By examining the role of cheese in Horace’s Satires, Virgil’s Eclogues and Georgics, and Varro’s De Re Rustica, this paper aims to contribute to our understanding of two things: first, the degree to which Roman writers used foodstuffs symbolically as they engaged in dialogue with one another—dialogue by which they explored the boundaries of their genres and questioned the nature of their common literary enterprise; second, how they used foodstuffs as a means of portraying time and change.
This paper responds to and synthesizes recent insights stemming from several lines of inquiry: central to my argument are: Freudenburg’s (2001) and Putnam’s discussion of the intertextual relationship between Horace’s Sermones I and Virgil’s Georgics and Eclogues; Shaw, Gowers (1993), and Purcell on the symbolic use of foodstuffs, especially as markers of progress and civilization; and Habinek, Reay, and Kronenberg on the ideology inherent in Roman agrarian texts.
Given the variety of foods in Sermones I and II, it seems odd that Horace mentions no cheese in his satires and refers only once to its main ingredient, milk; but this absence is explained when we remember that milk and cheese are products of the pastoral world and symbols of pastoral life (Shaw). Varro’s text too, even when discussing livestock, repeatedly delays the discussion of cheese and draws attention to its marginalization: it is pastoral, not agrarian, and it is Greek. Its proper place now is away from Rome; and the right time for it at Rome was before the city’s foundation.
Asa product of economic exchange, however, cheese crosses boundaries, between rural and urban space, “primitive” pastoral producer and “civilized” consumer (e.g.,Virgil, Eclogue 1.33-35, Georgics 3.392; Odyssey 9), in doing so it affirms the difference between these polar opposites (Shaw). In fact, Horace’s lone reference in the satires to milk(S.1.10.109-111) occurs when he reaches across the boundary of his notoriously varied genre to refer to Virgil’s Eclogues (Freudenburg, 2001). In the near-contemporary Georgics, Virgil responds and,“playing with his friend’s play” (Putnam, 1995, 312), uses a discussion of milk and cheese (3.394-406) to engage Horace in a dialogue about the relationship between rural and urban, past and present, pastoral and satire—and between his own and Horace’s completed works and his current project of agrarian poetry. As he does so, Virgil reworks Varro’s De Re Rustica so as to draw attention to the issue of finding the rightful place and time for cheese.
I shall first survey briefly the literary use of cheese as an item of exchange (Auberger), then consider the implications of the intertextual relationship between Horace S.1.10 and Georgics 3, where Virgil’s references to foodstuffs take on additional meaning from their metapoetical role in satire. (Bramble; Gowers 1993). When we reexamine Georgics 3.394-406, especially ubera, pinguis, lac and sal, with an eye to these metapoetical meanings, we can see Virgil claiming cheese for the Italian countryside and the contemporary agro-pastoral world. In doing so he explains to Horace, in Horace’s own terms, why satire cannot have cheese: it does not belong in modern, urban, urbane life. Cheese brings with it too much sal (the metaphor for “wit”), an excess to be avoided since it reflects the rougher (and freer) days of Lucilius, an author Horace himself recast as primitive. Cheese is pinguis: it fattens animals but threatens the slenderness of the Callimachean muse. Milk itself threatens to muddle the clarity of the poetic “stream.” Cheese results from ubertas, symbol in S.1.10 of what greedy people envy. Finally, pastoralism requires a rigorous adherence to a schedule of twice-daily milking and cheese-making that is inimical to the irregular wandering and temporal expansion and contraction of the satirist’s free and unambitious urban life (e.g., 1.5., 1.6.110-128, 1.9). Neither Horace’s nor Varro’s Rome has time or place for cheese, so Virgil claims it,and with it wit, for the country.