his art, or that one or two of the Georgics reveal reliable information about Virgil’s process of composition, or even that such and such regional details in the Aeneid indicate Virgil’s residence in some specific place. We’ll get into some of these specifics as we read Virgil’s works, but upfront it will suffice to say that little concrete information about the poet’s life is available to us, and the ancient sources that we do possess frequently seem to be little more than idolizing fictions.

Just to give you an example of one, the Roman scholar Aelius Donatus, writing in the mid-300s and probably making use of a lost biography by Suetonius, writes this rather ridiculous story about how Virgil came into the world:
While she was pregnant with him, [Virgil’s] mother dreamed that she gave birth to a laurel branch, which struck root when it touched the earth and sprang up on the spot, so that it looked like a full-grown tree, stuffed with diverse fruits and flowers. And the following day, while she was making for the neighboring fields with her husband, she turned aside from the path, threw herself into a ditch, and disburdened herself by delivering the child.2
Wherever this anecdote came from, I think we can agree that the dream of the laurel branch is endearing in a hackneyed sort of way, but the mother hurling herself into a ditch in order to induce childbirth is a detail of questionable merit. Virgil’s ancient biographies are filled with these deliciously silly embellishments and I’ll include a few more of them for fun.

1943 Po Valley Terrain (30249098183)

The Po Valley was home to Catullus and Virgil. Virgil’s home region of Mantua is about 20 miles southwest of Verona.

While the biography that Suetonius wrote about Virgil was lost, Suetonius does have a few pages on Virgil in his Life of Augustus, pages blessedly free of magical plant dreams and ditch-induced births. According to Suetonius, writing about a hundred and twenty years after Virgil died, Virgil was born on October 15th, 70 BCE, in a village called Andes, thought to be just southeast of modern day Mantua, along the river Mincius. Mantua is just fifteen or twenty miles downriver from Lake Garda, where the poet Catullus grew up and periodically returned. Both poets hailed from the central eastern part of the Po Valley in the north of modern day Italy, about 250 miles north-northwest of Rome as the crow flies, residents of a province called Cisalpine Gaul, or Gaul on this side of the Alps.

Virgil references his homeland frequently in his writings, and while these references are printed in poetry and fiction, they can still probably tell us something about his upbringing there. In Book 10 of the Aeneid, Virgil writes that Mantua “has a wealth of ancestry, not all of one lineage. She comprises three clans, each composed of four communities. They all accept Mantua as their capital city; but it is from the Etruscan strain that she draws her strength” (Aen 10.201-3).3 In other words, Virgil describes Mantua as a diverse region with deep Etruscan roots, and Virgil’s surname, Maro, is probably Greek or Etruscan.4 I should add, with a smirk, that in all of our shows on Roman literature thus far, we have not yet met a writer from Rome. So Mantua was a cosmopolitan area, and the river Micio, just a few miles south of Virgil’s home turf, joins the Po, that massive superhighway after which the Po valley is named. Virgil describes it in one of the Georgics, “Whirling in frenzid vortices. . . [the] king of rivers / swamped the forests, and through all the downs / swept herds away from their stables.” (Geo 1.481-3).5 Similarly, in another Georgic, Virgil attests that “no other stream more violent flows / out over fertile farmland into the purple sea” (Geo 4.372-3).6 In Virgil’s time, just as in Catullus’ time before him, the Po dominated the commerce and culture of Cisalpine Gaul, connecting the inland regions of the valley and the watersheds of the Apennines and Alps with the Adriatic Sea to the east. If we trust the Eclogues, Mantua was a naturally beautiful area, as well – Virgil describes “dark green banks. . .lined / With canes. The bees come humming from the holy oak” (7.12-13).7

Meliboeus and Tityrus

A French renaissance illustration of two of Theocritus’ shepherds, Meliboeus and Tityrus.

Wool production was one of the staples of Cisalpine Gaul’s economy.8 As a boy, Virgil likely would have seen shepherds grazing their flocks, and leading the animals up into the foothills during warm months. This is an important detail to dwell on for a moment, because the Eclogues – the ten poems which Virgil first released in about 38 BCE and which we are going to look at in this program – the Eclogues are poems in which shepherds are the principal characters, and shepherds sing songs and play pipes together. The image of singing shepherds, whether you encounter it in Milton, or Marlowe, or Spenser, or Virgil himself, initially seems fanciful, or just plain silly. Herdsmen, we imagine, are too busy to be belting out ballads while they watch over their livestock. However, the ubiquitous trope of singing shepherds seems to have had some basis in fact.9 What scholar Peter Levi calls “The habit of alternate, impromptu song in the countryside” has been studied in Eastern Europe, and written records of pipe playing shepherds can be found almost seven hundred years before Virgil.10 In the Iliad, Homer describes “two shepherds. . .playing their hearts out on their pipes” (18.611-12) as one of the vignettes on Achilles’ shield, and from the archaic period onward, Greek poetry occasionally includes similar tableaus of singing herdsmen.11 It’s impossible to know what sort of culture of spontaneous singing and musicianship existed amidst Mediterranean herders – the syrinx, or pan pipes, are made of organic material likely to decompose if left out in the elements, but the picture that emerges from Virgil and studies of modern scholars of folk music alike is of herdsmen meeting, exchanging a few lines of improvised sung poetry or sharing instrumental or vocal songs, and then parting ways.

While, as we’ll see, Virgil eventually had an extremely robust literary and philosophical education, his first experiences with poetry may have been tramping around the riverside and marshes in the Po Valley with other little boys and listening to shepherds riffing verses to one another. The spontaneity and fun of such occasions, and the one upmanship inherent in shepherds’ contests might have taught Virgil as a boy that that poems could take many forms – sad, joyful, profound and perfunctory, that some poems were superior to others, and also that poetry was not the exclusive domain of the elites. This last lesson would have been stayed with Virgil throughout the remainder of his life, as he later fell in with the richest and most powerful people in Rome. Lowly shepherds might amuse well-off little boys catching frogs along the Po River. Virgil, in turn, through the exercise of a well-honed natural talent, later entertained Augustus himself.

Let’s remember that image of shepherds singing to one another in the forests and wetlands of the Po Valley, because we’re going to come back to it later, and move forward with Virgil’s biography a bit. Suetonius is vague about Virgil’s parentage, writing only that “His parents were of moderate condition; but by their industry acquired some territorial possessions, which descended to their son.”12 Virgil may have been an equestrian, or a lower aristocrat, and perhaps the best indicator of his family’s wealth is that his parents were able to send him to the provincial capital, Milan, and later, Naples, for his education. Whatever his family’s exact financial background, it is reasonable to assume that Virgil was neither born a commoner nor an aristocrat, but, like Cicero and Horace, somewhere in between.

Drawings for The Pastorals of Virgil, object 3 Unused Design Colinet and Thenot Stand Together Conversing, Their Sheep Behind but769 1 4 wd 300

William Blake’s illustration of a pair of Theocritus’ shepherds.

Around the time Virgil was 18, his father passed away and his mother remarried, having a son as product of her second marriage.13 This son, Virgil’s younger half brother, was the beneficiary of Virgil’s will when Virgil passed away. These are about the only details of Virgil’s early life that we possess.14 The contents of Virgil’s second book – the Georgics – suggest a familiarity with agriculture that may have come from his family’s involvement with the industry at some level, but the book’s details on raising crops, cattle, and bees, and cultivating orchards and vineyards might have been learned secondhand or from books. Whether he learned of these subjects from working fields or from some other source, key details of Virgil’s early life – singing shepherds, nature, the flora and fauna of provincial villages, and the seasonal rhythms that governed the lives of peasants and farmers all stayed with him throughout his career.

At some point when he was quite young, Virgil moved to Cremona, forty miles west of Mantua, and then Milan, fifty miles northwest from there. Around the age of seventeen, Virgil moved to Rome. It was 53 BCE. In the spring of that same year, the triumvir Crassus lost a war with Parthia in the east and died at the hands of enemy forces. Commoners on the streets of Rome would have been contrasting Crassus’ ignominious end with Julius Caesar’s continued victories up in Gaul – the last Gallic resistance was put down in 50 BCE, and within a couple weeks of New Year’s Day in 49 BCE, Caesar had crossed the Rubicon with his army and commenced what historians call Caesar’s Civil War.


The shadows of Augustus and other powerful Romans haunt the groves and streams of Virgil’s Eclogues.

Now, the events of Roman history during the 40s and 30s are well documented inside and outside of podcast land, and we’ve talked about some of this in prior episodes, but just to get the dates in our head before turning to Virgil’s 20s and 30s, let’s review the most important ones. Caesar defeated Pompey at the Battle of Pharsalus in August of 48 BCE. Following this remarkable underdog victory, Caesar sired a son with Cleopatra in Egypt before returning to Rome. There, after increasingly acting like a monarch, he was assassinated in March of 44. In November of 43, Octavian, Mark Antony, and Lepidus formed the Second Triumvirate. Cicero, for his invectives against Antony, was murdered within about a month. In October of 42, Virgil’s good friend Horace fled the army losing the Battle of Phillipi, and Brutus, Cassius, and those fighting in defense of the Republic were put down for good. The next decade saw Octavian and Mark Antony maneuvering against one another. The two attempted to consolidate relations by having Octavian’s sister Octavia marry Mark Antony – and Virgil’s most famous Eclogue concerns this wedding, which took place in the autumn of 40. The marriage was a failure, and nine years after it took place, in September of 31, Octavian beat Mark Antony at Actium. The next year, after suffering massive defections, Antony killed himself. Three years later, on January 16, 27 BCE, Octavian was given the titles Princeps, or “first,” and Augustus, or “majestic.” And by the way, following the old convention, I am calling the first emperor of Rome “Octavian” in this episode, since that was his name while Virgil was working on his first two books.

