Episode 53: Then Came Hard Iron

Virgil’s Georgics (c. 29 BCE), or agriculture poems, show the poet reaching his full strength as a writer, and using an old form to analyze the history around him.

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Virgil’s Georgics

Hello, and welcome to Literature and History. Episode 53: Then Came Hard Iron. This program is about Virgil’s great middle poem, the Georgics. Put into circulation in 29 BCE, Virgil’s Georgics came out around eight years after his Eclogues, those ten pastoral poems about herdsmen, rustic love affairs, and the mixed blessings of country life that we looked at last time. The Georgics, published when Virgil was about 41 years old, can most simply be described as poems about rural labor – farming, the cultivation of plants, animal husbandry, and even the subject of beekeeping. Just before the beginning of the 18th century, the English poet John Dryden famously described Virgil’s Georgics as “the best poem of the best poet.”1 And while this assessment is certainly clear, it’s not a common one. Kimberly Johnson, whose 2009 translation of the Georgics has become a classic in its own right, describes the Georgics as a “lovely and strange achievement,” a poem that is as demanding on the reader as it is the product of a lost and unfamiliar genre.2

John Dryden georgics portrait

John Dryden (1631-1700) was one of Virgil’s biggest fans during a century the poet’s reputation had ascended to perhaps an all-time high.

In previous episodes, we’ve talked a bit about didactic poetry – that genre of verse that takes often scientific and technical subjects and discusses them in metered lines. While Virgil’s Georgics might be the most famous didactic poem in literary history, it was not the first didactic poem, nor even the first didactic poem on the subject of agriculture. The tradition of instructive poetry was centuries old by the time Virgil finished the Georgics in 29 BCE, and in composing the work Virgil knew he was contributing to a respectable and widespread literary genre. One of his main models was Lucretius’ philosophical treatise in hexameter, On the Nature of Things, the long poem we discussed back in Episode 45.3

So, the Georgics are a four-part didactic poem. But if you open the Georgics expecting straight ahead instructions on how to hold a pitchfork, milk a cow, or sheer a sheep, you are immediately perplexed. The Georgics aren’t so much a systematic treatise on the nuts and bolts of agriculture as they are a grab bag of various poetic enterprises – long praises of patrons, then descriptions of various farming activities, allusions to and retellings of Greek myths, promises that work is the main directive of human existence back to back with a darker sense that work ultimately accomplishes little and the random forces of nature undo our best efforts at stability and happiness. In the Renaissance, one of the things readers admired the most about the Georgics was their encyclopedic variety – their seeming attempt to wrap poetry around every aspect of country life, from beautiful spring days to awful blights and plagues, from mundane things like putting dung on rows of crops to the more esoteric matters of divining weather through watching the skies and moon.4

Their variety is challenging, but also rewarding. Through the four books of the Georgics, one gets a tour of the lost world of Ancient Rome’s agriculture, a sampling of various countrified superstitions, a sense of how rural life was changing at the beginning of the imperial period, how well-heeled Romans were reacting to this change, and just as importantly, a clear picture of how Virgil himself had matured as a poet as he reached middle age and almost two generations of civil wars ended on the Italian Peninsula. The historian Suetonius wrote that on the way back from the Battle of Actium, Octavian was resting in the Campanian town of Atella, in the south-central part of modern day Italy, and that, “During four days which Augustus passed at Atella, to refresh himself from fatigue, in his return to Rome. . .the Georgics, just then finished, were read to him by the author.”5 Just before he became Rome’s first emperor, then, Octavian listened to Virgil recite his Georgics. And what he heard – a strange and heterogeneous meditation on country life, composed in lush, dense, and almost decadently beautiful language, compelled Octavian to ask Virgil to spend his forties writing the Aeneid. While most of the Augustan Age poets – Virgil himself, Horace, Propertius, and Ovid – all record being asked to produce a national epic, it was Virgil who, dusting his hands after completing the Georgics, considered the Octavian’s request and said, “Yeah, I can give that a shot.”6

So in the remainder of this program, I am going to take you on a tour of all four books of the Georgics and provide an overview of their contents. I want to offer a sense of Virgil’s literary development leading up to the composition of the Aeneid. But didactic poetry about rural life is also an interesting historical relic in and unto itself, and by considering the cultural environment into which the Georgics emerged, we can better understand the way that literate and elite Romans of Virgil’s generation thought about the countryside. [music]

The Hut of Romulus and Agrarian Nostalgia

As Virgil was composing the Georgics between about 37 and 29 BCE, while Octavian and Antony sparred for control of the Mediterranean world, in the city of Rome, on the Palatine Hill facing the Circus Maximus, there stood a hut. The historian Dionysius of Halicarnassus, one of Virgil’s contemporaries, recollects this hut and its importance near the outset of his book Roman Antiquities. “[T]he hut of Romulus,” Dionysius wrote, “remained even to my day on the flank of the Palatine hill which faces towards the Circus, and it is preserved holy by those who have charge of these matters; they add nothing to it to render it more stately, but if any part of it is injured, either by storms or by the lapse of time, they repair the damage and restore the hut as nearly as possible to its former condition.”7 To the generations of Virgil, and Cicero, and before them earlier Romans in the second century BCE, Romulus’ hut was an emblem of Rome’s agrarian past, a holdover from a time when Romans were Romans, when soldiers and politicians and farmers were all one and the same, when life along the Tiber was simple, staunch, manly and virtuous.

Stefano Camogli - Romulus and Remus

Romulus and Remus loomed large in the Roman imagination during Virgil’s generation, though probably not as fat little babies, as we see in Stefano Camogli’s seventeenth century Romulus and Remus

Imagining an earlier and more righteous past is one of the things that cultures do when confronted with a complex and unruly present. In this podcast we’ve seen the Prophetic Books of the Old Testament think back to earlier generations when Israelites were supposedly more pious, principled, and racially pure. We’ve seen the Athenians of Aristophanes’ generation thinking back to the days before sophism and the opulence of the Athenian empire – back to the manly heroes who won the Greco-Persian Wars. And in Roman literature already, we’ve seen an inescapable metaphor – the ages of gold, silver, bronze, and iron, a succession of different epochs in which the vigor and rectitude of humanity declines, inexorably, phase after phase. Whether the ages of man metaphor emerges in Hesiod in the 700s BCE, or the authors of the Pentateuch in the story of Eden, or the furious invectives of Jeremiah during the exilic period, in the Book of Daniel in the 160s, in the poetry of Catullus, Horace, or Virgil himself, the story of the ages of man is invariably one of degeneration.8 In the days of Adam and Eve, or in the days the earliest Israelites followed Yahweh in a pillar of flame, or before Pandora’s jar was opened, or in the days when Greek brawn beat Persian numbers at the Battle of Marathon, or some other similar epoch of the irrecoverable past, people were purer and stronger and uncorrupted. But, so the story goes, ages pass, and modernity cannot measure up to the majestic discipline and untainted splendor of the ancients, and we are, usually by reason of our laziness and decadence, a sad and degraded version of what we might have been.

In all of these stories of falls from grace, whether from archaic Greece, ancient Canaan, classical Athens, or republican Rome, writers attempt to rationalize the inglorious present by means of a comparison to a glorious lost past. The Romans of Virgil’s generation who looked at the hut of Romulus on the Palatine would have been culturally conditioned to imagine the city of their founders as, in scholar Tim Cornell’s words, “a settlement of rustic shepherds, living a simple and virtuous life in primitive thatched huts.”9 This, in fact, is exactly what the hut made Dionysius of Halicarnassus envision. The ancient Roman historian speaks of Romulus and Remus in glowing terms – Dionysius writes that when Romulus and Remus
came to be men, they showed themselves both in dignity of aspect and elevation of mind not like [herdsmen], but such as we might expect those to be who are born of royal race and are looked upon as the offspring of the gods; and as such they are still celebrated by the Romans in the hymns of their country. But their life was that of herdsmen, and they lived by their own labour, generally upon the mountains in huts which they built, roofs and all, out of sticks and reeds.10

The territory around the Palatine in 29 BCE might have been littered with mansions and imported decorations, the streets might be awash with polyglot immigrants, and the city’s youths might be trafficking all sorts of new and foreign ideas, but, the hut of Romulus reminded Roman sightseers, Rome’s past was simple, hardy, and agrarian.

In some previous programs – particularly on Cicero, we learned about the political corruption of the late republic – a time when the essentially feudal oligarchy that had traditionally controlled Rome was being infiltrated by a new class of mercantile entrepreneurs, when money was rotting a hole through the senate and opportunistic populist politicians were grabbing power as a result. During such times, Romans looked back to the era of Romulus and Remus, and the early republic, imagining lost generations of upright soldier-farmers who had fought and won wars and returned to their ploughs. And the nostalgia for an uncorrupted agrarian past wasn’t new to Virgil’s generation, earlier.

