Ritual and Culpability in Vergil’s Noric Plague

Christopher Nappa

The third book of Vergil’s Georgics ends with the famous description of a plague in the territory of Noricum.  Striking animals both domesticated and wild, the plague eventually destroys all animal life in Noricum, and finally spreads to the human population.  The role of the passage in the poem as a whole is controversial.  By tracing its origin, this paper will situate the Noric plague in the larger thematic structure of the Georgics.  In a study of the plague that has not won much assent, E. L. Harrison suggested that it arises from divine wrath over a ritual offense against Juno.  I would like to retain Harrison’s notion of divine anger as one cause of the plague while adducing different evidence to support it and abandoning the attribution of the plague to Juno particularly.  On my reading, the plague is the result of human negligence in matters of ritual, and its progress reflects traditional symptoms of a breakdown in the pax deorum:  flawed sacrifices and the inability to perform rituals correctly because of divine displeasure.

Before describing the plague itself, Vergil explains how sicknesses among flocks can be avoided.  He describes a process by which a uitium (here a suppuration that has developed) can be treated if the shepherd is willing to perform the required surgery; if the uitium remains unaddressed, it will give rise to a full blown epidemic.  The unwilling shepherd may indeed call on the gods but must still address the underlying uitium.   Some have seen in this evidence that the poet represents religion as useless against disaster, but another reading of the passage is possible.  The word uitium can suggest a flaw in augural ritual (the context here involves watching for the signa of disease) that requires correction through the process known in civic circumstances as procuratio.  That the negligent shepherd is partly to blame is also suggested by another familiar meaning of the word uitium:  human error.

Procuratio is evoked at least twice more in the Georgics: in Book 1, when a storm has destroyed crops, and in Book 4, when Aristaeus investigates the cause of the disease that destroyed his bees.  Thus the Noric plague shares with other key scenes in the poem a framework familiar from Roman religious practice.  This accords well with the familiar idea that Vergil’s didactic poem at least partly repudiates Lucretius’ disdain for religion.

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