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The Homeric Life of Vergil in the Vita Vergilii (VSD)

Marcos B Gouvêa

University of Chicago

Since Lefkowitz (1981, 20122), scholarship on ancient lives of poets has maintained that those biographies are fictions based on the poems themselves. In recent works, scholars have stressed that Vergil’s own self-presentation deeply influences such later constructions (Peirano 2012, 2013, and especially Laird 2016). In this paper I examine these issues in Aelius Donatus’ 4th c. version of the Vita Vergilii by Suetonius (VSD). I show that the VSD constructs two separate ‘lives’ of Vergil, the first keyed to the Eclogues and Georgics (VSD 1-29), and second to the Aeneid (30-46). Each represents a distinct way of constructing a life of Vergil from his poetry. Moreover, I propose that the differences between these constructions result from the differences in the personas Vergil presents in these works.

The persona presented in the Eclogues and Georgics offers the basis of the biography of Vergil in the VSD. Vergil himself intentionally establishes a sense of progress and growth as an author in his poems, giving rise to the notion of a poetic career (Farrell 2002). He frequently draws the process of composition into view in both the Eclogues and the Georgics. Thus in Ecl. 6, Vergil invites the reader to see him in the role of Tityrus, rejecting reges et proelia for bucolic verse. In the sphragis of G. 4.559-66, Vergil gives a storyline to his writing, including his name, previous works, where he was when he wrote them, and when. His progress in life tracks with the progress of his poetry and status.

It is this ‘career’ persona who serves as the model for the life of Vergil as presented in VSD 1-29. Anecdotes illustrating his life before coming to Rome are drawn almost exclusively from his early work, as if the Eclogues and Georgics as earlier works were also privileged accounts of his early life. Vergil’s father tends woodlands and bees (VSD 1, G. 4); Corydon’s interest in Alexis in Ecl. 2 reflects Vergil’s in a certain Alexander (VSD 9), Vergil’s brother Flaccus is mourned in Ecl. 5 under the name of Daphnis (VSD 14). This biographical reading of the Eclogues and Georgics conflates traits of Vergil with traits of his characters. But Vergil is himself presumed to have inscribed events of his life in the Eclogues and the Georgics. The VSD merely reverses the process.

The treatment of the Aeneid however, integrates poem and poet quite differently. Before, the VSD worked backwards from a Vergil who wrote the events of his life into the poems. Now events from the period where Vergil wrote the Aeneid begin to take on the characteristics of the epic. Sometimes an anecdote resembles a scene from an epic: Vergil recites heroic poetry before Augustus and Octavia as Aeneas before Dido, or Odysseus before Alcinous and Arete (VSD 32). Other stories appear to conflate the epic with the poet itself. Vergil plans to finish his days studying philosophy. But his unexpected death leaves his life's course incomplete, just like the Aeneid (VSD 35). Similarly, Vergil’s deathbed request to burn the Aeneid means that save for the intervention of Varius, the poet and poem would be coterminous, perishing together (VSD 38-39).

The change in how the VSD relates Vergil’s life to his poems corresponds to the much less overt discussion of authorship and career in the Aeneid. Vergil’s epic persona is comparatively submerged. The authorial voice is not absent—apostrophes are not uncommon—but the narrator’s persona is no longer the vehicle for discussing models, traditions and the other characteristic issues associated with career. Vergil adopts a Homeric reticence towards any direct mention of fellow poets or traditions. And in turn the account of his Aeneid-life in the VSD is correspondingly more like the lives of Homer: inventing episodes for a life in harmony with the epic, rather than shaping a life around a strong authorial persona.

Session/Panel Title

Voicing the Past

Session/Paper Number

8.4

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