Much has been written about the reception of Virgilian poetry by later poets. Moments of allusion to Virgil in poets such as Ovid, Lucan, or Statius provide concrete evidence of a each poet’s method of appropriating his predecessor. Prose texts, however, are not usually read in this way, even when they abound with Virgilian citations. One such case is Quintilian, who cites Virgil’s poetry 150 times throughout his Institutio Oratoria. Quintilian would thus seem to offer the possibility of studying the early non-poetic reception of Virgil, but discussions of Quintilian’s citations often remain at a general level, focusing on what reading practices they imply rather than on the specific use Quintilian makes of Virgil’s poetry. Thus discussion of Virgil in Quintilian rarely goes beyond the assertion that the frequency of citation argues for the poet’s immediate canonization, and Quintilian’s reference to an allegorical interpretation of Eclogue 9 (Inst. 8.6.46-47) is taken to tell us little more than that allegorical readings of Virgil were conceivable within a century of the poet’s death (VT 3). If Quintilian’s own attitude toward Virgil is examined, it is treated only generally: his invocation of Virgil’s poetry as non modo diserta sed vel magis honesta (Inst. 1.8.4) is said to indicate that he reads Virgil for “ethical value and not for any particular ‘Romanness’ of content” (VT 46), and even this is taken to be representative of broader trends rather than a specific feature of Quintilian’s approach. Such observations do not give us much insight into what Quintilian actually did with Virgil’s poetry and, when compared to the comprehensive analyses that are commonly made of poetic appropriations of Virgil, give the false impression that detailed engagement with Virgil’s poetry was characteristic only of poetic texts.
In this paper I will argue that Quintilian is not (merely) evidence for the canonicity of Virgil, but evidence for the process by which Virgil became canonized. In order to discover how a Roman author might appropriate Virgil even in an unpoetic context, I will explore how Quintilian uses Virgilian poetry in the Institutio Oratoria with the attention to detail usually reserved for reading the poets. Unlike the poets whose engagement with Virgil is so closely studied Quintilian actually theorizes how and why poetry should be cited. Accordingly I begin by summarizing Quintilian’s views on the utility of poets for oratorical composition, especially the construction of arguments. For example, Quintilian teaches his readers that they may “prove their arguments with the opinions of the poets as a kind of proof,” (Inst. 1.8.12). From advice such as this I will turn to places in the Institutio Oratoria where Quintilian puts his own advice into practice by citing Virgilian poetry in support of arguments about the nature of oratory. I will focus in particular on places where Quintilian modifies or even distorts the rhetorical thrust of a Virgilian passage in support of his own claims. For example, at Inst. 1.3.13 Quintilian quotes Georgics 2.272 to “prove” that we should force change upon children; in its original context, the Virgilian passage supports the opposite approach, that the young should be made to change only gradually. In this light several places where Quintilian’s quotations differ from Virgilian manuscripts may be read not as proof of Quintilian’s imperfect memory or lack of reference texts but as examples of intentional modification for persuasive ends. Quintilian will emerge not only as a crafty appropriator of Virgil but as an important source for a particular mode of appropriation of poetic texts in the service of persuasion. This in turn provides insight into why Virgil became canonized: because, as Quintilian recognized (and as the wealth of non-poetic material collected in VT attests), his poetry was so useful for so many purposes beyond the poetic realm.