BMCR 2006.05.26

Reading after Actium: Vergil’s Georgics, Octavian, and Rome

, Reading after Actium : Vergil's Georgics, Octavian, and Rome. Master and use copy. Digital master created according to Benchmark for Faithful Digital Reproductions of Monographs and Serials, Version 1. Digital Library Federation, December 2002.. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2005. 1 online resource (xii, 293 pages). ISBN 9780472025831 $75.00.

Christopher Nappa (hereafter N.) is to be congratulated for writing a new and original study of Vergil’s Georgics. Through a sequential reading of the poem, taking in ‘digressions’ as well many of the more ‘didactic’ passages, N. argues that Vergil, as teacher, offers a series of challenging lessons to his contemporary readers, including one more powerful than all the others, Octavian. The basic question asked is: what might all of the nuances in the poem detected by recent critics have meant for the one-time triumvir at the critical moment in his career after the deaths of Antony and Cleopatra? N.’s lucid study will allow scholars, teachers, and advanced students of the poem, as well as historians of its time of writing, to consider the politics of the Georgics more fully.

An introduction (1-22) sets Nappa’s reading of the poem in relation to his predecessors. Two principal arguments emerge: (1) the poem is not one of simple messages and the poet does not transmit his own stable vision; rather, he as teacher uses his imperfect insights to encourage students to develop their own understandings of the world and man’s role within it; (2) the poet’s most important student was Octavian, even if he is at times the poem’s subject also; Vergil took upon himself the very real task of advising the victor of the civil wars; in assessing possibly negative and positive images of himself, Octavian was to look for solutions, however imperfect, to the political problem of how to govern Rome and her empire after civil war.

Nappa argues that we should “reinsert the poem into discussion of the Augustan principate” (2), not in any way as propaganda, but as protreptic for Octavian. Yet despite this commendable interest in grappling with the sensitive poet’s very real relations with the triumvir who treated friend and foe alike ruthlessly, the account is one-sided. Octavian demonstrably had great interest in Latin literature—but was it only for personal advice? Nappa, hewing closely to the views of Peter White, argues that this interest “was of a piece with earlier Roman traditions of patronage” (239 n. 77).1 But was there any real precedent to the patronage exercised by Maecenas on behalf of Octavian?2 (Maecenas needs more discussion in the introduction than the sole reference, 8.) If Octavian had no interest in crude panegyric, that was yet another sign of his shrewdness; but it must be admitted that the Georgics only underscores for posterity his tremendous power, as it did in his own day, while overlooking any positive qualities one could attach to his opponent Antony, a man frequently underestimated — in part because of the Georgics themselves. Yet at moments, as Nappa does seem to acknowledge later (67, 83-4, 121), the Georgics help the poem’s readers construct a new image of Octavian, in some ways quite unlike that of his ‘father’ Caesar. It is surprising that a book taking on the politics of the Georgics does not consider more fully to what degree literature plays a role in the making of ideology.

The four main chapters of the study offer a book-by-book reading, akin to a commentary, as Nappa says (3), since he proceeds in linear order, following the experience of the reader, though he omits entire paragraphs of the poem from his discussion. It is difficult to summarize the many ideas in these chapters (though Nappa himself does a good job, 219-23). Often the discussion does support the two principal arguments of the introduction, but other themes are taken up intermittently, or even with some persistence, such as the notion that Vergil unmasks the golden age as an existence not worth living.

A number of the detailed readings aim to support the first argument about Vergil’s role as teacher. Examples include N.’s discussions of the ‘theodicy’ at 1.118-46 (34-43), Servius’ vituperatio vitis at 2.454-57 (97-100), the Libyan ethnography at 3.339-48 (141-43), or the paired stories of Orpheus and Aristaeus in book 4, whose plot enacts the “beautiful and often difficult lessons” of the poem as a whole (214). (The analysis of the ‘epyllion’ stands out as especially thoughtful.) The approach, as N. acknowledges (14), overlaps with those of, e.g., Perkell and Gale,3 though Nappa more firmly sees apparent ambiguities in the poem not as insoluble but as calculated prompts for our own reflection; the view contrasts with readers who believe the poem offers simply positive or negative images of the poet’s own world, or the world more generally. I am sympathetic to such a reading, which raises an important question: was the poet’s method of teaching inspired by the long tradition of ‘didactic’ that he was joining, or does it represent a bold innovation? As N. points out (20), all three of Vergil’s works are filled with conflicting points of view.

