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Virbius in Pascoli's Laureolus

Anne Mahoney

Tufts University

Giovanni Pascoli's Laureolus (1893) combines the folklore motif of the divine visitor, familiar from the Philemon and Baucis story for example, with an obscure Roman god and a notorious criminal. At rst these three ideas seem ill assorted, but I will argue that the name Laureolus is the thread that holds the poem together, and that the mood and style of the poem are more similar to Pascoli's Italian lyrics than to most of his Latin narratives.

Pascoli supplies a note: "Vide Iuv. 8.187; Mart. Sp. 7; Verg. Aen. 7.761 sq.; Servium ad h. l.; Ovid Metam. 15.543." The passages in Juvenal and Martial refer to the criminal Laureolus and his execution, later dramatized in a mime by Catullus. The passages in Vergil and Ovid are about Virbius, the deified Hippolytus, worshipped along with Diana at Aricia.

Pascoli's poem is 121 lines long, in dactylic hexameter. The scene is set in a forest near Aricia, at twilight. An old couple are returning home; the woman is emphatically called pia anus (6, 9), and she prays to Virbius. Suddenly, out of nowhere, a man appears, or rather a human form (forma viri, 25, forma 27), asking for hospitality. Naturally, the good old couple let him in and share their evening meal. He tells them nothing about himself; when they ask his name he only says scitis enim (53) and changes the subject. After dinner he thanks them, calling the meal non indigna deo . . . cena (73). Only then does he begin to talk about himself, rather obliquely, as someone of whom nature itself is afraid (84-96). As the old couple listen, fascinated but afraid, they hear horses galloping toward their house (99-100). They turn away from their guest, presumably looking to see the riders outside, and when they look back, he has disappeared - but there is gold on the table (101-103). The riders knock at the door and ask whether the old couple have seen a wild, threatening man (105-107). They say they
have not. The riders ask, more or less rhetorically, "then where is Laureolus?" and say that he has plundered the nearby temple of Diana (108-111). They ride away, and the old couple make a sacrice to Virbius.

It seems that the old couple take the mysterious stranger for the god Virbius, while the more prosaic explanation is that he is the bandit Laureolus. The poem leaves both possibilities open. The historical Laureolus committed some sort of crime, for which he was executed. Later (perhaps not very much later), during the reign of Caligula, the playwright Catullus turned his story into a mime (Suet. Cal. 57.4), which was re-enacted with an actual execution during the opening games at the Flavian Amphitheater (Mart. Spec. 7). Martial suggests that the man executed in the role of Laureolus might have murdered someone, or conspired against Rome, or stolen from a temple (7.7-10). 

Pascoli picks up this detail and makes his Laureolus a temple robber.

The name "Laureolus" evokes the laurel, Apollo's tree. Pascoli therefore chooses a temple of Apollo's sister, Diana, as the scene of Laureolus's crime. Diana was worshipped at Aricia along with the rather obscure Virbius; it makes sense that neighborhood residents would have a special devotion to that god.
The tone of the poem is dark and somber, suitable for a divine epiphany or for the pursuit of a bandit who has profaned a temple. The mood is similar to some of Pascoli's darker Italian lyrics, such as "Nel bosco." While we realize, rationally, that the mysterious guest must be Laureolus, we cannot help sympathizing with the old couple who seem to think they have been visited by a god.

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The World of Neo-Latin: Current Research

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