THE POET OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE
Rome had conquered the world and the victors were scrambling for the spoils. Two great civil wars naturally followed the earlier wars of conquest. In the first of these civil wars, Marius and Sulla measured their strength against each other. After seven years of bloodshed, Sulla entered Rome in triumph and was made dictator just eighty-one years before Christ. Then followed thirty-seven years of exhaustion and peace, broken only by Pompey's overthrow of Sulla's constitution in the year 70, and Caesar's overthrow of Pompey and the republic in 48.
The second civil war began just so soon as there arose two new leaders able to continue the fight. Those leaders were Antony and Octavian, the former Caesar's legal heir, the latter Caesar's personal heir. As in the first civil war Sulla had represented the aristocratic party against Marius, so in the second, civil war Octavian represented the popular party against Antony. The civil wars were in part a contest of principles—the principle of senatorial aristocracy on the one hand and the principle of democratic rule on the other.
But they were still more a contest of ambitious men, each bent on making himself the foremost man of all this world. As Sulla defeated the plebeians only to make himself dictator, so Octavian defeated the senatorial party only to make himself supreme. His assumption of the title of Augustus was the beginning of the Roman Empire, and Augustus was none the less emperor because he clothed his power with the old forms of the republic. When, after thirteen years of anarchy and carnage, the battle of Actium in 31 left Caius Julius Caesar Octavianus Augustus the sole authority in the State, the world heaved a sigh of relief, and welcomed peace even at the cost of liberty.
It has been said of Milton that if it had not been for the civil war in England he never would have written "Paradise Lost," with its account of rebellion in heaven and the downfall of the prince of darkness, but would have commended himself to posterity only by such poems as "Comus" and "The Nativity." It must be still more evident that the greatest of the Latin poets was the product of his time, and that both his earlier and his later work can be interpreted only in the light of contemporaneous Roman history.
Virgil had his birth and his education during those thirty-seven years of comparative peace and exhaustion when the Roman world was recovering from the first, and was gathering strength for the second, of the great civil wars. Here was a lull in the noise of battle, in which a pensive and imaginative nature might nourish dreams of Arcadian happiness and rest. The results we find in the "Eclogues," and the "Georgics," which, though written after the second civil war began, and taking a plaintive tone from the sorrowful surroundings of the time, are yet a reflection and expression of the quiet and seclusion of Virgil's earlier years. After the
civil war is ended, after the world is unified, after Augustus is enthroned, a grander spirit of confidence takes possession of the poet, and he sings in the "/Eneid" the new beginning of national life, the actual reign of universal peace, and the promise of perpetual dominion, which fate and the gods have given to Rome.
Freeman, the historian, dates the beginning of modem times from Caesar's conquest of Gaul. Then first the Southern races were brought into contact with the lands where lay the scene and the forces of future history. But we must remember that Northern Italy was Cisalpine Gaul, and that it became an integral part of Rome only after Virgil reached his manhood. Born in the center of this Northern Italy, and possibly himself of Celtic descent, or as others have suggested, connected with the Tyrolese over the mountains, he did not become a Roman citizen until his twentieth year. Wellnigh a century later, a certain Roman tribune in Palestine declared that with a great sum he attained this freedom. In Virgil's youth, from the country beyond the Po, still subject to arbitrary confiscation and partition at the nod of the Roman master, and overrun with the legionaries returning from the Eastern wars, Rome and Roman privilege and Roman power must have loomed up as the greatest things on earth. All love for the place of his nativity, and all hope for its future, must have connected themselves in his mind with Rome. The modern element in Virgil's poetry is the product of these two factors—the fresh new life of Northern Italy and the all-encompassing grasp of the imperial city which had brought the whole world to its feet.
But we must know something more of the poet's early surroundings, and something more of his personal traits. The modern Lago di Garda, the greatest lake of Italy, fed by the snows of the Tyrolese Alps, sends out from its southern extremity the last and largest affluent of the Po. This river is the Mincio—" the smooth-sliding Mincius" of Virgil—as the Po was once Padus, and the lake Benacus, by name. The Mincio, not more than fifty miles long with all its windings, grows broad and sluggish as it comes down into the plains until, about twelve miles above its junction with the Po, it fairly encircles the city of Mantua, whose towers and walls rise as from an island in the midst of the swampy and reedy lagoons of the lakelike river.
Mantua has until recently been one of the most formidable fortresses in Europe. Sixty miles west from Venice, seventy southeast from Milan, eighty northwest from Florence, ninety northeast from Genoa, and one hundred and eighty northwest from Rome, the city holds a strategic position that is commanding, as both Napoleon I. and Napoleon III. well knew. Here Giulio Romano built for the Gonzagas his Palazzo del Tc, with its Sala dci Giganti, or Hall of the Giants, where, by a combination of mechanical with artistic devices, as one describes it, "the rout of the Titans, still contending with artillery of uptorn rocks against the pursuit and thunderbolts of Jove, appears to rush downward on the spectator." In the city of Mantua, Sordello, the precursor of Dante and the hero of Browning's mysterious story, was born and sang. And in the same city, or on the hilly slopes not far away, a greater than Sordello, the precursor of modern poetry and civilization, the poet of Rome, the most complete literary representative of
the Latin race, and the best-read poet of all time, was born also.
It was seventy years before Christ when Virgil first saw the light. He was a shy and gentle spirit, sober and unworldly, diffident of his own powers, modest even to rusticity in his manner, melancholy, yet kindly in temper. He could never arrange his toga to please men of fashion, and he always wore shoes too large for his feet. Virgil never married; he was accessible only to intimate friends; he was a man of books, as Horace was a man of the world. After he had won friends and fame, and audiences in the theatre rose to salute him as they did Octavian, he yet stole along the streets in trepidation lest he should be recognized, and a single whisper, "There goes Virgil!" would drive him into the next house for refuge. It is possible that his bashfulness and reserve were due in part to ill health, for though tall and dark he is said to have been a victim to chronic asthma and headache. Augustus, sitting between Virgil and Horace, who suffered from an affection of the eyes, said jocosely that he was between sighs and tears.
