Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2012.03.12

Philip Thibodeau, Playing the Farmer: Representations of Rural Life in Vergil’s "Georgics".   Berkeley; Los Angeles; London:  University of California Press, 2011.  Pp. 326.  ISBN 9780520268326.  $60.00.  

Reviewed by Grant A. Nelsestuen, University of Wisconsin – Madison (


Questions of form, genre, and content cross-fertilize in tantalizing ways in Vergil’s Georgics, that infamously most difficult text of Rome’s greatest poet. How are we to read this text that interweaves epos and didactic, myth and the “technical,” and promise and despair in ways unlike perhaps any other work of Greco- Roman antiquity? Philip Thibodeau’s Playing the Farmer: Representations of Rural Life in Vergil’s Georgics addresses this long-standing question by resituating the Georgics securely within the agronomic tradition. Appearing in the wake of Leah Kronenberg’s 2009 monograph, Allegories of Farming from Greece and Rome,1 which interprets the Georgics in the lens of Xenophontic and Varronian counter-cultural satire, Thibodeau reads the Georgics by appeal to the agronomic tradition that seeks to instruct readers on actual agricultural praxis. Of course, this highly polished poem of just over 2000 lines differs markedly from the prose treatises of Xenophon, Cato, Varro, and the whole host of non-extant Greek, Punic, and Roman writings on agriculture (with which, as the body of the text and the footnotes amply attest, Thibodeau has a commendable familiarity). To account for these differences, Thibodeau frequently has recourse to Seneca the Younger’s estimation of Vergil as an agronomist “who aimed at what could be said with the highest degree of decorum rather than the highest degree of truth, and who meant to enchant readers, not teach farmers.”2 Thibodeau appeals to Seneca’s appraisal so as to eschew the more traditional scholarly focus on verbal parallels, allusion and intertextuality, and source-criticism and, instead, provides a more generally thematic, “large-scale exercise in compare-and-contrast” of the Georgics with the ancient agronomical oeuvre (5). Complementing this text-centered methodology is a socio-historical approach and Thibodeau deftly navigates between both registers at will. One recurring guideline here is his attention to how Vergil’s “first readers,” i.e., the elite Roman readers of the 30s and 20s, might have understood the text. In these respects, Thibodeau’s task is to reconstruct the parameters of the ancient reception of the Georgics and to use them as principles for our own interpretation of the poem. Scholars of Vergilian intertextuality may not find this book particularly useful for their own interests, but Thibodeau offers up a number of rich and productive analyses of specific passages and his book provides an excellent framework for approaching the Georgics as a poem about agriculture and rustic life in ancient Rome.

In order to contextualize Vergil and his contemporaries as “farmers,” the first chapter interrogates the historical and social dimensions of the appellation, agricola. After a brief and useful overview of the various forms of farm management (e.g. bailiff-run estates, tenancy, etc.) practiced in the ancient Roman world, Thibodeau rightly observes that neither spatial residence nor performance of the actual activities themselves were necessary criteria for the designation of agricola; instead, what matters is actual ownership (what Thibodeau glosses loosely as possessio) and, intriguingly, the more intangible qualities of cura and scientia: “an active engagement with farming, and knowledge of how to do what is needed to be done” (24). Such an interpretation allows us to reconcile the ancient sources’ two quite different farmer-figures of, on the one hand, a small-scale, hands-on yeoman and, on the other, the large-estate owning dominus, both of whom count as “agricolae” for the Romans and appear sporadically within the Georgics. Accepting this tripartite set of criteria and, in the case of scientia, acknowledging the flexibility of its semantics, allows us to see how Vergil and his “first readers” were themselves agricolae.

The second chapter looks at the various “economic fantasies” that pervade the rustic world of the Georgics. By “fantasy,” Thibodeau loosely means a representation that is subject to some kind of “systematic distortion” (39). In the case of Vergil’s text, these fictions are often vivid and sometimes veristic, and they occur in three spheres: management, labor, and monetary. Each is governed by the rhetorical and ethical principle of decorum, which Thibodeau heuristically establishes as a sort of socio-aesthetic judgment manifested in action or language and related to the virtue of moderation. By eliminating the vilicus from his poem, Vergil enables both the narrator and the reader to step into the role of the agricola more easily. But how does this move square with the fact that this agricola would not have actually performed the work himself and, what’s more, that the manual labor in which he is asked to, so to speak, “engage” remains heavily stigmatized? The solution, so Thibodeau maintains, lies in Vergil’s various dignifying strategies for this labor, which entail associating it with a virtuous poverty (i.e., paupertas), elevating it to the level of martial glory and imperial mastery, and employing so- called “delegated verbs.” The final decorous fantasy of the poem is the nearly complete exclusion of money from the world Vergil creates, which allows Vergil variously to humble and to ennoble his readers (as well as the subjects he treats), thereby enabling him to capture their sympathies and to construct the ethos of the addressee.