Virgil wrote most of the Aeneid once Augustus became Augustus, and the poem is in many ways about the reign of Augustus. But the Eclogues and Georgics were composed in the late 40s and 30s, when Augustus was Octavian, and so this is the period of history with which we need to concern ourselves today. Unlike Horace, Virgil seems to have never become involved with any political faction, and so a question remains for us to answer now. If Virgil arrived in Rome in 53, at the age of 17, and put the Eclogues into circulation in about 38, how did he spend the fifteen years of his life in between these two dates? Let’s talk about that. [music]

Virgil’s Education and Early Career

Virgil spent much of his academic and literary career around the Bay of Naples. Following an old literary tradition, in the Aeneid he situates the entrance to the underworld near the promontory to the west of Naples in this picture. Image by Norman Einstein.

As the Gallic Wars ended, and Caesar began his bid for absolute power, Virgil at some point wound up in Campania, to the south of Rome. In fact, ancient sources indicate that much of Virgil’s writing took place in this region, and in Naples and Sicily.15 His early twenties were thus spent in an area that had once been Magna Graecia, and, appropriately, they seem to have been dominated by Greek philosophy. Specifically, Virgil studied Epicureanism with a philosopher called Siro, and with another Epicurean called Philodemus. If you have an incredible memory, you might recall that back in Episode 45, we briefly talked about Philodemus, an Epicurean philosopher who was operating at the Villa of the Papyri, along with Lucretius, whose works Virgil likely read. The Villa of the Papyri was that majestic coastal estate, complete with a large library, in Herculaneum, which was covered in a pyroclastic flow in 79 CE and preserved for the next seventeen hundred years. Amidst the many, many treasures of the Villa of the Papyri, archaeologists found a piece of papyrus that lists Virgil’s name as the reader of one of Philodemus’ dialogues.16 Epicurus, Siro, Philodemus, Lucretius – there are a lot of names here, and you may not have caught that earlier program on Lucretius, who died a couple of years before young Virgil left Cisalpine Gaul to pursue his career in the south. So to put it simply, around 50 BCE, at about twenty years of age, Virgil fell in with a small group of influential Epicurean philosophers. From them, he would have learned the cardinal principles of Epicureanism – that the world was made of atoms, that there was no afterlife, that gods were unconcerned with humanity and made from the same materials as everything else, that excessive sensory indulgences were to be avoided, and that the pursuit of knowledge and tranquility amidst a group of friends was a safer route to happiness than a public career characterized by ambition and competition. Additionally, according to the fifth-century scholar Macrobius, Virgil mastered Greek with this circle, specifically, with a Greek writer named Parthenius, who wrote short love poetry and erotica.17

As Virgil progressed through his early twenties, he was not only learning philosophy and poetry from renowned intellectuals like Philodemus. He was also making connections. And connections with established writers and prosperous patrons was precisely how a young poet earned his bread. The ethics of Epicureanism, while not originally intended for the villas of the wealthy, were nonetheless extremely well suited to circles like Virgil’s. Legions of Romans were dying over the course of 48 BCE in Caesar’s civil war, and by the end of 42, the Senate and equestrian class had been gutted and robbed by the Second Triumvirate, not to mention a second round of mass casualties as Octavian and Antony slammed armies against one another and then against those of Cassius and Brutus. In the midst of this jumble of murder and conspiratorial politicking, Epicureanism, even if it didn’t protect a devotee from bloody purges or conscriptions, at least validated those who sought to care for their friends and families rather than to kill and die for a principle or a warlord. Virgil, like his friend Horace, was a writer, and not a fighter, and unlike Horace, Virgil never pretended to be otherwise.

Staying sequestered with a group of Greek intellectuals in the south, however, did not completely protect Virgil from the misfortunes that struck so many Romans in the 40s. Following the defeat of Cassius and Brutus in October of 42, the Second Triumvirate found themselves in possession of a high number of battle hardened veterans who had done their duty and wanted the land promised to them as Roman soldiers. Octavian knew that failing to settle veterans would cause insurrections in his existing legions, and so over the next year Octavian took an unusual and controversial measure that we discussed a couple of episodes ago. Octavian deported native Italians to other provinces, confiscated their lands, and gave these lands to his soldiers. His land grabs affected at least eighteen towns.18 Peasants and equestrians who had survived wars and purges, hunkering down in their ancestral orchards and vineyards, found that they weren’t safe after all. Entire towns disappeared. A groundswell of rage rose up against Octavian, who had secured his military’s loyalty at the expense of his credibility with commoners on the peninsula. It was an ugly end to a dreadful decade for Rome, and it very nearly cost Virgil his home, as well.

The poet would have been about 29 when these land grabs began taking place, and his family’s holdings around Mantua, whatever they were, had been targeted by Octavian. As we learned earlier, substantial evidence in Virgil’s poetry indicates his ties to his homeland. His personal income, if he had one, would have come at least in part from whatever agricultural activity his family practiced up in Cisalpine Gaul, and so the loss of his family property would have meant the end of his financial stability. This was what exactly happened to Horace, who ended up working as a scribe at the Roman treasury when Octavian stole his family’s lands in Venusia, in the south-central part of modern day Italy.

Gaius Asinius Pollio

Gaius Asinius Pollio (75-4 BCE), Virgil’s early patron, was an prolific champion of Roman literature and history throughout the late first century BCE. Photo by AndryiTophan.

Fortunately, Virgil had a patron who helped him out, and who accordingly gets generous praises in the Eclogues, as we’ll see in a moment. This patron was called Gaius Asinius Pollio. As a younger man, Pollio had been friends with Catullus. In 40 BCE, Pollio was consul, a post which helped him protect Virgil’s lands from seizure. Throughout the next thirty-five years, Pollio proved himself remarkably useful to Augustan age art and literature, helping to construct the first public library at Rome, fostering a culture of public readings of poetry, writing an ambitious work of history, and funding and encouraging the work of both Horace and Virgil.

In about 40 BCE, or the year before, Virgil began work on the Eclogues, again a set of ten poems in which herdsmen exchange stories and tell tales to one another. While this book contains explicit praises for Gaius Asinius Pollio throughout Eclogue 3 (3.84,86-9), and also 4 (4.11-15) and 8 (8.6-12), it’s most memorable praises go to Octavian – specifically Eclogue 1 and the most famous of the Eclogues, Eclogue 4, which prophesies the birth of Octavian’s nephew. We’ll save Eclogue 4 for the very end of this program, because it’s very important and unique in the collection. Anyway, over the course of the 30s and 20s, first through Asinius Pollio, and then through Augustus’ advisor Maecenas, and then through Augustus himself, Virgil enjoyed a series of patrons who brought him to the apex of Roman power. The exact story of how this happened has been lost, but that didn’t stop a fifteenth-century commentator from telling a gloriously ridiculous story about how Virgil won the favor of Augustus, out of which I want to read an excerpt for you now. The history of this story is just a little bit complicated – it appears in the pages of the fourth-century rhetorician Aelius Donatus. Now, Aelius Donatus was the one who wrote that Virgil’s mother dreamt of birthing a laurel branch and then tossed herself into a ditch in order to induce labor, and we do need to let Aelius Donatus off the hook a bit, because scholars think he coopted most of his Life of Virgil from a lost work of Suetonius. And additionally, again, the story you’re about to hear was added to Aelius Donatus’ biography a thousand years after Aelius Donatus lived. Anyway, let’s hear the story – in a free translation by the generous Professor David Scott Wilson-Okamura, available at virgil.org – the wacky and doubtless fictional tale of how Virgil met Augustus. Donatus writes that while Virgil was a young student at Milan,
There, although he labored earnestly at literature, Greek as well as Latin, he also gave himself to medicine and mathematics, with all zeal and diligence. Since [Virgil] was more learned and more skilled in these matters than others when he came to the city, he quickly met up with Augustus’ stable-master, curing the diseases, many and various, that had been consuming the horses. And the stable-master ordered that bread should be given to Virgil each day (like one of the stable-hands) as a reward. Meanwhile, the inhabitants of Crotona sent Caesar the foal of a horse of marvelous beauty, for a gift. In everyone’s judgement, the foal showed promise of strength and speed without measure. Yet when [Virgil] saw him, he told the stable-master that [the young horse] was born of a sickly mare, and that he would be capable of neither strength nor speed. And it was found that this was true. When he heard of this from the stable-master, Augustus ordered Virgil’s bread ration to be doubled as a reward. Again, when dogs were sent (along with their parents) to Augustus from Spain, Virgil said that there would be violence and derangement. When he found out, Augustus again ordered Virgil’s bread ration to be increased.19
Giusto di gand e pedro berruguete, virgilio

For a long time, Virgil was thought of as having had various sorts of magical powers. The portrait was painted by Justus van Gent in 1474.

So, according to Donatus, Virgil was essentially a horse whisperer, and then a dog whisperer, and through the exercise of his mystical abilities with animals, the emperor gave him larger and larger chunks of bread. It is just one of the strangest things I’ve ever heard – I imagine a similar tale of Charles Dickens healing donkeys and winning the favor of Prince Albert, or Jack London miraculously communicating with wolves and impressing Grover Cleveland. The Donatus biography is part of a long tradition in Christianity of associating Virgil with magical powers as a result of the supposedly prophetic Fourth Eclogue and more generally Virgil’s great erudition, and hopefully we’ll have a chance to talk about all the wacky apocryphal stories of Virgil’s supernatural powers.20 Anyway, we’re getting ahead of ourselves here.

