Saturday, September 08, 2012

Arcadian Rome

The Georgics of Virgil: Bilingual EditionThe Georgics of Virgil
translated by David Ferry

"Next I’ll speak about the celestial gift of honey from the air.
Maecenas, give this section too your regard.
I’ll tell you in proper sequence about the greatest spectacle
of the slightest things, and of brave generals,
and a whole nation’s customs and efforts, tribes and battles.
Labour, over little: but no little glory, if favourable powers
allow, and Apollo listens to my prayer."
-  Virgil, Georgics, Book IV

The Works and Days by the ancient Greek poet Hesiod was written around 700 BC. At its center, the Works and Days is a farmer's almanac in which Hesiod instructs his brother Perses in the agricultural arts. It also contains an outline of the mythology of the gods of ancient Greece. In the poem Hesiod also offers his brother extensive moralizing advice on how he should live his life. I mention this because The Works and Days was the poet Virgil's model for composing his own didactic poem in hexameters known as The Georgics. Like many of the Roman writers and artists, Virgil looked to the Greeks for a model. Works and Days shares with the Georgics the themes of man's relationship to the land and the importance of hard work.
The Georgics itself is a poem in four books, published in 29 BC. It is the second major work by the Latin poet Virgil, following his Eclogues and preceding the Aeneid. As its name suggests (Georgica, from the Greek word γεωργεῖν, geōrgein, "to farm") the subject of the poem is agriculture; but far from being an example of peaceful rural poetry, it is a more complex work in both theme and purpose.
The work consists of 2,188 hexametric verses divided into four books. Each of the books covers different aspects of the agrarian culture. Book One begins with a summary of the whole poem and typical obeisance to the gods and Augustus himself. In addition to Virgil's intention to honor Caesar he also honors his patron Maecenas. In the middle books he shares his lofty poetic aspirations and the difficulty of the material to follow.
Mirroring Hesiod Virgil describes the succession of ages of man emphasizing the tension between the golden age of Jupiter and the age of man. The focus on the importance of Augustus is fascinating as it adds a political aspect to what is primarily an arcadian poem. Throughout the poem the theme of man versus nature is present as is the relation of man to animals. I found the discussion of Bees and the similarities with human society in the fourth Book one of the most fascinating sections of this marvelous poem.
Always of interest to me are philosophical influences, and there were two predominant philosophical schools in Rome during Virgil's lifetime: Stoicism and the Epicureanism. Of these two, the Epicurean strain is predominant not only in the Georgics but also in Virgil's social and intellectual milieu. Both his friend,the poet Horace, and his patron Maecenas were Epicureans. The Georgics was also influenced by Lucretius' Epicurean epic De Rerum Natura, one of my favorite Roman texts. The combination of philosophy, arcadian poetry, mythology, and politics makes this work a beautiful compendium of Roman culture.

The Georgics of Virgil trans. by David Ferry. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2005.

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