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“Virgil’s Tragic Shepherds”

Julia Scarborough

Wake Forest University

This paper will argue that Virgil’s use of pastoral elements in the Aeneid draws on tragedy to create a destabilizing incongruity between readers’ expectations and epic outcomes.  In the Eclogues, peaceful shepherds devote themselves to song; in the Aeneid, in contrast, shepherds enter the epic action at crucial junctures with catastrophic results, culminating in war between Aeneas’ Trojans and the Italians with whom they are fated to join in a new nation. 

The clash of pastoral and epic in the Aeneid has troubled both ancient and modern critics. Macrobius suggests in his Saturnalia that Virgil, lacking a Homeric model, simply does not know how to start an epic war.  Modern scholars have read the pastoral episode of Aeneid 7 as deliberately evoking the bucolic world of the Eclogues and have identified the outbreak of war as a generic transition from pastoral and georgic to martial epic (Putnam 1970, 1995; Thomas 1999).  Some critics have seen this juxtaposition of pastoral echoes with epic warfare as a conflict of values, arguing that Aeneas leads an “imperialist invasion” that destroys an idyllic pastoral society (Putnam 1970, Nethercut 1968).  In reaction, other scholars have argued that war is a natural extension of hunting and that shepherds’ participation in violence should not be seen as transgressive (Tarleton 1989, Horsfall 2000). 

The role of herdsmen in the Aeneid has engaged and divided critics chiefly because herdsmen become active participants in battle.  Unlike herdsmen in the Eclogues, who are exclusively victims, those in the Aeneid repeatedly commit or catalyze acts of violence (Chew 2002, Suerbaum 2005, Kronenberg 2013).  The aggression of Virgil’s Latin herdsmen cannot be explained by appeal either to bucolic or to epic models.  There is, however, a third genre in which herdsmen do take an active part in violence, both by precipitating crises unwittingly and by starting fights in which they are outmatched.  This is Attic tragedy. 

Although scholars have long recognized echoes of tragedies such as Euripides’ Bacchae and Heracles in the events of Aeneid 7 (Reckford 1961, Zarker 1969, Wigodsky 1972), discussions of the influence of tragedy on the Aeneid (Fenik 1960, Hardie 1997, Panoussi 2009) have not examined the role played by herdsmen.  In Attic tragedy, shepherds bring disruption onto the stage; their good intentions combined with inexperience make them dangerous.  Euripides’ Bacchae and Iphigenia at Tauris show groups of herdsmen choosing to launch attacks that go wrong, with disastrous consequences.  Sophocles’ Oedipus the King hinges on misguided choices made by two shepherds with the best of motives.  This paper will argue that the appearance of shepherds within the larger tragic structures of Aeneid 7 activates expectations from tragedy – that shepherds will leave their ordinary sphere of activity and will unwittingly cause disaster.  This tragic role offers a paradigm for the part played by shepherds in the Aeneid, including the poem’s most important shepherd: Aeneas himself (Hornsby 1968, Anderson 1968, Chew 2002).  Invoking tensions inherent in the figure of the shepherd in tragedy, Virgil transforms the Homeric metaphor of the hero as shepherd of his people to explore the tragic ironies in which Aeneas is implicated as he struggles to accomplish his constructive “pastoral” mission by inevitably destructive methods.

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Vergil and Tragedy

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