What I’ve given you so far here has been a pretty standard introduction to Virgil’s biography, up to about 38 BCE, the year that he probably finished the Eclogues and put them into circulation. We learned about his boyhood up along the Po River in Cisalpine Gaul, how he came down to Rome around 53, began a course of studies with Epicureans and other Greek intellectuals, and in 41 or 40 nearly lost his family lands to Octavian. Now, it’s time to start talking about the Eclogues themselves, by far the most influential pastoral ever written, in Anglophone poetry alone having influenced such heavyweights as the Wakefield Master, Edmund Spenser, Philip Sidney, Christopher Marlowe, William Shakespeare, whose As You Like It is a sustained comedic meditation on the pastoral genre, Andrew Marvell, and John Milton, who, purposefully modeling his own career on that of Virgil, began with pastoral, writing Lycidas and Comus, and brought it to a summit with epic, writing Paradise Lost. It’s time to talk about pastoral poetry – what it is, where it came from, and why, at around the age 30, in an era of warfare and chaos, with a gargantuan literary and philosophical education, Virgil chose to write ten mid-length poems about lovelorn shepherds. [music]

Early Pastoral Poetry: The Basics

Pan pursuing Syrinx (1615)

Ovid tells the story of Pan pursuing a nymph called Syrinx, who was transformed into a bunch of reeds in order avoid his advances. Pan, improvising, elected to make the reed pipes his signature instrument. The painting is Hendrick van Balen’s Pan Pursuing Syrinx (1615).

Virgil is Rome’s epic poet, but he is Rome’s epic poet partly by the mechanics of what has survived and what hasn’t survived. He was not a lone ranger who invented the pastoral genre and then created the story of the Aeneid in his head. Roman epics already existed, chief among them the Annales of Quintus Ennius, written almost two hundred years before Virgil’s epic poem. And pastoral poetry existed, most importantly the Idylls of Theocritus, written around the middle of the third century BCE. The genres and stories that Virgil worked on were things that he and his generation inherited from earlier literature, adapted, modified, and perfected.

A couple of shows ago, we talked about Catullus, and a school of Roman literature that we often call neoteric poetry. The school includes writers whom Virgil knew or knew about whose works have been lost to history – Varro Atacinus, Quintus Cornificius, Furius Bibaculus, Valerius Cato, and Helvius Cinna. The neoterics had a couple of things in common. One of these was a general preference for highly polished short works, such as those Catullus had championed in the 60s and 50s. The other was an affection for a few Greek writers who had lived and worked in Alexandria during the 200s BCE, chief among them a difficult epigrammist and author of hymns, Callimachus, and more importantly for our immediate purposes, a Sicilian poet called Theocritus, a writer of singular importance to Virgil’s early career. Callimachus, Theocritus, and a few other Greco-Egyptian writers from the 200s formed the core of the neoteric curriculum for Rome two centuries later, and a string of mostly lost poets from Catullus up to the Augustan Age who preferred short, highly wrought works over epic sagas like the Iliad and Odyssey.


Theocritus, active around 270 BCE, was Virgil’s main inspiration for the Eclogues.

We talked a bit about Callimachus and Catullus a few episodes ago, but our subject today is Virgil’s Eclogues, and so we need to talk about Theocritus, whom, around the age of 30, Virgil was reading meticulously and imitating closely. Inconveniently, just as with Virgil himself, biographical facts about Theocritus are hard to pin down. Theocritus was probably from Sicily, and his poetry has close ties to Sicily and South Italy. His poetic career likely began in the 280s, and some of his poems are datable to the reign of Ptolemy II, that Greco-Egyptian ruler who was the main engine behind the Library of Alexandria, and who hired scholars like Apollonius of Rhodes and Callimachus to superintend this library, its acquisitions and its collection.21 In Alexandria in the mid-200s BCE, a renaissance was going on. Jews were translating the Hebrew Bible into the Greek Septuagint. At the Library, Apollonius was writing Jason and the Argonauts. Callimachus, with access to an unprecedented quantity of books, was pioneering a new and densely allusive literary style. And somewhere in town, the Sicilian pastoral poet Theocritus was writing a series of poems that we call the Idylls.

Let’s hear a section of one of the Idylls, just to begin getting an idea of what pastoral poetry sounded like in its original incarnation. This is an excerpt from Idyll 7, one of Theocritus’ most famous, translated by Anthony Verity and published by Oxford University Press in 2002. In this poem, a herdsman named Simichidas is the poem’s narrator, and he exchanges songs with another herdsman named Lycidas. Upon the completion of their songs, the two herdsmen stop at a beautiful farm. And Theocritus writes,
we sank down With pleasure on deep-piled couches of sweet rushes,
And vine leaves freshly stripped from the bush.
Above us was the constant quiet movement of elm
And poplar, and from the cave of the Nymphs nearby
The sacred water ran with a bubbling sound as it fell.
Soot-black cicadas chattered relentlessly on
Shady branches, and the muttering of tree-frogs
Rose far off from the impenetrable thorn bush.
Larks and finches were singing, the turtle-dove moaned,
And bees hummed and darted about the springs.
Everything smelt of the [fresh] harvest, smelt of the fruit-crop.
Apples and pears rolled all around us, enclosing
Our bodies with plenty; branches reached to the ground,
Bent with the weight of plums. (7.133-46)22
Siemiradzki Merry company

Pastoral literature has an inspired a disproportionate quantity of visual art, like this lovely painting by Henryk Siemiradzki called Merry Company by the Spring (c. 1885).

These are some of the closing lines of one of Theocritus’ most famous poems. The Greek poet often writes rich descriptions of the countryside just like this one, and two thousand years of leafy bowers, babbling brooks, singing birds and plump fruits followed him in pastoral poetry thereafter. The green hills and chirping crickets, the rustic love affairs and good natured singing contests, and moreover the overall atmosphere of timeless tranquility inspired scholar Richard Hunter to term pastoral “the world which epic forgot.”23 The shady woodlands of Theocritus are a far cry from the battle scarred fields of the Iliad and the perilous harbors of the Odyssey.24 And indeed, a common and simplified explanation for pastoral literature is that it is short escapist fiction for the denizens of crowded cities who want to imagine a world beyond the soot, grime, and complexities of urban life.

If we want to get beyond a surface definition of pastoral poetry, however, we need to consider some of its other dimensions. There are two that I want to introduce upfront – the first being the denseness and difficulty of pastoral poetry, and the second being the genre’s frequent and surprising bleakness. Let’s talk about its difficulty first. A moment ago, we looked at the end of Theocritus’ seventh Idyll – a lovely and rather simple description of how two poets sat down in the murmuring woodlands around a farm, listened to birds, and watched the slow movement of elms and poplars. That was the end of Theocritus’ seventh Idyll – now, let’s hear the beginning, again in the Oxford Anthony Verity translation. Idyll seven begins with these lines:
There was a time when Eucritus and I were walking
From town to Haleis, and Amyntas came as well.
Phrasidamus and Antigenes were offering first-fruits
To Demeter. They were Lycopeus’ sons – noble stock,
Reaching back to Clytia and Chalcon himself,
The one who braced his knee at the rock and caused
The spring Burina to well up under his foot. (7.1-7)25
In seven lines, there, we have ten proper nouns: Eucritus, Haleis, Amyntas, Phrasidamus, Antigenes, Demeter, Lycopeus, Clytia, Chalcon, and Burina. Now, of course, you know what all these proper nouns are referencing, don’t you? Common knowledge, right? No, of course not. Eucritus, Amyntus, Phrasidamus, and Antigenes are generic herdsmen’s names, although to the nonspecialist this isn’t at all clear. Haleis is a village near the main town on the island of Cos in the southeastern Aegean, on which this Idyll is set. Clytia is the daughter of a hero called Merops, an archaic champion of the citizens of the island of Cos, and Chalcon, also referenced, is Merops’ grandson. Burina was a small settlement near the main town on Cos where villagers could collect fresh water from a natural spring. Navigating this boggling nest of unfamiliar proper nouns, the outsider is grateful, at least, that the name of Demeter, Greek goddess of the harvest, is somewhat familiar. But in any case, without clear scholarly notes, long strings of lines in Theocritus are not comprehensible to the modern reader.

An almost abusive difficulty is, surprisingly, a widespread feature in pastoral poetry. In the 1798 Preface to Lyrical Ballads, resenting, somewhat, the density of pastoral poetry, William Wordsworth described his own work as “a man speaking to men” using “language closely resembling that of real life.”27 The Idylls of Theocritus, and the Eclogues of Virgil are not written in the language of men speaking to men. They are written in the language of poets speaking to poets, using an intricate cobweb of mythological, geographical, and literary allusions to do so. Pastoral poems, then, are not realistic tales about life in the country. They are painstakingly wrought dioramas in which shepherds and shepherdesses are the figurines, in which poets pervasively seem more interested in contextualizing themselves within a challenging poetic tradition than actually talking about rural life. Pastoral poetry, in the eras of Theocritus and then Virgil, may have served as a diversion to urban readers. But it was most certainly a diversion for poets themselves, who, during turbulent periods of history, could exercise sovereignty over the small and lapidary worlds of their poems.

This is the first thing that I think you need to know about pastoral poetry – that while a precursory definition of the genre might be that it’s escapist poetry for the wistful urbanite, and while some pastoral poems are indeed amusing yarns about hills, dales, and hoofed mammals, much of pastoral poetry is extremely difficult. The second thing to know about pastoral poetry is that from its inception, it never discussed rural life as altogether peaceful and positive.

Anderson Sophie Shepherd Piper 1881

Loneliness and heartache seem to be the predestined fate for many figures in early pastoral literature. The painting is Sophie Gengembre Anderson’s Shepherd Piper (1881).

Now, this gets a little complicated, but once I explain it to you, I think you’ll understand it and remember it quite easily. In any era, urban people can indulge in idealized visions of herdsmen and milkmaids and idyllic little villages, and they can simultaneously understand that rural life can be laborious, difficult, and vulnerable to bad seasons, marauding armies, overzealous taxmen, plagues, crop blights, and various other destabilizing factors. Cities might have their traffic and stench, but far flung backwaters can be muddy, fly bitten, impoverished, and plagued by foul weather. In Virgil’s Eclogues, particularly in the first of them, there are occasional hints that life in the countryside isn’t just a bunch of lounging in daffodils and playing sweet love songs. But – and this is where it’s just a bit more complicated – the earliest pastoral poetry is much more interested in a different sort of darkness that hung over rural life.

