Understanding the Eclogues through the Eighth
David K. Oosterhuis
University of Minnesota, Twin Cities
This paper argues that Virgil's Eclogues are not just examples of the pastoral genre, but a coherent commentary on them. The key lies in the anonymous dedication of the eighth Eclogue. While most scholars have taken Asinius Pollio to be the addressee, this paper will argue that it is Octavian, and that this identification draws the corpus more tightly together and allows it to be read as a critique, and perhaps dismissal, of pastoral.
The version of Virgil's life passed down by the ancient commentators, according to whom Pollio had been Virgil's early patron, has persuaded many scholars that Pollio is the addressee of the poem, but Octavian has also been considered a candidate. The debate has revolved around understanding four clues: (1) a campaign and triumph in Illyricum; (2) an allusion to tragedy; (3) the formula a te principium, tibi desinam; (4) the patronage, in one form or another, of the addressee. A closer look at these points, independent of the scholiastic tradition, shows that Octavian is the stronger candidate. His military operations better fit the timeframe and geography. His Ajax is known only in retrospect as a failure. Finally, and critically, the principium and patronage refer to Eclogue 1: Octavian is almost universally accepted as the iuvenis who tells Tityrus to pascite ut ante. With this he "commissions" the Eclogues as an exercise in pastoral.
The delayed dedication both links to the beginning and marks the climax: Daphnis is brought home through the power of song. From there, however, we proceed to the failure of poetry in the real world. The optimism of Eclogue 1 disappears in 9 and Menalcas does not get his farm back. Gallus finds no consolation among the shepherds. The formerly pleasant shade is now injurious and Virgil turns his back on pastoral as an inherently nostalgic and unworkable genre, unfit for the contemporary poet.
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