The following is the first part of an essay I wrote for a tutorial in Oxford in an attempt to address the question: “In what ways has Virgil’s Fourth Eclogue been interpreted since its composition and why is the Messianic view rejected by most modern scholars?”
It is not without reason that readers of Virgil’s Fourth Eclogue have drawn parallels between it and the messianic prophecies in the Old Testament Book of Isaiah. Despite the debate regarding whether or not Virgil’s poem should be viewed as prophetic in nature, the poem certainly contains messianic themes, for it depicts the birth of a child whose naissance will mark the advent of a new Golden Age. Although many early ecclesiastical interpreters of Virgil believed the Eclogue to be a prophecy predicting the birth of Christ, this view is ardently rejected by the majority of modern scholars. While it is not within the scope of this paper to provide a comprehensive history of the ways in which the Fourth Eclogue has been interpreted since its composition, it will attempt to give a summary both of the views of several earlier interpreters and also those of modern scholars.
Before delving into various interpretations of the Eclogue, some discussion of its content and the historical setting is in order, as well as some brief remarks on the life of Virgil. Virgil (70-19 B.C.) was a classical Roman poet who lived in the midst of the civil strife that eventually ended the Roman Republic. Julius Caesar was killed in 44 B.C. and two years later, his assassins were defeated by Mark Antony and Octavian (Augustus). It was within this turbulent Roman world that the Fourth Eclogue was composed. The poem is dated at 40 B.C., for it is addressed to Gaius Asinius Pollio who was a soldier, statesman, poet and distinguished member of the Caesarian party (Conway 13). It was, in part, the specific reference to Pollio which made scholars begin to doubt that Virgil’s alleged prophecy could possibly refer to Christ. Pollio was Virgil’s friend and also Mark Antony’s supporter (14). Pollio entered his consulship at Rome after Octavian defeated Lucius Antonius and made peace with Antony (Mattingly 14). It was Pollio who helped to establish this treaty of Brundisium. The peace such a treaty might bring was indeed a welcome prospect. In the century before Augustus, approximately 133-31 B.C., Italy had experienced twelve separate civil wars, a long series of political murders and five intentional, legalized massacres (Conway 34). It was a time of political upheaval, economic disorder, and military decay (35). The Eclogue anticipates the birth of a child during Pollio’s consulship (13).
Virgil’s Eclogue has been interpreted as a messianic prophecy about Jesus Christ for over fourteen centuries (Conway 11). In fact, as Conway asserts, some of Virgil’s other writings parallel the Jewish expectation of a messiah, “a national hero and ruler, divinely inspired, and sent to deliver not his own nation only, but mankind, raising them to a new and ethically higher existence” (13). Many have asked if Virgil was influenced by Jewish ideas. Garrod entertains the possibility that Pollio himself had Jewish relatives and was therefore familiar with Jewish thought. If this is so, Garrod surmises, it makes sense that Virgil, writing a poem in honor of Pollio, might embody in his poetry the thought and sentiment of Hebrew poetry (Note 37). Messianic expectation, however, may not have been merely a Jewish phenomenon. The ancient Greeks were highly influenced by Hesiod and several traditions that had been built upon his foundation (Hardie 5). One of these traditions was that of a past Golden Age which existed long before the present Age of Iron. The world had gradually digressed from Gold to a race of Silver and then of Bronze. Next was the race of Heroes and after that came the Iron Age of crime, misery and oppression (6).
Another piece of evidence which suggests the existence of messianic hope in the Graeco-Roman world are the messianic inscriptions at Priene, a city in Asia Minor. Paul Carus cites these inscriptions in his book, Virgil’s Prophecy on the Savior’s Birth. These proclaim the introduction of the Julian calendar reform which ordained that the birthday of Augustus (Sept. 23) should be celebrated as a New Year Festival. The inscription depicts Augustus as one sent by Providence (πρόνοια) as a Savior (Σωτήρ), “who should stop all war and ordain all things.” Further, the inscription claims this Caesar as the fulfillment of the prophecies and states that “the birthday of this God” has brought about the beginning of the gospel (εὐαγέλλιον). These inscriptions are not the only writings which bear witness to messianic ideas. Carus gives several examples of similar inscriptions found in other cities of Asia Minor.
