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In this paper, I shall demonstrate through a close reading of three texts that the poetry of Vergil became in the fourth and fifth centuries a locus for disputes over Roman cultural patrimony, and specifically for the airing of dissatisfactions with the role and method of the typical Roman grammaticus.

In Aelius Donatus’ dedicatory letter to L. Munatius, originally a preface to his now-lost variorum commentary on Vergil, we see a conservative attempt to correct some of the shortcomings of his contemporary grammarians. Though he is respectful of traditional grammatical approaches to Vergil (agnosce igitur saepe…sinceram vocem priscae auctoritatis, 6-7), he does not hesitate to contribute something of his own to the Vergilian tradition (admixto etiam sensu nostro, 11)—all in an effort to bring the ignorant grammarian to maturity, as Munatius had urged him to do (grammatico, ut aiebas, rudi ac nuper exorto, 17). Dissatisfaction with standard grammatical fare had in fact been the cause of Munatius’ request that Donatus write a commentary in the first place. But instead of suggesting that the duty of teaching Vergil be taken away from the grammarians, Aelius Donatus proposes to help them to do a better job.

Others thought more radical measures were necessary. For Tiberius Claudius Donatus, Vergil must be wrested away from the grammarians altogether, for he is properly the province of the rhetor: inde intelleges Vergilium non grammaticos, sed oratores praecipuos tradere debuisse (1.4.27-8). Donatus writes these words in the prooemium to his Interpretationes Vergilianae, a line-by-line rhetorical commentary on the Aeneid. The dedicatee of the work is his son, Tiberius Claudius Maximus Donatianus, and Tiberius Claudius Donatus is writing the work not as a supplement to standard grammatical fare, as Aelius Donatus did, but, strikingly, as a substitute for it. Because the grammatical commentators, who write only for the sake of their own reputations (memoriae suae causa, 1.1.7), teach nothing worth knowing (cum adverterem nihil magistros discipulis conferre quod sapiat, 1.1.5-6), Tiberius Claudius Donatus has undertaken a different type of commentary for the sake of the proper education of his son (tui causa conscripsi, 1.1.9); Vergil, he says, belongs to “us” (Maro noster, 1.2.8). What we see in the rest of the proeemium is that proper understanding of Vergil requires a much more expansive sensibility than that possessed by the grammarians: Vergil, it is true, teaches rhetoric, but he also gives instruction about all the duties of life (omnia vivendi agendique officia, 1.6.16-17), including religion and foreknowledge of the future (magisterio eius instrui possunt qui se aptant ad deorum cultum futuraque noscenda, 1.5.12-14).

The characteristics of dissatisfaction with the grammarians and a totalizing reading of Vergil form a bridge to the view propounded in Macrobius’ Saturnalia, dedicated, like the Interpretationes Vergilianae, to the author’s son. In Saturnalia 1.24.2, a dispute erupts between the churlish Evangelus and the rest of the group, because Evangelus believes that Praetextatus and his friends overinterpret Vergil and make him master of everything—a tendency that is, in his view, ridiculous (cf. risus, 1.24.9, to describe his response to a claim of Vergil’s oratorical prowess). Evangelus’ problem, Symmachus retorts, is that he reads Vergil as they did in school: that is, inadequately. The comprehensiveness of Vergil’s poetry would be well-known if it were not for the grammatici, who do not know how to discuss anything except the explanation of words (nihil ultra verborum explanationem, 1.24.12). They treat the poem as a temple whose exterior alone should be examined, whereas Symmachus believes that the inner shrine should be revealed to all (1.24.13). When this has been done, it will be evident that “our Vergil” (Vergilius noster,1.24.16, 24) ought to be read in a universalizing way, because his poetry addresses all aspects of life.

As I shall demonstrate, there are significant areas of overlap in the concerns of Aelius Donatus, Tiberius Claudius Donatus, and Macrobius. Nevertheless, their concerns are, in the end, different, and they propose solutions to the failure of the grammarians with varying degrees of radicalism. By comparing these three texts, then, a fuller picture emerges of the contested status of Vergil’s poetry in Late Antiquity and also of the contested status of traditional pedagogical modes of reading. These texts therefore open an important window for the modern reader onto the fight over hermeneutics and the possession of Vergil in the fourth and fifth centuries.