Most of the shadows in Virgil’s Eclogues and Theocritus’ Idylls come from stories about broken hearts and unrequited desires. To Virgil, the shepherd dwelling in an isolated hamlet was stranded in a place that left him little to think of other than his intense passions, and if these passions were unreciprocated, he might descend into an anger and bitterness unchecked by the sort of everyday social intercourse available to residents of cities and towns. To Virgil, then, rural life could be bleak because of its instability – he knew this from Octavian’s seizure of his family estate in Mantua in 41 or 40. But more than land seizures or plagues or crop failures, what makes Virgil’s Eclogues frequently gloomy is that the poems feature a number of rural people dwelling, almost pathologically, on painful failures in love. Let’s look at an example, this time in Virgil.

The title of this episode, Episode 52, is “White Flowers Die,” and it’s a line from Virgil’s second Eclogue. In this poem, the speaker, Corydon, is in love with a boy named Alexis, who has scorned him for someone else. Corydon warns Alexis, “[F]airest boy, don’t count on that fine face too much. / Dark hyacinths get plucked; white flowers die untouched” (2.17-18). And a moment later, Corydon expands on his obsession with the boy. This is the Len Krisak translation, published by the University of Pennsylvania Press in 2010.
So foolishly, [Corydon says,] I’ve wished for. . .what? I’ve loosed the blight Of [the south wind] on my flowers; boars defile my springs. Demented man, whom are you running from? The gods Once lived in the woods. . .the woods are right For me. The savage lioness goes hunting, springs Upon the wolf, the wolf the goat, the goat on buds Of clover, Corydon, like them, pursues Alexis. So each is drawn by his desire. But look: yoked bulls Pull back the dangling plough as sunset grows the shadows. And still I burn with love (yet what can limit love?). O Corydon, O Corydon! What is this madness? (2.58-61, 62-9)28
Now, this is a totally different passionate shepherd than that of Christopher Marlowe – a shepherd broken down by an amatory obsession who compares his lust to the hunger of animals. Love, in this poem, is not a joyful experience, it is an awful compulsion, or, in Corydon’s words, “madness.” And from end to end of Virgil’s Eclogues, one line is most famous: omnia vincit Amor: et nos cedamus Amori, or “Love conquers all. Let Love then smile at our defeat” (10.69). Search the phrase online and you see tattoos and kitschy wall hangings, a concise testament to the specious simplicity of the poetic line. In context, though, as we’ll later see, omnia vincit Amor is not at all an unqualified praise of the power of love – it is instead a gloomy and ambivalent meditation on love’s power, for good or for ill, to annihilate human reason. As an Epicurean, Virgil believed in moderatism, and tempering one’s passions, and this meant abstaining from reckless love affairs, lest one be conquered by them.

Alright, that was a lot to throw your way all at once, so let’s recap on what we’ve learned about pastoral poetry so far. We learned that Virgil’s interest in the genre was part of a general first century BCE Roman enthusiasm for Greek writers who had worked in Alexandria, in Ptolemaic Egypt, two hundred years earlier. The general thrust of this broader movement was a desire to write short, carefully crafted poems that were thick with allusions. The poet who interested Virgil the most around the age of 30 was Theocritus, often described as the founder of pastoral poetry, a Greek writer originally from Sicily, active in the middle 200s BCE. Looking at some short excerpts from Theocritus and Virgil, we learned that pastoral poetry does indeed extol the beauty and simplicity of rural life. But we also learned that pastoral poetry is often extremely demanding on the reader, interlaced as it often is with allusions to myths and esoteric locations, local deities and complex language. Finally, we talked about how under the pens of Theocritus and Virgil, pastoral poetry can be surprisingly gloomy, meditating as it does on the uncontrollable passions of isolated shepherds and cowherds.

Now that we’ve talked a bit about Virgil’s early life, and his membership in the literary and philosophical circles of Rome and Campania, and also had a general introduction to early pastoral poetry as a genre, let’s spend a bit of time discussing Theocritus in more detail. We never did a program on him, because I knew I’d cover him in this show, and I think it’s worth spending a few minutes talking about Theocritus, and the works that he wrote. [music]

A Quick Overview of Theocritus’ Idylls

Jean-François Millet Pastora

The loneliness and gloom of the central figure in Jean-François Millet’s The Shepherdess (c. 1863), though far out of step with seventeenth- and eighteenth-century baroque and rococo pastoral paintings, is to me far close to Theocritus and Virgil than many earlier pastoral artworks. But then, my specialty is 19th-century realism.

Theocritus called his collection of poems Boukolika, or “ox-herding poems.”29 This is a bit different than the term “pastoral poems.” In Latin, the word for shepherd is pastor, the same word Christian churches use for the person up at the pulpit, and the root of our word for poetry about shepherds and country life. Whether we’re talking about Theocritus’ bucolics, or Marlowe’s “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love” almost 2,000 years later, Theocritus is the first poet whose works survive from a major literary movement concerning commoners trekking around rural areas with groups of animals.30

Theocritus was likely from Syracuse, then as now on the southeast end of Sicily. Modern scholarship puts him in Alexandria in the late 280s, which means that he ducked out of the central Mediterranean just before the Pyrrhic War made Sicily and Syracuse itself into a war zone.31 References to acquaintances and locations in Theocritus’ poems suggest that by the time he wrote them he was a widely travelled citizen of the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean. And while Athens dominates what survives in Greek literature from the 400s and 300s, scholar Richard Hunter writes that “the poetry of Theocritus will suggest a whole world of poetic and personal relations stretching from Syracuse to the coast of Asia Minor.”32

During the life of Theocritus, something remarkably important was happening to literature in the Mediterranean basin. In a word, there was a slow separation between poets and singers taking place.33 In Sappho’s day – in, say, 600 BCE – a poet song her works over musical accompaniments. By the lifetimes of Virgil and Horace, this tradition was changing. Virgil and Horace’s patron Asinius Pollio, whom we talked about earlier, was, according to one source the first Roman to recite poetry publicly for an audience.34 Theocritus, again in the mid-200s, marks the midpoint in this change from singing poets to poets performing unaccompanied recitations, or even not performing at all, as Horace admits of himself in one of his Satires (1.4.20-4). Classicist Richard Hunter explains that increasingly from the period of Theocritus onward,
In particular, a marked density of intertextual allusion, the literary process by which meaning is created through various forms of allusion to other texts, is normally thought only possible in a written literature. . .[And Hunter also observes that] [F]orms of allusion which depend upon close verbal reference to small passages of earlier texts intensify with the spread of reading as a principal mode of reception. This is most obvious, of course, in texts which have a single principal model to which readers are constantly referred: Virgil’s use of Theocritus in the Eclogues and Apollonius’ use of Homer are obvious examples. (xi, xii)
Papyrus Oxyrhynchus 694 - Princeton University Library, AM 4424 - Theocritus, Idyll XIII (Hylas and the Nymphs)

Papyrus Oxyrhynchus 694, featuring part of Theocritus’ eighth Idyll and dated to the second century CE. In Theocritus’ lifetime, and even moreso in Virgil, full manuscripts were becoming increasingly available to aspiring writers.

Theocritus himself is spangled with close adaptations and allusions. Idylls 2 and 11 model episodes from the Odyssey. Idyll 26 uses Euripides’ Bacchae. Idyll 24 uses Pindaric poems to deliver the story of Heracles. Idylls 13 and 22 show familiarity with key episodes in Apollonius’ Jason and the Argonauts, indicating Theocritus’ familiarity with the poetry emerging around him in the mid-200s BCE. But maybe more memorable than anything is the way that a single poem by Sappho weaves through the works of a number of poets whom we’ve covered, who wrote during and after the third century. The poem in question is Sappho 31. This is that incredibly beautiful poem that begins with “To me he seems like a god / as he sits facing you and / hears you near as you speak / softly and laugh,” and then goes on to talk about the physical symptoms of love and desire – a quickened heartbeat, an inability to speak, the feeling of fire over one’s skin, sweat and pounding ears.35 Theocritus reproduces some of this poem in his second Idyll (2.106-10). Catullus translates it in his 51st poem. Horace does the same in his first book of Odes (1.13). While archaic Greek poetry had its allusions, the extent to which poetry after Theocritus became increasingly, heavily self-referential suggests that a culture of manuscripts was supplementing an older culture of poetic performance, and in some ways supplanting it. The ultimate emblem of this new culture was the Library of Alexandria, where Apollonius and Callimachus worked, and where Theocritus must have often visited as a writer operating in the city during the reign of Ptolemy II.

Now that we’ve talked about the roots of the terms bucolic and pastoral poetry, and how this poetry is the product of a growing manuscript culture, let’s look at a couple of Theocritus’ most famous Idylls, beginning with his first.

Theocritus’ first Idyll is narrated by a character called Thyrsis, and the poem centers on a mythical herdsman called Daphnis. Daphnis was the ultimate pastoral character – the first ox herder, so the story goes, to sing, and an unparalleled singer at that. Daphnis was from Sicily, and a very possessive nymph fell in love with him, telling him that if Daphnis slept with anyone else, Daphnis would lose his sight.36 In Theocritus’ version of events, the singer Thyrsis tells of how Daphnis resisted the nymph’s advances, ultimately at the cost of his life.

The narrator Thyrsis tells of how Daphnis chose to resist those who sought to take him to bed, even insulting Aphrodite herself, who mocked him for trying to defy the conquering influence of love. Daphnis ultimately chose death, rather than yielding to the nymph, and as all around him animals cried out in protest, Daphnis said, in the Verity translation,
Now, you thorns and brambles, bring forth violets, and Let the lovely narcissus flower on the juniper. Let All things run contrary, since Daphnis is near to death. Let the pine tree sprout pears, let hounds be town by stags, Let nightingales cry out to owls at the day’s dawn. (1.132-6)

Arnold Böcklin’s The Complaint of the Shepherd (1866) shows Daphnis bemoaning his fate.

