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Virgil in the theatre: poets, oratory and performance in Tacitus' Dialogus de oratoribus

Talitha E. Z. Kearey

University of Cambridge

This paper untangles the significance of a central – yet unappreciated – anecdote in Tacitus’ Dialogus de oratoribus. In response to assertions that oratory leads to fame, comfort and autonomy, the character Maternus declares that he would rather take retreat in the ‘woods and glades’ of poetry (12.1). But this seclusion, he says, is not incompatible with either imperial approval or rave reviews:

malo securum et quietum Vergilii secessum, in quo tamen neque apud diuum Augustum gratia caruit neque apud populum Romanum notitia. testes Augusti epistulae, testis ipse populus, qui auditis in theatro Vergilii uersibus surrexit uniuersus et forte praesentem spectantemque Vergilium ueneratus est sic quasi Augustum. (Dial. 13.1-2)

Enlisting Virgil for his argument is a coup for Maternus. Maternus’ Virgil walks a middle path between the twin dangers of poetic independence of speech and yes-man acquiescence, exemplified by Ovid and Varius Rufus (Dial. 12.5). He models modesty in the face of fame; pursues poetry rather than oratory yet remains politically engaged; and, appearing in the theatre at a performance of his own poetry, provides a perfect parallel for Maternus’ own behaviour as a playwright (Dial. 2.1-3.3).

From a biographer’s-eye view, this anecdote is a tantalising one, often used as evidence for theatrical perfomance of Virgil’s works in antiquity (Dupont 1997:46, Wiseman 2014:140, Hardie 2014:9; cf. Putnam & Ziolkowski 2008:162-6). But could the anecdote be simply too good to be true? Maternus overtly shies away from the documentary evidence he promises, and glosses over the whys and wherefores of Virgil’s presence in the theatre with a sly forte. His subsequent use of Virgil’s poetry (Dial. 13.5 ~ G. 2.458-513) wavers between accuracy and tendentious distortion, conspicuously eliding the complexities of Virgil’s praise of depoliticised rural retreat. Moreover, the anecdote bears all the hallmarks of Tacitean invention. Virgil, as author, acts the part of his own audience; he is silent, passively watching the spectacle of his poetry. The twist is that Virgil then becomes the spectacle (cf. Agr. 45.2); the audience watch him in turn, restaging the familiar political use of the theatre for performance of popular acclaim and dissent (cf. Suet. Aug. 53, 68). Tangled dynamics of voyeruristic spectatorship are Tacitus’ speciality (Bartsch 1994; Maternus’ anecdote retrojects this thoroughly Tacitean type-scene early into Augustus’ rule.

Crucially, the anecdote is also unavoidably Virgilian, a highly self-conscious riff on Virgil’s own self-fashioning in the Georgics. It picks up on the extraordinary moment in his metapoetic ‘Temple of Song’ (G. 3.1-39) when he casts himself, not as poeta creator, architect and master of ceremonies, but as passive spectator of his own work in the theatre: iuuat uidere scaena[m] (24-5). Maternus’ tacit allusions in this anecdote problematize his otherwise simplistic view of Virgil’s retreat into rural securitas (Dial. 13.1-6): far from avoiding political poetry, the proem to G. 3 promises an Augusteid and plays out imperial epic in miniature.

The image of Virgil in the theatre, rendered silent in his role as author, encapsulates in a single scene the literary-political anxieties that characterise the Dialogus, a text obsessed with the potential for misinterpretation (praua interpretatio, 3.2; cf. Dressler 2013), but which rests its arguments on subtle, agonistic allusive play (Whitton 2018). The characters’ debates continually stage the process of interpretation itself, competing for control of Virgilian meaning and authority (compare Aper’s ‘Temples of Oratory’: 20.6-7, 22.4). Finally, the anecdote functions as a mise-en-abyme for the Dialogus itself. The multiple performance levels within Tacitus’ text replay the anecdote in different, fragmentary ways. Maternus’ public recitation of his own work is an obvious candidate, but the oratorical debates, too, are remarkably performative, complete with stage directions, eavesdropper-audiences (14.3, 32.7), and plays-within-a-play (35.5) —and the presence of Virgil as spectator at his own works is paralleled by Tacitus’ status as both author of and (silent) character within the Dialogus.

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