The relevance of specific lines to Octavian that are not explicitly addressed to him is repeatedly asserted (e.g., 43, 51, 55, 74, and so forth). At times, these readings are open to objection. For instance, while the poet’s novel description of the effects of sex on animals (including human beings) at 3.242-83 is clearly connected to other parts of the poem, N. does not convincingly explain what makes these lines, in particular, the important lesson for Octavian he believes them to be. In fact, in no way does N.’s skillful reading of the passage depend on the observation. To be sure, like any other reader, Octavian might get something out of these lines, but simply to say so does not itself advance our understanding of them—or of Octavian. Such arguments might be more persuasive if there were more specific discussion of Octavian himself and his rise to power (as well as, e.g., Antony). We are told that the description of the fifth day of the farmer’s month (1.276-83) has a connection to Octavian, because the reference to the Titanomachy evoked Rome’s recent civil war (54). As proof for the latter, N. simply cites discussions by Hardie and Gurval of the Aeneid and the Odes.4 How did this association begin? With Octavian? Or with the Georgics itself? To be plausible, N.’s argument here and elsewhere needs more underpinning.

While Vergil’s relationship with Octavian is the main preoccupation of this study, readers of the poem will find fruitful observations on other aspects of the poem that stimulate further thoughts. When N. explores how the opening lines of the poem suggest its “larger thematic concerns” (23), he supplements the standard commentaries of Thomas and Mynors.5 One could add to his reading the important detail that Vergil calls his bees “thrifty” ( apibus … parcis), a signal of the very Roman moralizing Vergil is mixing into the tradition of Hellenistic didactic and also the first marker of the continuity the poet sees between man and beast in the dispensation of Nature. Or, to cite another instance, after his stimulating observation that Vergil’s Greek games at the start of book 3 are in fact less panhellenic than pan-Mediterranean (121), one wants to do more with the “Idumaean palms” (3.12) that the poet says he will bring to Mantua.

At the same time, some may be surprised to see other passages omitted (e.g., 1.351-463, 2.47-108, 3.295-338, 4.228-50). Even if such omissions have made N’s book shorter, in rejecting a topical approach for one akin to a commentary, he in fact risks undermining his own method by implying that some lines are without any importance to the reader. A true commentary has to take a stab at almost every line, an act of discipline that contributes to its authoritativeness. Just a few paragraphs more could have done much to suggest the place of these missing lines in the reader’s experience. When those less familiar with the poem, for instance, read that lines 3.295-338 are simply “a number of minor precepts relating to flocks” (141), they will have no idea how crucial the passage is to the Libyan ethnography that follows. The account of the summer day in particular (3.322-38), which frequently echoes the Eclogues in lines of extraordinary beauty (e.g., litoraque alcyonen resonant, acalanthida dumi, 338) is a crucial counterweight to the description of the African nomads, whose landscape lacks the shade, coolness, moisture, and greenness that make up the pastoral locus amoenus. It is this juxtaposition, above all, that links the Libyan ethnography to the earlier praise of Italy, which N. rightly sees (146) as important. And yet, when we read that it is the tough Libyan shepherds who are like the “fierce” soldier of Rome, the poet underscores the celebration of Italy’s soldiers in the Georgics — a crucial departure from the Eclogues, even if at the same time we are made to think of the barbarus miles of Eclogue 1. Other questions arise: are the passages omitted irrelevant to Octavian? If so, why? And does that mean the thesis of the book has been overstated? This brings me back to the question of context, raised by N. himself in his conclusion, “The Return of Meliboeus” (219-32). Prompted by the closing line of the Georgics, N. considers here the relation between the Georgics and the Eclogues, arguing in particular that the Georgics make clear the ongoing relevance of the divergent views of Octavian we find in the dialogue of Eclogue 1. But the differences between the poems are a crucial index of the politics of the Georgics too: why only in the Georgics is Octavian addressed by name, and what is the effect of that? What are we to make of the appearance of Maecenas (and, let us observe, the disappearance of Pollio?) The relationships between, e.g., the Golden Ages of Eclogue 4 and the Georgics, or the situation of Mantua in Eclogue 9 and the Georgics are fundamental too. With more of this context in place (alongside N.’s sensitive readings), a fuller demonstration of the political relevance of the poem would be possible. N. may hope to “reinsert the poem into discussion of the Augustan principate,” but he leaves much of that task for others.