A few shows ago we read Terence’s play The Brothers, in which two brothers – one a country man and the other a city man, argue about how children should be raised, the first brother standing for a the wholesomeness of country life, and the other for the dynamic and Greek-influenced world of the city. The Brothers, staged in 160 BCE, records Roman controversies toward the cultural changes of the middle and late republic – a curiosity about new civilizations being opened up by Rome’s conquests, and at the same time a reactionary desire to keep Rome culturally pure in the midst of unprecedented influxes of slaves and immigrants. This tug-of-war between embracing cosmopolitanism and championing cultural isolationism is given a balanced discussion in Terence’s The Brothers, but another text – also produced in about 160 BCE, is more reactionary and nationalist. The year Terence staged The Brothers, the statesman Cato the Elder, famous for his militant nationalism and xenophobia, published a book called De Agricultura – one that likely influenced Virgil’s Georgics. This book, like the Georgics, was a manual on how to manage the agricultural production of a farm, and in it, Cato the Elder explicitly endorses farming over commerce. In a famous quote in the preface to De Agricultura, Cato the Elder writes,
When [our ancestors] sought to commend an honest man, they termed him good husbandman, good farmer. This they rated the superlative of praise. Personally, I think highly of a man actively and diligently engaged in commerce, who seeks thereby to make his fortune, yet, as I have said, [the merchant’s] career is full of risks and pitfalls. But it is from the tillers of the soil that spring the best citizens, the staunchest soldiers; and theirs are the enduring rewards which are most grateful and least envied. Such as devote themselves to that pursuit are least of all men given to evil counsels.11

The idea is not unusual from the mid second century BCE forward. Merchants, intellectuals, explorers, engineers, writers, artists, and foreigners of all stamps were all fine and well, but – as Cato the Elder saw it – the backbone of the Roman republic was the citizen-soldier-farmer who, like the legendary Cincinnatus, might fight bravely and reach the apex of Roman leadership, but in the end, was glad to return to the labors of his homestead. As Romans encountered the older and more sophisticated cultures of the eastern Mediterranean, asserting the rugged manliness of Rome’s past was to some extent a way to valorize the rustic simplicity of the Italian peninsula in comparison to older and more established cultures of Greece, Ptolemaic Egypt, and Asia Minor. The idea of Rome’s dauntless agrarian roots is so pervasive in Roman texts that over a hundred years after Cato published the De Agricultura, Cicero wrote in On Duties that “[O]f all the occupations by which gain is secured, none is better than agriculture, none more profitable, none more delightful, none more becoming to a freeman.”12 So, in the middle and late republic, as Rome increasingly became awash with foreign cultures and the legislature slowly sagged under the weight of fiscal corruption, men like Cato the Elder, and after him Cicero, and then Virgil himself might visit the hut of Romulus on the Palatine hill and imagine a simple, honest, rustic past. [music]

De Agricultura: Rustic Simplicity vs. Plantation Farming in 160 BCE

Cato the Elder georgics predecessor

Cato the Elder’s De Agricultura (160 BCE) offered patricians of his generation advice on farming that was more or less irrelevant to their class and social position.

Even by the time of Cato the Elder in the mid-100s BCE, however, this past was gone – and the idea of the citizen-soldier-farmer was a thing to imagine and entertain, but not to actually live. A hundred years before Virgil was born in 70 BCE, slaves were flooding into the Italian peninsula by the boatload due to Rome’s victories overseas. Agriculture was becoming centralized into large plantations, staffed not by local soldier farmers, but instead managed by stewards on behalf of wealthy aristocrats who lived in the capital. So when Cato the Elder wrote that “it is from the tillers of the soil that spring the best citizens, the staunchest soldiers,” and when Cicero, over a century later, wrote that of all the things a Roman could do for a living “none is better than agriculture, none more profitable, none more delightful, none more becoming to a freeman,” these were already anachronistic sentiments. In the late republic, agriculture was increasingly operating on a centralized, industrial scale. Somewhere, surely, there were square-jawed plowmen, working small plots of turf, who had once fought in Rome’s wars. But the growing tendency was toward large farms owned by absentee landlords in the capital, landlords who’d never picked up a shovel, nor pruned a vine, nor milked a goat or cow.

Cato’s the Elder’s 160 BCE treatise, directed toward a elite readership as it is, offered Romans of his generation hands-on advice on to manage their estates, but it is unlikely that De Agricultura actually compelled Rome’s rich senators to hurry out to their distant farms and dig furrows. And when Cicero, in 44 BCE, wrote that there was nothing “more profitable. . .[nor] more delightful” than agriculture, he couldn’t possibly have believed it. During his quaestorship in Sicily, and during a later trial of the corrupt former provincial governor Gaius Verres, and during Cicero’s own provincial governorship in modern day Turkey, Cicero would have understood well enough that a small landowner or tenant farmer’s existence was one of impoverishment, privation, and utter vulnerability. In his private correspondence Cicero used the words rusticus, or “rustic” and agrestis, or “agrarian” as derogatory terms, while urbanus, or “urbane,” described cultured people who lived in the city.13 Thus, Cicero might, like others in the late republic, tout the provincial farmer as the most Roman of Romans, but he also had few illusions of what rural life was actually like.

This is all pretty simple stuff so far. Elite Romans, for several generations toward the end of the republic, fantasized about the purity and probity of an agrarian past which may or may not have ever existed, but simultaneously understood that this past had been steamrolled under the modern realities of plantation farming and rural economies based on slave labor. When Virgil’s contemporary, the historian Sallust, decided to retire from public life, Sallust wrote that “it was not my intention to waste my precious leisure. . .by turning to farming or [hunting], to lead a life devoted to slavish employments.”14 There’s no sense here that planting seeds and sheering sheep is any fitting culmination to a career in public service. The legendary Cincinnatus might have done so, but the late republican Roman sought something beyond hard labor in the country. As scholar Gary Miles writes, “Those Romans who felt bound by the tradition that Rome’s greatness rested on the rustic virtues of her peasant soldiery and her farmer-statesmen were actually excluded, both by their own tastes and by the knowledge of contemporary realities, from realizing the ideal to which they subscribed and which they preached.”15 [music]

Elite Romans and the Countryside

Pompeii - Casa dei Casti Amanti - Banquet georgics

This frescoe from the Casa dei Casti Amanti at Pompeii probably reflects aristocratic life in the provinces far more accurately than Cato’s De Agricultura or Varro’s Res Rusticae.

So, Romans of Virgil’s generation knew that in spite of certain tendencies in national histories, senators did not actually harvest grain or spread manure on fields. Nonetheless, Roman aristocrats of Virgil’s generation did spend a great deal of time outside of Rome. Cicero himself, by the final year of his life, owned six villas, one of them in the glitzy bay of Naples where Virgil spent most of his writing career. In the mid-first century BCE, it was customary for powerful Romans to own a number of villas and visit them according to seasons, and even to own deversoria, or small lodges along the Appian way – way stations where an aristocrat might spend the night on the way to one of his larger compounds.16

In marked opposition to the staunch farmer-soldier of Roman legend, the rural estates of Rome’s aristocrats during the late republic became increasingly plush and extravagant. Archaeologists studying the period have noted a proliferation of peristyle courtyards, walled off pleasure gardens, atria, porticoes, and murals with trompe l’oeil pictures that seem to open to the outside – often depicting landscapes. These wall paintings were part of an artistic movement in the first century BCE that historians call the Second Style. Second Style murals discovered at Pompeii and Herculaneum melt away into various kinds of scenery – exotic depictions of Egypt, mythological scenes, scenes of other luxury villas and illustrations of the Bay of Naples. In the resort villas of the late republic, wall murals seemed to melt the boundaries of inside and outside, rural scenery blended with pictures of adjacent villas, fresh sculptures stood tall over carefully landscaped gardens, and an overall atmosphere of comfortable opulence was the order of the day. Rome’s richest citizens spent plenty of time outside the city, but most often they spent this time in cocoons of luxury, at a distance from the slave labor that propped up their fortunes.

This was the age during which a certain strain of Epicureanism had blossomed through the ranks of the Roman aristocracy, a strain in which Epicurus’ original atomic materialism and egalitarianism were less important than his emphasis on isolationism, friendship and the pursuit of tranquility. Virgil, as we learned last time, studied with Epicurean philosophers, worked and studied in Epicurean villas, and while most of his life took place outside the capital, he did not write the Georgics based on all the hours he had logged with a hoe or milking pail in hand.17 The Georgics, far from being a systematic exposition on agriculture, are in the words of scholar Kevis Goodman “a splendid virtual reality,” a sort of extended landscape painting in words, pervasively more interested in literary craftsmanship than in fidelity to rustic life.”18

Alright. Now that we’ve talked a bit about how Romans of the late republic thought about, and wrote about the lives of farmers and shepherds, let’s zoom in on Virgil himself, in the year 37 BCE. This was about the year Virgil published his Eclogues. It was the year he began working on the Georgics. And it was also the year that Virgil’s older contemporary, Marcus Terentius Varro, an extremely prolific and important writer in his own day, published a work called the Res Rusticae, or “country matters,” a book that undoubtedly influenced Virgil’s own.

Varro’s Res Rusticae: Control Over Small Plots of Turf

Varro’s Res Rusticae, again a book which in all likelihood influenced Virgi’s Georgics, is a treatise, written in prose, in which a group of aristocrats discuss agriculture in a highly technical manner. Cicero also wrote philosophical treatises as dialogues, and in doing so Varro chose a format with a history of intellectual respectability. Let’s hear a couple of passages from near the beginning of Varro’s book on agriculture, again published in 37 BCE.
Of agriculture. . .[a speaker in Res Rusticae attests,] there are four main categories: the first is knowledge of the farm, the character of the soil and its contents; second, what means [men, animals, tools] are needed and ought to be available on the estate for farming it; third, what should be produced on this property; fourth, at what time it is appropriate for everything to be done on the farm. Each of these four general divisions is divided at least into two sub-categories. . .[And later, this character says,] Now I will discuss the means by which the land is cultivated. Some divide these into two categories, into men and aids without which men cannot cultivate. Others divide the subject into three categories: the articulate class of instrument, the semiarticulate, and the mute – the articulate to which belong slaves, the semi-articulate to which belong oxen, the mute to which belong farm wagons.19

Now, admittedly, this doesn’t sound like the beginning of a New York Times bestseller – Varro’s careful taxonomy – his categories and divisions and subcategories – actually do sound like a technical treatise. Part of the appeal that the Res Rusticae perhaps provided to readers like Virgil was that the book saw agriculture as a highly orderly, disciplined activity. In the year that it was published, civil wars had claimed Roman lives for a generation, and politics within the city continued to be perilous and unstable. The marriage between Mark Antony and Octavia that Virgil had written about in Eclogue 4 had fallen apart, and while Octavian was muscling for more control of the Roman legislature, a renewed outbreak of war was looking increasingly plausible. Thus, while Rome in the mid-30s was a dangerous and chaotic place, Varro’s Res Rusticae offered a vision of agrarian life governed by vibrant and meticulous order. The Roman republic might be entering nuclear meltdown, but – Varro invites his readers to see – out in the countryside, there were neat furrows, carefully pruned vineyards, and prudently maintained flocks, and timeless techniques and categorical schemas that governed them all.

