Virgil’s Messianic Eclogue (Part II of III)

The following is the second 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?”

– Rebekah

Within the past two centuries, interpretive methods have shifted. Scholars began to seek other interpretations which set the Eclogue in its cultural-historical context. Fowler breaks down the most generally held views of the poem into three main elements: 1) the poem celebrates the consulship of Pollio and the peace of Brundisium, describing a Golden Age which will come about under Octavian and Antonius, 2) the child was a real infant born or expected in 40 B.C. and 3) Virgil drew his imagery and ideas from now lost Sibylline verses, Hesiod, Orphic poets, Hebrew prophets and even perhaps his Roman predecessors (53).

Slater argues that Virgil’s Fourth Eclogue was written to celebrate the marriage of Octavia and Mark Antony and that it serves as a ‘sequela’ to Catullus’ Song of the Fates. In the end of Peleus and Thetis Catullus bemoans the loss of the Golden Age and Astraea’s departure, and Virgil’s Eclogue opens with the announcement of Astraea’s return, thus portraying Antony and Octavia as the “new Peleus and Thetis” and the child of their union as the “new Achilles.” Clausen concurs with Slater by saying that the child is the future offspring of Octavia and Antony whose marriage was brought about by Pollio. The child turned out not to be the expected son who would usher in the new Golden Age, but a girl instead. It is likely, Clausen asserts, that Virgil made certain changes to his Eclogue before he published it some five years later. Thus the Fourth Eclogue took on a sort of mystical quality, so much so that, in the following generation, Pollio’s son, Asinius Gallus, could claim to be the child.

The theory that the child is the son of Pollio most likely came from Asconius, a learned Roman critic of the age of Nero who wrote a generation or two later than Virgil (Royds 9, Fowler 80). According to a note of Servius, Asconius claimed that Asinius Gallus had told him that he, Gallus, was the child or parvus puer of the Eclogue (Fowler 80, Hardie 17-18). Gallus was a candidate for the Principate at the end of Augustus’ reign and considered himself a possible successor (Fowler 80). However, when Tiberius became Augustus’ successor, Gallus did all that he could to be as unpleasant as possible to the Emperor, which would give Gallus ample motives for spreading such a story. Hardie finds a number of problems with the assertion that the child is Pollio’s son. First, the child of Virgil’s poem is said to rule a new and better world. “Can this be said of any child unrelated to Octavian?” Hardie asks. Second, the Eclogue states that the glorious age will begin in Pollio’s consulship, which would seem strange if Pollio was the father of the child (19). However, as Fowler notes, whether or not Gallus spoke the truth, a valuable piece of evidence can be gleaned from Gallus’ claim: Asconius did not know who the child was. If Asconius did not know, it is unlikely that anyone else knew otherwise Gallus’ claim could have been easily countered (Fowler 81). Fowler maintains that the child is not Pollio’s son, for the language used both in this Eclogue and in the Third Eclogue is very ordinary. These seem to portray Pollio as a human being; therefore, he cannot be the father of the marvelous son described (82).

It has been suggested that the child is the offspring of Octavian and Scribonia. Hardie rejects this idea on the grounds that Octavian’s only child was a girl, Julia. Royds, however, has no difficulty identifying the child in the Eclogue as the expected offspring of Octavian and Scribonia. He compares the language in the Eclogue to verses in the sixth Aeneid where Augustus is spoken of as the restorer of the Golden Age (Royds 7). Virgil simply expected the child of the couple to be a son and was mistaken. Similarly, Fowler insists that the new age and hopes of Italy could only ever be personified by Virgil as a member of the family of the Caesars. Therefore, it the child is most likely the intended child of Augustus Caesar. “Augustus is ever in Virgil’s mind from the First Eclogue onwards, not merely as a human friend and helper, but as the son of the divine Julius, and as the pacificator and regenerator of the world” (Fowler 83).

W.M. Ramsay fails to see any reference to an actual flesh-and-blood child in the Eclogue at all. In 1907, Ramsay published two articles in the Expositer in which he interprets the child to be the new Roman people. Just as the prophet Isaiah depicts the “Servant of Yahweh” as the ideal Israel of the future, so the child of the Eclogue typifies the Romans of the coming Golden Age (Royds 4). It was Ramsay who began reviving the theory that Virgil was acquainted with Jewish ideas of a coming messiah (Hardie 20). He thought that Virgil’s poem was a response to the sixteenth Epode of Horace (Hardie 21). In the Epode, Horace exhorts the citizens of Rome to quit Italy and seek a new home in the Western Ocean. “Horace, in despair at the new outbreak of civil war, had fancifully suggested that the Italian race should migrate like the Phocaean of old to the west, where, as Sertorius had been told in Spain, lay the islands of the blest” (Fowler 54). Virgil’s response was to communicate through the Eclogue the idea that the Golden Age was already beginning in Italy. The hope of blessing, then, lay not in some distant land, but at home (Hardie 21). Hence, Ramsay is inclined to think that Virgil is using a fictitious child to typify the people of an age. “In the vision of the coming age the scenery is Italian,” writes Ramsay, “and the new-born child is the representative of the new Roman generation” (Fowler 55).

