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"Imperial Tityrus: Virgil in Calpurnius Siculus"

Vergil Parson

University of Virginia

The reasons why Calpurnius Siculus sets out to rival Virgil include his effort to gain imperial patronage. This rivalry has recently been examined in light of its consequences for the pastoral genre (Paschalis 2016; Karakasis 2017). This paper argues that Calpurnius sees Virgil not primarily as a generic predecessor but as the biographical Virgil who materially benefited as a poet of empire.

There has been welcome work on Calpurnius’ engagement with Virgil’s poetics (Baraz 2015; Scarborough 2017). Taking a different tack, I examine the persona of Virgil that Calpurnius constructs. Calpurnius knew of Virgil’s financial and social success, which poured from the hands of the emperor. Through his mouthpiece Corydon, Calpurnius makes clear that such success is a poet’s motivation. He had complained that poetry brings nothing to ward off hunger (Ecl. 4.26-7), but now in the current golden age, poets find patrons (4.30-33). After finishing his praise of Caesar, Corydon/Calpurnius hints that he could compose grander poems if he had a house or lands (4.152-5), saying that too often jealous poverty had plucked his ear and admonished him to tend sheepfolds (4.156-7). Calpurnius thus reverses the ear-plucking scene in Virgil’s sixth Eclogue in which Apollo, by enjoining Virgil to write pastoral, thereby dignifies the supposedly low genre.

Yet for Calpurnius, while pastoral may be dismissed as wretched, Virgil himself is grand. Thus Calpurnius’ Meliboeus tells Corydon that he “seeks after great things” if he wants to be Tityrus, that is Virgil (4.64-5). Tityrus could outplay the lyre with a reed pipe (4.65-6). He was a deus (4.70). For Calpurnius, the status of the poet is not equivalent to that of the poet’s genre. This is an innovation, I argue, for pastoral, which usually plays with an equivalence or analogy between herdsman and poet (Gutzwiller 1991; Alpers 1996). Calpurnius drives a wedge between these two figures, and his Tityrus is not simply the bucolic Virgil, but Virgil throughout his entire career. Instead of a cipher for a competing conception of the pastoral genre, Calpurnius’ Tityrus is the emblem of a poet who was successful through his association with the emperor.

Corydon hymns Caesar on the pipes of Tityrus, and the motif of the passing of the pipes is well-studied (Hubbard 1998). What has not been sufficiently noted is that Tityrus’ pipes are the second set that Corydon uses. When the character first appears, he carries pipes made by Ladon (1.17-18). With these pipes, I suggest, he would sing about his love woes. After Corydon encounters a hymn to Caesar inscribed by Faunus, he abandons his original pipes and an erotic pastoral mode in exchange for an imperial, panegyrical style indicated by Tityrus’ pipes. Pastoral is a lowly genre for Calpurnius, so the pipes of Tityrus do not signify a lofty version of pastoral but an elevated instance by a supreme poet.

Calpurnius uses his innovation of separating the herdsman figure from the historical poet to show himself to be a better imperial poet than Virgil. In Calpurnius’ last eclogue, Corydon returns from Rome and gives an elaborate architectural ekphrasis. Describing an amphitheater, Corydon expresses his own awe and inspires awe in his listeners. This long, detailed description (7.23-72) contrasts with the sparse description of Rome given by Virgil’s Tityrus in his Eclogue 1 (1.19-25). Tityrus was unable to describe Rome because of a failed pastoral epistemology. Characters in pastoral must “think with” their bucolic world, so Tityrus confesses that he had thought of Rome by natural analogies. Rome is to lesser cities as dogs are to pups, for example (1.22). Rome, however, is qualitatively different from the pastoral world, and pastoral characters cannot do it justice within the genre. Virgil’s Tityrus, because he stays in character for the whole of the Eclogue book, cannot exhaustively praise Rome or her ruler. Calpurnius, by splitting herdsman and poet, can and therefore is the better imperial poet.

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Imperial Virgil

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