We don’t know how closely Virgil read Varro’s Res Rusticae. But over the next eight years after Res Rusticae was published, Virgil wrote the Georgics. The Georgics are in verse, rather than prose like the works of Varro and Cato the Elder. And while neither the treatises of Varro nor Cato before him were actually intended for broad circulation amidst Roman farmers, the denseness of Virgil’s language would have made him entirely incomprehensible to the median Roman plowman or herdsman. Virgil was a challenging poet even in the time that he lived. Biographer Peter Levi attests that Virgil’s “linguistic resources, his playfulness and his sheer eccentricities make his poems at least as different from normal Latin as Milton is from normal modern English.”20 Milton is an apt comparison – both writers are fond of rarefied allusions, and Milton knew Virgil’s work well. But even in modern translations, another quality of Virgil’s poetry emerges – that of sonorousness, consonance, assonance – the use of the sounds of words to create auditory effects. The highly stylized and dense nature of the Georgics would have made the poems impenetrable to most Roman aristocrats, let alone rural laborers. And yet in spite of Virgil’s stylistic differences from his predecessor Varro, the two chroniclers of Roman agriculture share something – specifically, a desire to catalog, index, and describe the disparate matters of the countryside almost as a therapeutic exercise to cope with the tumult of the historical events they lived through. In translator Kimberly Johnson’s words, the Georgics are “a means of repair, a process by which the ramshackle world is organized, made comprehensible. . .made legible.”21 Poets like Varro and Virgil, writing on such unheroic matters as ploughs and goats, might not have wielded the intercontinental powers of an Octavian or a Mark Antony. But by exercising control over the vast information of their texts, they could shape and package reality in a fashion denied to them by the collapsing republic.

So, as I often do, I’ve given you a lot of historical background up front. We’ve talked about the widespread idea of the citizen-soldier-farmer, and how by the first century BCE Romans had begun to idealize a supposedly strapping agrarian past as the nucleus of the Roman character. We discussed how the countryside comes up in Cato the Elder’s De Agricultura in about 160, and in Varro’s Res Rusticae in 37 BCE, and how in between them, Cicero could both idolize agricultural laborers and simultaneously disparage them as unpolished bumpkins. Now that we have a good idea of the complex and contradictory ways that literate Romans thought about country life, and wrote about country life in the late republic, it’s time to open up Virgil’s Georgics, and take a look at what’s inside. Unless I note otherwise, I’m quoting for the incredibly beautiful recent translation by Kimberly Johnson, published by Penguin in 2009. In fact, I should say, she is quoting from her own translation, because she was kind enough to record all the longer quotes for this episode. [music]

The Georgics: Basic Dicactic Content

The Georgics are a set of four poems of a little over 500 lines each. While poem contains a wide variety of content, and the fourth, in particular, is a mash up of different parts, a good way to think of them upfront is that the first book is about plowing; the second, vineyards and plants; the third, herds and animal husbandry; and the fourth, beekeeping. To keep things simple here at the outset, let’s look at some of the straight ahead didactic portions of Virgil’s Georgics – those sections in which Virgil offers instructions on farming. The first one we’ll look at advises you when to break ground in early spring, and goes on to recommend that you take a good long look around an unfamiliar field before plowing it. So here’s Virgil’s Georgics, Book 1, on plowing.
In new spring, when from snowy peaks the run-off
flows, and the mouldering clod crumbles under the Zephyr,
straightaway I’d hitch my bull to groan before the deep-
driven plough, its blade scoured to gleaming by the furrow.
That field alone fulfils the keen farmer’s prayer
which twice sun and twice frost has felt:
its teeming harvests burst the granaries.
But before our iron carves an unknown plain,
let our study be to learn its winds and fickle sky,
the local tricks, the temper of the land,
what each zone yields, what each refuses. (1.43-53)

So, here Virgil recommends breaking ground as early as possible in the spring, he emphasizes that fields that have seen two summers and two winters and then are seeded again are the most productive, and then he advises the reader to study the sky, winds, and microclimates of a field before planting there. Whether we’re reading this in Latin or English, 2,000 years ago or today, this particular section of the first Georgic is a relatively clear cut example of didactic poetry – poetry on the subject of farming. Book 2 provides some similarly uncomplicated advice on where to plant trees: “Nor truly can all soils support all growth,” Virgil observes, “Willows in rivers, in sludgy shoals alders / flourish, the fruitless ash on rocky slopes, / the shores are lush with myrtle, the vine loves / exposed hillsides, and the yew the chill northwind. . .Trees have appointed homelands” (2.109-13,16). Don’t go planting trees willy nilly, Virgil reminds us – trees have natural habitats to which they’re suited.

Let’s look at a couple more examples of Virgil’s Georgics functioning as straightforward didactic poetry. Book 3, again on herds and animal husbandry, tells the reader which sort of cow is superior to other cows. As Virgil puts it,
. . .The best cow
is fierce of feature, whose head is ugly, neck thick,
dewlaps hanging from chin to shins,
no end to her broad flank, big all over,
even her feet, with shaggy ears under crooked horns. (3.51-5)

I don’t know how accurate this assessment is – it does seem like a large cow would be likely to produce more milk, though I’m not sure where the ugliness thing fits in – but the prescription here is clear enough. And just for the sake of having a nice didactic quote from each book up front, let’s hear one on beekeeping. In this quote, you’re going to hear two things – one, Virgil recommends that beekeepers find a nice, windless spot for their apiaries, and the other is that Virgil assumed bees had kings, and not queens. It’s a bit of a blunder, but let’s not get hung up on it – here’s Virgil, explaining where to situate your bees.
[L]et pure springs and pools greening with moss
be near, and a trickling stream slipping through the grass,
and let a palm or spreading oleaster overshade the vestibule,
so that when new kings lead out the first swarms
in dear spring and the youth frolic free of the honeycomb,
a nearby bank may woo them to dodge the heat
and a wayside tree may charm with its leafy welcome. (4.18-24)

So there we have four long didactic quotes on agricultural work – one from each of the four Georgics, covering, respectively, plowing, horticulture, animal husbandry, and beekeeping, just like the Georgics do. While the Georgics from time to time can seem like a poetic trampoline, and while Virgil uses them to unleash a gymnastics routine that includes hundreds of allusions, retellings of myths, and ornate praises of patrons, the cord that ties the Georgics together is the book’s instructional content on plowing, horticulture, animal husbandry, and beekeeping.

Nicander georgics predecessor

The Greek poet Nicander of Colophon’s works have largely been lost, but during the second century BCE he wrote a work called Georgica, which likely influenced Virgil’s Georgics, as well as the Heteroeumena, a work which likely figured into Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

For the purely informational content of the Georgics, Virgil had a lot of earlier analogs to draw from, as I mentioned above – particularly Varro just eight years before, in 37 BCE, and then, back in 160, Cato the Elder. But he also had specialists in other topics – specifically, scientific topics. The third century BCE Greek meteorologist Aratus was a pivotal influence behind a long explanation on how to read the sky for weather patterns in the first of Virgil’s Georgics (1.351-460)22. Another third-century Greek, Eratosthenes, provides Virgil with information about the relationship between the sky and the earth (1.233-8)23. As Virgil took eight years to write the Georgics, and because he wrote them in the Epicurean circles of Naples, where Greek language texts were widely available, the Georgics synthesize a lot of the scientific thinking of the day, much of which has not survived. If we read the Georgics exclusively in search of literary and poetic beauty, to a large extent we miss the point – Virgil’s middle poem is often intentionally lovely, but it is also a self-conscious piece of scholarship, synthesizing the scientific traditions of the Hellenistic period.24

Virgil had another source for the instructional content of the Georgics, and this was Hesiod’s Works and Days. Now, several important aspects of the Georgics were influenced by Works and Days, which we covered way back in Episode 7. In the much older Greek poem, from around line 845 up until the end, Hesiod recommends the correct days of the lunar month for doing things. Sheer your sheep on the twelfth of the month, says Hesiod, neuter your hogs on the eighth, crack open your wine on the ninth, and so on (845-928). By performing certain actions on certain days of the month, inhabitants of the ancient Mediterranean world believed they could countenance the gods and incur good luck, and seven hundred years after Works and Days, Virgil includes his own set of instructions on what to do on which day. Go easy on the fifth, Virgil says, because the fifth is bad luck. The ninth is good luck for runaways, so if you need to hoof it, wait for the ninth. And speaking of hooves, if you need to break a wild cow, the seventeenth is a great day for that, or for tying the vines in your vineyard to control where they go (1.275-1.284). We don’t need to spend too much time on these ancient superstitions, but it suffices to say that Hesiod was also one of Virgil’s sources for the strictly instructional content of the Georgics.

So far we’ve had a quick tour of the didactic architecture of Virgil’s second poem. We’ve talked its organization as a whole, the way that Virgil organizes his agricultural discourse into four different books, and how this discourse was woven together from a number of Greco-Roman sources – from Virgil’s contemporaries all the way back to the Archaic Greek past. What I want to do now is to tell you a bit about the style of the Georgics, which, particularly in the Kimberly Johnson translation, is one of the poem’s most remarkable and arresting features.

