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Pastoral Triumphalism and the Golden Age in Eclogue 4

Vergil Parson

University of Virginia

I argue that in Eclogue 4, Virgil raises the possibility of a prestigious pastoral genre as a peaceful equivalent to glorious but martial epic. In arguing this, I make the case that Eclogue 4 is truly generically pastoral and that the praise it bestows on its unnamed honorand contends with the praise possible through laudatory epic. This paper, therefore, contends constructively both with scholarship that views Eclogue 4 as unpastoral (Clausen 1990) and with scholarship taking the eclogue as lowly (e.g., Courtney 2010).

The honorand of Eclogue 4 oversees a golden age sprung from the whole world (4.9). This globalism is apparent in the poem’s religious syncretism. Virgil incorporates Jewish messianic literature (Horsfall 2012, Bremmer 2013) and refers to Cumaean Sibylline prophecy while making use of the Etruscan conception of a saeculum. All these visions of cosmic peace are tied together in the reestablished dominion of Saturn. I use Virgil’s later depictions of Saturnian ages in the Georgics and the Aeneid to argue that the Saturnian age in Eclogue 4 is a pastoral one. That is to say, the golden age is not just focalized through a pastoral speaker, but the world of the golden age is one returned to a pastoral state.

Virgil further emphasizes the global, pastoral character of the golden age through an underappreciated allusion to the Epitaphios Bionis (EB). Virgil made use of the EB throughout his Eclogues (Paschalis 1995, Kania 2012). In the EB, the speaker claims that Pan would be afraid to play the late Bion’s pipes lest he taken second place behind Bion (EB 55-6). The speaker of Eclogue 4 channels this sentiment when he says that “Pan, too, would say that he was beaten even if Arcadia was the judge” (Pan etiam Arcadia dicat se iudice victum, 4.59). To my knowledge, it has gone unremarked that Virgil combines the allusion to EB 55-6 with reference to EB 85-96, in which the poet claims that Ascra mourns for Bion more than its native Hesiod, Lesbos mourns Bion more than Alcaeus, etc. Virgil’s reference to Pan focalizes Ecl. 4.59 as pastoral, but the connection with EB 85-96 also implies a global and prestigious pastoral poetry, such as the EB asserts.

It is well-known that the growth of the messianic puer coincides with bucolic, georgic, and epic stages. In the boy’s infancy, the flocks will not fear lions and goats will manage themselves (4.18-25). When the boy is learning to read, fields will give produce without cultivation (4.26-30). Then, there will be a second Argo, a second Achilles, and a second Trojan war (4.31-36). I conclude this paper by arguing, however, that this is not the finale of the boy’s trajectory. Rather, Virgil reverses the earlier sequence to end on the famous pastoral climax of self-dyeing sheep. Instead of conceding that martial epic of the sort rejected in Eclogue 6 is the greatest vehicle for poetic praise, Virgil imagines a sort of pastoral triumphalism.

Session/Panel Title

Triumviral Literature

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