Future students of the poem may choose to take up in detail other contexts beside the relationship between the Eclogues and Georgics (much as that topic needs more consideration). For instance, positioning the Georgics in literary history more fully could yield insights. How did earlier poets address politicians? In what ways did Julius Caesar figure in Latin poetry? How does Cicero’s address of the Dictator in Pro Marcello — also issued in the aftermath of a civil war — compare to Vergil’s to Octavian? At the same time, one might ask, how does Horace’s engagement with Octavian in the contemporary Satires and Epodes, or Nepos’ in his life of Atticus, compare? Oliensis’ study of Horace’s “faces” suggests fruitful ways in which one might read addresses to the mighty Maecenas and Octavian in the Georgics (while also providing a different way of recuperating the figure of the author than the simple appeal to intentionality advocated by Nappa, 4).6 Fergus Millar’s discussion of Nepos’ Atticus explores the unique characterization that author gives of the rule of the triumvirs — a useful diagnostic for assessment of Vergil.7

Other contexts could be considered in far more depth too, for instance the art and architecture of the period, or the history of the Italian countryside. In his rich discussion of the proem to book 3, N. shows how Vergil depicts himself as “Italianizing” the literature of Greece and its games, but Vergil’s temple should remind us that architects in Italy exactly at this time were in a fascinating dialogue with their Greek predecessors, creatively adapting, for instance, the Corinthian into a new Roman order. The statue program in Vergil’s sanctuary, featuring Octavian but also the Parian marbles of the Trojan ancestors and Apollo, prompts reflection on the dissemination of the triumvir’s own distinctive portrait through Italy or the role of imported Greek sculptures in such contemporary buildings as the Temple of Apollo Sosianus. The Mantuan setting of the temple, as N. rightly observes (121), should be related to longstanding tensions between Rome and Italy, but also to the specific history of that town and others like it during the confiscations after Philippi that figure so prominently in the Eclogues, and also poems of Horace and Propertius and the anonymous Dirae. How, in the triumvirate and then the principate, did Italian townspeople negotiate their relationship with Rome? Was poetry more important in this regard than it had been in the age of Cicero?

For all the attention the Georgics has received in the last few decades, N. is right to argue that its politics deserve further and more satisfactory study. He has made important steps in that direction, without losing sight of other advances in our understanding of the work. His account of the Georgics is familiar and new at once, a stimulus to further thought, a genial guide through a poem that will always hold out wonders for readers both old and new.


1. Peter White, Promised Verse: Poets in the Society of Augustan Rome (Cambridge, MA, 1993).

2. N. ignores the important observations of Gordon Williams, “Did Maecenas ‘Fall from Favor’? Augustan Literary Patronage” in Kurt A. Raaflaub and Mark Toher, eds., Between Republic and Empire: Interpretations of Augustus and His Principate (Berkeley, 1990) 258-75, esp. 263-67.

3. Christine G. Perkell, The Poet’s Truth: a Study of the Poet in Virgil’s Georgics (Berkeley, 1989): Monica Gale, Virgil on the Nature of Things: The Georgics, Lucretius, and the Didactic Tradition (Cambridge, UK, 2000).

4. Philip R. Hardie, Virgil’s Aeneid: Cosmos and Imperium (Oxford, 1986); Robert Alan Gurval, Actium and Augustus: The Politics and Emotions of Civil War (Ann Arbor, 1995).

5. Richard F. Thomas, Virgil: Georgics, 2 vols. (Cambridge, UK, 1988); R. A. B. Mynors, Virgil: Georgics (Oxford, 1990).

6. Ellen Oliensis, Horace and the Rhetoric of Authority (Cambridge, UK, 1998).

7. Fergus Millar, “Cornelius Nepos, ‘Atticus,’ and the Roman Revolution” Greece and Rome 35 (1988) 40-55, reprinted in Rome, the Greek World, and the East, 1.183-99.