The discussion on modern interpretations of the Fourth Eclogue has, in part, addressed the issues concerning the modern rejection of christocentric readings. However, the possible reasons for a virtually unanimous dismissal of such readings by commentators of 19th and 20th centuries ought to be discussed in further detail. Hardie reflects on the contrasts between Greek ideals and those of modern times. He opines that the Greeks found their utopian ideas by looking to the past, for they viewed the present Age of Iron as a regression from a once Golden Age. Their hope of the future was founded on a shimmering picture of earlier days. Not so the modern man. The modern man living in a scientific age has a greater hope in progress and views the idea of a past Gold Age as something of a fallacy (Hardie 4). “The ‘Golden Age’ of ancient poets is a primeval age of innocence and bliss. The modern man looks in one direction, the Greek in another” (3-4). In essence, the modern man does not conceive of a previous age when there was little or no vice, or perhaps more virtue. His hope is not in the coming of an individual, god-like messiah to restore the earth to its former glory, but in the perpetual advancement of humanity to a yet-unreached zenith of existence through scientific enlightenment.

Hardie’s analysis has merit and he well-identifies the zeitgeist of his day, however, these ideas must be explored further. The burgeoning distrust in christocentric readings must also be attributed as a reaction to the long tradition of proverbial “hyper-typers” who tended to see virtually everything as a portent concerning Christ. In his book, Virgil and Isaiah (1918), Thomas Fletcher Royds touches on one of the fundamental problems of early interpretations of the Eclogue. “Old-fashioned scholars, in their anxiety to read Christian dogmatic theology into pre-Christian writings, were apt to lose sight of the fact that a prophet’s message is first and foremost to his own times” (Royds 17). In short: a prophecy must have some measure of meaning and fulfillment in its historical context.

One hopes, however, that this common spurning of traditional christocentric interpretations is not simply due to a growing distaste for overly-mystical readings of texts or, for that matter, a patronizing distain of seemingly infantile messianic ideals of the ancient world. Fowler indulges in a brief lament over the way in which modern criticism has, at times, discouraged a deeper appreciation of the Eclogue as a poem. Fowler writes:

[The Eclogue] should be treated essentially as a poem and not merely as a puzzle, and that it should be interpreted as far as possible by reference to the poet’s own life and works. As a poem it should be learned by heart and meditated on as a whole, not merely put upon the dissecting-board as a corpus vile for criticism. (85)

Fowler’s exhortation is well worth heeding. It is indeed grievous when a text is viewed as nothing more than the subject of criticism; something merely to be picked at, analyzed and solved. The aim of critical scholarship should not be to rob a text of any inherent mystery, but to eliminate those ambiguities which are due to a dearth of knowledge about the circumstances surrounding the writing of the composition. The purpose of deconstruction is to tear down false assumptions in order that what is true can be built up in their place. Interpreters of Virgil from both sides of the spectrum have done injury to the Eclogue by their vehement attempts to abolish uncertainty about its meaning. Constantine and others like him built their views upon the assumption that the Eclogue could do naught but portend the birth Christ and this required them to modify the text in order to fit that assumption; to squeeze and tweak the Eclogue to fit a Christ-shaped mold. Thus was the mystery of the Eclogue solved by slapping on a meaning even before any real criticism could take place. However, the quest of the modern man to strip the Eclogue of its enigmatic features has done similar damage. Commentators like Mackail fail to see any measure of mystery in the poem at all (Fowler 85) and thereby view as illegitimate any manner of mystical interpretation. It is scholars like Conway, Fowler, Mayor and Royds who strive to maintain a balance, not seeking to destroy the enigma, but to set it solidly within its historical context.

About Rebekah

I am married to a delightful Canadian composer whose thirst for learning is unparalleled. I have a deep interest in critical Biblical scholarship, philosophies of education, ancient Near Eastern religion and the poet Wordsworth. I am particularly fond of reading the works of Martin Buber, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Zainab Bahrani.
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