The Christian poem On the Deaths of Cattle (De mortibus boum) written by Endelechius at the beginning of the fifth century CE constitutes, arguably, one of the most remarkable plague narratives in Latin poetry and is duly mentioned in a recent survey by Paulsen/Schulze (2005). The poem makes use of a Horatian lyric meter but inserts itself into the pastoral tradition. For it presents itself as a Christian rewriting of Virgil's Eclogue 1 and incorporates into this frame the narrative of the death of cattle that evokes the Noric cattle plague in Virgil's Georgics as its model. The poem has been analyzed with regard to its use of Virgil and for its audacious mixing of genres (Schmid 1953; Barton 2000; Green 2004). What has not been sufficiently explained is the way in which the plague narrative operates. This paper proposes a reading that differentiates between its function within the dramatic plot and the function it fulfills if the poem is read allegorically. On this basis, Endelechius' poem will finally be considered within the wider context of plague narratives in Latin poetry.
Endelechius' poem takes the form of a dialogue between three herdsmen. Bucolus tells how his cattle died of the plague. In his moving narrative, he humanizes the animals: the cow is a 'mother', the bull a 'father'. Tityrus then arrives with a healthy flock. He explains that he applied the sign of the cross to the animals' foreheads. The protection of Tityrus' flock thus turns out to be a miracle that was worked by the Christian god. Bucolus and Aegon are impressed by the power of the god of whom they had not heard before. The poem ends with their conversion. On the dramatic level, the poem is a miracle story of studied simplicity. Yet like a parable this simple story illustrates one of the core tenets of the Christian faith: God is stronger than death. The deaths of the anthropomorphic animals symbolize the human condition in a world without Christ, the sign of the cross stands for the baptism that opens the way to eternal life.
Endelechius uses the cattle plague in Virgil's Georgics as his model. Virgil on his part follows Lucretius who retells Thucydides' account of the Athenian plague at the end of his De rerum natura. The didactic projects of these poets differ decisively: Virgil depicts the agricultural world and embraces a divine order, Lucretius explains the world from the viewpoint of an Epicurean. What motivates these writers to revisit the theme of the plague? Thucydides may provide the answer. He observes that the Athenians lost the fear of the gods when they saw good and bad people dying indiscriminately (2.53). From this observation one may infer that the plague provides a touchstone for religious and philosophical systems of belief. This seems to be implicitly acknowledged by the three poets. For they resort to plague narratives not least in order to demonstrate the validity of their worldviews.