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Vergil's Pessimism: A Reappraisal of the Harvard School and Augustan Poetry

Barbara P. Weinlich

In view of current reconsiderations of the rather limiting ideas that the scholarly tradition has associated with terms such as Augustanism and Augustan literature (e.g., Farrell and Nelis 2013) the Harvard School's achievements can hardly be overestimated. For by conceptualizing of the Aeneid as a poem of two voices (Parry 1963), by discerning its juxtaposition of a celebration of achievement and a history of defeat and loss (Clausen 1964), and by interpreting Aeneas' killing of Turning as a tragic victory (Putnam 1965), Parry, Clausen, and Putnam made acute observations about the multi-layered and polyvalent, even contradictory, nature of Rome's national epic and, moreover, of a document of post-Triumviral and proto-Imperial zeitgeist.

Created during the early stages of the res publica restituta, while witnessing Octavian-Augustus' ascendance to one-man rulership, the Aeneid is situated in an uncertain political environment that may be described as a liminal period gradually shaped by the aspiring princeps' effort to represent every social-political reconfiguration as the logical conclusion of all historical movements. But did this negotiation of the tension between the concept of restoration and the need for radical renewal manifest itself in Vergil's poems, including the Aeneid, as an outlook that may be called pessimistic? Or, perhaps more to the point, what does the Harvard School associate with the term pessimism?

In an attempt to answer this question this proposed paper will read Vergil's laudes Italiae (Geo. 2.136-176) both against the (cor)responding laudes Romae (Elegy 3.22) by Propertius and against the interpretation of either passage offered by Putnam (Putnam 1977 and 1979, respectively). It will argue that neither Vergil's nor Propertius' poetic praise provides sufficient evidence for pessimism, i.e., the belief that bad things will happen in the future. There is enough evidence, however, for arguing that both texts share a negative component, which manifests itself in a critiquing undercurrent. More specifically, each praise voices a concern joined with an implicit warning about a social-political development in the post-Triumviral era.

Viewed from this angle, Elegy 3.22 pursues the same strategy as the one that Nappa (2005, 2) has identified in Vergil's laudes Italiae, namely, to provoke the reader "to construct or reconstruct a view of the world and his place within it." The focus of each critiquing praise is Octavian-Augustus. Yet the issues with him are different. Vergil, as Putnam points out, is concerned about the danger that arises from Rome's apparent "inability to control her warlike instincts" (1979, 104), while Propertius is, as this paper will suggest, looking hard at the imminent and inevitable end of the Roman Republic. Consequentially, the glorification of Rome as Saturnia tellus (Geo. 2.173) and as a nurturing ground for the pursuit of traditional Republican values (Prop. 3.22.39-42), respectively, may be regarded as highly ironic.

While Putnam discerned in these concluding lines of Propertius' laudes a "pessimism constantly tempering Virgil's projection of future Roman glory" (1977, 248), this paper proposes to tone down the verdict by interpreting the passage as a sarcastic critique of the status quo at Rome. Yet in the grand scheme of things this proposition means calling for a rather minor correction. Viewed as an umbrella term for any alert and / or alerting reaction to the ways in which the tension between 'old' and 'new' was negotiated, Putnam's notion of pessimism contributes significantly to current discussions of the nature of post-Republican zeitgeist as well as of so-called Augustanism.

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Happy Golden Anniversary, Harvard School!

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