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Vergil's Third Eclogue at the Dawn of Roman Literature

John Oksanish

This paper reasserts the thesis that the amoebaean songs in Eclogue 3 recall Fescennine verses and the origins of comedy (Ecl. 3.59, amant alterna Camenae, with Currie 1976, et al.; cf. Ecl. 7.18). I argue in addition that the poem as a whole represents the beginnings of literary history and libertas in Italy.

Commentators since Servius have noted the poem's comic diction (e.g., Dic mihi; cuium pecus; etc.), but the rustic alterna of Vergil's herdsmen also anticipate the Fescennine alterna in Livy's aetiology of the ludi scaenici (7.2.4ff. with Oakley) and the alterni versus of Rome's dramatic origins at Horace Ep. 2.1.139ff. (Varro is the presumed source for Livy, Horace, and Vergil, Geo. 2.380ff.)

The "dramatic" aetiology of Ecl. 3 reflects an important, first-century allegory that used early literary history to interrogate contemporary literary and social concerns. (Feeney; Tarrant) For example, Horace troublingly links Italy's primeval literature with civil strife and violence in Ep. 2.1, reporting that Fescennina licentia at the early Liberalia quickly led to rustic aggression (rabies) against noble families. Such coarseness, initially suppressed with threats of force and a law against mala carmina, remained in Horace's day; the urbanity of Graecia capta mitigated Italian insolence, but only imperfectly (Ep. 2.1.160, hodieque manent vestigia ruris). Livy is far less polemical, but correlates early Fescennine abuse and satura (cf. below) with social censure, and likewise includes a mollifying foreign element (peregrina res).

Eclogue 3 engages similar themes with pastoral indirectness. Two herdsmen quarrel more virulently than do their Theocritean predecessors. (Id. 4; Alpers 1976) A "neighbor" (vicinus), Palaemon, arrives at the poem's midpoint to arbitrate, but his request that the herdsmen appeal to the Camenae "who love alterna" goes awry: poor poets, the rustics bungle bookish allusions and resume squabbling. Palaemon, who represents a more sophisticated tradition (Monteleone; Schultz), deems the bumpkins worthy of a heifer (vitula, evidently desirable to both men at 3.29 ff.). Here, I read an etymological pun on vitulus and ἰταλός (Var. Ling. 5.96, Rust. 2.5.3), with Vergil marking Italy as poetic "cow-country."

Like Horace, Vergil looks beyond Italian poetics to Greek ars. Palaemon's final decree (Ecl. 3.111, 'claudite iam rivos, pueri; sat prata biberunt') refers to poetic composition (compare Clausen). The line metrically evokes Tityrus' deus in Ecl. 1 ('pascite ut ante boves, pueri…'), but limits libertas where Ecl. 1 expands it: Palaemon commands the herdsmen to suppress their native "sources," i.e., the spring-nymph Camenae (rivus at Ov. Fast. 3.273f.). Thus, Palaemon's pronouncement that the meadows have drunk "enough" (sat) alludes to native dramatic satura (Liv. 7.2.7 with Oakley on Tib. 2.1.51-6) and indigenous metres (cf. Hor. Ep.  2.1.158, horridus numerus Saturnius). Vergil may even evoke satire: Horace Sat. 1.7 shares some themes with Ecl. 3, while Sat. 1.10.44-5 compliments Vergil's "rure gaudentes Camenae."  I conclude by proposing a new nuance for Horace's compliment in light of my reading of Ecl. 3, the only Eclogue in which the Camenae are named.

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Latin Hexameter Poetry

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