Bryn Mawr Classical Review 02.04.09

Joseph Farrell, Vergil's Georgics and the Traditions of Ancient Epic: The Art of Allusion in Literary History. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991. Pp.x, 389. ISBN 0-19-506706-1. $39.95.

Reviewed by Sara Myers, Princeton University.

Scholars who write on the Georgics tend to claim that it is the most allusive poem of antiquity; whether this is true or not, with the recent publication of two new commentaries by R.F. Thomas and the late R.A.B. Mynors1 and now this in-depth study of allusion in the Georgics by Joseph Farrell, we have been amply provided with evidence to evaluate this assertion. F.'s book reveals a long engagement with the subject. He has incorporated almost all recent work on the Georgics through 1989, and consequently has been able to take advantage of Thomas' commentary, but not that of Mynors.2 With the Quellenforschung largely already done, F. claims to offer a full-scale interpretive study of Vergilian allusion. This does not mean, however, that he makes use of the wide range of literary allusions which Thomas has so importantly revealed nor is his aim exhaustive; F. intends to illuminate specifically Vergil's use of the epic tradition and to focus on the literary-historical nature of Vergilian allusion. This is an original and challenging book, containing much detailed discussion of individual passages as well as a number of important far-reaching interpretations. F. encourages us to rethink some of our basic assumptions about the nature of allusion and Latin literary history.

F.'s thesis is revealed in the subtitle of his book: he proposes to read in the allusive program of the Georgics an essay in literary history, "an essay which renders much more intelligible the course that Vergil followed in his career " (viii). F. discovers in the poem a systematic program of allusion which should be read as an "encrypted literary-historical essay" embodying Vergil's statement about the entire tradition that produced the Georgics. For F. this is the epic tradition, and he suggests that based on Vergil's allusive scheme we must reevaluate currently prevalent views about the dichotomy in the ancient epic tradition between "Homeric" and non-heroic epic ("Hesiodic" as represented by the Alexandrians and 'Neoterics'). Along the lines already suggested by P.R. Hardie,3 F. argues that Vergil's plan was, through this pattern of allusion, to reintegrate Homer into the line of didactic, or natural philosophical, poetry, based on the ancient allegorical interpretation of Homer. F. claims that the Georgics should be seen as "a tripartite poem as determined by a pattern of allusion, that we have in Book 1 a 'Hesiodic/Aratean' Georgics, in Books 2-3 a 'Lucretian' and in Book 4 a 'Homeric' one"(133-4). "The earlier allusions to Hesiod, Aratus, and Lucretius look ahead to the Homeric "Aristaeus" in Book 4, which is based on a conception of Homer as a poet not of kings and battles, but of nature and philosophy" (320). Thus F.'s hypothesis leads him not only to a new interpretation of the literary affiliations of the Georgics, widely seen as primarily indebted to the Callimachean tradition, but also entails a reevaluation of a number of the most common assumptions about the history of Latin literature in the first century BCE. F. states that he intends to redress the imbalance in the view of the Neoteric discovery of Callimachus as "the single most important factor in determining the nature of Augustan poetry."4 What comes out of this study is the enhanced importance of Ennius and Lucretius to Vergil and a less polarized view of the development of Roman poetry in the first century BCE.

The book is arranged in three parts (an allusion to F.'s own tripartite theory of the Georgics?). In Part 1 F. examines the nature of Vergilian allusive artistry in the Georgics. He first offers a helpful review of previous scholarship on the function of allusion in Latin poetry, revealing in the process how surprisingly little has been written on this subject and how welcome his own contribution is. He aligns himself with the "Harvard school"5 in its explanation of allusion as an instrument of literary history, asserting that "allusion in Vergil frequently serves ideological purposes and therefore offers useful literary-historical evidence" (17). He also acknowledges the important discussions of G.B. Conte about the intertextual and affective nature of allusion.6 F. claims that his greatest debt is to the work of G.N. Knauer on allusion in the Aeneid.7 F. adopts "as the foundation of the method employed in this study" (8-9) Knauer's concept of an extensive, systematic program of allusion based on an analytical reading of the major sources. By this he means that Vergil's allusions are interpretive and can provide us with a "map of how Vergil reads his sources" (96). This is to place an emphatically intentionalist interpretation on the force of Vergil's allusion and F. himself is very aware of this; he stresses that Vergil's pattern of allusion is a "deliberate design" (275). F. is right to object to the interpretation which sees Vergilian allusion as primarily polemical or decorative, or vaguely complimentary. He concentrates on how Vergil uses allusion in order to create a complex intertextual relationship between model and imitation, "a creative dialogue through which essential themes and ideas of the original take on new meaning as they are analyzed and integrated into a new poetic structure" (62-3). F. presents sensitive close readings of six passages which contain some of the most extensive concentrated imitation in the Georgics (1.160-75 "The Farmer's Arma", 1.276-286 "Lucky and Unlucky Days", 1.351-464 "Weather Signs", 2.315-45 "Praise of Spring", 3.478-566 "The Plague of Noricum", 4.315-558 "Aristaeus") in order to provide a précis of the basic forms, methods, and purposes of Vergil's allusion. In a valuable discussion of these passages F. focuses on structural allusion and contextual contaminatio (the process of combining or conflating passages by multiple allusion to one source), showing how Vergil creates cross-references between related passages of his source in order to define an important theme. Allusion for F. functions both programmatically and as an instrument for conveying poetic meaning (contextually).