Like many another poet, in his youth Virgil seems to have known little of youthful sports. He never bore arms, as Horace did under Brutus at Philippi. He was a man of contemplation rather than of action. Yet he inspired affection. He was the friend of Maecenas, the patron of art and Augustus' great minister; he knew Augustus himself before Horace did, if he did not actually make Horace known to Augustus. In an age when decorous vice was almost universal, Virgil by his temperance and purity gained the title of Parthenias. A sort of virgin sanctity seemed to envelope him. He was wrapped in loftier thoughts than the men who lived and wrought around him.
It was an age of criticism and of unbelief. Heroic days were getting to be matter of jest, and religion was mostly an affair of the rabble. But Virgil saw beneath the surface. He had the poet's eye for reality. The heroic stirred him—he was a hero-worshiper. The nil admirari spirit of his time did not infect him. He saw that men live by admiration, hope, and love. So he tried to combine the later science with the primitive faith, to bring back the age to a belief in the higher powers, to inspire in a generation that was self-seeking and partisan some sense of the greatness of the State, of the duty of patriotism, of the dignity of labor, of the value of peace; in short, he would make Rome secure by investing public virtue with religious sanctions.
The father of Virgil, the well-to-do proprietor of an extensive farm, though not himself a man of education, seems to have spared no expense or pains in the education of his son, accompanying him at the age of sixteen to Cremona, as the father of Horace accompanied his son to Rome. Virgil had probably read Homer from his childhood, for Cicero tells us that Northern Italy was at this time especially noted for its study of Greek. At the age of eighteen we find him in training at Rome. His endless industry is praised by his biographers. Science of all sorts attracts him. Like every great poet, he masters the learning of his time. Siron initiates him into the secrets of philosophy, to such extent that at one time he vows to devote his life to abstract thought; and, in many subsequent hours of despondency over what seems to him his ill success in his
real vocation, he regrets that he did not fulfill his early vow. Even to the end of his days his love for philosophy never leaves him, and both Plato and Epicurus seem to speak again in portions of his verse.
But to Virgil, dukes ante omnia Musm. To poetry he early consecrates himself. He has the sense of a mission. He sets himself as deliberately to become a poet as Cicero sets himself to become an orator. The labor of years seems short, for the love he has to the Muse. Seven years he gives to the composition of his first poem; seven years to the second; ten years to the third; and then he wishes to destroy this third, because, forsooth, his life is too short to furnish the three additional years needed to complete it. So, revolving long his several themes and working them over and over before he gives them to the public eye, he at last produces works of such incomparable artistic excellence that the world will not willingly let them die—indeed, they seem endowed with an inherent immortality.
If other things are equal, poetry lives in proportion' to the perfection of its artistic form. As the productions of the poet are borne downward on the stream of time, those which have angularities of structure are caught and stopped upon their way—only the rounded and innately beautiful pass by all obstacles and sail on to the ocean of eternal fame. And Virgil was pre-eminently the artist. He, perhaps, more fully than any other of the sons of men, had the literary instinct, the discernment of form. Not so much a creator as a shaper of material, he regarded thought as a means of producing literary effects.
He was a rhetorical poet, if the phrase be permissi
ble. But as the true rhetorician knows how to choose great themes, because only great themes will bear the richest garb, so Virgil never wastes his gifts on empty words. Beginning with lighter subjects, probably because he seems to himself more equal to them, he gives the maturity of his powers to the greatest subject possible to his time,—he celebrates the rise of Rome's political dominion; and, by linking her present grandeur to the heroic past, he blends patriotism and piety together. And "the silent spells held in those haunted syllables" have done more than any other single influence to give a humane and gracious aspect to the hardness and sordidness of Roman life. Latin before the Christian era would seem the language of a heartless race, and Rome would seem only incarnate power and law, if it were not for the sweetness and pathos of Virgil.
In this matter of artistic form Virgil was an originator. He carried the music of words to a higher perfection than it had ever reached before. Other Latin poets had preceded him, but in their hands the strength of the language had hardly been tamed—it was sonorous, but it was harsh; it had majesty, but it lacked melody. Ennius, the Calabrian, was a half-Greek, and he aimed to reproduce in Latin the Homeric hexameters; but Ennius, though he had a lofty genius, was deficient in art, and it was left to Virgil to make that verse "the noblest metre ever molded by the lips of man." Ennius died just a century before Virgil was born. He was the father of Latin poetry. His "Annals," a curious mixture of history and song, unquestionably furnished Virgil not only with his metre, but with the
theme of his great epic—the origin, greatness, and destiny of Rome. Whole lines from Ennius, indeed, are said to remain embedded in the "iEneid," and to give archaic simplicity and force to portions of Virgil's poem.
Lucretius was born 100 B. C, while Virgil was born in 70. Catullus preceded Virgil only fifteen years. Both Lucretius and Catullus were in the zenith of their fame during the years when Virgil was getting his training. He was profoundly influenced by both of them. Lucretius was the most original and profound thinker of the Roman race. His doctrines of the uniformity of nature and the reign of law became a part of Virgil's system of thought, while Virgil, unlike Lucretius, continued to believe in a will of the gods which expressed itself in nature and molded the wills of men. From Lucretius, moreover, Virgil caught an impassioned earnestness, a condensation and vividness of expression, which constitute one of the most marked characteristics of his verse.
Catullus furnished Virgil with an example of sweet sadness and graceful melancholy; but the later poet improves upon the tender cadences and the pathetic simplicity of his predecessor, by adding to them dignified refinement and just bounds. To put it all in a word, Virgil has absorbed in himself and has combined into one all the great merits of the Roman poets that preceded him.
If Virgil had contented himself with drinking in and reproducing the general characteristics of the earlier poets, no fault could ever have been found with him. If, like Milton, he had recalled without copying, he would have had only praise. But Virgil is the greatest of imitators. Whatever suits his purpose, whether in Greek or Latin verse, he appropriates without a qualm of conscience, and with an air of happy self-complacency. True it is that whatever he touches he adorns. When he was charged with using Homer's similes as if they were his own, he merely replied: "Only the strong can wield the club of Hercules." He has made others' work his own so perfectly that what is original with him can hardly be distinguished from what he has appropriated. So Moliere said boldly: "I take my property wherever I find it." Even in Shakespeare we have a somewhat similar phenomenon. Plot and incident, thought and phrase, our greatest poet often borrows with perfect unconcern. His early dramas are apparently only others' tragedies made over, but made over so wonderfully that even their original authors had more reason for admiration than for complaint.
