|Vergil and the Sybil receive|
a vision of the Nativity of Christ.
From a 14th-cen. chronicle.
This week in the Humanities survey I am teaching this semester, we examined the imperial ideologies developed around Octavian (Augustus) in the last decades before the birth of Christ (or dawn of the Common Era). I had my freshmen read selections from Books VI and VIII of Vergil’s Aeneid and, more important, Vergil’s Fourth Eclogue. Written about the year 40 B.C. in the wake of Octavian and Antony’s victory over Caesar’s assassins at Philippi, but before the two Triumvirs descended once more into civil war, the poem expresses Vergil’s hopes for a coming age of restored peace to the Roman world. As we read through the poem in class, I encouraged the students to think about what the text’s prophetic words might remind them of; and after a few ponderous minutes, one student in each section managed to mutter some form of the name of Christ.
In the veiled language for which the ancient Sybils (as of that at Cumae) were famous, Vergil foresees the imminent birth of a child who shall walk amongst men and gods, returning to the Roman world a golden age of peace and prosperity lost since the beginnings of human culture in the time of Saturn:
Sicelides Musae, paulo maiora canamus!
Non omnis arbusta iuvant humilesque myricae;
si canimus silvas, silvae sint consule dignae.
Ultima Cumaei venit iam carminis aetas;
magnus ab integro saeclorum nascitur ordo: 5
iam redit et Virgo, redeunt Saturnia regna;
iam nova progenies caelo demittitur alto.
Tu modo nascenti puero, quo ferrea primum
desinet ac toto surget gens aurea mundo,
casta fave Lucina: tuus iam regnat Apollo. 10
Teque adeo decus hoc aevi te consule inibit,
Pollio, et incipient magni procedere menses.
te duce, si qua manent sceleris vestigia nostri,
inrita perpetua solvent formidine terras.
ille deum vitam accipiet, divisque videbit 15
permixtos heroas, et ipse videbitur illis,
pacatumque reget patriis virtutibus orbem.
Sicilian Muses, let us sing a nobler theme.
Orchards and humble tamarisk do not please all.
If we sing of woods, let them be woods fit for a consul.
The last age of the Cumaean Sybil's song has come.
The mighty sequence of ages is born and begins anew. 5
Now the Maiden returns. The reign of Saturn returns.
Now a new generation descends from heaven on high.
At the birth of the child in whose time the iron race
shall cease and a golden race inherit the whole earth,
smile, O chaste Lucina: now your Apollo reigns. 10
In your consulate this glorious age begins,
Pollio, and the mighty months begin their solemn march.
With you whatever traces of our guilt remain
will vanish and loose the world from its perpetual fear.
He will consort with the gods and see heroes mingling 15
with them and he himself will appear to heroes and gods
and rule a world his father's virtues have brought to peace.
The classical scholar in me will explain to you (as I explained to my students) that Vergil was deploying a sophisticated, Greco-Roman mythology of history whose strains can be found throughout the Eclogues, Georgics, and Aeneid. After Saturn was cast out of Olympus by his son, Jupiter, he settled in Hesperia (the ancient name for Italy), where he founded a golden age of prosperity. Later, this golden age of early man decayed; peoples scattered across the Mediterranean; and the simple life of humble shepherds was supplanted by the complexities of politics and war. The Golden Race of men decayed to silver, then to bronze, and finally to basest iron: hard, unrefined, rusty, and dark.
Exhausted by decades of civil war waged across the Roman world, of Roman blood spilt by Roman hands, Vergil places his hope for an end to this barbarism upon the shoulders of the young Octavian. Though there would be more bloodshed to come (as, indeed, lines 31 to 36 of Eclogue IV adumbrate), when Vergil set his pen to the Aeneid some eleven years later, Octavian—soon to be hailed Augustus—had subdued the monsters more than civil (to paraphrase Lucan) and renewed the prospects for a pax Augusta.
Vergil’s hope, however, is not just for peace, but for something far grander. In hearkening back to the halcyon days of Hesperia’s Saturn, he sees Octavian Augustus as their cyclical heir. The old Roman values of hard work and robust virtue—celebrated in the dusty hands of the Italian farmer, the hero of the Georgics—had been lost to the decadence and decay of eastern potentates. As depicted in Aeneas’ shield in Book VIII of the Aeneid, it is the battle between the noble Roman gods led by Apollo and the slinking, dog-headed beasts and monsters of Egypt, led by their seductress queen and the great Roman Antony she wrapped around her fingers. Augustus’ appointed task—fated, as Aeneas’ was—is to restore the Roman world from iron barbarism to golden pietas, a restoration of human virtue reflected in the restoration of natural wonders:
At tibi prima, puer, nullo munuscula cultu
errantis hederas passim cum baccare tellus
mixtaque ridenti colocasia fundet acantho. 20
Ipsae lacte domum referent distenta capellae
ubera, nec magnos metuent armenta leones;
ipsa tibi blandos fundent cunabula flores,
occidet et serpens, et fallax herba veneni
occidet, Assyrium volgo nascetur amomum. 25
at simul heroum laudes et facta parentis
iam legere et quae sit poteris cognoscere virtus,
molli paulatim flavescet campus arista,
incultisque rubens pendebit sentibus uva,
et durae quercus sudabunt roscida mella. 30
For you, little child, spontaneously, as first gifts,
the earth will lavish creeping ivy and foxglove,
everywhere, and Egyptian lilies with smiling acanthus. 20
Goats will come home by themselves with udders full
of milk, nor will the oxen fear the lion's might.
