Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2003.04.29

Franco Bellandi, Emanuele Berti, Maurizio Ciappi, Iustissima Virgo: Il mito della Vergine in Germanico e in Avieno. Saggio di commento a Germanico Arati Phaen. 96-139 e Avieno Arati Phaen. 273-352.   Pisa:  Giardini, 2001.  Pp. 268.  ISBN 88-427-0319-2.  EUR 35.00.  

Reviewed by Katharina Volk, Columbia University (
Word count: 2259 words

Every student of classical literature knows the story of the goddess Dike, who in the good old days of the Golden Age dwelled on earth, happily interacting with human beings, but whose relationship with mortals rapidly deteriorated in the ensuing Silver and Bronze Ages, until she finally left the earth in disgust and was catasterized as the constellation Virgo. First told in this form by Aratus (96-136, apropos of his description of the constellation), the story became highly popular in Latin poetry, being treated by not only the various authors of Latin Aratea, but also numerous other poets, including such Augustan masters as Vergil and Ovid. As a result, any post-classical author writing about the same topic found himself faced with a multitude of versions of the myth of the goddess of justice and the Golden Age, a plethora of possible intertexts vying for his attention. In their interesting new study, Franco Bellandi, Emanuele Berti, and Maurizio Ciappi examine specifically how Germanicus and Avienus, the authors of our two fully extant Latin versions of Aratus, dealt with this sometimes overwhelming tradition of il mito della Vergine.

The book takes the form of two commented editions of the relevant passages in Germanicus (96-139) and Avienus (273-352), the first written by Bellandi (B), the second by Berti and Ciappi (BC). Each contains a brief introduction and/or discussion of the passage, as well as some notes on the text and its structure, but the bulk of the work is taken up by a traditional extensive line-by-line commentary on the two texts. Providing grammatical and stylistic information, parallel passages, and discussions of content, these commentaries offer a wealth of material that will be appreciated by all future scholars who work on these passages. However, the commentary format can also be frustrating to readers interested in some of the larger issues that the two texts raise: since hardly any room is given to a general discussion of such points, all relevant information, as well as the authors' often very perceptive observations, must be burrowed for in the commentary. While there are some cross-references, the two parts of the work are clearly independent (sharing only the bibliography, index, and index locorum), and the task of comparing Germanicus and Avienus' approaches to the story of Dike is thus largely left to the readers themselves.

Germanicus is writing at the very end of the Augustan era, at a time when the canonization of the classical poets of previous generations, especially Vergil, has already begun. Following Aratus comparatively closely, he dedicates 44 lines to his digression on Virgo in comparison to Aratus' 41 (as B points out, this small discrepancy is due principally to Germanicus' insertion of a high-style invocation to the goddess [98-102] in which he asks her to attend to his song). For all of Germanicus' apparent adherence to Aratus, though, the Roman poet has markedly altered the conception of the goddess of justice found in his Hellenistic predecessor--or so B maintains. While the Aratean Dike is a goddess of ethics concerned with individual principles of behavior, Germanicus' Iustitia is to be understood as primarily political and specifically as "la Giustizia come principio di autorità" (p. 83), a refashioning appropriate to the political climate of Augustus' reign. However, it seems to me that B is overstating his case and that his interpretation rests, perhaps, more on a preconceived notion of the nature of the principate than on Germanicus' text. It is true that Germanicus presents the goddess in quite official-sounding language as a lawgiver (iura dabas, 110), but I do not see how this is so very different from the Aratean Dike's role as δώτειρα δικαίων (113) who imparts θέμιστας (107) to what appears to be a council of old men (γέροντας, 105). As for the supposed stress on the notion of punishment in Germanicus (pp. 83, 85), I fail to see any indication of this in the passage.