Virgil is no plagiarist in the ordinary sense. As Dr. Wilkinson has well said, he looked upon Homer and the elder poets, both of Greece and Rome, as a great treasure-house, like that of nature itself. He does not seek to conceal his indebtedness—he rather desires it to be recognized. Like the Spartans, he would have us admire the art with which he steals. Just as Charles Sumner sometimes introduced into his speeches imitations of noble passages from Demosthenes, and was only delighted when you noticed and praised them as a proof of his scholarship and taste, so Virgil would only have felt complimented if you had pointed out how ingeniously he had made his own poems an anthology of all the poets that had gone before him. An echo, says Miss Wedgewood, may be sweeter than the sound that
awoke it, and we may be thankful that Virgil has echoed down to our time a thousand voices of the past that would otherwise be lost.
We may say something more about this matter of originality, after we have considered what Virgil actually wrote. As we have already intimated, there was progress in his work, corresponding to the breadth of his experience and the maturity of his powers. As we think of the "Eclogues," the "Georgics," and the "^Eneid " succeeding one another, first the graceful pastorals, secondly the didactics of industry, thirdly the great political epic, we are reminded of Tennyson— the linked sweetness and indecisive touch of his youthful poems such as, "Airy, fairy Lilian," the philosophic depth and moral energy of his manlier work in " In Memoriam," and the broad freedom and epic swing of his later " Idylls of the King."
The earliest work of Virgil was naturally the " Eclogues." He had been dispossessed of his country home by Caesar's veterans. But Pollio, the Roman governor of the district beyond the Po, had introduced him to Augustus, had interceded for him, and had secured a decree of restoration. When he went to take his estate however, he found that de jure ownership was one thing, and de facto ownership was another. The old soldier in possession attacked him with such passion and vigor that Virgil was forced to swim the Mincio to save his life. It is doubtful whether he ever really recovered the farm. Some say that Augustus preferred to permit his legionary to retain what he had so stoutly defended, and that Virgil was compensated in some other way, possibly by the gift of a residence in Naples.
In the city and not in the country the "Eclogues" were probably written. Blessings brighten as they take their flight, and most poetry in praise of country life is written in the town. Shut out from his home, a thousand sweet illusions gather about the memory of it. The poet feels the tender grace of a day that is dead. Tityrus, who had worked the farm on shares and had enabled Virgil of old time to play the gentleman farmer while he gave his thoughts to poetry, is now exalted into an Arcadian shepherd. The tending of flocks is the only real work of life; love-making and contests of verse and song are its solaces and delights.
That such a poem could have been published in the year 37 before Christ, in the midst of the second great civil war, shows not only the idealizing powers of the true poet, but also the large fruitage of Virgil's previous years of calm. There is a naiveti and a liquid flow to the "Eclogues" which witness to the rise of a new force in literature. Pollio is said to have pressed the poet to the writing of them, and Theocritus is said to have furnished the model and the inspiration. But no one who has in imagination reclined with the writer sub tegmine fagi can ever banish from his mind the delightful freshness of the verse, the charm of the Italian landscape which pervades it, and the impression of Virgil's wonderful love for nature. Nature seems actually to live and speak. She mourns for the dead Caesar, aa in Greek poetry she mourned for the dead Daphnis. "In the last Eclogue," as another has said, "all the gods of Arcady come to console the poet when his 2aithless lady has forsaken him to follow his rival to the «rars. This passage suggested the august procession of
the superhuman mourners of Lycidas, which in its turn suggested to Shelley the splendid fragment of Adonais."
In the "Georgics," published in 30 or 29 B. C., after the great victory of Actium had made Augustus sole ruler of the Roman world, we have a more sober and lofty poem, whose temper of chastened hope and serene endeavor, to use the phrase of Prof. Sellar, befits the time of settlement. The word "Georgics" might be translated "Field-work." It is a glorification of industry. The country is not now the scene of perpetual holiday, as it was in the "Eclogues." Work is to be done, and the four sorts of work give their themes to the four books, which successively treat of tillage, trees, herds, and bees. Here too, Virgil had his model, and the model was Hesiod's "Works and Days." He had his prompter also; for Maecenas, the generous patron and encourager of timid genius, urged the writing of them.
There was reason enough for the advice. The long wars had been times when regular government was almost suspended. Rapine and corruption had stalked in the track of the advancing armies. There was danger that the old virtues of the republic would be buried in the republic's grave. What could arrest the decay of Roman life? Nothing but a revival of the principles which at the first had made Rome great. Industry, frugality, simplicity, love of home, and reverence for law—these must take the place of strife and luxury, of ambition and greed. With a true poet's insight and with a true patriot's hope, Virgil seems to have risen to the occasion. He clothes with a halo of imagination and invests with a tender beauty all the homeliest details of country labor and country life. The "Georgics" would be the greatest of didactic poems if they were meant to be a didactic poem at all. But this is a mistaken notion; they were never intended to answer for a book of instruction to the farmer. Their object rather was to elevate men's conceptions of the arts of peace, to dignify humble toil, to teach the love of country, to inspire reverence for nature's laws.
These poems give us, more plainly than any others, Virgil's ideas about nature and about government. Nature to him means universal law. The same authority which in the "^Eneid" appears as Fate, appears in the "Georgics" as Nature. "Thus Nature," he says, "at first imposed these laws, these eternal ordinances, when Deucalion first cast stones in an empty world, whence the hard race of men arose." But Nature, to Virgil's mind, does not exclude intelligence, or prevent the care and purpose of the gods. Hear him once again:-"Incessant labor conquers all things"; "for gods there are"; "Jove hurls the lightning"; "therefore venerate the gods"; "may they now save the Saviour of the State!"
