THE ANCIENT LIVES OF VIRGIL: Literary and Historical Studies

Ed. by Anton Powell and Philip Hardie

The Classical Press of Wales (2017) h/b 210pp £64 (ISBN 9781910589618)

This is a splendid volume of nine essays by some leading Vergilians on a collection of texts that once were of pivotal importance both to the interpretation of Vergil’s poetry and to the appreciation of the historical author but nowadays languish in relative obscurity, cited for the occasional factoid but normally dismissed as make-believe or downright lies. The essays do a good job of contextualizing the Lives of Vergil in terms of their generic affiliations and historical situatedness and (re)assessing their usefulness for historians and literary scholars alike. While some essays take a decidedly literary approach to help us understand why and how these texts were written in the first place, other essays take a more literal stance and argue for their value in establishing Vergilian biography.

The Lives of Vergil, beginning with the Suetonian-Donatan Life (hereafter: VSD), include prose and metrical texts that purport to give details of the life of Rome’s greatest poet. Once privileged as a unique way into Vergil’s life and times, these texts have come under increased scrutiny from the turn of the twentieth century onwards and are now regarded as little more than a congeries of topoi derived from Vergil’s poetry itself, combined with the occasional flight of fancy. While Quellenforschung occupied itself with the identification of (the?) sources behind many lines in the biographies, and so discredited the veracity of the Vitae, modern literary theory such as Barthes’ (in)famous essay on ‘The Death of the Author’ has done the rest—we cannot believe a word the authors of these texts have to say (perhaps all the more so because their texts style themselves as ‘secondary literature’, which almost by definition is inferior to the primary texts on which they are commenting). Or can we?

Source criticism and modern literary theory notwithstanding, most scholars feel a deep-rooted ambivalence towards the Lives of Vergil. For all scholars’ reservations about their usefulness and veracity, some facts are still taken for granted. Most classicists and ancient historians still regard Vergil’s traditional life dates (15 October 70 BC-21 September 19 BC) as unproblematic, even though they can be fixed only by means of information transmitted in the Lives. In other words, most readers of the Lives will find some middle ground between complete agnosticism and utter credulity. Much depends on whether one views the Lives and their relationship to, and interactions with, Vergil and his texts as instantiations of what Roland Barthes termed ‘readerly’ and ‘writerly’ texts, the former finalized, authorized texts whose meaning is clearly circumscribed by the author or an institution, the latter open-ended, pluralistic, to be supplemented by the reader. The nine essays that make up this collection fall on various points of that spectrum.

The first six essays treat the Lives as a species of literary criticism rather than biography in a modern sense. The Lives thus represent readers’ attempts to make sense of Vergil’s poems, to establish a canon of Vergilian poetry, and/or to showcase its cultural importance (cf. e.g. the Mediaeval practice of sortes Vergilianae, predicting the future by means of randomly selected lines from Vergil’s poems). Accordingly, Peirano Garrison and Andrew Laird situate the Lives at the intersection of biography and commentary on the one hand and biography, pseudepigraphy, and textual criticism on the other. Kahane deftly show that Vergil’s famous self-epitaph (Mantua me genuit, Calabri rapuere, tenet nunc / Parthenope. Cecini pascua, rura, duces, preserved in VSD) has more in common with ancient bios-writing than actual epitaphs and is an attempt to mediate the poet’s fama. The only metrical Life, the fourth/fifth-century Vita Phocae, is the subject of the essays by Harrison and McGill. Harrison provides a text, translation, and commentary, carefully elucidating the sources of the hexametric composition and its Sapphic preface (adding to the standard text of Brugnoli and Stok in the process), while McGill looks at how the text incorporates and reworks material from VSD to create a Vergil of superhuman qualities. Goldschmidt, finally, investigates how the reception of Vergil was bound up with that of Ovid (a topic to which I will return): despite Ovid’s claim that he ‘only saw Vergil’ (Tristia 4.10.51), Vergil occupies a central role in late antique and medieval exegesis of Ovid, so that one poet’s life could be used to explain the other’s.

The mood changes towards the end of the collection, where the closing triad employs more traditional philological methods. Stok gives an expert account of the success and survival of the VSD in the Middle Ages and its relations to a host of other biographies. Smolenaars takes up the gauntlet against the general pessimism of, especially, Horsfall: Horsfall regards the Lives as possessing little biographical value, but Smolenaars makes a case that the anecdote of Vergil’s recital of the Georgics to Octavian at Atella on the latter’s return from Actium may really have taken place. Powell, finally, suggests that Vergil’s death, as described in the VSD, might not have been accidental. As he argues, the poet’s demise was downright expedient for Octavian, who had sponsored Vergil for years and now ran the risk of not receiving the poem at all due to the poet’s plans to spend several years revising the Aeneid abroad and then to move on to philosophy. Simply forcing Vergil to give up the poem would arouse suspicion (and leave the poet alive to protest) and so he had to be assassinated. Powell weaves an intriguing narrative of political murders, mysterious disappearances, and sudden illnesses orchestrated by Octavian. That Vergil fell ill not long after meeting with the new adulescens carnifex in town fits into that plot. Powell’s revisionist account is bound to be controversial, but a person who comes up with an original idea always is in a minority of one, at least at first.

And Powell’s reconstruction does not stand alone: compare the work of Jean-Yves Maleuvre (in a series of articles and his website http://www.virgilmurder.org/, not cited) or the novel I, Virgil by David Wishart.

The murder mystery of the final contribution will undoubtedly be one of the volume’s greatest talking points, perhaps followed by Laird’s argument that Vergil’s wish to have the Aeneid burnt actually stems from a retrojection of Ovid’s Tristia 1.7.27-40 (where Ovid speaks of destroying the Metamorphoses) onto the Aeneid. Depending on a reader’s own beliefs about readerly and writerly texts and her own stance towards the Lives of Vergil some of the claims put forward in this collection will seem more or less plausible. Be under no illusion: these scholars cannot be accused of cherry-picking facts or twisting truths to fit their own agenda; all use tools and approaches that have been tried and tested elsewhere. Though an overarching Conclusion is lacking, the essays collectively make the valid point that, without unambiguous external evidence, it is difficult to see what facts to retain as ‘true’ or to dismiss as ‘false’. Yet, as philologists and historians, we must confront this problem and, if we cannot crack it, we must at least articulate our stance towards it. And that is something this collection does very well: there is no hiding, no circumspection or shying away from making provocative statements. With sources as tricky as the Lives it is perhaps inevitable that analysis, like the Lives themselves, sometimes shades into the overly literal or the fanciful (or fictional). As such, both the Lives themselves and scholarship on the Lives are paradigmatic of Roland Barthes’ argument about the difficulties of disentangling author (who is absent, necessarily represented through a text) and reader (whose idea of the author is always a projection on the basis of that text). This is a game requiring give and take that can be played in several ways.

The essays are uniformly thought-provoking and constitute a successful revaluation of the Lives. The volume is meticulously edited and will be of interest to all Vergilians. It deserves a place on the shelf next to Farrell and Putnam’s A Companion to Vergil’s Aeneid and Its Tradition (2013) and Putnam and Ziolkowski’s The Virgilian Tradition (2008).

Gary Vos

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