Chapter three looks at the way in which the Georgics’ representation of the vita rustica might have reflected the experience of large numbers of elite readers, for whom withdrawal from public life to their country estates represented one consequence (or strategy) in the context of the civil wars of the 40s and 30s. By ennobling rustication, which Thibodeau generally understands to be the sort of villa culture that comes to flourish at this period as well as the otium that is associated with it, Vergil provides a consolation to those newly-disenfranchised elite with the argument that they had in fact gained more than they had lost. Building off the previous chapter’s discussion, Thibodeau continues to highlight the sort of “prestige language” (e.g. honos, gloria, dignitas) in which Vergil casts this fantasy of rustication; the sorts of mythological and especially heroic aetiologies which ennoble this new landscape; and the representation of traditional aristocratic patronage of local communities (read: not Rome) in which the elite might participate. All three of these elements come to play in Thibodeau’s final reading of the Laudes Ruris (2.458-512). Avoiding the search for (and perhaps minimizing) “ideological inconsistencies” and instead focusing on constants within the Georgics, Thibodeau thus comes to the almost paradoxical conclusion that Vergil’s “unqualified insistence on the worthiness of country life” is by no means traditional, but rather, new and perhaps novel. In this way, he provides a political reading of the Georgics, which seeks to account for the perspectives of Vergil’s contemporary readers.

In the fourth chapter, Thibodeau considers the protreptic force of the poem. This exhortation to farming is particularly directed towards the imagined addressee, but it could also directly enthuse the actual readers themselves, as Thibodeau convincingly demonstrates through a number of examples of ancient readers so inspired. As in the previous chapters, three features contribute to this protreptic. The first derives from the Georgics’ topical selectivity, which, by virtue of its economy of scarcity, increases the value of topics omitted, slighted, and otherwise underplayed and, consequently, the reader’s desire for the knowledge thereof. Thibodeau returns to aitia once again as a second feature, arguing that the rhetorical effect of these causes contributes to the elevation of agronomy to the status of a true “ars liberalis” (133). The final feature is the use of marvels (thaumata) so as to induce wonder and an open-ended intellectual response from the reader. Consequently, where the Georgics “fails” in its adequate delineation of agronomical precepts, it “succeeds” in its provocation of the reader’s interest in matters agricultural.

The fifth chapter treats the psychagogical elements, that is, the ways in which Vergil represents and evokes the passions with a view to enchanting readers. Again, a tripartite set of strategies receives consideration: the use of content that either adds or favors pathos; the use of rhetorical figures so as to amplify any emotive force; and the use of narratological strategies, which either prescribe or attribute certain passions to subjects, the narrator, and the addressee. While Thibodeau leaves the particular effect(s) of this pathos-inducement on the reader open-ended and, instead, prefers to stress simply the melding of pathetic psychagogy with didactic, he does proffer an extended reading of the Aristaeus epyllion, which makes an adequate case for interpreting that difficult episode as a “Lucretian-style therapy for the passions” (in the Nussbaumian sense) (159).

The final chapter provides a cursory overview of the reception of the Georgics in the first centuries BC and AD with a view to illustrating how those initial audiences read and engaged with the poem in precisely the ways that Thibodeau delineates in the preceding chapters: ludic fantasy, rusticating idealization, agronomic protreptic, and emotional psychagogy. Intentionally selective and written to provide starting-points for future work, Thibodeau’s survey nicely illustrates just how popular and widely-read the poem was amongst a variety of intellectual communities: not just poetic and agronomic, but also philosophical and otherwise “technical.” Some of the conclusions Thibodeau draws (e.g., that the Georgics was monumentally influential for later didactic poetry and technical instruction) are unsurprising and scholars of later Latin literature may not find any one of the readings particularly illuminating for their studies of the reception of Vergil, though his reading of Horace’s Epodes 2 as a satire of the Georgics’ fantasy of playing the farmer represents an intriguing and, in my opinion, convincingly-argued exception. If we are to take seriously the intriguing proposition that the poem inaugurates an imperial “compensatory exercise of authority” for a life consigned to the “quietistic” otium of elite villa culture (241), we must accept Thibodeau’s claims in chapter three. On the whole, however, the chapter is successful in terms of offering a survey of the early reception of the Georgics as well as its justification of reading the poem in the context of the claims made in previous chapters.

Two appendices – “Vergil’s Economic Status” and a compendium of 77 pre-Juvenal persons who comprise some of the “Early Readership of the Georgics” – round out the Introduction and six chapters. Typos are almost non- existent throughout, and the endnotes are eminently readable and occasionally reward close attention. Well-written and thought-provoking, Thibodeau’s book is a pleasure to read and, in my opinion, generally convincing, though three concerns linger. First, I do wonder to what extent manual labor on the farm carried the stigma that Thibodeau would like to maintain. He is probably correct to characterize it as intrinsically “amoral” at best for the Romans, yet one might be able to argue on the basis of other ancient Roman evidence that such labor conferred secondary benefits, which might have elevated that labor post-facto. Second, some may take issue with Thibodeau’s concept of “fantasy,” which is somewhat loose and perhaps under-theorized, though it does allow for him to avoid falling into overly binary modes of evaluation. Third, Thibodeau’s reading of the Aristaeus epyllion falls a bit flat and does not seem to add anything substantial to our understanding of that enigmatic episode. This latter criticism may, however, be a bit unfair, for I imagine that a failure to treat the most extended section of the Georgics in a book- length study of the poem would invite even greater criticism. That this reading comes after his absolutely sublime analysis of the soil-test vignette (2.226-58) – which he aptly dubs “the interrogation of soils” – perhaps does not help as well. On the whole, Thibodeau’s book successfully reintegrates the Georgics into the world of ancient technical literature and offers some food for thought to the dedicated scholar of the Georgics. In particular, chapters two through four constitute required reading for any graduate or advanced undergraduate seminar on Vergil’s Georgics.


1.   Kronenberg, Leah. Allegories of Farming from Greece and Rome: Philosophical Satire in Xenophon, Varro, and Virgil. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011.
2.  qui non quid verissime, sed quid decentissime diceretur aspexit, nec agricolas docere voluit sed legentes delectare, Ep. 86.15.

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