Far more interesting and convincing, in my opinion, is B's observation of a number of self-contradictions in Germanicus' treatment of the myth, which B traces to the poet's alteration of his Greek model under the influence of secondary intertexts, specifically passages found in Vergil (B speaks of "Vergilian 'interferences,'" "'interferenze' virgiliane"). Thus, in 108-111, Germanicus not only describes the denizens of the Golden Age as puros sine crimine (109), which raises the question of why Iustitia has to give them laws (iura dabas, 110), but also claims that these early humans were a rude vulgus (110), which had to be "shaped" (formabas, 111) by the goddess cultu ... novo (110). As B points out (p. 46), the poet here appears to envisage a Golden Age in two stages: an original, primitive one, followed by a second one characterized by a greater degree of civilization. This somewhat bizarre notion (an uneasy combination of "hard" primitivism and the idea of progress, on the one hand, and the concept of an original paradisal Golden Age, on the other) is entirely absent in Aratus. However, it is not completely without parallel: as B attractively suggests, Germanicus appears to have gotten the idea from a passage in Aeneid 8 (314-327), where the indigenous population of Latium is depicted as entirely uncivilized until the arrival of Saturn, who acts as a lawgiver (leges ... dedit, 322, just like Germanicus' Iustitia) and whose reign ushers in the Golden Age.

A further self-contradiction is found in 117-119, where Germanicus claims that in the Golden Age, the earth brought forth crops on its own accord, while at the same time implying that there were farmers who may even have owned private fields (as B discusses ad loc., 118f. is ambiguous on the latter point). The idea of spontaneous generation, a beloved topos of descriptions of the Golden Age from Hesiod onward, is not found in Aratus, who makes it quite clear that in his Golden Age, there is agriculture in the form of βόες καὶ ἄροτρα (112). It would seem that Germanicus could not resist putting in the motif of spontaneous generation but then failed to be so consistent as to remove all references to farming. Again, B believes that he has found a Vergilian intertext to explain the ambiguity, this time the famous finale to the second Georgic, which paradoxically stresses both the Golden Age-like abundance of the earth and the hard toil nevertheless required of the farmer. However, this supposed instance of Vergilian "interference" appears less convincing: after all, Vergil is here not talking about the Golden Age itself, but about the present, and there are enough other possible models from which Germanicus could have gleaned the commonplace idea of spontaneous generation.

B does not point this out, but it seems to me that the ambiguities in Germanicus ultimately arise from Aratus himself and from the extremely idiosyncratic way in which the Hellenistic poet conceives of the Golden Age. By combining Hesiod's Myth of the Ages (Op. 109-201) with his depiction of the figure of Dike (Op. 256-262), Aratus would risk running into self-contradictions, for one might well ask why the blameless and primitive people of the Golden Age are in need of a concept of justice that would seem more appropriate to a society both more morally corrupt and more civilized. Aratus circumvents the problem by describing his Golden Age as comparatively highly developed: thus, as mentioned, there is agriculture and there may even be some sort of institutionalization of justice in the form of the old men's council (105-107), which assembles εἰν ἀγορῇ (106), a setting that suggests a certain degree of urbanization. Utopian elements are largely absent: there is no spontaneous generation of crops, and the people, while untouched by strife (108-109), are not explicitly presented as supernaturally saintly. This, however, is not the Golden Age of Hesiod, and it is not the Golden Age found in many other, especially Latin, authors, and it is thus not surprising that Germanicus, in his version, attempts to make his aurea saecula a little bit more "golden" than they were in his Hellenistic model--even at the cost of the self-contradiction that Aratus himself rather elegantly avoided.

As can be inferred from BC's commentary, Avienus found himself confronted with pretty much the same problem, choosing, however, to solve it in a rather different way. This Late Antique author, steeped in classical learning, lived "in un mondo che stava vedendo crollare il grande tesoro culturale del paganesimo" (97). His work thus constitutes something of a last hurrah of pagan literature, and drawing on a huge wealth of intertexts, Avienus apparently felt that he had to lay it on thick: his version of Aratus is considerably longer than the original, with the story of Dike in particular being nearly twice as long (80 lines) as that found in his model. As BC note, the increased length is mostly due not to the introduction of new themes, but rather to the baroque abundance of Avienus' expressive poetic idiom. In addition to its learning and verbosity, the poem is characterized by a particularly "Roman" and Stoicizing moral slant, apparent especially in Avienus' treatment of the Bronze Age (339-347), which differs markedly from Aratus and Germanicus.

