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The Virgilian Beech: The Creation of Italian Nostalgia in the Eclogues

David Alan Wallace-Hare

University of Toronto

     The opening lines of Virgil’s first Eclogue set the tone for the entire work, containing clues for how we should read it. So significant are these lines that the fagus mentioned there came to be known as the Virgilian beech (Hubbard 1998:48) and “the tree of the Eclogues” (Ross 1975:72), representing one of the most important parts of the mise en scene in Ecl. 1 and several other times in the poem (Ecl.2.3, 3.37, 5.13, and 9.9). When mentioned, the audience is called to pay attention as important points of articulation are made explicit and central messages of the poem reinforced.

     Scholars rarely ponder what function the beech serves in the poem and instead assume that Virgil merely appropriated it from a previous poet, its purpose remaining unchanged. Williams (1968:318) suggested that Virgil adopted the beech because he was “taken with" a simile in Theocritus (Id. 12. 8-9), despite the fact that the Greek phegos is not the same as the Latin fagus. Cairns (1969:133) and Ross (1975:72) also saw allusion to Greek precursors, believing Callimachus’ phegoi to be Virgil's source (cf. Kenney 1983:49-50). While these interpretations may not be incorrect, they are limited, constituting but one part of the allusive capacity of the beech.

     To address this shortcoming, in my paper I attempt to explain the beech’s function in the poem by contextualizing Virgil’s use of the tree not only in the wider genre of Latin pastoral poetry but, importantly, in Virgil’s own sociocultural milieu. This will allow us to move away from seeing the Virgilian beech to seeing the Italian beech. Virgil was drawing on the multiplicity of meanings that the beech had for the acute Roman listener. Its mention might conjure up images of pastoral activity among Roman shepherds like the feeding of beech and oak leaves— both members of the same acorn-producing tree family the Fagaceae—to sheep and cattle or the fattening or foddering of swine and cattle on beech mast and acorns (cf. White 1970:219-223). A contemporary might also have identified an allusion to a golden-age Italian countryside, one where human consumption of the acorns of the beech and oak characterized a pre-agricultural (pristine) lifestyle (cf. Lucretius 5.939-940; Ovid Fasti 4.399-402, and Mason 1996). Certain segments of his audience might even have caught allusions to Virgil’s own Celtic milieu in Cisalpine Gaul (the most personal level of his use of the beech in the Eclogues and one completely unexplored). Interestingly enough, in the area of Mantua, there are votive dedications made to the “Oak Mothers” (Matres Dervonnae) and “oak Fates” (Fatae Dervones) both deriving from Gaulish ­dervos “oak” (CIL V 5791 and 4208; Delamarre 2003:140-141). These deities can be linked to many other beech and oak related deities in Gaul.

     The frequent collocation of the Eclogues’ shepherds near beech trees and their products subtly connects the audience to the pastoral world of Italy, which, although sometimes threatened by civil strife in the late Republic, still continued to thrive and adapt. His insertion of current events, such as Octavian’s land confiscations and north Italian elements into the Eclogues actually works to facilitate entry into the nostalgic plane which he creates by increasing its realism and making it more familiar to the Roman audience. While the world he creates might be divorced in some stark ways from the lifestyle of contemporary shepherds, who lived lives far removed from the otiose ones we find in the Eclogues, for Virgil’s target audience there is sufficient realism to create a specifically Italian nostalgia. The function of the beech is not so much one playing off a Greek antecedent, then, as one attempting to recreate pastoral’s nostalgic effect in a Roman setting, Virgil’s setting to be specific.

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