Your very cradle will flower with buds to caress you.
The serpent will die as well as poison's treacherous plant,
and everywhere Assyrian balsam will come to bloom. 25
And when you have learned to read the praises of heroes and deeds
of your own father and know what manhood is, the plain,
little by little, will grow gold with waving grain,
and grapes will redden on the untended vine of the thorn,
and the hard oaks distill honeydew from their barks. 30
Having explained all of this, however, I took the class one step further, one which probably makes the classicists shudder. For when I goaded the class to connect Vergil’s words to phrases more familiar, I intentionally pushed them to recall the prophecies of Isaiah, fresh in their memories from Advent and Christmas readings:
For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there shall be no end, upon the throne of David, and upon his kingdom, to order it, and to establish it with judgment and with justice from henceforth even for ever. (Isaiah 9:6-7)
The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them. And the cow and the bear shall feed; their young ones shall lie down together: and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. (Isaiah 11:6-7)
|The Sybil of Cumae, carved into|
the stone floor of the Cathedral of Siena.
The medieval scholar now takes over. Four hundred years after Vergil’s death, St. Augustine suggested that Vergil’s boy was in fact Christ, his prophecies drawn from the famed Sybilline oracles. Amongst late-antique Christians, there was a firm belief that the ancient Greek and Roman Sybilline oracles were inspired by the God of Abraham. As He inspired the Hebrew prophets to tell of the coming of the Messiah to the Jews, so He inspired pagan prophets to prophesy the coming of Christ to the Gentiles. This remained tradition throughout the Middle Ages, and depictions of the ancient Sybils can be found on the carved stone floor of the Cathedral in Siena and intermingled with Old Testament prophets in Michaelangelo’s paintings on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. The Fourth Eclogue’s supposed prophecy of Christ was a major factor in medieval veneration of Vergil as a “naturally Christian soul”, thus appearing as Dante’s guide through Inferno and Purgatorio in the Divine Comedy.
The teacher in me hopes that, when we get to Augustine’s theology of history in a few weeks, the students will recall this discussion of the Sybilline oracles; and that they will begin to develop an appreciation for the rich syntheses that medieval typologies could offer. I was also gratified to see them thinking through the material enough to see the verbal and ideological similarities; after all, a man as intellectually astute as Augustine made them, too.
But then there are those inevitable gasps of horror from the classicists, in whose ranks I was once (and still am?) numbered. For, as I was again careful to explain to my students, it is extremely unlikely that Vergil knew the prophecies of Isaiah. Although it is theoretically possible that the Septuagint was available in Rome during his lifetime, Vergil’s own culture combines with the political situation at the end of the Republic to fully explain the prophetic Fourth Eclogue without recourse to Judeo-Christian traditions. After all, Vergil would likely have dismissed the Jews as precisely those decadent easterners from which Octavian was appointed to save Rome.
It is, of course, in the nature of the modern academic to dismiss prima facie divine inspiration as a literary source. When we study Vergil, we look for those man-made cultural traditions that contributed to his writings. When we study late antique and medieval Christianity, however, we cannot simply dismiss their interpretations of Vergil. As a teacher, it is my fervent hope that allowing my students to arrive at some of those interpretive avenues on their own is beneficial to their learning. As an academic, I am pressed to wonder: could the extraordinary form of ecumenism that kept Vergil happily enlightened in the Middle Ages be useful today? As the fields of academe become more and more fractured, their discourses more and more specialized and thus alien to one another, could the synthetic approach to knowledge (and revelation) that was the hallmark of late antique and medieval discourses be beneficial to modern studies?
 Vergil's Eclogues, trans. Barbara Hughes Fowler, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997), pp. 11-12. ↩
 I've used the King James Version because its phrases are so ingrained in our collective memories. Indeed, in class I recited Isaiah 9:6 (For unto us a child is born...) from long memories of listening to Handel's Messiah, and I saw a least one student mouthing it along with me. ↩