Today is the birthday (70 BCE) of Publius Vergilius Maro, usually called Virgil in English, an ancient Roman poet of the Augustan period. He is known for three major works of Latin literature, the Eclogues (or Bucolics), the Georgics, and the epic Aeneid. A number of minor poems, collected in the Appendix Vergiliana, are sometimes attributed to him, but they are likely not authentic.
Virgil is traditionally ranked as one of Rome’s greatest poets. His Aeneid has been deemed the national epic of ancient Rome from the time of its composition to the present day. It was modeled after Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, following the Trojan refugee Aeneas as he struggles to fulfill his destiny and arrive on the shores of Italy where he founded Rome. Virgil’s work has had wide and deep influence on Western literature, most notably the Divine Comedy of Dante, in which Virgil appears as Dante’s guide through hell and purgatory.
Virgil’s biographical tradition is thought to depend on a lost biography by Varius, Virgil’s editor, which was incorporated into the biography by Suetonius and the commentaries of Servius and Donatus, the two great commentators on Virgil’s poetry. Although the commentaries no doubt record much factual information about Virgil, some of their evidence can be shown to rely on inferences made from his poetry and allegorizing; thus, Virgil’s biographical tradition remains problematic.
The tradition holds that Virgil was born in the village of Andes, near Mantua in Cisalpine Gaul. Scholars suggest Etruscan, Umbrian, or even Celtic descent by examining the linguistic or ethnic markers of the region. Analysis of his name has led to beliefs that he descended from earlier Roman colonists. Modern speculation ultimately is not supported by narrative evidence either from his own writings or his later biographers. Macrobius says that Virgil’s father was of a humble background; however, scholars generally believe that Virgil was from an equestrian landowning family which could afford to give him an education. He attended schools in Cremona, Mediolanum, Rome and Naples. After considering briefly a career in rhetoric and law, the young Virgil turned his talents to poetry.
According to the commentators, Virgil received his first education when he was five years old and he later went to Cremona, Milan, and finally Rome to study rhetoric, medicine, and astronomy, which he soon abandoned for philosophy. From Virgil’s admiring references to the neoteric (new poets) writers Pollio and Cinna, it has been inferred that he was, for a time, associated with Catullus’ neoteric circle. However schoolmates considered Virgil extremely shy and reserved, according to Servius, and he was nicknamed “Parthenias” or “maiden” because of his social aloofness. Virgil seems to have suffered bad health throughout his life and in some ways lived the life of an invalid. According to the Catalepton, while in the Epicurean school of Siro the Epicurean at Naples, he began to write poetry. A group of small works attributed to the youthful Virgil by the commentators survive collected under the title Appendix Vergiliana, but are largely considered spurious by scholars. One, the Catalepton, consists of fourteen short poems, some of which may be Virgil’s, and another, a short narrative poem titled the Culex (“The Gnat”), was attributed to Virgil as early as the 1st century CE.
Much has been written about the Aeneid, but I am going to pass over it in favor of the Georgics. I studied both in Latin in school, and without hesitation I will assert that I find the Aeneid dull for several reasons. To begin with it pales in comparison with Homer in my estimation. The imagery is forced and leaden where Homer is bright and spontaneous. Second, its obvious fawning admiration for the emperor Augustus and the attempt to link his glory with the founding of Rome leaves me cold. By contrast I find the Georgics fascinating in large part because of their insights into Roman agriculture and husbandry (perfectly pertinent for a foodie blog).
After the publication of the Eclogues (probably before 37 BCE), Virgil became part of the circle of Maecenas, Octavian’s capable agent d’affaires who sought to counter sympathy for Antony among the leading families by rallying Roman literary figures to Octavian’s side. Virgil seems to have made connexions with many of the other leading literary figures of the time, including Horace, in whose poetry he is often mentioned, and Varius Rufus, who later helped finish the Aeneid.
At Maecenas’ insistence (according to the tradition) Virgil spent the ensuing years (perhaps 37–29 BC) on the longer didactic hexameter poem called the Georgics (from Greek, “On Working the Earth”) which he dedicated to Maecenas. The ostensible theme of the Georgics is instruction in the methods of running a farm. In handling this theme, Virgil follows in the didactic (instructive) tradition of the Greek poet Hesiod’s Works and Days and several works of the later Hellenistic poets.