And so Virgil's doctrine of divine government leads to his doctrine of human government. That too has divine sanctions. Augustus, who had pacified the world and saved the State, was the very embodiment at once of the will of the gods and of eternal law. It is not necessary to regard Virgil as a mere court poet, who flatters Augustus as a matter of trade. Nor was the deification of the emperor a piece of sycophancy. Perverse and idolatrous though it was, it was still in large part, as I shall hope to show, the blind exaggeration of a noble sentiment—the sentiment of loyalty and of
reverence for divinely appointed powers. As the Hebrews of old called human judges "gods," because they were appointed by God to stand in his place and administer justice in his name, so the apotheosis of the Cassars and Virgil's declaration that Augustus would be exalted to heaven, as a new star filling the gap between the Virgin and the Scales, were in some degree a poetical recognition of the fact that the powers that be are ordained of God, and that his faithful representatives shall partake of God's own immortality.
There is a promise in the "Georgics" which indicates the consciousness in Virgil's mind that the time was near when he could venture upon a larger task than any he had yet achieved. He declares that he will yet wed Caesar's glories to an epic strain. The ".(Eneid" is the fulfillment of that promise. Ten years of work he spent upon it. In the "Eclogues" he had followed in the track of Theocritus; in the "Georgics" he had imitated Hesiod; now in his last great poem he mounts higher, and aspires to produce a work like those of Homer.
The "yEneid " indeed is intended to be an "Odyssey" and an "Iliad" in one, the first six books with the wanderings of ./Eneas aiming to be an "Odyssey," and the last six books, with their battles on land, aiming to be an "Iliad." The hero, however, as befits the unity of the epic, is in both halves of the story the same, the pious ytneas; and the great object of the poem is to show how the universal empire of Rome, which the gods had willed and Fate had decreed, was first established on the Italian shores. Virgil will write a poem that reflects the genius and the destiny of the Latin race; he will dignify the history of Rome by linking it to the heroes
of antiquity and the counsels of heaven; he will clothe his theme with all the splendors of legend and song; he will reproduce the Homeric poems in Italy; he will himself be the Homer of Rome.
How fully this magnificent project was realized we have now to inquire. There seems every reason to believe that, till within a few hours of his death, he was hopeful of accomplishing his task. In the year 19 B. C., he read to Augustus and to Octavia, the sister of Augustus, the second book of the poem with its account of the destruction of Troy, the fourth book with its tragic story of Dido, and the sixth book with its description of ^Eneas's descent into the underworld. It is said that when Octavia heard the splendid eulogy upon her son, the dead Marcellus, the mother's heart within her gave way; she fainted both for grief and joy; and she revived to make the poet glad with a great gift of gold.
But the "iEneid" was not yet ready to leave the author's hands. The whole poem lacked revision; in the latter part especially there were lines still incomplete; Virgil counted three more years as necessary to finish his work. He set out for Athens, in order on the voyage to get the local color needed for his description of the wanderings of iEneas. At the capital of Greece he met Augustus. The emperor persuaded Virgil to return with him to Italy. The burning sun of Megara made him ill. He continued his voyage notwithstanding. At Brundisium he died, and he was buried at Naples.
All the great Latin poets died young. Neither Catullus nor Lucretius reached middle age. Virgil, when he died, had just passed it, for he was fifty-one. He died
despondent, because he thought his work undone. He begged that the "yEneid," since he could not complete it, might be burned; he called it a piece of lunacy that he ever consented to undertake so great a task; he valued the "Georgics" more highly, because they were within the compass of his powers. So Milton thought his "Paradise Regained," as respected its subject, a greater poem than his "Paradise Lost."
It is well for us that Virgil's dying injunctions were not carried out. Augustus knew too well the poetical and political value of the "jEneid" to permit it to be destroyed. Instead of burning it, he ordered it to be most carefully preserved; he commanded that it should be neither amended, added to, nor altered, in any way; through his influence it gained at once a circulation and fame entirely unexampled in ancient times. It remains the most complete picture of the Roman mind at its highest elevation. It is the noblest contribution to pure literature that has ever been made by the Latin race.
And yet we must not rate Virgil too high. Among • ancient poets he is the second, not the first. \ /e must grant that he is not a Homer. For while V>gil has talent—prodigious talent, Homer has genius. And the difference between the two is this: Genius is spontaneous, unconscious, free from the thought of self, working from an inner impulse that makes labor both a necessity and a delight. Talent, on the other hand, works with self-consciousness and effort. Virgil has prodigious talent. Whatever labor and skill can do, he accomplishes. But the vivida vis, the creative power, the original insight into the heart of things, he has not, as Homer has.
Virgil does not set before us great characters, as Homer does. Achilles and Ulysses, Homer's heroes, are creations so distinct and yet so natural, that the passionate courage of the one and the wily wisdom of the other are almost historical realities to us. But it is not so with the hero of Virgil's poem. ^Eneas is more of a saint than a hero, more of a monk than a warrior. Saints are not necessarily uninteresting, but pious ./Eneas hardly excites in us a ripple of enthusiasm. Even his saintship is not decided, for everything seems right to him that will further his interest.
If Virgil has given us any wholly original character, it is that of Dido. Her figure is lifelike and complete. The gradual rise of her fatal passion for JEneas, and her throwing away of life when she finds herself abandoned, have in them more of the spirit of modern romance than can be found in all classical literature besides. Non humilis mulier—there is nothing small about her grief; and nothing so becomes her in her life as the grand air with which she leaves it:
My life is lived, and I have played
The part that fortune gave,
And now I pass, a queenly shade,
Majestic to the grave.
And yet it is said that Apollonius Rhodius furnished Virgil with the outline of this picture of Dido. Yes, and even Homer had his predecessors. There were brave men before Agamemnon, and there were doubtless poets before Homer. To all men of genius it can be said: "Other men labored, and ye have entered into their labors." So the greatest literary productions of
all the ages are inextricably intertwined with one another. Milton could never have written if Dante had not gone before; Dante presupposes Virgil; Virgil would have been impossible without Homer; Homer himself was probably the interpreter and unifier of a whole cycle of rhapsodists who glimmered like stars in the early morning of poetry before his own great epic sun had risen.