Following this grim speech about the world turning topsy turvy, Daphnis met a cryptic end, either taking his life in a river, or crossing the River Styx to begin his tenure in Hades. Unwilling to succumb to the force of love, Daphnis died, and in doing so became the most famous figure in early pastoral poetry, and a sort of mythical founding father of the genre. An innocent country poet, fallen victim to the fires of passion, Theocritus’ Daphnis shows up again and again in pastoral poetry. Virgil’s fifth Eclogue is about Daphnis. In his elegy Lycidas (50-5), John Milton borrows phrasing from Theocritus’ poem about Daphnis (1.66-9). For whatever reason, generations of poets were touched by the story of this victim of love, and from Daphnis a long lineage of lovelorn and tragic rural figures emerges, most of them poets themselves.

So that’s Theocritus’ first Idyll. There are thirty of them, although a number are thought to be apocryphal (8-9, 19-21, 25, 27), and before we move on to Virgil we should briefly talk about the most famous of them. Idyll 7, for various reasons, may be Theocritus’ most famous of all. We quoted from it earlier, and it’s about a plucky poet named Simichidas who challenges a master poet named Lycidas to a contest of song. Lycidas goes first, singing a song about his love for a man named Ageanax, lamenting that “hot desire for him burns me up” (7.57). Simichidas’ song, on the other hand, is about the passion of his friend, who is in love with a boy, and Simichidas prays to the god Pan, “Wound [the boy], I pray you, / [the] Desirable [youth] with your arrows. Wound him, / Since he, cruel boy, can find no pity for my friend” (7.117-19). Following these characteristic herdsmen’s songs about frustrated love affairs, the brash Simichidas and the more experienced Lycidas decide their contest is over, and Lycidas gives Simichidas his staff. The character Simichidas has often been associated with Theocritus himself, and the fact that Simichidas receives a poet’s staff at the Idyll’s end is thought to be an allusion to the moment when Hesiod is given a staff by the muses in Hesiod’s Theogony.

One of the more curious subjects of early pastoral poetry is the Cyclops Polymephus, the gigantic monster who nearly does Odysseus in Book 9 of the Odyssey. Theocritus and Virgil both imagine the Cyclops while young, building parallel origin stories of how the monster once passionately loved a sea nymph named Galatea who did not love him back. This Galatea, by the way, is not to be confused with the Galatea from the story of Pygmalion and Galatea – Theocritus and Virgil’s Galatea is just a Sicilian sea nymph, loved by a one-eyed Casanova who would later eat many of Odysseus’ crew members.

Fresco Polyphemus Galatea MAN Naples 27687

The cyclops Polyphemus makes out with Galatea in this wall painting from Pompeii in the House of the Ancient Hunt.

To continue staying with Theocritus for just a moment longer, Theocritus’ Cyclops comes up in two different Idylls. In Idyll 6, the format is the same as in Idyll 7. Pair of herdsman. Singing contest. The first herdsman addresses lines to the Cyclops, as though he is there, saying that the Cyclops’ lover Galatea is toying with him. “[S]he flees,” warns the first singer, “if a lover pursues her, and pursues him / If he fees” (6.17-19). And then the second lover takes up the perspective of the Cyclops, resolving that if this is the case, he’ll lie to her and tell her he’s already married, and then slam the door in her face. Content that Galatea will fall victim to his scheme of reverse psychology, the second singer imagines the Cyclops thinking that he’s not so bad looking, after all – he has great teeth and the eye that he does possess is nice looking. With this exchange closed, the two shepherd singers of Idyll 6 call it a draw. It’s an endearing and fun poem. It ends with the Cyclops feeling a renewed sense of self confidence, rather than desolation and despair, and I wanted to present it to you to show you that while early pastoral poetry certainly has a lot of darkness in it, it also has a lot of joy and zest for life.

The Cyclops shows up again in Theocritus, in Idyll 11, which the Oxford edition calls “The Cyclops’ Serenade.” The poem was widely circulated in antiquity, and its Cyclops is also trying to work through his heartbreak. The poem is addressed to a doctor, telling this doctor that “there is no remedy for love, no liniment, / As I believe, nor any balm, except the muses” (11.1-2). In other words, poetry is the best cure for heartbreak. Now, the Cyclops of Idyll 11 is dreadfully distraught. Just listen to these lines, again the Oxford Anthony Verity translation.
He loved, not with apples, roses, curls of hair,
But in an outright frenzy. For him, nothing else existed.
Often his flocks would come of their own accord
Back from green pastures to the fold, while he, alone
On the weed-strewn shore, would sing of Galatea from
Break of day, wasting away with love. (11.10-15)
Yet the Cyclops does more than waste away. Most of the poem is a long, beautiful speech by the creature in which the Cyclops meditates on his feelings, slowly talks himself back into feeling self confident, and then addresses himself directly.
O Cyclops, O Cyclops, where have your wits flown away?
Show some sense, go and weave some baskets, collect
Green shoots for your lambs. Milk the ewe
At hand; why chase the one who runs away? Maybe
You’ll find another Galatea, and a prettier one too.
I’m invited out for night-time play by lots of girls. . .
On land I too am clearly a man of some consequence. (11.72-9)
The piece is a dramatic monologue, revealing, ultimately, that although he is very hurt, the Cyclops is probably going to be fine, and in a brief concluding line, Theocritus writes that “So by singing the Cyclops shepherded his love” (10.80). Theocritus’ Cyclops thus sings his song and gets his love under control, forming a sharp contrast to the bitterness and jealous anger of Simichidas and Lycidas in Idyll 7, and the outright death of Daphnis in Idyll 1.

So that’s a quick introduction to the contents and the range of Theocritus’ Idylls, written in Greek in Alexandria some time in the decades around 270 BCE. We could talk about more of his poems, but I’m afraid that we might get lost in a blur of imaginary herdsmen’s names, and besides, it’s past time to get to Virgil’s Eclogues. Virgil read all four of the poems we’ve just discussed. He not only knew Theocritus – it’s possible that he knew Theocritus better than we do, today. So now that we know about Virgil’s first thirty years of life, and have a reasonably nuanced idea of what pastoral literature was in antiquity, and have also talked a little about Theocritus’ most famous poems, I think we’re more than ready to delve into Virgil’s Eclogues, put into circulation around 38 BCE, and having been in circulation ever since.

Tranquility and Torment in the Eclogues

The Pastorals of Virgil, related materials, object 5 woodblock bb504 bm-woodengraving 5 300

William Blake’s illustrations to Virgil’s pastoral work are characteristically spot on. Here, a distraught figure faces an older and more tranquil one while the sun rises radiantly in the background, capturing the many tones and dimensions of the Eclogues

When you move from Theocritus’ Idylls to Virgil’s Eclogues, it’s hard not to notice some similarities. Virgil borrows names from Theocritus.37 The plot of Virgil’s second Eclogue is largely adapted from that of Theocritus’ eleventh Idyll – the “Cyclops’ Serenade” that we just read. In his sixth Eclogue, Virgil describes his style as “verse from Syracuse” (6.2), describing the hexameter structure and the style of the pastoral poetry that he’s adapted from Theocritus. There are, in brief, many explicit parallels between the Eclogues and the Idylls, and Virgil makes no secret of his borrowings.

Rather than going through Virgil’s ten Eclogues one at a time, I’d like to move through them thematically to give you a general introduction to their contents, taking some quotes from the Len Krisak translation, again published by the University of Pennsylvania Press in 2010. To begin, let’s look at some passages that we might think of as conventionally pastoral. The Eclogues have their fair share of gloom and subtle political commentary, but they also show an author fond of writing descriptions of the beautiful countryside. A contrast between Rome and the countryside is set up immediately in the first Eclogue. A speaker observes that Rome is “nothing like our home, / This place where we would wean the little newborn lambs” (1.20-1). One of the poem’s speakers, talking to his old neighbor about this neighbor’s secure tenure on his land, says,
Old man, you’re lucky. Here, amid familiar brooks
And sacred springs, you’ll search out cool, refreshing shade.
And near your neighbor’s boundary, as it always did,
The hedge that keeps the bees. . .willow-fed
Will often lull you to sleep with soft [murmuring].
Below the bluff, a pruner tunes the air with airs,
While all along, the doves who are your special care
Coo with the moaning doves in immemorial elms. (1.51-8)
And later, after a long conversation, the old man tells his fellow conversant,
Well, here’s a place to sleep. Come join me; take your rest
On still-green grasses for a bed. I have soft chestnuts,
Ripe apples, and a good supply of cheese just pressed.
Already, smoke curls from the highest chimney top,
As from the mountain summits, longer shadows drop. (1.79-83)
And late in the collection, in Eclogue seven, the countryside is still being sung of in idealized and glowing terms. A shepherd poet looks around his flock and grazing lands and says,
You mossy springs, and grasses softer still than sleep,
And green arbutus [tree] roofing you with little shade,
Protect my flock from high-noon sun, for summer comes
A-scorching in; now jewels bud on limbs like jade. (7.45-9)
. . .Here junipers are standing, and the fuzzy chestnuts
That carpet everything with buckeyes underneath them. The world is all in smiles. (7.53-5)
These passages show, I think, what many of us imagine when we think of pastoral. They communicate a sense of timeless loveliness, safety, comfort, and plentitude. Rome, or any city of any era, might be overwhelming in its complexities and stifling in its atmosphere, but the countryside is safe and leafy and simple.

