Grattius’ narration of the plague of rabies in his Cynegeticais strikingly different from the models found in Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura and Vergil’s Georgics and provides an understudied perspective on the Roman citizen in the Augustan Age. While the earlier narratives focus on the dissolution of social and religious bonds and the futility of prayer as a practical remedy for plague, Grattius reestablishes the influence of the gods over human life. Grattius’ plague narrative is ultimately an optimistic description that focuses on the proper relationship between gods and human beings possible after civil war, one based on reason, piety, and personal responsibility, and reflects the hope for a return to traditional Roman morality without the (perhaps expected) Augustan overtones.
While the interpretations of the plague in Lucretius and Vergil vary widely (e.g. Liebeschuetz 1965, Clay 1983, Gale 1991, Stover 1999), both accounts grapple with the absence of divine aid in time of disaster and, in Lucretius, the philosopher’s ability to maintain an objective distance. In sharp contrast, Grattius offers a description of successful sacrifice (427-466). The priest of Vulcan separates the guilty men from the innocent, prays for Vulcan to heal the innocent men’s animals, and sets aright the relationship between gods, humans and beasts. Henderson 2001 discusses this difference as an indication of Grattius’ Augustan cultural politics as he creates a model for a citizen specifically under Augustus’ imperial rule. This renewed religious consideration is what happens when Grattius loses reason, Ratio, an ideal shared by Grattius and Lucretius (Henderson 22). However, this interpretation does not take into account the fact that Grattius attempts to show that piety is not an irrational action, contrary to Lucretius’ arguments, and therefore is appropriate for any Roman—not specifically an Augustan—citizen. This belief displays an optimism possible after the settlement of the Civil Wars, and, in my paper, I explore Grattius’ use of the narrative as a guide for reestablishing a sound Roman society through personal accountability. Grattius first characterizes the cure for the plague not as an otherworldly religious event, but as a lesson from experience (427). Grattius is willing to admit that his story seems unbelievable (443), but he assures his readers of its veracity from personal experience (435-436). It also seems to Grattius that the god only punishes people who are guilty of crimes—especially ones against family and friends (447-455)—which contradicts Lucretius’ view of the gods (DRN 6.387-395). But Grattius’ optimism for a fresh start for the innocent does not explicitly give praise to Augustus. On the contrary, Grattius is interested in returning to Republican values (cf. 310-326). Other than a possible reference to Mars Ultor (deus…ultor, 455), the focus on the anonymous Roman citizen’s personal guilt or innocence provides a perspective on the political situation that agrees with Augustan rhetoric without itself becoming subservient. Grattius’ account is a narrative of hope only possible in a new age of optimism and reason.