Still it is true that the power to set forth great personalities belongs to Homer in far larger measure than to Virgil. Homer can use his materials creatively, and out of them can fashion new forms, as Virgil cannot. The powerful invention, the dramatic instinct, the insight into character, which belong to the greatest poetry, are lacking in Virgil's work. The Germans distinguish between the Naturepos and the Kunstepos, between the epic poetry that is spontaneous and the epic poetry that springs from art. While Virgil gives the best specimen of the one, Homer must evermore be the noblest example of the other.
The interest of the "/Eneid," unlike that of the "Odyssey" or the "Iliad," is not so much in the main story as in the episodes. The former poem is much more capable of partition. It may be doubted indeed whether Augustus and Virgil might not better have compromised matters by burning the last six books of the "^ineid" while the first six were preserved. No revision could ever have turned those last six into an "Iliad." In spite of the fact that Dante seems most moved by the closing scenes of the poem, and in spite of the fact that the Roman and imperial element is stronger in the last half than in the first, it still is true that Virgil's literary fame would have been greater if that last half had not been written. This Latin Homer begins to nod when he gets half way through his task.
Yet Turnus, a character of much more heroic fibre than iEneas, would be lost to us if the last six books were lost, and the noblest type of Latin chivalry with him. How much we should lose if we lost the episode of Camilla, the virgin warrior, the Amazonian queen, whose onset is like the wind:
Nay, she could fly o' er fields of grain
Nor crush in flight the tapering wheat;
Or skim the surface of the main,
Nor let the billows touch her feet
Macaulay, in his "Lays of Ancient Rome," has no more effective couplet than that in which he describes the rush of another army, that moves
Like swift Camilla o'er the corn,
Camilla o'er the main.
And how could we part with that exquisite episode of Nisus and Euryalus, who occupy in ancient poetry the place which Damon and Pythias occupy in ancient prose? Here one noble youth dies to save another:
Love for his friend too freely shown,
This was his crime, and this alone.
It is the heathen confirmation of Paul's words: "For a good man some would even dare to die." But Virgil witnesses to "the rarity of this human charity," by predicting the immortality of fame which he will give it in his poem:
Blest pair! if aught my verse avail,
No day shall make your memory fail
From off the heart of time,
While Capitol abides in place,
The mansion of the JEnean race,
And throned upon that moveless base
Rome's father sits sublime.
Yet in spite of these brilliant and pathetic episodes, and the great constructive skill which Virgil has shown in weaving them into his story, the "jEneid" has developed passions rather than created persons, and in reading it we get no such impression of sustained and majestic power, as is made upon us when we enter the charmed circle of Homer.
When we have said this, however, we have said the most that can be said in disparagement of Virgil. He has merits of his own which Homer cannot equal, simply because Homer was born too early in human history. In all that pertains to moral earnestness, to refinement of taste, and to human sympathy, Virgil is superior to Homer. Certain historians of Latin literature complain that Virgil has always a divided mind; his spirit belonged to the ages of faith, and yet he sought to reconcile that faith with science. Let us rather say that Virgil takes the naive and unquestioning beliefs of Homer and turns them into rational convictions, adds to them the knowledge of a later day, clothes them with the very perfection of literary workmanship, interprets them to the new age, and hands them down to posterity.
Virgil feels the mystery of the unseen world more than Homer does; he cannot like Homer talk sportively of the gods. With a deeper reverence, he has a deeper sense of justice; he believes more in moral law; conscience and sin are greater realities to him; the idea of sacrifice is more fully developed ; the offerings to the gods are both propitiatory and vicarious: unum pro multia dabitur caput. Poet as he is of the Roman Empire, and believer as he is in its divine mission to embraca the world, he is notwithstanding conscious of the crimes that have marked those hideous years of foreign conquest and of internal strife; he fears divine judgment; he counsels piety and a return to the ways of virtue and peace. So it is not without a meaning that his hero is the pious /Eneas—pious, not only toward the gods, but toward his father and his race. The mission of .(Eneas is to bring the Trojan gods to Italy, and to find for them a lasting home.
All this is a distinct advance on Homer. Virgil has sounded depths in the human soul that Homer knew not of. Neither courage nor adventure can for Virgil any longer give sufficient charm to character. The true man is one who identifies himself with institutions, and builds his life into the life of his time. In both the "Iliad " and the " Odyssey," the interest is chiefly personal; the author is not specially on the side of the Greeks. But, in the "^Eneid," the interest is chiefly national; Virgil is always and everywhere on the side of Rome. He makes fidelity to Rome a sort of religion. He clothes the Empire with an imaginative halo that impressed men's minds for ages after.
It is certain that the Roman people would never have endured the rule of such monsters of cruelty and license as Tiberius, Nero, Caligula, and Domitian, if the
Empire had not seemed to be the manifestation in human affairs of invisible powers, and the emperor himself to be in some sort divine. In the apotheosis of the emperors, accompanied as it was by temples and sacrifices and worship in their honor, we have indeed a most convincing proof of man's forgetfulness of the true God and of his disposition to worship and serve the creature more than the Creator. Though the Hebrews called their judges "gods," because they were God's representatives, they never identified them with God, or called them immortal, or paid them worship. These very judges were told that they should die like men, and they were bidden to fall down in worship before Jehovah. The very climax of heathen sacrilege and idolatry was thought to be reached when the images of the emperor which the Roman legions carried upon their standards underneath their eagles of bronze or silver, and which every soldier of the legion was required to worship, were set up in the holy place of the temple at the final siege of Jerusalem; that was "the abomination of desolation."
But Virgil lived in the times of ignorance, which God winked at, and which we ought to wink at too. The words deus and divtis did not mean so much then as they mean to us. In Homer the Manes of the departed had been invoked in prayer; in Virgil's time these Manes were commonly called divi, or divine. It was not so great a thing to be a god, when popular belief held that there were many gods, instead of one. A half-pantheistic confounding of the world with God had made it easy to regard the actual ruler of the world as divinity made visible.
Alexander the Great had claimed not only a divine parentage, but also a divine nature, and had sent an order to the Republic of Greece to recognize his divinity. The answer of the Lacedemonians shows just how much meaning they attached to it. "Since Alexander desires to be a god," they said, "let him be one!" So among the Romans, Romulus had been deified, and Julius Cassar after his death had been similarly exalted. Virgil applied all this to Augustus, even before his earthly life had ended. He invested the Roman Empire with divine sanctions. It is doubtful whether the existence of that Empire in form at least until 1806, when the last Roman emperor, Francis, king of Germany, permitted it to die, can be explained without taking into account the influence of Virgil.