It was Emperor Constantine the Great who first attempted to interpret the poem christocentrically. Eusebius, Constantine’s biographer, writes that the Emperor delivered an exposition of Virgil’s Eclogue around 312 or 313 A.D. in a speech entitled, Speech to the Assembly of the Saints (Conway 22-23, Bourne 390). Several lines were omitted from the Eclogue, mainly because of the reference to Pollio (Bourne 390-91). Constantine began by quoting from a “Sibylline” oracle upon which he supposed Virgil’s work to be based (in fact, parts of this oracle were of Christian date). Constantine declared that Virgil knew he was writing of Christ, yet hid the prophecy in allegory in order to escape persecution (Conway 23, Royds 2, 79). He identified Virgo as the Virgin Mary, the lions as the persecutors of the church, and the serpent as the same one that first tempted Eve. “One may be thankful,” Conway dryly remarks, “that he has not laid hands on the saffron-coloured rams” (24). Royds also thinks this is a sloppy way of handling prophecy, for Constantine failed to take into account the historical circumstances surrounding Virgil’s writing and jumped immediately to a christocentric interpretation. This method, Royds opines, is “after the manner of those who turn Sennacherib into the German Emperor” (2).
Not all who interpreted the poem christocentrically did so through dishonest rearrangement and omission of lines. Saint Augustine (354-430 A.D.) saw portents of Christ’s birth in the Eclogue, however, he attributed this not to Virgil, but to the Sibylline oracle. Although he had a high regard for Virgil, he believed the actual prophecy was from the mouth of the Sibyl rather than the poet himself (Conway 24). Virgil, therefore, prophesied of Christ’s birth unwittingly. Jerome (327-420 A.D.) expressed skepticism about the prophecy (Royds 2), saying that Virgil could not have been a Christian without Christ (Bourne 393). However, as Bourne points out, the very fact that Jerome denied this possibility indicates the prevalence of christocentric readings of the Eclogue.
One of the best-known interpretations of the Eclogue is found in Divina Commedia by Dante Alighieri (1265-1321), wherein Virgil is portrayed as the poet’s guide through much of the unseen world. It is clear that Dante’s admiration of Virgil was not simply on account of his skill as a poet; Dante believed Virgil to be a bearer of divine truth (Conway 25). In one portion of the text, Dante has the poet Statius, whom Dante supposed to be a Christian, attribute his interest in Christianity to Virgil’s writings, specifically to the Fourth Eclogue (26).
Alexander Pope (1688-1744), an eighteenth century English poet, wrote a poem about the birth of Christ entitled, Messiah: A Sacred Eclogue, in Imitation of Virgil’s Pollio. Pope agreed with Augustine on the matter of the Sibylline oracle; the Sibyl had prophesied concerning Christ and Virgil was merely the poetic bearer of another’s divine message (Conway 27-28). Pope also made a unique contribution to the criticism of the Eclogue by collecting several passages from the Fourth and Fifth Eclogues which contained poetic images that were similar to the pictures of the new Edenic world in the Book of Isaiah (28).
Although the Eclogue has been interpreted most often as a prophecy concerning Christ, this is by no means its only use as a messianic prophecy. A poem published in 1703 bears the title, The Golden Age from the Fourth Eclogue of Virgil, &c. It was printed a year after Anne Stuart became Queen of England, Scotland and Ireland on March 8, 1702. The poem expresses the hope that Anne would produce a Protestant heir. Although the author of this poem is unknown, it has sometimes been attributed to William Walsh, a friend of John Dryden. Dryden himself published a translation of the Eclogue in 1684 and some scholars have questioned the legitimacy of his work. Earl Miner claims that Dryden’s original translation was an imitative version to celebrate the birth of Queen Anne’s first child. In order to ensure national unity after the death of James Stuart, a Protestant heir was needed, thus Anne’s child would have been viewed as a messianic figure. Dryden’s translation, Miner writes, omits and changes several aspects of the Fourth Eclogue in order to give tribute to Anne and her unborn child.
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