The Sound and Texture of the Georgics

Even when he is offering instructive content on agriculture, Virgil’s poetry is often so exquisitely crafted that in reading the Georgics you find yourself more captivated by his language than the rather humdrum matters he’s discussing. Let’s look at a longer passage from Book 3 – the book on animal husbandry. In this passage, Virgil discusses the best times for grazing sheep and goats, but does so in such gorgeous lines that they seem like they’d be more at home in the Book of Psalms or Odes of Horace than an ostensible treatise on quadrupeds. Here’s Virgil, Georgics, Book 3, explaining when and where to graze your herds.
But sure, when at the [west wind’s] summons bright summer
sends sheep and goats into clearings and pastures,
at the morning star’s first light let us take to the cool
meadows, while morning’s new, while grasses pale,
while dew upon the tender green [is] most cordial to the flocks.
Then when the fourth hour of the sky has built their thirst
and with plaints the fretful cicadas shatter the woodlands,
beside wells and beside deep pools I’ll bid the flocks
to drink the water rushing in oaken gutters,
in midday heat to seek a shady swale,
wherever with its ancient strength the mighty oak. . .
spreads spacious branches, or wherever dark
with holm oaks lush the grove lounges in holy shade.
Then offer again trickling water and graze them again
to sunset, when cool the evening star soothes the air
and the moon bedewed refreshes the thickets,
when the frith cries with the kingfisher, the furze with finch. (3.322-38)

To me, poetry is rarely more beautiful than this. And I have to make a small confession, which is that my dog loves to stop during a jog and rub his muzzle in dewy grass, or lawns that have had a sprinkler on them, and hardly anything makes me happier than seeing him run through grass with his nose down, and his tail up, and his tongue out, drinking those little droplets as he goes along, so I might have some personal attachment to these lines. But to get back to the subject at hand, Virgil’s poetry is full of sound effects – consonance, or the repetition of consonant sounds; assonance, or the repetition of vowels, not to mention others, and translator Kimberly Johnson does an impressive job of bringing these over into English.

Just because sonority is such a big part of Virgil’s poetry, I thought we’d listen to a trained classicist read some lines from the Georgics in their original language. I look forward to talking about poetry at a more technical level once we get to Middle English and later, but even if you don’t know Latin you can hear repeated vowel and consonant sounds in these six lines in their original language.
saepe etiam inmensum caelo venit agmen aquarum
et foedam glomerant tempestatem imbribus atris
collectae ex alto nubes; ruit arduus aether
et pluvial ingenti sata laeta boumque labores
diluit; implentur fossae et cava flumina crescunt
cum sonitu fervetque fretis spirantibus aequor. (1.322-7)

And that was the voice of my friend Lantern Jack from the Ancient Greece Declassified podcast at greecepodcast.com – he’s a real classicist and so it’s wise for me to leave lengthier Latin hexameters to him. In the passage you just heard, the repetition of vowel sounds is difficult to ignore: nubes, arduus, pluvial, diluit, implentur, flumina, crescunt, cum. And there are consonant repetitions in the first couple of lines – saepe, immensum, tempestatem imbribis, atris, nubes. This is often what Virgil’s poetry sounds like, and if the stories about him reciting directly to Augustus are true, you can imagine Virgil himself reading with a deep conscientiousness of his language’s musicality.

The passage that we just heard in Latin is from Book 1 of the Georgics, from a passage in which Virgil is talking about reading the sky for signs of changing weather. Let’s hear the Kimberly Johnson translation of these lines, just so you can get a sense of what a master translator does when she renders Latin poetry in English.
And often in the sky looms a tremendous host of waters – clouds levied from the ether roll a murky squall of swart rains: shelved heaven tumbles, and with its wet pounding washes off the lilting crop, the oxen’s labours. The gutters fill, the gully swells with rushing, the sea seethes, its estuaries heaving. (1.322-7)

It’s a wonderful translation, in that while it of course can’t capture the same consonance and assonance patterns of the original Latin, it is full of repeated pairings and triplets of sound – “roll” and “squall;” “shelved” and “heaven;” “off” and “crop;” “fill,” “gully,” and “swells;” and “sea seethes.” You might not hear the original Latin sound effects, but great translations can still transpose them into English.

So, you know the superstructure of the Georgics, now – that they are four long poems about plowing, horticulture, animal husbandry, and beekeeping, respectively, and further, that they do communicate some substantive information about the techniques of agriculture. And you also know, from what we just talked about, that even the most mundane portions of the Georgics are written with Virgil’s distinctive and highly crafted poetic language – language that’s melodious and shimmers with repeated sound patterns.

I want to look at a different aspect of the Georgics, now. Last time, when we read the Eclogues, we learned that although Virgil’s earlier ten pastoral poems are set in the seemingly escapist world of shepherds and their rustic courtships, the Eclogues are also littered with references to the madness of love and the depredation of the Italian countryside during the Second Triumvirate. Surprisingly, considering their genre, Virgil’s Eclogues question both the sanity of love as well as the permanence of the pastoral life. And the Georgics do something similar. While they are poems about rural labor, the Georgics often depict labor as something that is essentially unreliable. However carefully you plant your plants and watch your flocks, the Georgics make clear, your best efforts are vulnerable to blights, plagues, and harsh weather, not to mention the ravages of war and the seizures of dictators. Hanging over the Georgics is a greater narrative – a narrative of a lost golden age like so many in the Ancient Mediterranean world. And while Virgil’s Georgics do contain encyclopedic advice about agriculture, the poems are also written with the sense that the work that we undertake is exacting and requires detailed knowledge precisely because the world has fallen from an earlier period of ease and grace.

The Georgics and the Ages of Man Story

Virgil’s Georgics envision a prior golden age when Saturn reigned in the heavens. Saturn was the Roman version of Kronos, the father of Zeus, Hera, and the main Olympian deities in Greek mythology. Virgil writes that “such a life golden Saturn led on earth: / none yet had heard the bugle blare, nor yet / swords clank, struck on iron anvils” (2.540-2). The chronology of this lost age is uncertain. The second Georgic imagines the lives of early farmers in glowing terms, describing plentitudes of cornstalks, olives in the winter, wine in the autumn, cows with swollen udders, and amidst all of this, “The farmer himself keeps holidays, and sprawled upon the grass, / when his friends ring the bonfire and wreathe the bowl. . . / Such a life once lived the ancient Sabines, / such Remus and his brother” (2.527-8,532-33). Here, Virgil envisions a period when agriculture on the peninsula was a rather idyllic affair, when the farmers of Romulus’ generation lived in harmony with the bounty of the Italian peninsula. This was, as we talked about earlier, not an uncommon idea in the late republic – Cato the Elder and Dionysius of Halicarnassus, with a hundred and thirty years between them, had also discussed the lost splendor and vigor of the earliest Romans. Virgil adds another element to the widespread social degeneration theory of the late republic, however – a theological one.

The Roman poets of the first century BCE wrote broadly about a general turning of ages from golden down through several others up to the present – an age of iron, an age of arduous work and great uncertainty. The title of this episode, Episode 53: Then Came Hard Iron, comes from a quote near the beginning of the Georgics, a quote that I think epitomizes one of the main themes of the poem – a golden past and an enervated and disappointing present. Virgil sees the transition between past and present as having come from the rise of Zeus, or Jupiter, or Jove, as the Romans called him, who had killed his father Kronos, or Saturn, and in doing so engendered all the strife and drudgery of human existence. Here’s a fairly long and pivotal quote, again from the Kimberly Johnson translation, published by Penguin in 2009. Virgil writes that when Jupiter ascended to a position of power,
The Father himself willed the way
of husbandry to be severe, first stirred by ingenuity
the fields, honing mortal skill with tribulation,
and suffered not his realm to laze in lumpish sloth.
Before [Jupiter came to power] no yeoman groomed the soil: to mark
the ground or to divide with fences was sacrilege.
In fellowship men strove, and the earth herself,
Unpestered, more freely fruited her abundance.
But he put dire venom into vipers black, bade wolves
to raven and the sea to heave, shook honey from the leaves,
secreted fire, stanched the wine that ran everywhere in streams,
so that need with contemplation might forge sundry arts
in time, might seek in furrows the blade of wheat
and strike from flinty veins the hidden spark. (1.121-34)
[and a little later, Virgil writes that]
Then came hard iron, and the shrill sawblade. . .
. . .Toil subdued the earth,
relentless toil, and the prick of dearth in hardship. . .
If you harry not with tireless rake the weeds,
if with your voice you do not terrify the birds
or with your sickle prune the canopy shading the land,
if with no prayers you call down rain,
O! how you’ll gaze in vain at another’s ample stockpile
and shake the forest oak to soothe your famine. (1.143,145-6,154-9)

The binary structure that undergirds these dark lines is familiar by now. The past was easeful and bounteous; the present is onerous and destitute; the past was simple, and the present bristles with complexities and hidden threats. While republican Rome had its widespread social degeneration theory, Virgil’s iteration of this theory is probably influenced the most by Hesiod’s Works and Days. Hesiod, as, again, we heard in Episode 7, enumerates the ages of gold, silver, bronze, and a fourth age of heroes all having come before the current, degraded age – like Virgil’s, an age of iron. Around 700 years before Virgil wrote that an iron age followed the ascent of Jupiter, Hesiod had written,
I wish I had nothing to do with this fifth generation,
Wish I had died before or been born after,
Because this is the Iron Age
Not a day goes by
A man doesn’t have some kind of trouble.
Nights too, just wearing him down, I mean
The gods send us terrible pain and vexation.25

Virgil, then, likely took the trope of a theologically driven degeneration from Hesiod, and in the Georgics he fastens this theological story to a much younger and more Roman tale about a cultural decline from the doughty days of Romulus and Remus.

The Georgics repeatedly assert that the fallen present age is one in which backbreaking labor is necessary to eke out a living in the countryside. However much past ages might have enjoyed plentiful harvests and mild weather, Virgil emphasizes, the modern rural laborer must exercise tight control over every aspect of his work, or face dearth and shortfall. Streams of wine and leaves dripping honey have given way to an age of crop blights, plagues that ravage shepherds’ flocks – a harsher and more burdensome present that punishes laziness and inattentiveness with unflagging severity.