In thus making the motives of his epic a larger justice and a larger humanity, Virgil did not depress the tone of poetry, he only enlarged its sphere. So he has been truly called a precursor of modern civilization. He is the most feminine of all the great poets; he first acknowledges and does reverence to the feminine in true manhood. Courtesy, pity, love, sympathy with misfortune, resignation in suffering, have almost no place in the " Iliad," but they are marked traits in the principal characters of the "./Eneid." Triumph in defeat, success in apparent failure, the judging of life not by what it accomplishes but what it aims at, these ideas, of which Robert Browning is the great modern representative, are already hinted at by Virgil.
Homer has a joy in battle; he delights to chronicle the most ghastly wounds; compassion to a fallen foe he regards as only weakness. Of Zeus he sings:
Apart from the rest he sate, and to fill his eyes was fain, With the gleam of the brass and the fate of the slayers and them that were slain.
Virgil too, out of deference to Homer, gives us more than one battle scene. But his heart is evidently not in it Touches of pathos and of pity light up the cloud of war, and the interest lies, not so much in the bloodshed, as in the tender emotions that mitigate its ferocity. When Pallas slays the twin sons of Danaus, as a reviewer has pointed out, Virgil thinks of their parents, who, "sore perplexed, each for the other took, nor wished the sweet uncertainty resolved." When iEneas slays Lausus, his weapon "rent the vest his mother's hand had broidered o'er with gold." Virgil has pity for the vanquished and the sorrowful. He thinks it worth his while to justify his hero's desertion of Dido by the stern compulsion of fate, and to recompense the lovelorn queen by reuniting her to her husband in the world of shades.
Here, indeed, is another mark of theological progress. Homer punishes the bad in Hades, but he gives only the faintest intimations that there are rewards for the good. Virgil believes in an Elysium:
Here sees he the illustrious dead
Who fighting for their country bled;
Priests, who while earthly life remained
Preserved that life unsoiled, unstained;
Blest bards, transparent souls and clear,
Whose song was worthy Phoebus' ear;
Inventors, who by arts refined
The common life of human kind.
With all who grateful memory won
By services to others done:
A goodly brotherhood, bedight
With coronals of virgin white.
Virgil is an imitator of Homer, but Dante was almost equally an imitator of Virgil. Each improved upon his predecessor, while he drew without stint from his stores. Dante does well in the "Inferno" to take Virgil for his guide, for Virgil had mapped out the ground for him long before. He copies from Virgil the approach of night in the underworld:
Another sun and stars they know,
That shine like ours, but shine below.
From Virgil he gets the cue for his limbo of infants:
Whom portionless of life's sweet bliss,
From mother's breast untimely torn.
The black day hurried to the abyss
And plunged in darkness soon as born.
From Virgil he takes his hopes for those who die in youth:
Towards the ferry and the shore
The multitudinous phantoms pour;
Matrons and men, and heroes dead,
And boys and maidens yet unwed,
And youths who funeral pyres have fed
Before their parents' eye.
Dense as the leaves that from the treen
Float down when autumn first is keen,
Or as the birds that thickly massed
Fly landward from the ocean vast,
Driven over sea by wintry blast
To seek a sunnier sky.
It would almost seem as if Dante had taken from Virgil his ideas of purgatorial suffering, though in the THE SOUL HOLDS A HIGHER PLACE 93
"jEneid" purgatorial suffering prepares, not for entering into paradise, but for returning once more to the life of earth. Here in Virgil is a transmigration of souls which is found neither in Dante nor in Homer. Homer had regarded the body as more important than the soul; without the body the soul was but phantom and shadow; Achilles had rather be a slave on earth than the monarch of all the dead. But to Virgil the soul is the superior thing; the body is its place of imprisonment and source of defilement; only when it escapes from its earthly prison will the caged eagle soar into its native air. ./Eneas wonders that Anchises, after he had tasted the repose and the liberty of Elysium, should ever desire to return to earth.
Evidently, Pythagoras and Plato have contributed to Virgil's theology quite as much as Homer has. Homer puts his hell far away—Ulysses has to go to the extremity of the immense ocean to find it. Virgil's underworld is much more accessible—the grottos of Lake Avernus in Southern Italy, with their sulphurous odors and volcanic aspect, furnish gateways to it. Not only in point of space, but in point of meaning, is Virgil's Hades nearer to us than Homer's. Virgil's is the Hades of philosophy, as well as of poetry. The spiritual at last overtops the physical. All souls indeed are but forms of an anima mundi that breathes through all things.
Know first, the heaven, the earth, the main,
The moon's pale orb, the starry train,
Are nourished by a soul,
A bright intelligence, which darts
Its influence through the several parts
And animates the whole.
Thence souls of men and cattle spring,
And the gay people of the wing,
And those strange shapes that ocean hides
Beneath the smoothness of his tides.
So penal sufferings they endure
For ancient crime, to make them pure:
All these, when centuries ten times told
The wheel of destiny have rolled.
The voice divine from far and wide
Calls up to Lethe's river-side,
That earthward they may pass once more,
Remembering not the things before,
And with a blind propension yearn
To fleshly bodies to return.
I have for once, and only once, given a long specimen of Conington's translation. The ballad metre, though it is flowing, does not represent the stately sweetness of Virgil's hexameters; Dante's "Purgatory" is the best literary analogue to the Hades of the "^Eneid." The early part of the passage I have quoted has a sound very like Lucretius, but the latter part witnesses to a doctrine of immortality and of penalty at which Lucretius scoffed. Dante learned from Virgil that a heathen might realize the depth of the abyss into which transgression brings the soul, without being able to discover the way of escape from it. And yet we should miss one of the chief aspects of Virgil's genius if we failed to consider him in his character as a prophet of Christianity. To a certain extent Virgil did predict the way of escape, when he wrote his fourth "Eclogue." Let us remember that this was composed a whole half-century before Christ's work was accomplished, and we shall at least be struck with Sources Of Virgil's Predictions
its remarkable correspondence with the future facts and its equally remarkable likeness to Hebrew prophecy.
