Iopas and Orpheus: Vergil's Rejection of Cosmological Poetry

David J. White

Baylor University

The puzzling Song of Iopas at the end of Aeneid I has attracted the attention of many commentators.  The scene where it occurs, Dido's banquet for the Trojans, clearly recalls the Phaiakian banquet in Odyssey VIII, and Iopas' song fills the same function as does Homer's song of Demodokos.  However, Demodokos' song about the gods and the Trojan War provokes Odysseus' tale of his wanderings, whereas Iopas' cosmological song does not obviously relate to the scene.  This song is best understood when compared with another of its models, the song of Orpheus in Argonautica I, as well as Vergil's own previous treatment of Orpheus, the Aristaeus episode in Georgics IV.  By using the Song of Iopas to recall these other passages, Vergil implicitly contrasts cosmological poetry with other sorts of poetry, and shows that, by comparison, cosmological poetry is ineffective.  Its poets fail, with their poetry, to prevent impending disaster.  Furthermore, by rejecting cosmological poetry in this way, Vergil – whose greatest hero is celebrated for his pietas – implicitly rejects the materialistic, naturalistic, non-supernatural worldview that cosmological poetry embodies.

Several scholars have considered the appropriateness of Iopas' choice of theme and its relevance.  R.D. Williams (Williams 1972) and R.G. Austin (Austin 1984) suggest that Vergil chose this topic as a mere stop-gap, a topic less inappropriate in this scene than a song about the deeds of heroes.  Wendell Clausen (Clausen 1987) further suggests that the Carthaginians would be uninterested in hearing about the Trojan War.  Others, such as Viktor Pöschl (Pöschl tr. Seligson 1986) and Charles Segal (Segal Hermes 99; Emerita 49, 52) look for a figurative meaning, seeing in Iopas' sun and moon a prefiguring of Aeneas and Dido.  Richard Thomas (Thomas 1988) and David Ross (Ross 1987) argue that Vergil simply places himself in the tradition of Aratos and Apollonios, and that the Iopas' subjects are commonplace cosmological themes without broader significance.  However, Gian Biagio Conte (Conte 1986) recognizes that Vergil engages in a continual dialectic with other poets and texts, and Leah Kronenberg (Kronenberg HSPh 100) argues that Vergil's attempt to contrast various types of poetry is intended to contrast the worldviews and lifestyles that these various poetic genres (epic, didactic, elegiac) embody. 

The connection between Iopas and the Orpheus of Georgics IV is unsuccessful love, strife, and the power of poetry.  The key is to recognize that Orpheus represents the power of cosmological poetry.  In Argonautica I, Orpheus' cosmological song succeeds in calming the strife among the Argonauts.  However, in Georgics IV, Orpheus fails because his poetry lacks sufficient power.  Moreover, Orpheus fails also because he disobeys the commands of the gods, whereas Aristaeus obeys them and succeeds.  For Vergil, cosmological poetry, which discounts and disobeys the gods, must always fail.  In particular, in rejecting cosmological poetry in this way, Vergil is rejecting Lucretius and his materialistic, anti-supernatural worldview.  Thus Iopas and his cosmological song are powerless to prevent the impending disaster that will befall Aeneas and Dido. 


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