Only, from start to finish, the Eclogues don’t at all communicate a uniformly positive image of rural life. A shepherd in the fifth Eclogue, reflecting on the harvest season, laments that “Too often, furrows sown with good big barely / Have raised up sterile stalks of oats and wretched darnel. / We look for silken violet and blush[ing] narcissus, / But get the spiked and bristling thorn and growing thistle” (5.34-9). Another speaker in the first Eclogue, in a period of blight and catastrophe for his herd, nearly loses them all.
The land [, he observes,] is crying havoc, and I’m sick at heart, for driving
My goats just now, I couldn’t budge this nanny caught
In hazel thickets, struggling as twins were arriving.
She dropped the future of the flock on naked flint! (1.11-15)
This image of baby lambs dropped onto stones at birth – of younglings vulnerable to the vicissitudes of country life, comes up again and again in the Eclogues. Elsewhere, a shepherd in the third Eclogue warns, “Children who search the ground for berries and lilies, / Run! Run away! Low in the grass, a cool snake hides” (3.93). And the vulnerability of rural youth to chance, age, and death comes across especially clear in the lines after which this episode gets its title. “[F]airest boy,” says a scorned lover in Eclogue 2, “don’t count on that fine face too much. / Dark hyacinths get plucked; white flowers die untouched” (2.17-18).

So, if you look at Virgil’s depiction of rural life as a whole in the Eclogues, you receive a wide gamut of impressions. On one hand, the countryside is an objectively beautiful place that, in fair weather, is indeed idyllic. On the other, the countryside is a pitiless, even dangerous place where innocent youths die unloved and harvests fail.


Even on the level of his allusions to other works, Virgil carefully brings a compelling darkness into the Eclogues, as when he hints at the story of Philomela in Eclogue 6. The painting is William-Adolphe Bouguereau’s Philomela (1861).

As I said before, more than crop failures and snakebites, the paramount source of sadness and hurt in the Eclogues is heartache and obsession. These themes are introduced early on. The first Eclogue features a speaker who regrets that when he fell in love, “liberty / was hopeless, and I couldn’t save a blessed thing / Despite the untold victims sold from my sheepfold. . .What could I do, indentured in my weightless chains” (1.31-3,40). A shepherd in the second Eclogue thinks of the object of his desires and says, “Some day, you’ll be the death of me” (2.7), and later, brooding on his obsession, asks himself “What is this madness?” (2.69). The third Eclogue, following the pattern of the first two, imagines a blighted love affair causing a sickness in a shepherd’s herd (3.98-101). The eighth Eclogue’s two singers are both heartbroken, the first crying that after “a frenzied madness bore me off. . .[I was] deceived in faithless love by. .my / Betrothed” (8.41,19). This poem’s second speaker is also woebegone, cursing his indifferent lover and hoping that this lover will be left stricken and alone. I realize that this mass of details is difficult to soak up in podcast form, so let me summarize. From the first to the last, a recurring element in Virgil’s Eclogues is a surprising prevalence of emotionally shattered lovers. Even on the level of the allusions in the Eclogues, Virgil chose to reference many Greco-Roman myths in which love leads to death and disaster. Eclogue 6 alone references Heracles’ abandoned lover Hylas, how King Minos’ wife Pasiphae developed a perverse lust for a bull, how Atlanta was deceived into marriage in a footrace, and how Philomela was raped and then had her tongue cut out, after which her she and her sister murdered the killer’s son and served him to his father (6.31-79). These are not, obviously, whimsical tales of country courtships. As classicist Gregson Davis puts it in the Oxford edition from which I’ve been quoting,
In blatant contradistinction to a world of utopian fantasy and escapist bliss, the world of the Eclogues is permeated through and through with portrayals of human infelicity, catastrophic loss, and emotional turbulence. The defining tenor of these poetic sketches is a profound anxiety about the human capacity to cope with misfortune. A cursory review of the dominant themes of the ten poems in the cycle makes it ineluctably clear that Virgil’s primary concern is with the world of human misery rather than with frivolous escapist constructions of an alternative universe purified of anguish and angst.38
So, while I don’t think Theocritus’ Idylls are a through-and-through bucolic fantasy world, Virgil’s Eclogues are even less so.

Okay, well, we’ve covered a lot of ground in this show so far, but we still have two fairly substantial things to do. The first is to take a guess at the history that lies behind Virgil’s Eclogues. And the second will be to spend some time with Eclogue 4, which is one of the most famous poems in Latin literature, and which I’ve pretty much ignored so far. So to start steering things toward the end of the show, let’s talk about Virgil’s Eclogues and the historical events of the early 30s BCE, and why, as he himself turned thirty, and thirty-one, and thirty-two, he wrote these poems.

The History Behind the Eclogues

RobertDuncanson-Valley Pasture 1857

The landscapes of the Eclogues, while beautiful, are threatened by soldiers and military commanders. Virgil, who’d almost lost his family lands in 41-40 BCE, understood the powerlessness of rural classes without political connections. The painting is Robert S. Duncanson’s Valley Pasture (1857).

There is a fairly esoteric word I really like – a noun, and that noun is “chiaroscuro.” You may well know the word, but it means the treatment of shade and light in visual art – the play of shadows over objects or a landscape as light falls unevenly over them. You might see a chiaroscuro of light and shade beneath a leafy tree in the woods, for instance, or a Caravaggio painting – anything in which there are extremes of brightness and darkness. Virgil’s Eclogues are full of chiaroscuro, one moment glimmering with daylight and birdsong and the next plunging into madness and despair.

When you read the Eclogues, you wonder what biographical factors inspired this duality, and I think Eclogue 1 provides the best clues, a poem that contains a memorable swirl of contentment and desperation. The poem, and the whole collection, begins with a mystery. A young man asks an old man how the old man is able to stay in the countryside. The young man, after all, has to leave. The young man’s name is Meliboeus, and the old man’s name is Tityrus. “The land,” says young Meliboeus, “Is crying havoc” (1.11-12). Specifically, Meliboeus is losing his home, and moving somewhere far off – perhaps Africa, or Scythia north of the Black Sea, or the island of Crete, or even far off Britain – young Meliboeus doesn’t know. And then, looking around him, young Meliboeus voices these important lines:
Long years from now, when I recall my native land —
My poor man’s roof piled thick with sod—what will I see?
The realm I called my own when it was eared with wheat?
Will some ungodly soldier claim these plowed-up furrows,
Some foreigner these crops? You see where civil war
Has led? These are the sorts of men we planted for.
Go, Meliboeus. Plant your pear trees; set your vines.
My flock once blessed with luck, come on.
Come, little ones. I’ll never lie at length again in some green dell. (1.67-75)
When you read these lines, it’s difficult not to think of Octavian’s land grabs in 40 BCE – those property confiscations for the sake of settling soldiers that we talked about earlier. Virgil’s family property up in Mantua was nearly stolen, and Virgil found himself in the position of poor young Meliboeus, who was losing his own lands to “ungodly soldier[s]” and “civil war.” Revealing all of this, young Meliboeus asks old Tityrus how the old man has been able to keep his land. And this, I think, is where the chiaroscuro comes in.

Tityrus replies, that “one who’s like a god to me / Gave me this peace. His altar stone will always be / Bloodstained from spring lambs” (1.6-8). This mysterious figure, according to old Tityrus, gets his sacrifices because he treated Tityrus kindly. Tityrus remembers his benefactor as a young man, “the first / Who listened to my prayer and spoke: ‘My children, graze / Your cattle as you used to – bulls to breed and raise’” (1.43-5). This mysterious benefactor protected old Tityrus from whatever is affecting young Meliboeus, and at the end of the poem, the old man offers the young man shelter for the night, as well as food.

The poem – again the first Eclogue – has both deep shade and blinding light – a forlorn young man who has lost his home and a grateful old man who, through a divine miracle, has been able to keep his home. During the land grabs of the late 40s, Virgil found himself in both of these plights – almost losing his home due to forced veteran settlements in the wake of the civil wars, but due to his patron and perhaps Octavian himself, being allowed to keep it. And the mysterious young man whom the old shepherd describes as “like a god” is usually interpreted as Octavian, the figure at the top of the food chain who ultimately supported Virgil’s claim to his boyhood lands up in Cisalpine Gaul.

Eclogue 1, if you know the bare facts of Virgil’s biography that are available to us, seems to be a compressed record of Virgil’s emotional experiences around the age of 30 – the despair and resentment and fury at losing his home, and the unexpected deliverance at the hands of Roman leadership. While his praises to Octavian couldn’t be any loftier, and other Eclogues express gratitude to his patron Asinius Pollio, the Eclogues nonetheless occasionally drip with antipathy toward the military marauders who stole thousands of ancestral estates during the opening years of the Second Triumvirate. A speaker in the ninth Eclogue mourns that,
[T]o come to this!—a day we never
Conceived could come. A soldier-stranger owns our farm now,
And says, “It’s mine; so clear out, all you ancient tenants.”
Defeated (all men suffer Fortune’s cruel reverses),
We’re bringing him these goats — to be a flock of curses! (9.2-6)
These verses express crystal clear hatred to what Octavian is doing in the countryside. And the tenth and final Eclogue contains similar lines, contrasting the joyous simplicity of the republic with the period ushered in by Octavian and those like him. The speaker of Eclogue 10, in some incredibly gorgeous lines, recalls a time when,
[The girls] would gather garlands, or [they would] sing.
. . .[H]ere are gentle fields, here cold, clear springs.
Woodlands lie here; here only Time would slowly take us.
Now madness in the arms of Mars has gone and placed us
Amid his weapons and the drawn-up enemy. (10.33-45)
I think the Len Krisak translation there really captures the chiaroscuro of the Eclogues – those contrasts between light and darkness – those mentions of timeless rural tranquility back to back with a sense of helplessness under the fists of warlords and autocrats, not to mention heartbreak wrought by unrequited love.