Throughout the Georgics, the efforts of the rural workman are threatened on all sides. Cranes, and weeds, and unwanted shade all threaten new seedlings (1.118-21). Virgil writes, “I’ve seen seeds long chosen and attended with much labour / still degenerate if human sinew culled not / the fattest out by hand each year. So by decree / all things incline to worse, and foundering backslide” (1.197-200). Not just crops, but livestock is also threatened by uncontrollable forces. Pandemics, Virgil laments, sweep over flocks like storms over the ocean (3.470-3). Grotesque diseases eat the tissue and organs of herd animals, even when they’re carefully attended, rendering even their fur and hides fetid and toxic (3.559-66). Even the most industrious beekeeper is often stricken at the sight of his swarms dropping from the air, disfigured by awful sickness, and in spite of their own collective intelligence and hard work, bees themselves are no match for the ravages of sickness (4.251-9). Maybe most memorably of all, Virgil imagines a pair of hardworking bulls – a pair of brothers – one of whom has died. The surviving brother looks down on his fellow animal and, as Virgil writes,
No shade of deep groves nor soft pastures can stir his spirit, nor the river clearer than amber among the flocks tumbling hard for the plain; but his flanks utterly slack, and a stupor weighs his listless eyes, his neck slumps to the ground with sagging weight. What good his labor or his service? Why with the share upturn the heavy soil? (3.517-26)

These are some of the darkest lines in the Georgics, suggesting that even the most tireless, persevering workers are vulnerable to the merciless vicissitudes of rural life, and that for bull, or the bee; for the seedling, or the growing vine, or the farmer himself, nothing is ever certain or secure in the countryside. Throughout the Georgics, the age of security and plenty is gone, and a much more fraught, and changeable one has come in its place. [music]

Light and Dark: The laudes Italiae and the Careening Chariot


Virgil’s attitude toward Augustus in the Georgics, as is the case in the Eclogues, is a mixture of fulsome flattery and fierce pessimism. He compliments his chief patron lavishly, but at the same time at the end of the first Georgic likens the future of Rome to a chariot careening around in which the driver has dropped the reigns.

The Georgics have a pervasive meta-narrative of a fall from grace, and are set in a world where even the most assiduous work is often futile. Still, though, from time to time the Georgics contrast rural life with the turmoil and cacophony of the Roman capital, and find the countryside to be preferable. While he won’t say that a rustic laborer’s life is free and easy, Virgil does emphasize that the limited scope of a farmer’s world exempts him from some of the more harrowing aspects of late republican history. The plowman or beekeeper, for instance, don’t burn for public laudations or wealth. Rural folk are insulated from the infighting and the imbroglios of the forum, and they aren’t out sailing the seas in search of glory (2.493,495-6,498-508). At one point in the second Georgic, Virgil compares farmers with ambitious citizens of Rome, and he writes that the latter, “Drenched in their brothers’ blood. . .exult, and trade exile for their homes and short porches, / and seek a homeland under an alien sun” (2.509-12). And Virgil, from time to time, describes the political and martial affairs of Rome as ultimately transient. The Battle of Philippi, for instance, had taken place back in 42 BCE. Octavian had won out against the liberator army of Brutus and Cassius. Virgil, looking back toward this battle a decade or so later, thought about Philippi and wrote, “Surely time will come when in those fields / the farmer drudging soil with his curved plough / will turn up scabrous spears corroded by rust / or with his heavy hoe strike empty helmets, / and gape at massive bones in upturned graves” (1.493-7). It’s a particularly interesting little quote. The Aeneid, which Virgil wrote after the Georgics, is in large part an endorsement of the Augustan regime, but in the Georgics, at least, Virgil could still look at the Octavian’s victory and imagine how history would slowly forget it – how weather and rust would gradually efface the scars of Rome’s civil wars, even if the hideous and decaying armaments of battle remained sown beneath the soil of the countryside for generations.

Occasionally in the Georgics, it’s not so much rural work, or a contrast between country and city that takes center stage, but instead a sense of awe about the size and diversity of the Roman heartland. A famous section of the poem – a long slice of the second Georgic, is often called the laudes Italiae, or “praises of Italy.” And although Virgil can imagine the wounds of civil war eventually covered over by fertile soil, there is more than a little nationalism and manifest destiny in the way that he extols the Italian peninsula. Virgil writes that Italy is greater than Persia, or far off Bactria or India, or any comparable distant land. The Roman homeland, Virgil stresses, has no ugly prehistory like that of the Greek city of Thebes – Italy is a place of lush fruits and olives, healthy flocks of sheep, throngs of white bulls and clear water, and endless spring. The perils of other lands – tigers and lions, poisonous plants and venomous snakes, are all far off from Rome’s motherland, a place of prosperous cities watered by lovely rivers (2.136-57). Virgil also acclaims the diversity of Italy’s ancient populations – Marsians, Sabians, Volscians, and others, and then, at the summit of his praises to the Roman heartland, Virgil exclaims, “and you, greatest [Octavian], / who already victor on the farthest fronts of [Anatolia] now, fend the unwarlike [foreigner] from the fortresses of Rome” (2.170-2). This is one of the many praises of Augustus in the Georgics, and I wanted to include it here to give you a sense of how utterly diverse Virgil’s collection is. It includes straightforward advice on farming techniques. The Georgics can make the banalities of rural labor sound piercingly beautiful, but the collection also gives the sense that field work and animal husbandry are difficult and exhausting – occupations of people cursed to live in the hard iron age of Jupiter, and not his gentler father, Saturn. The Georgics can disparage Rome as a place of frenetic competition and backstabbing, and imagine a time when Rome’s battles will slowly disintegrate into rust and dirt. But the Georgics, as we just heard, can also paint a shiningly nationalistic portrait of Italy and pinpoint Octavian as its savior.

All in all, Virgil’s middle poem is unruly – a set of meditations and disquisitions loosely centered on country living, made consistent more than anything by the exquisite lacquer of poetic language of its composition. Having spent a lot of time with the Georgics, and having had a special interest in work poetry that dates way back to my undergraduate days, I still find it hard to put Virgil’s middle poem into a punchy thematic summary, as anything I can say to try to wrangle its contents into a central thesis or idea isn’t supported by entirety of its four parts. To close this general summation of the Georgics, the best that I’ve been able to come up with is that the Georgics are about the attempt to impose control and order on something not really inclined to be controlled or orderly. Even nine years before the Georgics, in 37 BCE, Virgil’s predecessor Varro had been able to write an agricultural treatise in which jurisdiction over a small plot of land might serve as some consolation for the uncertainty of the present. In Virgil’s Georgics, however, produced during the final bloody showdown between Octavian and Mark Antony, this order is ultimately elusive.

Book 1 of the Georgics ends with a memorably intense series of lines – perhaps lines that encapsulate the disparate contents of the entire collection. The lines in question are a prayer – a prayer that Rome itself will see its own chaos replaced by order. I’m going to read you the close of the first Georgic, this time from the prose translation of H. Rushton Fairclough, just to offer some variety.
Gods of my country, Heroes of the land, you, Romulus, and you, mother Vesta, who guard [the] Tiber and the Palatine of Rome, at least do not prevent this young prince [Octavian] from succouring a world in ruins! Long enough has our life-blood paid for [our ancestral transgressions]; long enough have Heaven’s courts grudged you, [Octavian], to us, complaining that you care [too much] for earthly triumphs! For here are right and wrong inverted; so many wars overrun the world, sin walks in so many shapes; respect for the plough is gone; our lands, robbed of the tillers, lie waste, and curved pruning hooks are forged into straight blade. Here Euphrates, there Germany, calls to arms; breaking the covenants which bind them, neighboring cities draw the sword; the god of unholy strife rages throughout the world, even as when from the starting gates the chariots stream forth and gather speed lap by lap, while the driver, tugging vainly at the reins, is carried along by his steeds, and the car heeds not the [driver]. (1.498-515)26

Virgil’s entreaty here is poignant. He says he knows Rome is stained with sins. He knows, even, that the gods might find Octavian himself culpable of hubris. But all the same, Virgil asks the gods if they might please help the republic out of its Armageddon. And rather than an image of expected relief, or even a final petition for divine help, Virgil ends with image of destruction – a Roman chariot, careening around tracks, wildly out of control. This same idea – the idea of events being frighteningly beyond the bridles of human control – is everywhere in the Georgics. The world that Virgil depicts in the four poems is one in which human agency even at its best is feeble amidst rampaging armies and pandemics and harsh weather. Even in passages about the minutiae of agriculture focus on the intractability of nature. There are causes for hope – tight discipline might wrest bounty from the obdurate countryside, and Octavian might manage to seize the reigns of the Roman state and steer it toward safety and stability. But all in all, Virgil’s Georgics are poems of a fallen age, an age when even hard iron and human will count for almost nothing, an age, in Virgil’s words, after which “departing Justice left her last footprints upon the earth” (2.474). [music]

The Etiology of bugonia in the Fourth Georgic

So now you have an idea of the historical background of Virgil’s Georgics, and the complex contents of these four poems. We could stop here and call it a day, but there are a couple of miscellaneous things that are worth talking about before we move onto the Aeneid in the next episode. The most important of them, I think, is the fourth Georgic – the one about beekeeping.

The fourth Georgic, for a couple of reasons, stands out in the collection. Its ostensible topic is how to keep your swarms of bees happy and healthy, and keep them producing honey. We saw earlier that Virgil believed that bees had kings, and not queens, and from time to time he imagines bees as members of miniature societies analogous to human ones, at one point even envisioning a pitched battle between bee armies, each led by its respective king (4.67-76). The bee battles in the fourth Georgic are a little silly at first glance. If the purported intent of the Georgics is to provide reliable information about agriculture, then anthropomorphized bee armies seem glaringly out of place. However, they may well be further commentary on Rome’s civil wars, equating them to events as meaningless and inconsequential as skirmishes between insects, and serving as a further example of how in the fallen iron age of modernity, strife and warfare exist at a micro, as well as a macro level.

