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Virgil’s Nomina Flexa: Tityrus, Amaryllis, Meliboeus

Aaron Kachuck

     In Virgil’s poetry, nomina are often omina. In this paper, I show how Virgil’s first three character-names—Tityrus, Amaryllis, Meliboeus—contribute to the formation of their individual characters, their poem’s plot, and Virgil’s programmatic interests. Recent scholarship has demonstrated Virgil’s care in assembling bucolica nomina (Rumpf 1999) and frequent use of word-play (Ahl 1985; O’Hara 1996; Katz 2008). I show how looking at word-play associated with these first three bucolic names may supplement recent perspectives on bucolic “echoes” (Alpers 1979:75, Hubbard 1998:124, Breed 2006:14, Hardie 2002:20), and I offer an alternative to the programmatic (also onomastic) interpretation of the first Eclogue by Van Sickle (2000). I conclude by suggesting ways in which Virgil redeployed these names and figures at the beginning and ending of both his Georgics and Aeneid.

     I begin with Tityrus and Amaryllis, singing in the trees. Juan Luis de la Cerda’s 1608 commentary to the Georgics (ad G. 3.334) uses Amaryllis (E. 1.5) as a reference-case for the Virgilan figure he terms flexus (mirus) orationis: “the woods echo Amaryllis, Amaryllis the woods.” This “turn of speech” (a useful term for echo as a textual effect) points us to later in the poem, where “sad Amaryllis” causes “pines, fountains, trees” to bewail (vocabant) Tityrus (E. 1.36-9), and suggests that questions of priority (who’s singing whom?) take a back seat to their mutual co-implication.

     Amaryllis’ name suggests that her relationship to the trees is just as integral to her character as her relationship to Tityrus. Amaryllis is first named by Meliboeus at the end of the poem’s first speech (E. 1.5): “you, Tityrus, pliant in shade (in umbra) / teach the trees to echo ‘lovely Amaryllis.’” Looking to her name, I show that “Shade” is not accidental, but essential, to Amaryllis: from Greek ἀμαρύσσω, “to shimmer,” (cf. Gow ad Th. Id. 3.1) she is the sprinkled or half-light (cf. Aegle, Gr. “blinding light”) that is the complement of shade. Shade and light are inversely correlated, but Amaryllis represents, in Tityrus’ pastoral paradise, their equilibrium point.

     I use this market term pointedly because it plays a key part in the poem’s tragically inverse correlation—Meliboeus/Tityrus. That Meliboeus’ name seems a Virgilian innovation (Clausen ad E. 1.6) presents a prima facie case for onomastic attention. I begin with a puzzle: Meliboeus is a goat-herd, but has a name that suggests Greek “care for cows” (ὅτι μέλει αὐτῷ τῶν βοῶν, Serv. Praem. Buc.); by contrast, Tityrus is a cow-herd, but echoes a Greek word for “ram” (Serv. ibid.; Aelian, V.H. 3.40; pace Ath. Deip. 4.182d; Sch. ad Th. 3.2a, p. 117, 16 Wend.; cf. Van Sickle 2000). The poem pulls the strings tighter: Tityrus tells Meliboeus that, while he was together with Galatea, he had no cura peculi (“care for his bucks,” i.e. cash-cows, peculium<pecus). Now, however, that Tityrus has regained his “care of cash-cows,” political fortunes are depriving him of Meliboeus, “he who cares for cows.” Cura peculi replaces, here, cura boum—a markedly uneven exchange.

    Virgil’s structural deployment of Meliboeus as figure and name confirms the etymology’s relevance. The last line of the Eclogues clearly inverts Meliboeus’ last words to his goats (E. 10.77>1.74), so that Meliboeus helps the Eclogues book come (dubiously) full circle. He repeats this role for the Georgics, whose end loops to the beginning of the Eclogues (G. 566>E. 1.1). But the Georgics’ end loops to its own beginning as well, and via Meliboeus: the opening lines of the Georgics mention as subject of interest cura boum, “care of cows” (G. 1.3)—aka Meliboeus. I then show how Amaryllis and her shadows haunt both the end, and, more tenuously, the beginning, of the Aeneid. I conclude with reflections on how Virgil’s implication of his first three named characters in multiple relationships of reciprocity and inversion is of a piece with his general interest in large-scale ring-structures and loops.

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Hellenistic and Neoteric Intertexts

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