Skip to main content

This paper argues that the indeterminacies ofVergil’s fourth Eclogue are best understood as operating in the context of a literary culture of Sibylline song. While some scholars have attempted to pin down the poem’s vague referents (for instance its setting and the identity of the child referred to in the poem), I argue that such readings run the risk of overlooking how practices of oracular writing and reading inform the text. Although there has been debate over whether or not Vergil referred to a specific oracle (e.g. Norden 1931:169), as this paper demonstrates, such considerations are often not germane to the culture of oracular writing. Given the methods of recomposition and reinterpretation that are hallmarks of the Sibylline Oracles (Parke 1988), indeterminacy and ambiguity are not to be dispelled, but rather understood as functional assets of Sibylline song, which allow the text to be applied to circumstances that the author may not have foreseen. In the brief history that I provide, even oracles meant to commemorate particular events are shown to fit new circumstances. The temporal collapse of Eclogue 4 withits repetition of iam (Breed 2006:138), the allusion to the Cumaean carmen in the fourth line, the indeterminacy of setting (Jenkyns 1989: 28), and the ambiguous identity of the child (Coleman 1977: 150-152) all act as markers of the poem's potential for reapplication to new circumstances independent of Vergil’s awareness or intent. Moreover, the way that Sibylline Oracles speak to multiple moments seems to be depicted in the incongruous temporal movements of the poem.

Lactantius’s rewriting of the poem in the Divinae Institutiones points in this direction (7.24.11). One of his primary and most influential innovations is in using the Eclogue pragmatically just as any other Sibylline Oracle. Indoing so, he exposes the ambiguities of the fourth Eclogue as hermeneutic entry points for oracular methods ofliterary engagement (reinterpretation and recomposition). His use of the poem to describe the Second Coming shows the way that the hermeneutic openness of the fourth Eclogue allows it to offer new meanings under the sway of an ideology foreign to that of its creator. Moreover, Lactantius’s literary theories (e.g. DI 7.22.1-4) about the inadvertent transmission of truth can be used to understand better the oracular character of Vergil’s poem, which speaks to circumstances unforeseen by its author as well as the oracular rewriting of Lactantius himself. Through this reading of Lactantius’s engagement with the poem and a brief historical account of the fluidity of the Sibylline Oracles, I explain the essential ambiguities of Eclogue 4 as ambiguities with a functional purpose in a culture of Sibylline song and suggest that to determine the indeterminacy of the poem runs the risk of misunderstanding the literary practices of the writing culture out of which it was born.