An even more memorable idiosyncrasy of Book 4 is a long and mythologized history of a pseudoscientific topic called bugonia, a history that begins in line 283 and derails the poem all the way until the end. Now, bugonia – and this is serious, by the way – bugonia was an ancient Mediterranean theory that bees could spontaneously generate themselves from the carcasses of dead animals – particularly cows. The idea was that if you slaughtered an animal and then did certain things to its corpse correctly, you could come back to the animal after a certain period of time and find bees for your apiary. The process, as Virgil describes it, is rather brutal and grotesque. When beekeepers want to generate swarms, Virgil writes,
. . .a calf with horns just arched upon his two-year brow
is fetched, with both his nostrils and the breath of his mouth,
despite great struggling, stopped up. After he’s beaten to death
his carcass is pulped up, pounded through the unbroken hide.
They leave him lying thus in his pen, and stuff beneath his flanks
broken twigs, thyme and fresh cassia. (4.299-305)

After beating a two year old calf to death, then, you’re supposed to put some herbs underneath his corpse, wait a while, and then, voila, bees! If it sounds weirdly familiar, that’s because the topic comes up in the Old Testament – Chapter 14 of the Book of Judges, when Samson discovers a beehive and honeycomb in a lion carcass, and then asks the Philistines a riddle – “Out of the eater came something to eat. / Out of the strong came something sweet” (Judg 14:14). The Philistines understandably have no idea what in the hell Sampson is describing, and thus his conundrum is a success. The Deuteronomist, some six hundred years before Virgil, had also heard of the pseudoscientific subject of bugonia, and wove the topic into the epic story of the early history of Judah.

Now, it doesn’t take a prodigy to understand that omnivorous arthropods like bees might choose to build a colony inside of a dead animal, so that every time they go outside they can immediately have access to food. Walk by a dead seal on the beach and it’s blanketed by flying insects. The scientists of the Hellenistic period observed insects swarming around dead animals and many of them concluded that carcasses themselves gave rise to insects like bees and hornets, since bees and hornets were never observed mating in the wild. Aristotle wrote an extended analysis of the subject in a book called On the Generation of Animals, and while he admitted that “There is much difficulty about the generation of bees,” he did not endorse what seems to us to be the bizarre notion that bees appear spontaneously in the corpses of rotting animals.27 Virgil, however, had much to say about bugonia. An astonishing 275 lines of Book 4 of the Georgics are a how-to manual and mythical history of the practice of bugonia, which, even in Virgil’s own day, had lost its scientific credibility.28 Virgil introduces the history of bugonia as a fama, or rumor, indicating that he was probably more interested in the legendary history and poetic possibilities of making bees from corpses than actually trying to do so.

Aristaeus georgics

An illustration of the story in the fourth Georgic from a 1517 French manuscript. On the right, presumably, Aristaeus asks his topless sea nymph mother for advice on how to get his lost bees back. On the left, following the advice of Proteus, Aristaeus has sacrificed some mammals and is thrilled to see bees shooting out of the skull of one of the head of an oxen he killed.

Virgil, writing about how to best go about spontaneously generating bees, tells a story within a story within a Georgic. Bugonia, Virgil tells us, was first discovered when a shepherd called Aristaeus lost his bees. Aristaeus lamented to his mother, a sea nymph, along with her divine maidens. Aristaeus’ mother opened a river so that he could walk into it, and she told her son that he needed to capture a wily oceanic deity called Proteus – that this Proteus, a seer, might help Aristaeus get his bees back. So, taking his mother’s advice, the shepherd Aristaeus hid and waited, and then ambushed the hapless seer Proteus and shackled him. With Proteus in captivity, Aristaeus, thinking of his lost bees, demanded to know why such ill luck had befallen him.

Proteus then begins the story within the story within the Georgic, and the innermost story is the tale of Orpheus and Eurydice. In a sentence, the divine musician Orpheus falls in love with a girl called Eurydice, she dies, he goes to the underworld to rescue her and is told he can take her out if he doesn’t look back, he looks back, she dies again, and then later he dies too. If you want to hear the entire version of this story, cobbled from many sources, Volume 3 of my bonus collection Rad Greek Myths tells the tale in full. Anyway, so, in the fourth Georgic, the seer Proteus tells the tale of Orpheus to Aristaeus, which actually doesn’t really help Aristaeus get his bees back. But later, Aristaeus returns to his mother and she tells him how to appease the wood nymphs who have wrecked his fortunes. Aristaeus is told to sacrifice four oxen at four altars, leaving their dead bodies in the woods, then send poppies to Orpheus, sacrifice a black ewe, then slaughter a calf for Eurydice. And then, sure enough, after Aristaeus goes on his short series of adventures and ritually kills six large mammals, he gets his bees back – Virgil writes that “in the oxens’ liquefied guts and through the whole / belly, bees buzz and swarm through the split flanks / and trail in unending clouds, and now surge / to a treetop and dangle in clusters from limber boughs” (4.555-8). It is, to my knowledge, the only happy ending in literature that involves the words “liquefied guts.” Eight lines later, after a little postscript about writing the poem, the entirety of the Georgics come to an end, Virgil’s mythological history of the practice of bugonia serving as their rather smelly coda. [music]

Breeding Bulls and Praising Patrons

The bugonia episode is a somewhat odd end to the Georgics, but nonetheless it shows that through and through, Virgil dove into even the grimier, stranger, and more mythological aspects of country life, and forged a seamless poem out of it all. The poem’s heterogeneity is part of what makes it special. And this heterogeneity also includes customary Augustan Age praises to patrons. The entire book opens with an acknowledgement of Maecenas’ patronage (1.1-5), and each subsequent book mentions him at least once (2.39-41, 3.40-4, 4.1-2). Similarly widespread are Virgil’s endorsements of Octavian, who also comes up in Book 1 (1.18-25), who serves as the capstone to Virgil’s praises of Italy in Book 2 (2.170-2), and whom Virgil promises to build a temple to in the opening lines of Book 3 (3.1-39) – a poetic temple, novel and separate from the old traditions of Greek literature, which some scholars interpret as a reference to the upcoming Aeneid. Now, all of these praises and acknowledgements of patrons are standard stuff in the poetry of Virgil’s generation, but from time to time, with memorable awkwardness, Virgil’s lofty praises of Octavian give way to sudden advice on the grubby matters of farming. For instance, Virgil promises to build Octavian a temple “of insurmountable stone” (3.39) with “doors in gold and solid ivory” (3.26). And shortly afterward, Virgil is offering instructions on how to breed cattle, a comparatively earthier topic:
while in the herds frisky youth prevails
turn loose the males – be first to send your cattle to rut
and by breeding bring forth stock after stock.
All life’s best days speed earliest away
to mortal rue; in slink diseases, bleak dotage
and distress, and cruel death ravages unmerciful. (3.63-8)

Within the space of forty lines, then, Virgil has promised Octavian that he’ll build an everlasting temple of poetry, then told Octavian how to make sure to release sexually aroused bulls into the fields when they’re young, and then told Octavian that life is short, and diseases are everywhere. While variety historically been one of the most admired aspects of the Georgics, sometimes their variety can be lumpy.

By the same token, though, the richness of Virgil’s language is at all times arresting in its texture and composition. In the passage about breeding cows I just quoted above, there is actually an extremely famous line, and that line is, in Latin, optima quaeque dies miseris mortalibus aevi / prima fugit (3.66-7). The American novelist Willa Cather took the epigraph for her 1918 novel My Ántonia, shortening the Latin optima quaeque dies miseris mortalibus aevi / prima fugit to “optima dies. . .prima fugit,” or, commonly, “the best days are the first to pass.” It is worth remembering for a giggle that this famous American epigraph is lifted from a passage that is actually about sexually aroused bulls. And it’s also worth remembering that even when writing about sexually aroused bulls, Virgil could write a couplet so lovely that a writer as brilliant as Willa Cather would use it as an epigraph for one of her finest novels, almost two thousand years later. [music]

Famous Assessments of Virgil’s Poetry

I hope the general summary I’ve offered in this program has given you a sense of how Roman culture and history inspired Virgil to write his four Georgics, but at the same time how his ingenuity as a poet made the four poems stand out to Octavian in 29 BCE, and to generations of readers since. In over 2,000 lines of poetry, Virgil’s portrayal of the Roman world at the end of the republic runs the gamut between resolute, uncertain, and despairing, with the occasional lump and bump as he transitions between topics. But over the wide topical and tonal variations of the Georgics, Virgil’s distinct descriptive style, his gigantic vocabulary and novel combinations of words, and his rich sonority create an elegant continuity, like a single virtuoso musician playing a very diverse medley of works.


Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) was one of a number of eighteenth and nineteenth century poets convinced that Virgil had more frippery than substance.

Virgilian language is so distinct that in the early 19th century, when the works of ancient Greece were beginning to supplant those of Rome as the classics par excellence of the Anglophone world, Samuel Taylor Coleridge asked, “If you take from Virgil his language and metre, what do you leave him?”29 To certain British romanticists, Virgil was all glitter and gimmick and no substance – a veneer of epic and archaic diction seasoned with everyday words and workaday nomenclature, splendid and unique in texture but lacking originality; icing, certainly, but no cake. This assessment of Virgil has been commonplace, particularly in Anglophone scholarship – Virgil is ornament and frippery, Homer and Aeschylus are fiber and substance; Virgil is derivative and emotionally distant; Euripides and Sophocles are full of explosive passion; Latin literature is the shiny chrome polish, and Greek the steel underneath it. In a 1951 essay, T.S. Eliot accused Virgil of “moving in a kind of emotional twilight.” And Eliot continues, “Virgil was, among all authors of classical antiquity, one for whom the world made sense, to whom it had order and dignity, and for whom. . .history had meaning.”30 And while Eliot is often a tremendous literary critic, I think on this point he is absolutely wrong.

