Bryn Mawr Classical Review 97.11.15


Marianne Wifstrand-Schiebe, Vergil und die Tradition von den römischen Urkönigen. Hermes Einzelschriften, 76. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner, 1997. Pp. 194. ISBN 3-515-07019-2.


Reviewed by Ingrid E. M. Edlund-Berry, Department of Classics, The University of Texas at Austin, iemeb@mail.utexas.edu.

This is a refreshingly old-fashioned and straight-forward analysis of Vergil as a poet of Rome's past history. Already the title steers the reader to looking beyond Aeneas and even Romulus to Rome's distant past, to Evander and most importantly, to Saturn. The key passages in the Aeneid which provide the starting point for Wifstrand-Schiebe's (henceforth W-S) discussion are in book eight where king Evander gives Aeneas a tour of Rome and points out the previous settlements ruled by Saturn and Janus (VIII.355-358). Shortly before the rule under Saturn has described by Evander as the golden age (aurea-saecula) (VIII.324-325).

As W-S points out in the Introduction, her focus is to follow the traditions about Saturn from our earliest preserved ancient references down in time to the Church Fathers and the Middle Ages. She draws the distinction between myth-related ('mythisierende') traditions which can allow a deity such as Saturn to become ruler of mortals, and history-related ('historisierende') traditions in which a mortal king after his death can become a god or be regarded as such by his people. On the basis of her previous work on the concept of the Golden Age (Das ideale Dasein bei Tibull und die Goldzeitkonzeption Vergils [Studia Latina Upsaliensia, 13; Uppsala 1981]) and an article on "The Saturn of the Aeneid -- Tradition or Innovation" (Vergilius 32 [1986] 43-60), W-S now suggests that the story of Saturn as presented in Vergil follows an unusual, or even unique, pattern in comparison to other early or mythical rulers.

Chapter 1 discusses the story of Saturn, who after being evicted from his Olympian home by Jupiter, ends up in Latium as the bringer of civilization (Aeneid VIII.314-323). The fact that Saturn, a god, is permanently expelled from the company of gods, and that his rule in Latium represents the Golden Age is difficult to explain. According to W-S, this version of Saturn's reign, otherwise described as universal, and taking place before the reign of Jupiter, is an invention of Vergil's for the purpose of highlighting Augustus as a ruler and creator of his own Golden Age in Rome. As presented by Vergil, the theme of Saturn became popular primarily with Late Latin authors, but cannot be documented in pre-Vergilian literature, not even in Ennius' Sacra historia (based on Euhemerus) which is often thought to be an early source.

Chapter 2 includes the literary references to the god Saturn in pre-Vergilian and contemporary Greek and Latin texts, including Varro, Dionysios of Halikarnassos, and Diodorus Siculus, followed by a discussion of Saturnia as the name of Saturn's settlement in Rome but also as a name for all of Italy or a part thereof. W-S here makes a distinction between Saturnia (also Saturnia tellus and Saturnia regna) as a place name or more general geographical term which applied to Saturn the god, but not to Saturn as a ruler in Rome/Latium/Italy. Based on an association with the Greek god Kronos, the Italian Saturn has two functions, as discussed in Chapter 3. One is as the god who ruled before Jupiter, and the other is as the god who was demoted by Jupiter to become the king of mortals.

In Chapter 4 W-S illustrates the popularity, or rather lack thereof, for Vergil's rendering of the reign of Saturn in Latium in Latin literature. Beginning with the fragments from Suetonius' De regibus, followed by the anonymous fourth-century text Origo Gentis Romae, and Servius' commentary on Vergil, W-S continues with the Church Fathers, in particular Tertullian, Minucius Felix, Lactantius and S. Augustine. Although Servius, for example, regards Saturn as a historical Latin ruler, as does Tertullian, there is little continuity in the traditions, and W-S concludes that Saturn (and Janus) was not part of the generally accepted traditions of early Roman history.

Chapter 5 analyzes the king lists of Laurentum, including the names of Janus, Saturn, Picus, Faunus, and Latinus, as quoted by Hieronymus and other texts. Although there are variations in the number of names recorded in the different texts, W-S regards Vergil's description of king Latinus' genealogy in VII.47 of the Aeneid as their main source, rather than being derived from an older mythological tradition.

The Conclusions in Chapter 6 summarize the thesis proposed by W-S that Vergil's Aeneid provides the origin for the tradition of Saturn (and Janus) as 'historical' rulers in ancient Italy. As important as Vergil's creation was for providing a source for the origin of the Golden Age and venerable predecessors for Augustus, his account did not gain general acceptance or popularity until the Middle Ages when the early rulers of Latium and Rome and other 'pagan' figures became associated with biblical counterparts.

W-S has done Classical scholarship a great service by her thorough and convincing presentation of the ancient texts. The arguments are tightly-woven and W-S expects her readers to be well-acquainted with Latin literature as well as with Latin texts (the passages quoted in Latin are not translated). A beginning student would thus do well by reading the previously mentioned article by W-S in Vergilius before tackling the monograph itself. It is especially comforting to read a literary analysis in which the author shows respect for the ancient texts and their authors and takes into consideration the time of writing as well as the literary format. While there is no lack of studies of Vergil and The Golden Age, historians of early Rome often leave Vergil out of their discussion, and the Latin and Roman kings are relegated to the realm of myth. Through her study W-S has not only shown convincingly the role Vergil had in reshaping the traditions of the early kings, but she has also laid the foundation for a broader study of those shadowy rulers who shaped Roman history even before the time of Aeneas. Thanks to the analysis by W-S, we can now focus on Early Rome and Early Italy with a new perspective, one which no doubt will include questions of oral tradition, archaeological evidence for 'kingship' in Bronze Age Latium, and ancient perceptions of divine and mortal rulers.