Sunday, 4 September 2011

Vergil's Eclogue 1

The main shape of Virgil’s first Eclogue seems clear enough: two shepherds, Meliboeus and Tityrus are in conversation.  Things are going well for Tityrus, but Meliboeus and his companions face a less certain future. The poem’s opening five lines spell this out:
Tityre, tu patulae recubans sub tegmine fagi
silvestrem tenui Musam meditaris avena;
nos patriae finis et dulcia linquimus arva.
nos patriam fugimus; tu, Tityre, lentus in umbra
formosam resonare doces Amaryllida silvas. [1-5]

You, Tityrus, lie under the canopy of a spreading beech, wooing the woodland Muse on slender reed, but we are leaving our country and its sweet fields. We are outcasts from our country; whilst you, Tityrus, at ease beneath the shade, teach the woods to re-echo “fair Amaryllis.”
Where are Meliboeus and the others going? And why? We are not told until right at the end of the poem:
At nos hinc alii sitientis ibimus Afros,
pars Scythiam et rapidum cretae veniemus Oaxen
et penitus toto divisos orbe Britannos.
en umquam patrios longo post tempore finis
pauperis et tuguri congestum caespite culmen,
post aliquot, mea regna, videns mirabor aristas?
impius haec tam culta novalia miles habebit,
barbarus has segetes. en quo discordia civis
produxit miseros; his nos consevimus agros! [64-72]

But we must go away from here – some of us to thirsty Africa, some as far as Scythia and the chalk-rolling Oaxes, and some to the Britons, completely cut-off from the world. Ah, shall I ever, long years hence, look again on my country’s bounds, on my humble cottage with its turf-clad roof – shall I, long years hence, look amazed on a few ears of corn, once my kingdom? Is a godless soldier to hold these well-tilled fallows? A barbarian these crops? See where strife has brought our unhappy citizens! For these have we sown our fields!
The cause, in other words, is ‘discordia’—discord or strife—which in turn has resulted in foreign soldiers and barbarians (‘miles novalis’ and ‘barbarus’) taking over Meliboeus’ land.  The traditional interpretation of this is that Meliboeus has been the unfortunate victim of a policy by the Roman leader Octavian, the man who later became Caesar Augustus.  To reward his army for defeating Brutus and Cassius at Philippi in Macedonia, and to keep them loyal (he would soon afterwards use this army to defeat Mark Antony and so become sole ruler of Rome) he gave the soldiers grants of land in Italy.  This meant expelling the present inhabitants.
There was no more government-controlled land to allot as settlements for their soldiers, so Octavian had to choose one of two options: alienating many Roman citizens by confiscating their land, or alienating many Roman soldiers who could mount a considerable opposition against him in the Roman heartland> Octavian chose the former. There were as many as eighteen Roman towns affected by the new settlements, with entire populations driven out or at least given partial evictions. [Werner Eck, The Age of Augustus (Oxford: Blackwell 2003), 19]
But how is it that Tityrus escapes having his land confiscated? Meliboeus says he is not jealous of Tityrus’s good fortune, but he is puzzled: But how is it that Tityrus escapes having his land confiscated? Meliboeus says he is not jealous of Tityrus’s good fortune, but he is puzzled: ‘Non equidem invideo, miror magis; undique totis/usque adeo turbatur agris’ [‘Well, I’m not envious of your good fortune – but I wonder at it; there’s such unrest everywhere about the land.’] We might take this ‘unrest’ to be the long civil war between the assassins and the heirs of Julius Caesar, and afterwards between those heirs. How does Tityrus escape? It seems 'a god' preserved him; and the name of that god is 'Rome' ('Tityrus, who is this god of yours?' 'The city they call Rome, Meliboeus'). Later in the poem we learn that he has recently achieved 'Libertas' -- freedom. He couldn't do it when he was in a relationship with Galatea, because she spent all his money; but since he's been seeing a different woman, Amaryllis, he's been able to save enough to get this 'freedom'. Meliboeus recalls that Amaryllis had recently been upset by Tityrus's absence (she 'called on the gods' and 'let the apples hang unpicked on their native trees [because] Tityrus was gone from home.' Indeed 'the very pines, Tityrus, the very springs, the very orchards were calling for you!' [36-39]. But Tityrus says it couldn't be helped; he had to go to Rome. After this, Meliboeus praises his good fortune:
Fortunate senex, ergo tua rura manebunt
et tibi magna satis, quamvis lapis omnia nudus
limosoque palus obducat pascua iunco.
non insueta gravis temptabunt pabula fetas
nec mala vicini pecoris contagia laedent.
fortunate senex, hic inter flumina nota
et fontis sacros frigus captabis opacum;
hinc tibi, quae semper, vicino ab limite saepes
Hyblaeis apibus florem depasta salicti
saepe levi somnum suadebit inire susurro;
hinc alta sub rupe canet frondator ad auras,
nec tamen interea raucae, tua cura, palumbes
nec gemere aeria cessabit turtur ab ulmo.