Again and again, the Georgics are poems about the fundamental disorder of nature and human society. If they have a governing law, it isn’t, in Eliot’s words, that “the world made sense,” but instead something like the Second Law of Thermodynamics – entropy, or disorder, can never decrease – at best, its proliferation might slow. From great forces like the wind and rain and the bloody machinery of Roman history all the way down to the fragile domains of plant roots and new leaves, the Georgics depict a world full of ineluctable and harsh randomness, in which human existence is a chariot in which the charioteer has lost all control. Before the Georgics, the Eclogues had painted often gloomy portraits of herdsmen – characters as defenseless against love and heartbreak as they are against the land grabs of the Second Triumvirate. If Virgil had wanted to dash out trite portraits of shepherds, singing juvenile songs about heartache, he would have done so. And if Virgil had wanted to write an agricultural treatise with the shipshape orderliness and crisp optimism of Varro’s eight years later, again, he would have done so. But Virgil’s early poems are not simple genre performances. Precisely because the history around him did not make sense, Virgil’s first two poems are swirls of beauty and anguish, in which tranquil scenes of shepherds and practical advice on farming are mottled with fierce pessimism. By his forty-first birthday, Virgil had discovered that while the world around him had little order or dignity, his poems afforded him something by way of recompense. [music]

Work Poetry After Virgil

Many aspects of the Georgics influenced many different authors and texts. David Scott Wilson-Okamura, who has written an authoritative survey of Virgil’s reception during the Renaissance, enumerates a number of Italian texts written during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries directly modeled on Virgil’s middle poem. The tradition of writing agricultural and domestic manuals in English began later – a little before and then during the life of Shakespeare. Seldom studied authors, among them John Fitzherbert and Thomas Tusser, wrote manuals on correct and efficacious deportment in the home and farm during the 1500s. Later, in 1599, a writer named Thomas Moffet wrote a volume called The Silkewormes, a treatise that imitates Virgil’s didactic style fairly closely.31

By the eighteenth century, didactic poetry was coming back into vogue in the English language – we have treatises on the production of cider, the cultivation of hops, and more famously a work called The Fleece, written by the English poet John Dyer on the subject of sheep and shearing.32 Scholars of American literature, like me, read a treatise called The Sugar Cane, published about a decade before the American Revolution – a text on how to manage sugar plantations in the eighteenth-century Caribbean, where many young Englishmen were making their fortunes during that period of history. Even when imitated as a little more than a didactic poem on agriculture, then, Virgil’s Georgics had an influence that stretched across oceans and millennia.

But in the Anglophone world, the most important student of Virgil was John Milton. From Virgil, Milton took his elevated and syntactically complex language. And from Virgil, Milton learned to write lines that work like onion layers, in which allusions to texts from many genres and many periods of history are compacted into quartets, couplets, and even individual lines. As scholar Kevis Goodman writes,
Even more so than in Milton, who learned this technique from Virgil, and more than in the Eclogues or the Aeneid, every line [in Virgil’s Georgics] teems with the buried and multiple voices of other poets. Those versus are a crowded palimpsest of classical culture, and they have been diligently probed for their multiple sources, generating marginal notes and glosses deeper than any underworld.33

That image of a palimpsest is a common analogy in literary criticism, by the way – a palimpsest is a manuscript on which new writing has been written on top of old writing which has been erased or covered up, and the traces of the old writing remain, and so it’s a nice way to think of poets like Virgil and Milton, whose poems are full of words and quotes from writers of ages past. And I know this because Kevis Goodman herself explained it to me back in college, when I took classes on Milton and eighteenth-century English literature from her. Anyway, probably more than the Eclogues or the Aeneid, in reading the Georgics Milton and other writers learned how a single poem can have a whole literary and cultural history folded into it.


Virgil’s ultimate heir, alongside Dante, was John Milton (1608-1674), who followed Virgil’s career from pastoral to epic.

And I think Milton took something else from the Georgics – something a little bit more obvious. Paradise Lost is about the fall of Adam and Eve from Eden. This fall is the ultimate Christian story about a decline from a golden age. But the story of Adam and Eve, written alternately by the Jahwist, Elohist and Priestly sources of the Old Testament over the course of the 600s and 500s BCE, nonetheless belongs to the Iron Age’s wide variety of tales about falls from grace. In selecting the subject of the fall of humankind from Eden for his epic, Milton was of course engaging with one of the pillars of medieval and renaissance Catholicism. But he also knew that he was engaging with a very old literary motif that a veritable who’s who of earlier pagan authors had also written about – Ovid, Virgil, Horace, Catullus, and before all of them, Hesiod. What Milton did not know, and what we know today as a result of the decipherment of Ugaritic, Akkadian, Sumerian, and other languages, is that the story of mankind falling from grace isn’t original to the Iron Age at all.

Stories of previous periods of plenty giving way to dearth and misfortune have deep roots in Bronze Age. The twin tales of Isis and Osiris, and then Inanna and Dumuzi, are Egyptian and Sumerian stories that date all the way back to the late third millennium BCE, in which gods die or disappear, and the earth descends into hardship as a result. We read the Atrahasis of Babylon, which in Sumerian literature dates back to around the same period – and in this epic a malevolent deity ravages the earth with sicknesses, droughts and then a flood, after which, as in Virgil’s Georgics, people are expected to live lies of industry and labor. In the next thousand years, ancient Anatolian myths about vanished gods, and the Greek tale of Demeter causing climatological havoc on the earth after her daughter Persephone’s abduction, and Ugartic sagas from the north of Canaan about the sicknesses that ravage earth after the deaths of the gods Kirta and Baal allow us to trace out the ages of man story again, and again, and again, over different cultures, and different centuries. If Virgil’s Georgics is a palimpsest of allusions to earlier works, then those earlier works are the same, and we can only conclude that thousands of years before we had written histories, the way that we would explain hard times to one another was to ascribe food shortages and wars and harsh weather to the actions of the gods – sometimes prompted by our own misdeeds, and other times, theirs. [music]

Epic Style in the Georgics

Well, now that we’ve covered the works of Virgil, in the next episode, we’re going to move on to the Latin poet Propertius. Propertius was born about twenty years after Virgil, and he spent his early life in – [sound effect of record scratch]. Just kidding. Yeah, it’s time for Virgil’s Aeneid.

To me, there are a few moments in the Georgics – and one in particular – at which I think you can actually watch Virgil start toying with elements of an epic about Rome – in taking the events of recent history and putting them into the mythological framework that dated back to the Homeric sagas. It’s in the first Georgic, and what happens is that Virgil is offering ways to read the signs of the sun to foretell weather, and suddenly he stops and describes what happened in the sky the moment that Julius Caesar was assassinated back in 44 BCE. I’m going to give you one last quote – a fabulous quote, from the older Fairclough prose translation, just because of sentimental attachment to it. Here’s Virgil, wrapping up instructions on reading the signs of the sky and going on a long and extraordinary tangent about how the world was rocked by Caesar’s murder and the events that unfolded afterward.
In short, [Virgil writes in the first Georgic,] the tale told by even-fall, the quarter whence the wind drives clear the clouds, the purpose of the rainy South – of all the Sun will give you signs. Who dare say the Sun is false? Nay, he oft warns us that dark uprisings threaten, that treachery and hidden wars are upswelling. Nay, he had pity for Rome, when, after Caesar sank from sight, [the sun] veiled his shining face in dusky gloom, and a godless age feared everlasting night. Yet in that hour Earth also, and Ocean’s plains, and ill-boding dogs and ominous birds, gave their tokens. How oft we saw [Mount] Aetna flood the Cyclopes’s fields [in Sicily], when streams [of magma] poured from her rent furnaces, and she whirled balls of flame and molten rocks! Germany heard the clash of arms through all the sky; the Alps rocked with onwonted terrors. A voice, too, was heard of many amid the silence of solemn groves – an awful voice; and specters, pale in wondrous wise, were seen at evening twilight; and beasts – O portent, terrible! – spake as men. Rivers halt, earth gapes wide, in temples the ivory weeps in sorrow, and bronzes sweat. Eridanus, king of rivers, washed away in the swirl of his mad eddy whole forests, and all across the plains swept cattle and stalls alike. Yea, in that same hour, threatening filaments ceased not to show themselves in ominous entrails, or blood to flow from wells, or lofty cities to echo all the night with the howl of wolves. (1.466-486)34

Now that does not sound like a poet content to write shepherds’ songs and farming manuals. That sounds like a poet who is getting ready to do something epic. And for the record, over the course of 44 BCE there seem to have been unusual meteorological events, including an eclipse that November, and so Virgil isn’t entirely improvising all these details. But as Virgil blends his counsel on how to read the weather together with a bombastic catalog of the dire events that heralded Julius Caesar’s death, I think you can see here and elsewhere in the Georgics that the poet was becoming interested in ways to heighten and conflate the history of Rome into epic mythology.

There is a story in the Roman historians Suetonius (Augustus 18.1) and Cassius Dio (Roman History 51.16) – a story about Octavian in about 30 BCE, after the death of his arch nemesis Mark Antony. Octavian had gone down to Alexandria to oversee the final campaign against Mark Antony. After the deaths of Antony and Cleopatra, Octavian, knowing that he had won mastery of Rome, knowing that he was the most powerful person in the Mediterranean, and that he had taken steps to make this power sustainable, went to the tomb of Alexander and set a crown on the corpse of the fallen general. It is, in the ancient Roman historians, a sort of gesture between equals, because up to the time of Octavian, no one had ever been as powerful as Alexander the Great. Octavian, aged 33, crowned Alexander, who’d died at 33, perhaps thinking that while Alexander had merely conquered the world, he himself would add to that achievement, reshaping and governing and reorganizing the world long afterward as he saw fit. In Dio’s account, Octavian accidentally breaks the nose off of Alexander’s corpse, further suggesting that Alexander’s legacy was short and brittle, in contrast to the longer one Augustus would leave behind him.

