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Virgil, Creator of the World

Catherine Conybeare

Bryn Mawr College

This paper will argue that the sublimated pressure of theological concerns is present as early as the fifth century, and even in a writer long considered the poster child of late paganism, Macrobius.

‘Do you see the eloquence, marked by variety of every kind? Virgil seems to me to have mingled this industriously together using a sort of prescience ..., which he foresaw with divine, not mortal, genius: and following no guide but nature, he wove this harmony from disparate things just as if he were composing music. Indeed, if you look carefully at the world itself, you will find a great similarity between that divine creation and this poetic one.’

This passage comes from Macrobius’ great, quirky dialogue, the Saturnalia; it is the speaker Eusebius who is praising the Aeneid as a world in microcosm (Sat. 5.1.18-19). Macrobius composed his dialogue in the first third of the fifth century CE. Christianity had long been established as the dominant religion of the Roman empire; but you would never know it from this dialogue.

Or would you? The Saturnalia has long been interpreted as a backward-looking exercise in literary nostalgia, an act of reverence for the pre-Christian literary past (a nuanced version of this in Kaster 1980). This interpretation is supported by Macrobius’ unabashed and extensive excerption from earlier texts (Pelttari 2014) as well as the presence of Symmachus, purportedly the darling of the pagan resistance to Christianity, as a prominent interlocutor in the dialogue (Cameron 2011; emphasis on ‘purportedly’). Indeed, shortly before the passage quoted above, Symmachus has been cited as the only ‘modern’ writer in a list of exemplars that otherwise comprises Cicero, Sallust, Fronto, and Pliny. Meanwhile Curtius, the great scholar of the medieval literary traditions of Western Europe, saw something rather different: ‘It is clear that Macrobius already sees in poetry everything that the Middle Ages saw in it: theology, allegory, universal knowledge, rhetoric. ... The poem is comparable to the cosmos’ (Curtius 1953: 444; Cullhed 2015).

Nostalgia for antiquity – or anticipation of the middle ages? This paper will push Macrobius’ chronological reach yet further, and propose that he indirectly provides a model for readers of classical texts in the twentieth and twenty-first century. Bear in mind that Augustine of Hippo was an almost exact contemporary of Macrobius. Augustine at the time was energetically engaged in the dialogues and debates of Christianity; but the pressure from the cultural and intellectual ferment of Christianity in the Western empire, and its vigorous renegotiation of the classical tradition, tacitly shapes the work of Macrobius as well. Take, for example, his description of the reader’s approach to the ‘holy recesses’ of Virgil’s ‘sacred poem’ (Sat. 1.24.13): it is disconcertingly close to Augustine’s first approach to the bible (Confessions 3.5.9). Allegorical readings of Homer had, of course, been established at least as early as the great scholars of Alexandria; but allegory had passed through Philo and Origen to achieve a new richness in the Christian biblical interpretation so vividly realized by Augustine and others in the fourth century. Again, could the image of Virgil as quasi-divine creator of a poetic world have been invented without the urgency of new Christian readings of Genesis in the background? Or, indeed, does the image of Virgil as consummate cosmic musician bear the traces of Augustine’s ascent to the divine in De Musica?

Above all, we see Macrobius anticipating our own scholarly practices in his concern to produce an intellectual genealogy – Virgil, Cicero, Fronto and the rest – without reference to Christian literary production. This paper will argue that our intellectual heritage as classicists is radically incomplete if we continue to ignore the pressure of the cultural divisions of the fourth and fifth centuries on how we write and read and, indeed, select our objects of concern today.

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Philology's Shadow: Theology and the Classics

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