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Between Biography and Commentary: The Ancient Horizon of Expectations of Virgil’s Vita

Irene Peirano Garrison

Readers of the Vita of Vergil by Suetonius-Donatus (henceforth VSD) are familiar with the ancient tradition of biographical allegorizing of the author’s poems. According to Horsfall, for example, most of what is in the Vita is “not biographical fact, as we understand it, but either explication of V.’s text in biographical terms, or defence of the poet against criticism” (Horsfall, 1995, 4). It is generally agreed that biographical allegory is behind the stories in VSD about land confiscation, in which the situation depicted in Bucolics 1 and 9 is read as a reflection of Virgil’s life experience (Starr, 1995). The irreverent mingling of fact and fiction at the root of the bio-allegorical method has lead scholars either to characterize VSD as a “rogue biography” or to try and redeem its most reliably historical features.

In this paper I argue that the modern editorial presentation of VSD as a historical biography circulating independently has obscured the “horizon of expectations” (Jauss, 1982) in which biographical allegory was practiced and understood in antiquity (cf. Kraus, 2010, 416). For in the case of VSD, the literary context in which the Vita was read in the form in which we have it was the commentary tradition. Thus while it is commonly referred to as the work of Suetonius, in its current form the text goes back to the fourth- century commentator Aelius Donatus and functioned as a preface to his now lost commentary. Because Donatus states elsewhere (Vita Ter. 8) that he followed Suetonius’ De poetis, there is evidence to believe that the Vita goes back at least in part to that of the 2nd century biographer (Naumann, 1990).

I argue, however, that the physical proximity and commonality of literary interests and methods between commentary and Vita are important clues to understanding the “inventedness” of the biography (cf. Arrighetti, 1987; Klooster, 2011). As we can glean from a summary of its preface (fr. 1 De poet. Rostagni), the now lost Suetonian De poetis was a work of literary criticism as well as of biography in the modern sense, addressing issues such as the nature of poetry, its evolution and the distinction between poiema and poiesis. Furthermore, commentary and Vita share common intellectual and methodological objectives. Thus the Servian scholia are a living lab in which to observe in uiuo the process of biographical allegory that we see reflected in VSD. For example, in Buc. 3.94-5, Menalcas’ injunction to his sheep not to trust the river-banks (non bene ripae creditur) is read allegorically as an allusion to a biographical incident in which Virgil supposedly saved himself from the attack of a centurion (Servius, ad Buc. 3.94; praef. in Buc. 9). This note in Servius finds a counterpart in VSD 20, where Virgil is said to have narrowly avoided death at the hands of a veteran in an argument over the fields. The notice in VSD about Virgil’s lack of talent in oratory (VSD 15) foists on Virgil the author the attributes of the man gaping at the rostra at Georgic 2.508-10 (cf. also Aen. 6.849-50; Peirano, 2012, 74-116), a first-person passage which, as Servius tells us, was subject to biographical allegory (Servius, ad Georg. 2.475). Thus the Servian commentary provides a wealth of information about biographical allegory as a critical practice (e.g. Servius, ad Buc. 1.1; 9.5; 3.16-20) which we see implemented in the Vita.

Provocatively, one might say that VSD could well be approached not as a biography but as a form of biographical commentary in narrative form, that is a series of allegorical readings of the poems organized around a mixture of chronological and ethicalrubric-heads (cf. Momigliano, 1972, 70; Schorn, 2012). If approached as a textually engaged commentary in narrative form rather than stigmatized as a failed biography, the Virgilian Vita can be read as an integral part of the creative approach to texts that characterizes much of ancient scholarship. 

Session/Panel Title

Between Fact and Fiction in Ancient Biographical Writing

Session/Paper Number

81.4

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