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Stoic Physics in the Bugonia of Vergil

Peter Osorio

Cornell University

I propose that Vergil’s descriptions of bugonia in Georgics 4 (308-11 and 554-8) draw on Stoic theories of generation, according to which the heating properties of pneuma is responsible for any development of life. By defending this proposal, I set out to remove an interpretative taboo in Vergilian studies: looking for an allegorical bugonia in the Aeneid. Vergil compares the souls in Elysium awaiting rebirth to bees (A. 6.706-9), and Farrell (1991: 263), Austin (1977: 217), and Norden (1957: 305-307) recognize that Vergil here alludes to the mythological tradition of calling human souls ox-born bees. Despite this allusion, Horsfall (2010: 41) and Habinek (1990: 211) consider attempts to locate bugonia in the epic ill-founded, since accounts of bugonia do not mention the passage of soul from the bull to the bees. But by the time Vergil came to write his epic, he had already forged the link between the ox-born bee soul and bugonia by alluding to Stoic theory in his account of bugonia; a soul, according to the Stoics, is simply a portion of hot pneuma with a high degree of tension. It is therefore not at all problematic that the pneuma latent in the residue of a former living bull, given the right circumstances, could concoct, refine, and develop into bee souls.

First I provide Aristotle’s account of spontaneous generation (GA 3.11.762a18-27), according to which pneuma is refined in concoctions of admixtures of water and earth so as to support life. From Cicero’s De natura deorum (2.26-28), we find evidence not only that Stoic theories of generation could support the phenomenon of spontaneous generation through their theory of pneumatic heat but also that they drew strongly from Aristotle’s account of psychic heat in pneuma (Mayor and Swainson: 113-4; Pease: 609-10). Vergil’s two descriptions of bugonia shares notable verbal parallels with the Stoic Balbus’ account of pneumatic heat (Cic. ND 2.26). So, for instance, Balbus and Vergil  share a diction for describing warmed liquids (viz. liquefacta and tepefactus) (cf. Verg. G. 4.308; 555). In addition, Vergil, like Aristotle, stresses that generation arises out of a process of heating and concoction (aestuat, Verg. G. 4.309; effervere, Verg. G. 4.556) rather than one of putrefaction, as Ovid does (Fast. 1.379). I infer either that Vergil is himself creating a putative Stoic theory of bugonia by adapting Balbus’ account of pneumatic heat to the logic behind Aristotelian spontaneous generation, or that he is alluding to a lost Stoic account of bugonia which accomplishes as much.

I conclude by considering whether Vergil’s Stoic reading of bugonia is traceable in the Aeneid. I focus on a previously unnoted parallel between Anchises’ Stoic account of the soul (Verg. A. 6.724-34), located just after the Elysian bee simile, and the poet’s bee-simile for the destruction of Laurentum in A. 12.587-94. The Laurentines as dying bees recall the nature of the soul as set out by Anchises in Elysium and provide another locus for the soul as ox-born bee idea in the epic. Given that Vergil twice creates the expectation for a bull to facilitate the transfer of souls, I float one proposal for the figure of the dead bull: the land of Italy itself. Italus, the eponymous king whose statue stands in the museum-like halls of Latinus (Verg. A. 7.178), is the Greek word for a bull (italos; cf. the Latin vitulus), and the bull was also the symbol for the new confederacy called Italia during the Social War. The bugonia of the Aeneid, then, is a reflection on the cost of wars that gave rise to the new beginnings both for the Trojans in Italy and for the state of Rome in its more recent history.

Session/Panel Title

Ritual and Magic

Session/Paper Number

68.3

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