The fierce lioness hunts the wolf, the wolf hunts the goat,
the wanton goat hunts for flowering clover,
O Alexis, Corydin hunts you: each is led by his passion. – Eclogue 2
In the Eclogues, Virgil adapts the bucolic poetry of Theocritus’s Idylls. On the surface, we have the same idyllic Arcadian landscape where shepherds pine away for lost loves and engage in song competitions, but a darker undercurrent runs beneath these poems, reflecting the turbulent times occurring in Rome. Virgil wrote this work about seven years before the decisive battle of Actium, which saw Octavian’s forces defeat Marc Antony, all but ending Civil War and putting the final dagger into the Roman Republic.
The political turmoil is reflected in these poems. For example, in Eclogue 1, two shepherds meet on a crossroads and one of them bemoans the loss of his confiscated land, reflecting a common Roman and ancient theme about the vicissitudes of fortune, but also pointing to the upheavals of turbulent political climate. In the poignant lines below he captures the tragic fate of an exile of war:
“But we must go, some to the parched Africans,
some to find Scythia, and Crete’s swift Oaxes,
and the Britons wholly separated from all the world.
Ah, will I gaze on my country’s shores, after long years,
and my poor cottage, its roof thatched with turf,
and gazing at a few ears of corn, see my domain?
An impious soldier will own these well-tilled fields,
a barbarian these crops. See to what war has led
our unlucky citizens: for this we sowed our lands.”
Eclogue 3 features a particularly acrimonious singing contest between two shepherds who essentially insult each other sometimes blatantly and sometimes subtlety, while also highlighting the insecure life of a shepherd where wolves might attack your flock and many other dangers lurk.
In Eclogue 4, Virgil claims a new Golden Age will soon be upon the world, perhaps as a sign of hope in troubled times. This poem is known for being misread by Medieval Christians as foreshadowing the birth of Jesus.
When writing about Theocritus’ work, I said, “the pastoral poetry serves as a kind of evasion from the changing world of Theocritus’ time where the traditional boundaries that once separated Greek from non-Greek has come crashing down with the success of Alexander’s military campaigns.” It is easy to be fooled by this genre into thinking that Virgil is turning to bucolic poems as a way of creating an escapist Utopia from political turmoil, but by exploring human misery, sometimes caused by political upheaval, sometimes by more general misfortune, and sometimes by the worst sides of human behavior, the real artistic goal seems to be to emphasize the contrast between the superficial Utopian landscape and the human turmoil these characters express.
The Georgics is a didactic poem about farming. It offers advice about proper farming techniques and describes some of the dangers nature holds for crops and livestock. The extremely excellent book IV is dedicated to beekeeping and Virgil employs some wonderful metaphors comparing the behaviors of bees to the military. These poems feel more hopeful to me than the Eclogues. There is a sense that Virgil is celebrating the power of human ingenuity and hard work in not only cultivating the land, but by extension, via this metaphor of farming, of controlling one’s own destiny. This stands in stark contrast to the Eclogues where often love goes unrequited, despite the best efforts of the shepherds, and political forces outside one’s control can ruin one’s life.