The poet begins by calling on the muses of Sicily—that is, those who have inspired the genius of Theocritus—to aid him now in work higher than any he has yet attempted. A virgin is coming, and the reign of Saturn; the earlier ages are to return. The chaste Lucina, whose emblem is the moon, is invoked in behalf of the babe soon to be borne. Pollio himself, to whom the "Eclogue" is dedicated, shall see the opening of the glorious time now foretold. Under his guidance, if any vestiges of human wickedness remain, they shall at least cease to cause terror to the world. The coming child shall overthrow the age of iron and shall found a golden race; he shall take on himself a divine nature; he shall see heroes mingling familiarly with the gods; he shall himself be one of them. Under his mild government men shall recover their ancestral virtues. The timid flocks shall no longer fear the lion. Serpents shall perish and poisonous herbs disappear. From the very cradle of the babe shall spring living flowers ; the earth everywhere shall be alike fruitful; the soil shall not need the harrow, nor the vine the pruning-hook; the plowman shall release the ox from the yoke. Best of all, the Fates declare that this age of peace shall endure forever.
When Constantine recited a part of this " Eclogue" to the assembled fathers at the Council at Nice, it was with the view of showing that heathenism had predicted its own downfall, that the deliverer it looked forward to was nothing less than divine, and that this Desire of all nations had come. So Virgil came to be enrolled, like Balaam, among the prophets. His statue was placed among them in the cathedral of Spanish Zamora in the Middle Ages, and he was invoked as "prophet of the Gentiles," at Limoges and Rheims in France. "Sancte Socrate, ora pro nobis" we hear at one time; and Buddha is canonized as St. Josaphat at another.
Whence did Virgil derive his idea of the coming deliverer? Lactantius and Augustine thought him the organ of a prophetic inspiration which he did not himself understand. But it is more probable that here, as elsewhere, Virgil was only an imitator. The Sibylline books had repeated the Greek representations of a golden age. The Jews scattered among all nations after the Exile were a proselyting race; in every large city they had their synagogues; the Roman world had been leavened with their hope of a Redeemer. Virgil only echoed a longing which, originally springing from Jewish prophecy and from divine inspiration, had gradually permeated every civilized nation.
The hope of a deliverer did not come from heathenism. That was skeptical and hopeless rather. Cicero thought the course of all things to be downward. Horace mentions the idea of a golden age, only as a dream never to be realized on earth. But Virgil had the piety and the faith that could welcome truth so far above men's common thought, and could welcome it even though coming from a Jewish source. The years of conscription and slaughter through which Rome had just passed were to him a reign of terror. All that was worst in the world seemed to have been uppermost; surely the turn of the righteous must come. This marvelous hope settled on the new-born or expected child of Augustus and Scribonia, and Virgil expresses it in language which more than anything else in classic literature reminds us of Isaiah.
Virgil's prophecy did not come precisely true, for the world's deliverer was born, not in the consulship of Pollio, as he predicted, but some forty years later. Yet his LED TO A REVIVAL OF THE OLD RELIGION 97
religious teaching had wonderful effect. The "^Eneid," published with the special sanction of Augustus, had a send-off, if I may use the term, such as no other of the world's great poems ever had. We must not push back into the Augustan age ideas of the fewness of copyists and the large price of books which belong only to the dark ages that came after.
In Virgil's time there were publishing houses at Rome in which the new work of a poet could be put into circulation almost as quickly, though not with the same number of copies, as it can be to-day. There were great rooms filled with the desks of scribes; from an elevated pulpit or platform the poem was dictated word for word, and if need be, letter by letter; fifty or a hundred copies were made at once; the scribes were slaves, and slave labor was cheap. Martial, a century after, tells us that the first book of his "Epigrams " could be bought for five denarii, or for less than a dollar. Imagine, now, the rapidity with which Virgil's "Aineid" was multiplied, with all the prestige of imperial favor to give it a start in the race for fame. It attained at once a circulation and an influence entirely unexampled in ancient times. It was the means of bringing about a marked change in the beliefs of all classes of the Roman people.
The nature of that change will be understood if we
compare the times of Cicero, just before Virgil wrote,
and the times of the Antonines, two hundred years
after. Though Cicero had talked publicly and officially
of the gods and of immortality, he was by no means
sure of either. He wrote the "De Natura Deorum," yet
privately and at heart he was a skeptic. In his letters
there are no allusions to the gods. Nor does he in his letters, even when he is in greatest affliction, draw any consolations from the life to come. In "De Senectute," it is true, he finds the discomforts of old age relieved by the anticipation of speedy reunion with lost friends. Yet in another place he says: "Upon this subject I entertain no more than conjectures." When he reads Plato's argument for immortality he seems to himself convinced, but when he has laid down the book he finds that all his doubts have returned.
Cicero is the type of his time, a time when Epicurus is the reigning philosopher and Lucretius is the reigning poet. But before two centuries have passed, Marcus Aurelius, the type of his time also, writes letters full of religious sentiment; in almost every sentence he recognizes the gods; the future life gives him hope. Virgil, more than any other single influence, brought about this revival of old religion; showed how much literature could do to change the course of human thought and feeling. It showed how much literature could do, but it also showed how little literature could do. It could quicken conscience; it could inspire hope; it could not give certainty; it could not impart life. Neither Virgil's legal nor his prophetic utterances could do the work of the gospel, but they could and they did do something in preparing the world to accept the Christian faith.
It is not wonderful that the Middle Ages came to regard Virgil both as a saint and as a wizard. Magister Virgilius came to be not only master of all human science—mathematics, mechanics, architecture, and medicine—but also master of evil spirits, conjurer, VIRGIL AS A SAINT AND A WIZARD
necromancer, and magician. Tunison has shown that these stories are not a sort of folklore that grew up spontaneously in Italy. Naples, the city of Virgil's chief residence, has none of them. They were the fruit of conscious invention. They had an exclusively literary origin. They came from the North, not from the South. We must remember that the poems of Virgil became the school-reader of all the world. For nineteen hundred years his influence has been continuous.