In the second part of the book F. turns to a discussion of the "local" influence of the four main models on specific books of the Georgics. F.'s discussion of Hesiod as a model is somewhat confusingly spread through Chapters 2, 3, and 4 (good summary 3 16-17). In Ch.2 (a lengthy and not completely convincing review of the poetic device of antonomasia in Greek and Latin poetry), F. focuses on the famous Ascraeum carmen at G. 2.176, which, he argues, signals the end of Hesiodic influence on the poem. F. is right to question what exactly it means to invoke Hesiod as a model. F. agrees with the prevailing view in recent Latin criticism that for the Roman poets Hesiod stands as an emblem of Alexandrian poetic ideology, 8 and suggests that the simultaneous presence of Aratus, the poet signalled by Callimachus as the most Hesiodic poet in Ep. 27 Pf., in G. 1 is "an affirmation of the Alexandrian position and a declaration of membership in that tradition" (165). But at the same time, F. emphasizes that Hesiod is more than a mere symbol for Alexandrian and didactic poetry. Vergil engages directly with the text of the "authentic" archaic Hesiod9 and in G. 1 "Vergil's deployment of allusive contexts suggests a structural correspondence with both Works and Days and Phaenomena in their entirety" (188).

The most extensive allusions to Lucretius occur in Georgics 2 and 3 and F. suggests that they "comprise a second structural unit within Vergil's allusive program" (188). More precisely, since most of the contextual allusions refer to Books 5 and 6 of the De Rerum Natura, he argues that Vergil has created a close structural and thematic allusion (imitatio cum variatione) to these two specific books. Lucretian influence on the Georgics is not, as some have argued, purely formal; F. suggests that Vergil is engaged in a "cooperative dialectic" with Lucretius' text (93).10 Thematic, imagistic, technical, and even tonal aspects of Lucretius' poem are seen to be important to the Georgics. Vergil's analytical approach to source material is most evident here and we are to understand that Vergil through his allusions presents us with an interpretation of the DRN, by outlining a "web" of thematic correspondences within that source. As F. remarks, there is good reason to believe that Vergil was seriously interested in philosophy. D.O. Ross (Virgil's Elements. Physics and Poetry in the Georgics [Princeton, 1987]) has importantly shown how the Georgics may be read as a form of philosophical discourse. The literary-historical ramification of this extensive imitation of Lucretius in G. 2-3 is that Vergil establishes Lucretius' place in the tradition of didactic epos of which his own poem is the culmination (206). For F. Lucretius' most important impact on Vergil was that he introduced to him a way of interpreting Homer as a poet of nature (319).

In Chapter 6 F. outlines a number of the effects produced by Homeric imitation in the Georgics, especially G. 4 in the Aristaeus episode. F. explains how Vergil found in the Homeric poems elements that shed light on the foremost concerns of the Georgics. F. contends that allusions to Homer also function programmatically.

Simultaneously they "elevate Vergil's notionally 'humbler' didactic discourse to a plane nearer that of heroic epos" (326) and interpret Homer as a poet of natural philosophy. F. suggests that Vergil, by including Homer as the "climax" of the allusions in G. 1-3 to the didactic epic tradition initiated by Hesiod and continued by Aratus and Lucretius, integrates Homer within this tradition and establishes him as the ultimate founder. It is the ancient tradition of allegorical exegesis of Homer, recently discussed to much profit by P.R. Hardie, which allows Vergil to unify the ancient epic tradition from Hesiod and Homer through Aratus to Ennius and Lucretius into an "organically unified, if richly diverse, poetic tradition" (62). Vergil has thus ambitiously situated the Georgics within this epic tradition, as the culmination of a long tradition of poetry which reveals the secrets of nature.

