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Sicily and the Eclogues of Vergil

Matthew Leigh

This paper explores the significance of Sicily for Vergil's Eclogues. As the native island of Theocritus and the setting of much of his pastoral verse, Sicily has an established place in the evolving genre of bucolic. Yet only one of the Eclogues is clearly situated on the island. The issue is therefore not only what it means for Eclogue 2 to adopt this setting but also why the rest of the poems replace it with areas such as Mantua and the Mincius or Arcadia.

The approach adopted is inspired by what Diodorus Siculus and Strabo tell us about the pastoral economy of inland Sicily and the long history of slave revolts on the island. To both writers the emergence of central Sicily as a pastoral economy is the product of the Roman domination of the island and of investment by Roman and Italian magnates. The same, according to Strabo, is also true of Epirus and indeed of Arcadia itself. Diodorus, drawing on Posidonius, indicates the brutality and neglect to which pastoral slaves were subjected and recounts the two great slave revolts of the late second century B.C. Strabo refers to the first of these and to its leader Eunus, but he also describes what he himself saw of the punishment meted out at a gladiatorial show in the Forum to the slave leader Selurus, who led a rebel band in the vicinity of Enna. For the significance of slavery and Sicily for Vergil's contemporary audience, it will also be necessary to engage with the war against Sextus Pompeius as narrated by Appian and Dio.

Closer examination of the detailed account in Diodorus of the first slave revolt and of the role of the landowner Damophilus of Enna is revealing. The cruel treatment of the slaves working his rural estates is set in contrast with the pampered domestic slaves who travel around with him. This is an attractive comparandum for the hopeless love in Eclogue 2 of the pastoral slave Corydon for the master's pet Alexis. Where scholarship conventionally emphasises the importance for this situation - and for the deep verbal texture of the poem as a whole - of the love of the Sicilian Polyphemus for the sea nymph Galatea in Idylls 6 and 11 of Theocritus, this paper draws attention to the servile status of the characters and suggests that Vergil sentimentalises unequal property relations and oppression. To this extent the poet is guilty of doing exactly what Raymond Williams acquits him of in his indictment of Renaissance and post-Renaissance pastoral, Pastoral and Counter-Pastoral.

The final section of the paper engages with Strabo's account of the pastoral economy of Arcadia and its transformation as a consequence of conquest by Rome. Much here reflects Roman policy on Sicily and the honeyed vision of the bucolic world is as wilfully dishonest. Yet the very distance from Rome of Arcadia and the absence of revolts comparable to those on Sicily allows less dissonance between the historical associations of the region and the image presented in the literary artefact.

The paper will necessarily condense a longer and more detailed case. It will meet the 20 minute time allowance.

Session/Panel Title

Slavery and Status in Ancient Literature and Society

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