Homer was lost to the Western world for centuries— only the bringing of Greek books from Constantinople, and the revival of Greek learning after the Crusades, brought back Homer to his place of power. But from the day that the "^Eneid" was given to the public until now, no ingenuous youth has had a liberal education without being compelled to read Virgil. What Aristotle became in logic and philosophy, Virgil always was in the more elementary training—the text-book of supreme authority.
Grammarians wrote such commentaries on his works that, if those works should themselves be lost, every line could probably be recovered from their citations. Noble ladies had their Virgil clubs, and injected mysterious meanings into his words, even as now they sometimes deal with Robert Browning. The "ALneid" was used to conjure by, and in the time of Hadrian fortunes were told by the Sortes Virgiliana, or by seizing upon the first word that presented itself ad aperturam libri, just as the Bible is used by some superstitious people to-day. As the Latin language gradually was displaced by the popular corruptions of it, it came to be regarded as a mystery, both in church and school. To the vulgar, "hoc est corpus" became "hocus-pocus." A magical efficacy was attributed to learning. Friar Bacon and Dr. Faustus alike, when they dived too deeply into science, were thought to be in league with the devil.
The chroniclers of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries had no very clear ideas of the dividing line between history and fable, and they too often fed the popular appetite for the marvelous with concoctions of their own imagination. Because Virgil had risen at a bound from a modest fortune to wealth and the favor of princes, it was inferred that something more than natural agents must have been at his bidding. Because he was master of all the learning of his time, the conclusion was drawn that the spirits of evil instructed him. Italy, to those far-away mediaeval gropers, seemed a fairy-land, and classic times were the early ages of enchantment.
About this period, moreover, the returning Crusaders brought back from the East the wonderful tales of Constantinople and Cairo and Bagdad, which, a century or two after, took form in the "Thousand and One Nights." The German, French, and English romancers wrought over the same raw material with which Moslem sheiks were entertained in the desert. The genii of the East became the demons of the West, Virgil became a classic Friar Bacon and Dr. Faustus all in one, and all the stories of magic art crystallized about him.
Like Aladdin, Virgil found a demon in a cave and pressed him into his service. He imprisoned familiar spirits in bottles, like the Arabian fisherman. At Naples he had a magic gaiden, wherein grew all manner of plants for healing and for charming men. This STORY OF THE SALVATION OF ROME IOI
garden was protected by an immovable atmosphere, as by a wall; and upon a bridge of air Master Virgil could pass at will, and in a moment, whithersoever he would, even to the most distant lands. Petrarch tells us that in his time Virgil was thought to have excavated the grotto of Posilippo by his spells. There was a bronze statue which he set up to watch Vesuvius and to check its eruptions. Whenever the mountain began to groan and to threaten the town, the statue shot an arrow at it and compelled it to cease its throes, or to pour forth its ashes and lava in the opposite direction.
But Virgil's chef-d'ceuvre as a magician was the tower or palace which he constructed at Rome. As Amphion of old had, by the music of his lyre, compelled the very stones to build themselves into his city wall, so Virgil used his poetry with similar effect to raise an edifice for the protection of the imperial city. John Desborcke, the chronicler, gives the story as follows:
The emperor asked of Virgilius how that he might make Rome prosper, and have many lands under them, and know when any land would rise against them ; and Virgilius said to the emperor: "I will within short space that do." And he made, upon the Capitolium, what was the town-house, made with carved images, and of stone, and called the Salvatio Roma; that is to say : This is the salvation of the city of Rome; and he made, in the compass of it, all the gods, that we call idols, that were under the subjection of Rome; and every one of the gods, that there were, had in his hand a bell ; and in the midst of the gods made he one god of Rome; and whensoever there was any land would make war against Rome, then would the gods turn their backs toward the god of Rome ; and then would the god of the land that would stand up against Rome clink his bell that he hath in his hand, till the senators of Rome heard it; and forthwith they go there and see what land it is that will war against them, and go against them, and subdue them.
The tale went on to say that Virgil declared that this magic tower should stand until a virgin should bear a son; and that, in accordance with his prophecy, it fell into ruins when Christ became incarnate. It is a striking proof of the persistence of men's craving for the marvelous, that this story of the " Salvation of Rome," and of Virgil's connection with it, should have been hawked about in English chap-books so late as the beginning of the present century, and should have died out of popular belief only when the Roman Empire itself expired.
Goldwin Smith declares that the victories of Rome were victories of the intellect. He regards the first settlers at the mouth of the Tiber as a commercial rather than a warlike people, who were able to keep the marauding tribes of the hills in check only by maintaining a discipline superior to theirs. So the necessities of traders gave to the Roman State its bent to military art, as the necessity of harmonizing the customs of the varied peoples whom it subdued compelled its attention to organization and to law. Greece treated strangers as barbarians, and even the Greek colonies were never Greece. But wherever a Roman went, there Roman sovereignty and citizenship went with him. Rome incorporated every conquered people; adopted their gods; and made both gods and people Romans. It is this incorporation and reconciliation of all nations by the decree of heaven under the aegis of Rome that constitutes the one great motive and subject of Virgil's song.
In his "Convito" Dante speaks of "the allegory of VIRGIL, THE POET OF ROME
the ages of man, which Virgil imagined in the 'jEneid.'" It was not so much an allegory of the ages of man, as an allegory of the ages of mankind. Written when the people of Italy first attained the sense of complete and secure nationality, and the whole circle of the earth recognized the authority of Rome, it most fully expressed the bounding hope of the Augustan age.: As the victory over Persia ushered in the splendid triumphs of art and oratory in the time of Pericles; as the defeat of the Spanish Armada and the humbling of papal Spain was immediately followed by the culmination of English literature in the days of great Elizabeth; so the unity of all mankind under Roman sway roused the soul of Rome's greatest poet. After the horrors of civil war, no wonder that Augustus seemed to him the Saviour of the State. With the world subdued, no wonder he could believe that the Empire was peace. We may smile at his idealization of the Empire, and we may frown upon his apotheosis of the emperor, but we cannot deny that his great poem drew its greatness from some of the noblest springs of human emotion, and constituted an unconscious prophecy of a greater kingdom than Rome, and a greater King than any of the Caesars.