Considering the period in which the Eclogues were written, and moreover the authorial experiences behind them, I think it’s easier to understand the contrasts and tonal diversity in the collection. Virgil was still young, and at the top of his game, and at the beginning of his career. He had found rich, powerful patrons, and through the exercise of their special favors had been exempted from the robberies and forced exiles that had plagued so many others in Cisalpine Gaul and elsewhere. But at the same time – and I’m speculating here – at the same time, Virgil was newly, and suddenly, and painfully aware of his powerlessness under the Second Triumvirate. Beyond the provincial world of his childhood, and beyond the close knit epicurean circles of his twenties, there were Octavians and Mark Antonys ready to kill anyone who stood in their way, and the shadows of these figures move on the periphery of the Eclogues, like wolves around flocks of sheep. Italy and the world beyond it were changing. A would-be king had fallen before and more aspiring autocrats had risen up to take his place. And so if the Idylls are brooding as well as tranquil – if they use timeless landscapes but talk about contemporary history – if they return again and again to the theme of madness and anguish within human relationships, we have to remember that they were written during what must have been a painful few years in the life of a single man. In the midst of a decade of endless war, Virgil forged the alliances that he had to and pushed forward, and like Theocritus’ Cyclops, he survived through his poetry. [music]

The Prophecy of Eclogue 4

There’s just one more thing to cover – a coda, and I think if you don’t know about Eclogue 4, you’ll find this rather fascinating. Let me quote a long excerpt from this Eclogue for you, and I think you’ll see where things are headed. This is a different translation – H.R. Fairclough’s prose translation, first published by Loeb Classical Library in 1916 and revised in 1999, and as I often do I’m putting words in brackets here and there and using ellision here and there to make it a bit clearer.
Muses, [Virgil writes,] let us sing a somewhat loftier strain. . .

Now is come the last age of [prophetic] song: the great line of the centuries begins anew. Now the Virgin returns, the reign of Saturn returns; now a new generation descends from heaven on high. Only do you, Lucina [, goddess of childbirth], smile on the birth of the child, under whom the iron brood shall at last cease and a golden race spring up throughout the world! Your own Apollo now is king!

And in your consulship, [my patron] Pollio, yes, yours, shall this glorious age begin, and the mighty months commence their march; under your sway any lingering traces of our guilt shall become void and release the earth from its continual dread. [The child] shall have the gift of divine life, shall see heroes mingled with gods, and shall himself be seen by them, and shall rule the world to which his father’s prowess brought peace.

[F]or you, child, the earth untilled will pour forth its first pretty gifts, gaddling ivy with foxglove everywhere. . .Unbidden, the goats will bring home their udders swollen with milk, and the cattle will not fear huge lions. The serpent, too, will perish, and perish will the plant that hides its poison. . .But as soon as you can read of the glories of heroes and your father’s deeds, and can know what valour is, slowly will the plains yellow with the waving corn, on wild brambles the purple grape will hang, and the stubborn oak distil dewy honey. O enter upon your high honours – the hour will soon be here – dear offspring of the gods, mighty seed of a Jupiter to be! See how the world bows with its massive dome – earth and expanse of sea and heaven’s depth! See how all things rejoice in the age that is at hand. . .Begin, baby boy, to recognize your mother with a smile: ten months have brought your mother long travail. Begin, baby boy! The child who has not won a smile from his parents, no god ever honoured with his table. (4.1,4-20,21-5,25-30,48-52,60-4)39
So that’s a big excerpt from Virgil’s fourth Eclogue. You will not be too surprised, considering the contents of the poem, that Christians have traditionally interpreted it to be about the coming of Jesus. In 325 CE, at the Council of Nicaea, the poem was officially decreed as a piece about the birth of Christ, written a scant four decades before Jesus was born.40 Throughout the Middle Ages, Eclogue 4 was widely interpreted as a prophecy of the same ilk as certain passages mostly in Chapters 52 and 53 of Isaiah that we looked at back in Episode 24 – those bits of the Old Testament that Christians have often argued herald the birth of Christ. And during the Middle Ages, Eclogue 4 was sufficiently well known that two of its lines show up in the First Shepherds’ Play, though they’re misquoted.41 So, in a nutshell, about forty years before the birth of Christ, Virgil wrote a poem that sounds like a mash up between Isaiah and the Gospels. Centuries and centuries of monasteries took note.

In the Eclogue we just read, there’s a semidivine baby boy, descended from heaven, who’s going to usher in a golden age. Cattle will not be afraid of lions and snakes will die. Livestock will be plump, fruits will be everywhere, and the earth itself will bow down. In sections I didn’t quote above, Virgil predicts that agricultural laborers will be able to hang up their tools, and, maybe most strangely of all, that sheep will grow different colors of fleece – purple, yellow, and red, so that we won’t have to dye fabric any more. That part about multicolored sheep made me laugh, because I was imagining sheep running around with fleece colored like clown’s wigs, which is exactly what Virgil describes. Anyway, back to business. You don’t have to try too hard to see the ties to both the Old and New Testament in Virgil’s Fourth Eclogue. To Christians in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, the fact that a pagan poet had had a vision that looked like their god was pretty special, and it didn’t hurt that Eclogue 4 is a beautifully crafted piece of work.

Eclogue 4 is part of a long recorded tradition of discussing a sequence of ages of man – gold, then silver, then bronze, then iron, then, sometimes, back to gold, that began almost seven hundred years earlier in Hesiod’s Works and Days, a poem Virgil definitely knew. In the poetry of archaic and classical Greece, and then later in the Hellenistic world, the notion of a sort of wheel of metals, or of cyclical time leading from best to worst and back is not uncommon. Its most famous iteration of all is in the Book of Daniel, which we read in a bonus episode. Virgil would have probably known the poet Catullus’ similar lines about the turning of the ages of man in the earlier poet’s longest poem, Catullus 64 – the epyllion or mini-epic. From Catullus and Virgil himself, Horace, in one of his epodes, wrote of gold, and bronze, and iron ages that were all superintended by Jupiter. Virgil’s middle poem, the Georgics, as we’ll see next time, is shot through with references to the different ages of man. And for that matter, Dante, in Book 14 of the Inferno, creates a vision of a man of gold, silver, bronze, iron and clay that sounds like the one in the Book of Daniel, as he is led through hell by a fictional version of the subject of today’s show, Publius Vergilius Maro.42 I don’t mean to be pedantic with all these details. It’s just that as we come to Rome in the Augustan Age, we are at a sort of bottleneck in literary history, where influences shoot everywhere and seem to come from everywhere at once, and a single metaphor shows the extent to which this is the case. Less than a century later, the Gospels were being written – written at an axis where Hebrew and Aramaic were the operative languages, where Ancient Arabic and Parthian and the languages of Mesopotamia were still used to the east, Latin far to the west, and Greek was the adhesive that held it all together. The Gospels emerged from this admixture of cultures and theologies, and Eclogue 4 shows that four decades before the birth of Christ, following ancient narratives about Mesopotamian Tammuz, Egyptian Osiris, Greek Dionysus and others, Latin literature was imagining the coming of a divine being who would bring joy and fecundity to the world.

Mark Antony and Octavia

A coin minted in 39 BCE, showing Antony and Octavia together, whose marriage was to produce the baby prophesied in Eclogue 4. Image by CNG Coins.

Historically speaking, though, the “baby boy” in Eclogue 4 was likely not supposed to be Jesus, but instead, according to the most common interpretation, the son of Octavian’s sister Octavia and her new husband Mark Antony.43 Their marriage took place in October of 40 BCE, when Virgil was working on the Eclogues. Eclogue 4 describes the consulship of Asinius Pollio as “your consulship this age of joy” (4.11), and so it’s likely that the poem was written that same year. The wedding was Octavia’s second and Mark Antony’s fourth, both already had children, and it was a political union designed to rejuvenate relations between Octavian and Mark Antony, who had crossed swords in the past and would do so again in less than a decade. So when Virgil talks of the coming of a divine child, and the beginning of a glorious age, and says that this child “shall rule the world to which his father’s prowess brought peace” Virgil is describing the unborn son of Mark Antony, whose military brawn had been instrumental to the defeat of the Liberator army of Brutus and Cassius two years earlier.

Unfortunately, the divine child Virgil foresaw in Eclogue 4 was never born. Octavia and Antony had two girls before Antony hurried back down to Egypt to reunite with Cleopatra, and in 36 BCE, Octavia returned to Rome. Four years later, they were divorced, and two years later Antony was dead. It’s interesting to speculate what would have happened if Antony and Octavia had had a healthy baby boy. Maybe the bickering triumvirs would have rallied around a mutual male heir. Maybe the child would have checked each man’s quest for absolute power, and the republic could have sputtered back to life. We’ll never know. But while medieval readers perhaps saw Eclogue 4 as Virgil’s most remarkable achievement, in hindsight today we might see it as rather tacky – a concerted effort to flatter the overlords of Rome that is at best a failed prophecy and at worst little more than pitiful blarney.

Parco della Grotta di Posillipo5 (crop)

We know almost nothing about Virgil’s life, but the corpus of the work that has survived suggest a man who sought solace from chaotic times in meticulously crafted poetry.

To William Blake, who knew Virgil’s poetry well, and illustrated it, the Latin writer’s cooperation with the Augustan regime was disgraceful. Blake, in his epic poem Jerusalem, expresses disgust at the deists and pagans who “acquit & flatter the Alexanders & Caesars,” pinpointing such men as the sole roots and perpetrators of wars.44 And in a famous assessment of Virgil more generally, Blake wrote that “Rome and Greece swept art into their maw, and destroyed it. A warlike State never can produce art. It will rob and plunder, and accumulate into one place, and translate, and copy, and buy and sell, and criticize, but not make.”45 This is a well known condemnation of Virgil and the patronage system under which he lived. Medieval Christians read Virgil’s fourth Eclogue and interpreted him as nothing less than a prophet. Blake, conversely, saw Virgil as a barnacle on the Roman ship of state, an unprincipled writer who glommed onto Octavian and never looked back.

