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The Aristaeus Epyllion in Georgics 4 and the Instability of Didactic Knowledge

Patrick Glauthier

This paper seeks, in a limited way, to build off several trends in the interpretation of Virgil’s Aristaeus epyllion (G. 4.315-558).  I begin with a question: Why does the bugonia described by Cyrene at the end of the epyllion (G. 4.538-58) differ so radically from the bugonia described by the narrator earlier in the poem (G. 4.294-314)?  I argue that the very existence of divergences has metapoetical and epistemological implications.  First, I show that Aristaeus’ encounters with Proteus and Cyrene dramatize the the structures of didactic poetry.  I then suggest that the juxtaposition of the two bugonia narratives hints at the problematic and imperfect ways in which didactic poetry transmits knowledge in the everyday world of the poet and reader. 

Recent critics have argued that the epyllion stages a competition between different poetic genres or values (e.g. Schiesaro 1997, Gale 2000: 51-7, Baier 2007, Baumbach 2013).  Such studies, however, generally emphasize only the differences between Proteus and Cyrene.  Instead, I show that both figures function as didactic poets, while Aristaeus plays the role of their didactic student.  The teacher-student constellation constitutes a defining characteristic of didactic poetry (Volk 2002: 37-9), and supplies a key framework for understanding Proteus and Aristaeus.  After Aristaeus loses his bees, Cyrene tells him about Proteus, whom she twice calls vates, both “prophet” and “poet” (4.387, 392; cf. 450).  Aristaeus must subdue Proteus ut omnem | expediat morbi causam [sc. that decimated the bees] (4.396-7), and Cyrene later confirms that he succeeded (haec omnis morbi causa, 4.532).  The phrase morbi causa has strong Lucretian connotations (Freudenburg 1987), while causa is a virtual didactic catchword used repeatedly in the DRN and Georgics.  (For the Georgics’ natural philosophical interest in causae, see Ross 1987.) These kinds of textual strategies, as well as various allusions, characterize Proteus’ utterances as generically didactic.

But Proteus’ didactic song does not solve Aristaeus’ problem—his didacticism is entirely abstract, perhaps even allegorical (Farrell 1991: 265-6).  Reenter Cyrene, who supplements Proteus’ abstractions with practical instructions about the bugonia and who sounds a lot like the narrator himself (Schiesaro 1997: 65-8).  The contrast, then, is not between two poetic genres, but two different modalities of didacticism, the theoretical and the practical, both of which play fundamental roles in the Georgics as a whole.

Once we reach the end of the epyllion, however, we must return to poet’s own account of the bugonia.  Although the relationship between the poet and the reader seems to mirror the practical Cyrene-Aristaeus dynamic, as the discrepancies between the two bugonia passages surface (e.g. one demands the sacrifice of a single vitulus, the other calls for a total of ten different animals; cf. Thomas 1988 ad loc.), a more epistemological point emerges.  During the epyllion, the reader experiences a change in roles—instead of receiving advice from the poet, he watches a series of interactions that explore the nature of didactic poetry itself.  What is the lesson?  While divinities like Proteus and Cyrene possess unerring knowledge, human poets do not.  Cyrene might declare that Proteus will unfold the entire cause of the disease (omnem | expediat morbi causam, 4.396-7), but the georgic poet can only unfold fama, a flawed approximation (omnem | expediam… famam, 4.285-6).  From this perspective, a comparison of the two bugonia narratives suggests that didactic learning becomes destabilized over time and through transmission, from one human to the next, whether poet or reader, each as fallible as Orpheus.

Ross 1987: 214-33 and Schiesaro 1997 have argued that Aristaeus’ saga dramatizes the problems involved in the search for knowledge.  The metapoetical point, however, is crucial.  Aristaeus is originally a didactic reader, and the entire lesson unfolds within a specific generic framework.  In a world ruled by Jupiter, didactic learning is unstable and its transmission involves transformation and contamination—we must continually return to the source and wrestle with it anew, like Aristaeus attempting to subdue the old man of the sea.

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Latin Hexameter Poetry

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