Virgil also had an Alexander – a figure from the exalted past whose achievements could supposedly never be equaled. And the year after Octavian crowned the dead Alexander, Virgil joined a small, spirited set of Hellenistic poets whose works are now lost, and decided to challenge Homer himself. In the next program, we’re going to read the first three books of the Aeneid, one of earth’s great epics. I’ve recorded some orchestral and thematic music specifically for this epic, and worked with some great folks to make sure all the historical analysis is strong and accurate. So next time, get ready for one of the most incredible stories in literature, as we join Aeneas in his journey out of Troy, hear about the harrowing end of the Trojan War, and meet Queen Dido of Carthage.

Something really terrific happened while I prepared this episode. And that was finding the Kimberly Johnson translation of the Georgics, and getting her help in the production of this episode, both as an editor and a reader of her own work. I actually had a listener recommend her translation – someone doing the anonymous survey on my website said I had to find her version of the Georgics, or else. So I bought a copy. I was working on another author at the time – probably Catullus or Horace or something, and I needed to crack open the Georgics, so I used the translation I’d recently purchased. I was only looking for a short quote, but once I read a few lines I frowned, blinked, and kept reading. My immediate impression was that it just didn’t feel like the translations I’d been using – as you’ve heard throughout this episode, the Johnson translation is able to recreate a great deal of Virgil’s assonance, and consonance, and the strangeness of his diction, and to do so in such a way that feels totally natural in English. This is because, in addition to being a scholar and student of ancient languages, Johnson is also an accomplished modern poet. Now, there just aren’t too many people on the planet who can teach courses and publish on Renaissance literature, translate Latin and Archaic Greek into rich and beautiful modern English, and publish nationally renowned books of original poetry, too. So I wanted to give two of her recent translations an extra special recommendation – her Georgics, which we read in this episode, and her new translation of Hesiod’s Works and Days and Theogony, which she released in 2017. These two books are, as we learned in this episode, related to one another, and unless another prodigy shows up in the near future, Professor Johnson’s translations will be the best ones available for a long time. I’ve put both of them up on the Featured Books page at literatureandhistory.com, and yeah – I can’t recommend translations any more than I can these two – pick up a copy, learn your classics firsthand, support a brilliant modern poet and a couple of great publishers – everybody gets to win.

Well, once again next time we begin the Aeneid. We actually haven’t done anything narrative, with a story, for almost ten episodes – in other words it’s been all philosophy or short poetry. And I think it will be a treat to spend the next four shows on one long, unfolding epic. Try a quiz on this episode at literatureandhistory.com if you want to see what you remember about the Georgics. I have a silly song coming up if you want to hear it – if not, thanks for digging into Latin poetry with me, and I’ll see you next time.

Still here? So I got to thinking. I was thinking about that ever-idealized Roman soldier/statesman/farmer figure who gets idolized throughout the history of the late republic and early empire, but never actually seems to have existed. I got to wondering – what if we could get a music studio, and go back in time, to the Italian peninsula, in 200 BCE. It seems very possible to me – you know, they’re working on music studios that travel through time at this very moment. Well, I was trying to decide what kind of a song an ancient Roman farmer would sing, and what he’d say about his daily life, and I wrote this country tune, which is called “The Ancient Republican.” Hope it’s a tolerable way to kill three minutes, and I’ll be bringing you Rome’s most famous epic very soon.


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

2.^ Johnson, Kimberly. “Introduction.” In Virgil. Virgil’s Georgics: A Poem of the Land. Translated by Kimberly Johnson. London and New York: Penguin, 2009, p. 14.

3.^ For an overview of Lucretius’ influence on the Georgics, see See Hardie, Philip. New Surveys in the Classics: Virgil. OUP, 2006, pp. 30-1.

4.^ See Wilson-Okamura, David Scott. Virgil in the Renaissance. Cambridge University Press, 2010, pp. 77-82.

5.^ Suetonius. Augustus 168. Printed in Delphi Complete Works of Suetonius. Delphi Classics, 2016. Kindle Edition, Location 2514.

6.^ On poets being requested to do epics for Augustus, see Griffin, Jasper. “Augustan Poetry and Augustanism.” Printed in Galinsky, Karl, ed. The Cambridge Companion to the Age of Augustus. Cambridge University Press, 2005. Kindle Edition, location 5793. Griffin records such these requests in Virgil, Ecl 6.1–12; Horace, Sat 1.10.31ff., 2.1.4ff.; Odes 1.6, 2.12, 4.2, 4.3, 4.15; Epist 2.1.250ff.; Propertius. 2.10, 2.34.25ff., 3.1, 3.3, 3.9, 4.1; Ovid, Amores 1.1, 1.15, 2.1, 2.18.

7.^ Dionysius of Halicarnassus. Roman Antiquities 1.11. Printed in Delphi Complete Works of Dionysius of Halicarnassus. Delphi Classics, 2017. Kindle Edition, Location 1493.

8.^ See Hesiod (WD 58-128), Gen (2.15-3.24), Jer (3.2-3,13.25-7 et. al.), Ez (16: 8,16,17, 20-2, 24-9, 37-40), Dan (2.25-45), Catullus (64.384-6,397-8,405-9), Vigil (Ecl 4.1,4-20,21-5,25-30,48-52,60-4) Horace (Epo 16.65-8).

9.^ Cornell, Tim. The Beginnings of Rome: Italy and Rome from the Bronze Age to the Punic Wars (c. 1000-264 BC). London and New York: Routledge, 1995, p. 60.

10.^ Dionysius Roman Antiquities 1.11. Cicero, in De Republica 2.4 and 2.24, also maintains that Romulus’ native and rustic intelligence and manliness (rather than pedigree) were part of what helped establish the republic.

11.^ Cato. De Agricultura. In Roman Farm Management: The Treatises of Cato and Varro. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1913, p. 12.

12.^ Cicero. On Duties 1.151. Delphi Complete Works of Cicero. Delphi Classics, 2014. Kindle Edition, Location 78162.

13.^ See Miles, Gary B. Virgil’s Georgics: A New Interpretation. University of California Press, 1980, p. 28.

14.^ Sallust. Catilinae Coniuratio 4.1.2. Printed in Delphi Complete Works of Sallust. Delphi Classics, 2014. Kindle Edition, Location 119.

15.^ Miles, Gary B. Virgil’s Georgics: A New Interpretation. University of California Press, 1980, p. 30.

16.^ For this and the ensuing discussion, see Miles (1980), pp. 17-21.

17.^ The aristocratic Sostratos’ efforts to impress his prospective countrified father-in-law Knemon in Menander’s Old Cantankerous (316 BCE) show how just early on Greco-Roman writers were mocking the absurdity of wealthy urbanites affecting to do real agricultural work.

18.^ Goodman, Kevis. Georgic Modernity and British Romanticism: Poetry and the Mediation of History. Cambridge University Press, 2004, p. 28.

19.^ Varro. Res Rusticae 1.5.3-4, 1.17.1. Printed in Miles, 1980, p. 41.

20.^ Levi, Peter. Virgil: His Life and Times. New York: Saint Martin’s Press, 1999, p. 3.

21.^ Johnson, Kimberly. “Introduction.” In Virgil. Virgil’s Georgics: A Poem of the Land. Translated by Kimberly Johnson. London and New York: Penguin, 2009, p. xxi.

22.^ See Johnson (2009), pp. xv, 160n.

23.^ Ibid, p. 159n.

24.^ Another source, Nicander’s Georgika, may have given Virgil his title. See Hardie, Philip. New Surveys in the Classics: Virgil. OUP, 2006, p. 29.

25.^ Hesiod. Works and Days and Theogony. Translated by Stanley Lombardo. Indianapolis/Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company, inc., 1993, p. 28.

26.^ Virgil. Eclogues, Georgics, Aeneid 1-6. Translated by H. Rushton Fairclough and Revised by G.P. Goold. Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 1999, p. 135.

27.^ Aristotle. The Generation of Animals (3.10). Printed in Delphi Complete Works of Aristotle. Delphi Classics, 2013, Kindle Edition, Location 30887.

28.^ Marcus Terentius Varro quotes the Greek writer Archileos (5th-century BCE) about bugonia having scientifically debunked, and Virgil uses the word fama, or “rumor” to introduce the bugonia episode. See Ross, David. Virgil’s Elements: Physics and Poetry in the Georgics. Princeton University Press, 1987, p. 216. My thanks to Kimberly Johnson for clarification on this point. Ovid’s Metamorphoses (XV.364-7) also introduce bugonia, but only in a passage about other fanciful folk superstitions.

29.^ Quoted in The Oxford History of Classical Reception in English Literature, Vol. 4. Ed. David Hopkins, et. al. OUP, 2015, p. 360.

30.^ Eliot, T.S. “Virgil and the Christian World.” Printed in Eliot, T.S. On Poetry and Poets. FSG Classics, 2009, p. 148.

31.^ See Wilson-Okamura, David Scott. Virgil in the Renaissance. Cambridge University Press, 2010, pp. 82-5.

32.^ The others are Cyder (John Philips, 1708) and The Hop-Garden (Christopher Smart, 1752).

33.^ Goodman, Kevis. Georgic Modernity and British Romanticism: Poetry and the Mediation of History. Cambridge University Press, 2004, p. 28.

34.^ Virgil. Eclogues, Georgics, Aeneid 1-6. Translated by H. Rushton Fairclough. New York: G.P. Putnam’s sons, 1916, pp. 113-15.