The four books of the Georgics focus respectively on raising crops and trees (1 and 2), livestock and horses (3), and beekeeping and the qualities of bees (4). Significant passages include the beloved Laus Italiae of Book 2, the prologue description of the temple in Book 3, and the description of the plague at the end of Book 3. Book 4 concludes with a long mythological narrative, in the form of an epyllion, a short discrete narrative within a longer work, which describes vividly the discovery of beekeeping by Aristaeus and the story of Orpheus’ journey to the underworld. Ancient scholars, such as Servius, conjectured that the Aristaeus episode replaced a long section in praise of Virgil’s friend, the poet Gallus, who was disgraced by Augustus and committed suicide in 26 BC. Augustus is supposed to have ordered the section to be replaced.
A major critical issue in considering the Georgics is the assessment of tone; Virgil seems to waver between optimism and pessimism, sparking a great deal of debate on the poem’s intentions. With the Georgics Virgil is credited with laying the foundations for later didactic poetry. The biographical tradition says that Virgil and Maecenas took turns reading the Georgics to Octavian upon his return from defeating Antony and Cleopatra at the Battle of Actium in 31 BC.
Virgil begins his poem with a summary of the four books, followed by a prayer to various agricultural deities as well as Augustus himself. It takes as its model the work on farming by Varro, but differs from it in important ways. Numerous technical passages fill out the first half of Book 1; of particular interest are lines 160–175, where Virgil describes the plough. In the succession of ages, whose model is ultimately Hesiod, the age of Jupiter and its relation to the golden age and the current age of man are crafted with deliberate tension. Of chief importance is the contribution of labor to the success or failure of mankind’s endeavors, agricultural or otherwise. The book comes to one climax with the description of a great storm in lines 311–50, which brings all of man’s efforts to naught. After detailing various weather-signs, Virgil ends with an enumeration of the portents associated with Caesar’s assassination and civil war; only Octavian offers any hope of salvation.
Prominent themes of the second book include agriculture as mankind’s struggle against a hostile natural world, often described in violent terms, and the ages of Saturn and Jupiter Like the first book, it begins with a poem addressing the divinities associated with the matters about to be discussed: viticulture, trees, and the olive. In the next hundred lines Virgil treats forest and fruit trees. Their propagation and growth are described in detail, with a contrast drawn between methods that are natural and those that require human intervention. Three sections on grafting are of particular interest: presented as marvels of man’s alteration of nature, many of the examples Virgil gives are unlikely or impossible. Also included is a catalogue of the world’s trees, set forth in rapid succession, and other products of various lands. Perhaps the most famous passage of the poem, the Laudes Italiae or Praises of Italy, is introduced by way of a comparison with foreign marvels: despite all of those, no land is as praiseworthy as Italy. A point of cultural interest is a reference to Ascra in line 176, which an ancient reader would have known as the hometown of Hesiod. Next comes the care of vines, culminating in a vivid scene of their destruction by fire; then advice on when to plant vines, and therein the other famous passage of the second book, the Praises of Spring. These depict the growth and beauty that accompany spring’s arrival. The poet then returns to didactic narrative with yet more on vines, emphasizing their fragility and intensive care. A warning about animal damage provides occasion for an explanation of why goats are sacrificed to Bacchus. The olive tree is then presented in contrast to the vine: it requires little effort on the part of the farmer. The next subject, at last turning away from the vine, is other kinds of trees: those that produce fruit and those that have useful wood. Then Virgil again returns to grapevines, recalling the myth of the battle of the Lapiths and Centaurs in a passage known as the Vituperation of Vines. The remainder of the book is devoted to extolling the simple country life over the corruptness of the city.