Happy old man! So these lands will still be yours, and large enough for you, though bare stones cover all, and the marsh chokes your pastures with slimy rushes. Still, no strange herbage shall try your breeding ewes, no baneful infection from a neighbour’s flock shall harm them. Happy old man! Here, amid familiar streams and sacred springs, you shall enjoy the cooling shade. On this side, as of old, on your neighbour’s border, the hedge whose willow blossoms are sipped by Hybla’s bees shall often with its gentle hum soothe you to slumber; on that, under the towering rock, the woodman’s song shall fill the air; while still the cooing wood pigeons, your pets, and the turtle dove shall cease not their moaning from the elm tops. [46-58]
What are we to make of this? The poem nowhere specifically says either that Tityrus was a slave who bought his manumission, although almost all commentators on the poem say that's what must have happened.  Nor does it anywhere specifically say that the soldiers who will occupy poor-old Meliboeus's land have been given it by Octavian, a figure whose name is not mentioned.  There could be other ways in which the soldier and the barbarian (the latter, we might think, by no means assuredly the former) get Meliboeus's land: they could have invaded and seized it; or they could just have bought it, in the regular way.  Indeed, this latter possibility opens up a possible reading of the poem that says: Tityrus is not a slave who has bought his own freedom, for why would that render him immune from Octavian's confiscations?  Perhaps the confiscations have nothing to do with it, and the clever thing Tityrus has done is: to buy his own land.  It's certainly not a very fertile or desirable plot, according to the poem: bare stones, marsh and slimy rushes and all.  But it makes Tityrus an owner, not a tenant; and so he can't simply be turfed off the land when the actual owner chooses.

Now this is at odds with the to the traditional interpretation of this poem (in the words of Ernest A. Fredricksmeyer [from his essay, 'Octavian and the Unity of Virgil's First Eclogue', Hermes 15: 3 (1961) 156]: 'we know that it was composed in 4I/40 B.C., after the confiscations of lands in Virgil's native province of Northern Italy on orders of Octavian, for the settlement of discharged veterans, and ... there is almost complete agreement that the ['god' referred to] is Octavian ... Most critics have interpreted the eclogue as an expression of the poet's personal gratitude to Octavian for the preservation of his property or, in any case, have seen unqualified praise of him in the poem.' But one of the reasons I prefer this reading of the poem is because it inflects the matter of pastoral itself through the lens of ownership, rather than patronage. It is a poem that says: it is not enough to praise the beauty of land in the countryside; we must also know -- who owns this. Rome, I am suggesting, is the locus not of political power (although obviously it was that) but of legal power, the place where property is bought and sold, and rightful title deeds recognised. The emphasis elsewhere in the poem is an almost Hesiodic emphasis on work, labour and trade: goats and cheeses, fruit and oxen -- not, whatever the critics say, a Theocritan sensual indolence in a bucolic paradise. All this, the poem is saying -- all the things Meliboeus lists in his mournful adieu at the end ('away, once happy flock! No more, stretched in some mossy grot, shall I watch you in the distance hanging from a bushy crag; no more songs shall I sing; no more, my goats, under my tending, shall you crop flowering lucerne and bitter willows!'), means nothing except as property.

Perhaps one reason why this reading has never, so far as I know, been advanced is that it seems to suggest a rather cynical, even money-grubbing financial ethos that is, or is seen as being, at odds with the escapist pleasures of pastoral more broadly conceived.  But I don't think this is right: more to the point, the poem very straightforwardly opposes two modes of apprhension of pastoral beauty and pleasure.  The difference is that one, Meliboeus's, is inflected via elegy and loss, and the other -- Tityrus -- through the sensual assuredness of possession. This also avoids the need to read the dialogue between the two of them in terms of the 'callousness' of seemingly-uncaring Tityrus for poor Meliboeus (as Christine Perkell puts it ['On Eclogue 1.79-83', 171]: 'many current critics view Tityrus as being of pedestrian imagination, callous, evasive, and morally insensitive'). But this is to miss the point: Tityrus isn't uncaring, any more than he is an allegorical representation of Virgil himself: he is, simply, representative of one mode of apprehension of pastoral living ('ownership') over another, less permanent one.

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