In their detailed commentary (for obvious reasons, the Avienus section of the book is considerably longer than that dedicated to Germanicus), BC single out numerous points of interest. Most striking perhaps, especially in light of Germanicus' depiction of the Golden Age discussed above, is Avienus' treatment of his aurea saecula (292-317). This is not made explicit by the authors, but it nearly appears as if Avienus--having perceived the problems inherent in Aratus' depiction of the Golden Age as well as in Germanicus' corrections--decided solve the problem (Why is justice needed in the perfect world of the Golden Age?) in a completely different manner. His first generation of human beings is clearly characterized by innocuos ... mores (294) and therefore, logically but surprisingly in light of Aratus and Germanicus, these people live nullis ... sub legibus (293). As BC point out, this reflects the idea--alien to Aratus but found prominently in Ovid Met 1.89-93 and elsewhere--that the Golden Age is characterized by an absence of legislation and that the introduction of laws (caused by the rise of crime) is a sign of decline. However, by openly subscribing to this view, Avienus appears to fall into the trap that Aratus (and, largely, Germanicus) managed to avoid: if people are blameless, is justice not superfluous (p. 151)?

BC do not have an answer to this question and are prepared simply to allow a certain amount of conceptual incoherence in Avienus' text (p. 151). While I am generally sympathetic to this view (see below), I do believe that in this particular case, the poet is rather more consistent. In my opinion, there is a crucial difference between this author's treatment of the myth of Dike and that of Aratus and Germanicus: Avienus' Iustitia is less of an anthropomorphic goddess than a mere allegory. While from the time of Hesiod, Dike/Iustitia is, of course, always a personification, we are nevertheless, in Aratus, supposed to imagine her as a real person who interacts with mortals on a personal level. By contrast, Avienus' Iustitia, though still imagined as anthropomorphic, is largely an abstraction: to say that she is dwelling among human beings is but another way of saying that human beings are just. To adopt such an allegorical reading (which would nicely fit in with Late Antique taste) actually solves a number of problems that BC note. The fact that already in the Silver Age the goddess appears to have left earth and shows her face only occasionally (318-325) is in open contradiction to Aratus, as is her final choice of a place on the firmament from which she can hardly, vix, see the earth (351): Aratus' Dike leaves earth only in the Bronze Age (133f.), and the visibility of Virgo is specifically stressed (135). However, if Avienus' Iustitia is to be understood as an allegory of justice rather than as a goddess who even after her catasterism still cares for mortals, then her increased removal from the human sphere makes good sense.

While the commentary format can be cumbersome and more extensive general discussion would have been welcome, B and BC's book has much to offer readers interested in Germanicus and Avienus, the history of the reception of Aratus, and the nature of intertextuality. Exploring the power of literary tradition, a power that can sometimes be nearly overwhelming to the individual writer, the authors ought to be commended especially for their willingness to accept self-contradictions in the texts they treat. Without either belittling their authors as "second-rate" muddle-heads or celebrating any presumed postmodern "ambiguity" on their part, B and BC take Germanicus' and Avienus' "incoherence" seriously, attempting to explain it with the interplay of their authors' literary models. As a result, "coherence" emerges as a somewhat anachronistic concept--and something that is sometimes better eschewed. A lovely example is Avienus' description of Astraeus, one of the possible fathers of Dike, aurea cuius / sidera sunt proles et qui pro munere morum / inculpabilium nomen dedit omnibus astris (279-281). As BC point out, this is a conflation of two Astraei, a god who fathered the stars (whence their designation astra) and a virtuous mortal astronomer who was divinely granted the privilege of naming all the individual stars (and who, the story goes, named Virgo for his daughter!). Now, logically speaking, the man cannot very well have been both--but are we not glad that Avienus has managed to remind us of both stories?

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