The third book is chiefly and ostensibly concerned with animal husbandry. It consists of two principal parts, the first half is devoted to the selection of breed stock and the breeding of horses and cattle. It concludes with a description of the furor induced in all animals by sexual desire. The second half of the book is devoted to the care and protection of sheep and goats and their byproducts. It concludes with a description of the havoc and devastation caused by a plague in Noricum. Both halves begin with a short prologue called a proem. The poems invoke Greek and Italian gods and address such issues as Virgil’s intention to honor both Caesar and his patron Maecenas, as well as his lofty poetic aspirations and the difficulty of the material to follow. Many have observed the parallels between the dramatic endings of each half of this book and the irresistible power of their respective themes of love and death.
Book four, a tonal counterpart to Book two, is divided approximately in half; the first half (1–280) is didactic and deals with the life and habits of bees, supposedly a model for human society. Bees resemble humans in that they labor, are devoted to a leader, and give their lives for the sake of the community, but they lack the arts and love. In spite of their labor the bees perish and the entire colony dies. The restoration of the bees is accomplished by bugonia, spontaneous rebirth from the carcass of an ox. This process is described twice in the second half (281–568) and frames the Aristaeus epyllion beginning at line 315. The tone of the book changes from didactic to epic and elegiac in this epyllion, which contains within it the story of Orpheus and Eurydice. Aristaeus, after losing his bees, descends to the home of his mother, the nymph Cyrene, where he is given instructions on how to restore his colonies. He must capture the seer, Proteus, and force him to reveal which divine spirit he angered and how to restore his bee colonies. After binding Proteus (who changes into many forms to no avail), Aristaeus is told by the seer that he angered the nymphs by causing the death of the nymph Eurydice, wife of Orpheus. Proteus describes the descent of Orpheus into the underworld to retrieve Eurydice, the backward look that caused her return to Tartarus, and at last Orpheus’ death at the hands of the Ciconian women. Book four concludes with an eight-line sphragis or seal in which Virgil contrasts his life of poetry with that of Octavian the general.
To celebrate Virgil I give you a recipe from Apicius, the late 4th century Roman cook book that I have used before. Apicius is a text to be used in the kitchen. In the earliest printed editions, it was most usually given the overall title De re coquinaria (“On the Subject of Cooking”) and attributed to an otherwise unknown Caelius Apicius, an invention based on the fact that one of the two manuscripts is headed with the words “API CAE”.
The foods described in the book are useful for reconstructing the dietary habits of the ancient world around the Mediterranean Basin, since many of the foods identified with that region today—tomatoes, pasta—were not available in antiquity. But the recipes are geared for the wealthiest classes, and a few contain what were exotic ingredients at that time (e.g., flamingo).
Here is a recipe for lamb or goat stew incorporating ingredients whose cultivation and husbandry are described in Georgics:
ALITER HAEDINAM SIVE AGNINAM EXCALDATAM: mittes in caccabum copadia. cepam, coriandrum minutatim succides, teres piper, ligusticum, cuminum, liquamen, oleum, vinum. coques, exinanies in patina, amulo obligas. [Aliter haedinam sive agninam excaldatam] <agnina> a crudo trituram mortario accipere debet, caprina autem cum coquitur accipit trituram.
HOT KID OR LAMB STEW. Put the pieces of meat into a pan. Finely chop an onion and coriander, pound pepper, lovage, cumin, liquamen, oil, and wine. Cook, turn out into a shallow pan, thicken with wheat starch. If you take lamb you should add the contents of the mortar while the meat is still raw, if kid, add it while it is cooking.
Not having a kitchen at the moment I cannot make an effort to recreate this dish, but it looks fairly straightforward. Cut the meat into bite sized chunks. Make a marinade of onion, cilantro, peppercorns, lovage, cumin, liquamen substitute (1 tablespoon of Asian fermented fish sauce in a cup of water), extra virgin olive oil, and Italian red wine in a blender, and marinate the meat overnight in the refrigerator (see “marinating” under my Hints tab). I’m not sure why Apicius suggests this for lamb but not for kid. If you want to be authentic you can omit this step for kid. Bring the meat and marinade to a slow simmer and skim off any scum at the outset. Simmer covered for about 2 hours, or until the meat is fully tender. Thicken the sauce with a slurry of flour and water if necessary. Serve with your choice of Old World vegetables and crusty Italian bread. You will find my Roman recipe for broad beans here: