VERGIL’S POLITICAL COMMENTARY IN THE ECLOGUES, GEORGICS AND AENEID

By Leendert Werda

De Gruyter (2015) h/b 175pp £52.99 (ISBN 9783110426410)

The author (‘W.’) lays out his programme clearly (p. 4): in the first part (ch.1 and 2) are the ‘theoretical cadre’ and the literary and socio-political context; in the second (ch. 3 on Ecl. and Geo.; ch. 4 on Aen; ch. 5 was V. independent?) is considered whether V. ‘expressed political opinions and whether it is likely that he wrote propaganda.’

W. sets out to show that Virgil was an independent and dispassionate political commentator. ‘One of V.’s objectives in writing the Aeneid was to give his views on contemporary political issues’ (p. 137). For example ‘V. was much concerned about the disappearance of farming and smallholdings in Italia’ (p.57). ‘It is likely that [V.] remained as convinced as he was before of the need to restore the land and to bring order and stability, and that he saw that the changing world required a more efficient authority’ (p. 146). ‘…by referring to Cleopatra in his portrait of Dido he showed his approval … of (!!) the extension of women’s activities’ (p. 133).

W. describes V. as writing his poetry with the use of two types of model, the ‘literary’ and the ‘functional.’ ‘Literary’ models are all those authors by reference to whom V. puts himself within the tradition of Graeco-Roman poetry. As for ‘functional model’, the idea is set out in pp. 11-13, but I confess that I never fully understood the idea. It seems to refer to a process whereby V. identifies some person or feature of the contemporary world and then invents, or discovers in previous literature, a character in whom he can invest some of the characteristics of the contemporary person, then using this to express an evaluation of contemporary events. On p. 13 we have Horace Odes 1.12 used as an example. This poem starts by imitating an ode of Pindar that praises the Syracusan tyrant Theron. Now Horace does not mention Theron at all, only a list of gods and Roman heroes, culminating in a reference to Marcellus who married Augustus’ daughter Julia in 25 BC. It’s not clear to me whether the ‘functional model’ is the Horace poem itself, the character of Theron in the Pindaric ancestor of the poem, or Augustus who, W. claims, is the ‘model’ for Theron.

This is a treatment of ‘further voices’ in a way which brushes aside the subtleties of the Harvard School. It is not that Augustus will like the Aeneid because he has failed to see the negative side of his New Rome in it, or even that V. and Augustus are getting together to say ‘nice omelette, pity about the eggs’. No, V. is setting this negative side out plainly for Augustus to see, and telling him he should do something about it. The trouble is, what should he do? You can’t really be a ‘political’ commentator just by noticing what’s wrong; you need to have a scheme for putting things right and a suggestion for how to go about it. V. has neither of those. ‘Is V. a propagandist?’ is also dealt with less than satisfactorily. ‘Propaganda’ is never clearly defined, and at least one argument that V. was no propagandist (pp. 31-43: ‘literature reached too narrow an audience to be described as propaganda’) is surely off-beam.

In short, this is an approach to Virgil which has not been around for a very long time. It probably has its use, in focusing our minds on the historical context. But as an aid to appreciating Virgil the poet, it will not appeal to many.

Keith MacLennan

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