I hope this episode has given you a more nuanced opinion. We can’t, after all, expect all of literature’s contributors to be freedom fighters willing to perish for their beliefs. We can’t expect them to share our religions, or our politics, though sometimes it’s nice when they do. Virgil, and Horace, and their whole generation of poets, if they wanted to prosper as writers, did well to seek out powerful Roman patrons. But obviously, seeking out patrons – even writing fulsome praises of patrons, as we see in Virgil’s fourth Eclogue – did not mean that poets of Virgil’s generation abandoned their roots and their principles across the board. The patchwork of light and shade that fills the Eclogues includes the highest praises for Virgil’s patrons, but it also includes bitter nostalgia for simpler times and places, rancor at the land grabs of the Second Triumvirate, and a whole spectrum of characters suffering from obsessions, madness, and heartbreak. While Virgil’s biography and personality largely remain a mystery to us, the darkness that checkers the Eclogues suggests that from the beginning of his literary career, Virgil was well aware the compromises that he made. Although Blake read Virgil’s flatteries of Octavian and Pollio, and concluded that “A warlike state can never produce art,” the Eclogues suggest something to the contrary. They are an homage to Theocritus, and a technical masterpiece of the pastoral form. They seethe with beauty and vitriol, bowing to patrons and simultaneously deploring the plight of innocent commoners decimated by those same patrons. The civil wars and unique crosscurrents of the early 30s were, contrary to Blake’s assessment, exactly what forged Virgil’s Eclogues. In the difficult months of the poet’s early thirties, with history and homeland beyond his control, Virgil clung to poetry with a passionate urgency that comes across in the earliest lines. Luckily for all of us, he never let go. [music]

A Thank You, and Moving onto the Georgics

I’d like to thank Professor David Scott Wilson-Okamura over at East Carolina University for reading and editing a transcription of this program before I recorded it. David has done a lot for Virgil scholarship over the course of his career, not the least of which is maintaining the site virgil.org, which contains a searchable index of all of Virgil’s lines in Latin and several free translations of texts that are extremely difficult to find elsewhere – like that Aelius Donatus biography I quoted earlier. I discovered David’s work through his book Virgil in the Renaissance, published by Cambridge University Press in 2010. The book is a study of how Virgil’s poems were read, interpreted, and imitated during the Renaissance. Virgil in the Renaissance is an incredibly useful book, and it’s sort of a representative case study of how the canon of classics formed during the centuries between Dante and Shakespeare. If you’re interested in learning about how Roman literature was received and understood in Europe during the late Middle Ages and afterward, when printed texts began to make their way out of monasteries and into the hands of collectors, patrons and poets, Virgil in the Renaissance is a great way to hear the story of how all this happened. The book is currently featured at literatureandhistory.com, and again thanks to its author David Scott Wilson-Okamura for helping me bring the story of Virgil’s early life and the Eclogues to all you listeners out there!

In the next program, Episode 53: Then Came Hard Iron, we will read Virgil’s Georgics, which the English writer John Dryden called “the best poem of the best poet.”46 The Georgics are a set of four poems on agriculture, a part of a long tradition in ancient Roman literature of writing about rural labor. Like the Eclogues, the focus of the Georgics is on rural life. But the Georgics, rather being about shepherds’ songs, concern themselves with the minutiae of daily life in the country – plowing, growing and cultivating plants, keeping livestock, and raising bees. These don’t sound like particularly arresting topics. But Virgil has such a faultless an eye for detail, and such an ear for musicality, that the strangest moments of the Georgics can hang in your mind, long after you read them – instructions on how to watch the skies for changing weather, how to watch the frost fall to determine when to plow a field, how to look at soil and ecosystems in order to determine where to plant trees. Virgil spent almost as much time writing the Georgics as he did the Aeneid, and so in order to understand his evolution as a poet, as well as one of the more understudied subgenres of European poetry, learning about the Georgics is well worth your time. Thanks for listening to Literature and History. Got a quiz on the Eclogues at literatureandhistory.com if you want to see how much you’ve remembered for this program. There’s a comedy song coming up if you want to hear it, and if not I’ll see you soon!

Still listening? Well there was a lot of funny stuff in this episode, but out of everything we covered, I was most fascinated by the fact that the lament of the heartbroken Cyclops was fairly widespread in ancient Mediterranean literature. I mean in the Odyssey he’s eating people alive and burping up bones, heaving boulders out at Odysseus’ ships, and almost stops the whole epic right there in Book 9. Not exactly the kind of character you’d make into a Don Juan. Anyway, I decided to write my own version of what often gets called “the lament of the Cyclops,” in which a hideous giant bemoans his heartache. This one’s called “Cyclops Power Ballad.” Hope it’s amusing, and Virgil and I, and a very special guest, will see you next time.


1.^ Levi, Peter. Virgil: His Life and Times. New York: Saint Martin’s Press, 1999, p. 4.

2.^ Donatus, Aelius. Life of Virgil. Translated by David Scott Wilson-Okamura. 1996. Rev 2005, 2008, 2014. Internet. 19 November 2017. Available at http://virgil.org/vitae/.

3.^ Aen 10.201-3. Printed in Virgil. The Aeneid. Translated and with an Introduction by W..F. Jackson Knight. London: Penguin, 1958. See also Ec 9.27-9, Geor 2.198-9, 3.12-15.

4.^ See Levi (1999) p. 13.

5.^ Virgil. The Georgics: A Poem of the Land. Translated and Edited by Kimberly Johnson. London: Penguin Books, 2009, p.32.

6.^ Ibid, p. 143.

7.^ Virgil. Virgil’s Eclogues. Translated by Len Krisak and with an Introduction by Gregson Davis. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010, p. 51.

8.^ See Levi (1999), p. 18.

9.^ The rhetorician Athenaeus describes how in Sicily before the time of Theocritus, “There was a song for people leading flocks, the so-called boukoliasmos. Diomos was a Sicilian oxherd, and he invented this type.” Quoted in Hunter, Richard. “Introduction.” Theocritus. Idylls. Translated by Anthony Verity, with an Introduction and Notes by Richard Hunter. Oxford University Press, 2002, p. xiii.

10.^ Ibid, p. 39. Levi mentions the work of English folk singer and musicologist A.L. Lloyd (1908-82).

11.^ Homer. Iliad. Translated by Robert Fagles and with an Introduction by Bernard Knox. New York: Penguin Books, 1990, p. 484.

12.^ Suetonius. Complete Works. Delphi Classics, 2016. Kindle Edition, Location 2465.

13.^ Ibid, p. 14.

14.^ There is more to be found in Donatus, who mentions two full brothers who also died around the time Virgil reached adulthood.

15.^ Donatus writes that the Georgics were done over the course of seven years at Sicily and the Aeneid in Sicily and Campania.

16.^ See Levi (1999) p. 24.

17.^ Macrobius Sat v. 18.

18.^ See Eck, Warner. The Age of Augustus. Blackwell Publishing, 2007. Kindle Edition, Location 232.

19.^ Donatus, Aelius. Life of Virgil. Translated by David Scott Wilson-Okamura. 1996. Rev 2005, 2008, 2014. Internet. 19 November 2017. Available at http://virgil.org/vitae/.

20.^ See Wilson-Okamura, David Scott. Virgil in the Renaissance. Cambridge University Press, 2010, pp. 70-3, 78-81.

21.^ See Hunter, Richard. “Introduction.” Printed in Theocritus. Idylls. Translated by Anthony Verity, with an Introduction and Notes by Richard Hunter. Oxford University Press, 2002, p. vii.

22.^ Ibid, pp. 28-9.

23.^ Ibid, p. xvi.

24.^ It is worth remembering, though, that various epic similes of the Homeric poems make use of rustic tableaus to contrast the violence of war with the gentle cadences of peacetime. We discuss this extensively in Episode 14.

25.^ Ibid, p. 25.

26.^ See ibid, pp. 95-6.

27.^ Wordsworth, William. Preface to Lyrical Ballads. Printed in Abrams, M.H., et. al. The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Vol. 2. New York and London: W.W. Norton and Company, 2000, pp. 246, 250.

28.^ Virgil. Virgil’s Eclogues. Translated by Len Krisak and with an Introduction by Gregson Davis. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010, p. 11.

29.^ Hunter (2002) p. vii.

30.^ The poet Epicharmus, working in the early 400s, was an influence on Theocritus, as well as Philoxenus, who influenced Theocritus’ 11th Idyll on the Cyclops.

31.^ Hunter (2002) sets Theocritus’ literary career’s beginning “in the late 280s” (viii).

32.^ Ibid, p. x.

33.^ Ibid, p. xi.

34.^ Seneca Controversiae 4.2. Quoted in White, Peter. “Poets in the New Milieu: Realigning.” Printed in Galinsky, Karl, ed. The Cambridge Companion to the Age of Augustus. Cambridge University Press, 2005. Kindle Edition, Location 5832.

35.^ Sappho. Fragment 31. Printed in Sappho and the Greek Lyric Poets. Translated by Willis Barnstone and with an Introduction by William E. McCulloh. New York: Schocken Books, 1988, pp. 67-8.

36.^ This version of the story comes from Hunter (2002) p. 85-6n.

37.^ Tityrus, for instance, appears in Virgil Ecl 1 and 6, and Theocritus Idy 3.

38.^ Davis, Gregson. “Introduction.” Printed in Virgil. Virgil’s Eclogues. Translated by Len Krisak and with an Introduction by Gregson Davis. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010, p. 61.

39.^ Virgil. Eclogues, Georgics, Aeneid 1-6. Translated by H.R. Fairclough and Revised by G.P. Goold. Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 2000, pp. 49-51.

40.^ Virgil. Virgil’s Eclogues. Translated by Len Krisak and with an Introduction by Gregson Davis. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010, p. 84n.

41.^ Virgil 4.6-7 gets misquoted in the First Shepherd’s Play (389-90).

42.^ See Catullus (64.384-6,397-8,405-9), Horace (Epo 16.65-8), Dante (Inf 14.106-17).

43.^ Other readers have hypothesized that the child referenced was the son of Asinius Pollio (75-4 BCE), or Octavian himself.

44.^ Blake, William. The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake, ed. David Erdman. University of California Press, 1982, p. 201. The quote is from Jerusalem 2.58-9.

45.^ Ibid, p. 270. The quote is from On Virgil.

46.^ Dryden, John. “Dedication to the Right Honourable Philip, Earl of Chesterfield.” Printed in The Works of Virgil, Translated into English Verse. London: John Carey, 1819, p. 125.