In the final part of his study F. explores the ramifications of his interpretation on our understanding of the literary history of first century Rome and in the light of Vergil's own career. F. stresses the complexity of the poetic ideologies of the Augustan poets. He argues that the approach which sees Callimacheanism as practically the sole motivating force behind Vergil's poetry "makes facile assumptions about the nature of Vergil's attitude towards Homer, Ennius, and Lucretius and leaves unexplained the philosophical element [of] his poetry" (318). The Georgics represent a change of view from Eclogue 6, where Hesiod, not Homer, is represented as Vergil's conceptual model. The Aeneid is thus seen as the result of the resolution which Vergil achieved already in the Georgics between his Callimachean sympathies and epic ambitions by recognizing Homer as a poet of natural philosophy. Lucretius is the central figure in this "revolutionary combination" (318), since by invoking Homer and Ennius as models he seems already to characterize Homer as a poet of nature.11

F. presents compelling arguments, yet one wonders whether the diversity of Vergil's source material is not a more serious obstacle to unity than F. concedes (132).12 It is strange to find two of the most famous programmatic passages of the poem largely omitted from discussion, the end of G. 2.458-540 and the beginning of 3.1-48. These passages, as Thomas has argued, repeatedly represent the Georgics as transitional and disclose a "programmatic tension."13 F. knowingly risks downplaying the importance of Callimachus (although he has some excellent caveats [esp.285] about the current state of our understanding of what Callimachus meant to the Roman poets) and we miss, I think, a discussion of how Callimachean and "Neoteric" epic fit within this scheme. Thomas (ad loc) says of the Aristaeus episode that it is here the loss of Neoteric "epyllion" of the previous generation is most keenly felt;14 is it absolutely clear that the episode functions programmatically as a reference to Homer, rather than to the Alexandrian tradition of the reworking of Homer? Clearly we need further study of the function of allusion in Latin poetry and, it must be admitted, a synthesis of the revelation by F. and Hardie of the importance of Vergil's epic models with Thomas' insights into his Hellenistic and Neoteric sources.

These are minor criticisms of a study which offers a deliberately limited view of this complex poem; F. deserves much praise for elucidating the Georgics as a poem in some ways as much about poetry as about the natural world. His book is both sensible and methodologically sophisticated. Densely argued and assuming a great deal of knowledge about the subject and terms of debate, it is written for the specialist; long quotations of Greek and Latin are not translated. This book is an important contribution to Vergilian interpretation and to the study of Latin literature as a whole.


  • [1] R.F. Thomas, Virgil Georgics. 2 Vol. Cambridge Greek and Latin Classics (Cambridge, 1988). R.A.B. Mynors, Virgil Georgics (Oxford, 1990).

  • [2] One might add to the bibliography P. Fedeli, "Allusive Technique in Roman Poetry," Mus. Phil. 7 (1986): 17-30.

  • [3] Virgil's Aeneid: Cosmos and Imperium (Oxford, 1986).

  • [4] Note Erratum on p. viii: omitted from the top read "the single most important factor in determining the nature of Augustan poetry. In comparison to this influence, all others are judged as almost..." At the bottom of the page, eliminate the last two lines.

  • [5] Best represented by D.O. Ross, Backgrounds to Augustan Poetry: Gallus, Elegy, and Rome (Cambridge, 1975), and R.F. Thomas, Georgics.

  • [6] The Rhetoric of Imitation: Genre and Poetic Memory in Virgil and Other Latin Poets (Cornell, 1986).

  • [7] Die Aeneis und Homer: Studien zur poetischen Technik Vergils mit Listen der Homeritate in der Aeneis. Hypomnemata 7 (Göttingen 1964); "Vergil and Homer," ANRW II.31, 870-918.

  • [8] This view can actually be traced as far back as Wilamowitz, Hellenistische Dichtung in der Zeit des Kallimachos. Vol 1 (Berlin, 1924) 201. Cf. Thomas, Georgics ad 2.176, Ross, Backgrounds, 119-20.

  • [9] For a similar suggestion about the direct use of an archaic source see S.E. Hinds, The Metamorphosis of Persephone: Ovid and the Self-Conscious Muse (Cambridge, 1987) on Ovid's reading of the Homeric Hymn to Demeter.

  • [10] Hardie, Cosmos and Imperium, 235 similarly speaks of "a closely-argued dialogue."

  • [11] F. (305-7) focuses on DRN 1.117f. where Lucretius describes Homer's speech in Ennius as natural philosophical (rerum naturam expandere dictis 126). Hardie, Cosmos and Imperium, 69-83 also discusses this passage and suggests that "the possibility arises that Ennius was of prime importance as a model for the combination of the cosmological and historical in Virgil" (83).

  • [12] Cf. Conte, The Rhetoric of Imitation, 37 on the need to "recover and display the whole artistic pedigree behind each new poetic experiment."

  • [13] Thomas, Georgics 1, 2.

  • [14] See his notes on the 'Callimachean' catalogues of nymphs (4.333-44n.) and rivers (4.363-73n.); 4.351, 354-6n. on the influence of Gallus; 4.453-527nn. on Catullus 64 (cf. A. Crabbe, "Ignoscenda quidem...Catullus 64 and the Fourth Georgic," CQ 27 [1977] 342-51), Gallus, and other neoteric epyllia.