BMCR 2020.10.17

Vergil’s green thoughts: plants, humans, and the divine

, Vergil's green thoughts: plants, humans, and the divine. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2019. ix, 330 p. ISBN 9780199236688 $100.00.

The title of Vergil’s Green Thoughts is apt, since each of the four main chapters winds around numerous discrete sections and subsections (“Thoughts”) that are thematically linked to the chapters’ main topics. One of Armstrong’s goals is to align Vergil’s representation of plants with “religion, science, politics, ethics, geography, ethnography, as well as aesthetics and poetics” (1) and each chapter is designed to lead the reader down numerous scholarly paths, all of which combine to cultivate a greater appreciation for the role of plants in Vergil’s works.

In the introduction, Armstrong provides background for the rational and divine elements of her studies. In addition, she clarifies some of the limits that must, by the very nature of the wide-ranging topic, be imposed on her study. For example, Armstrong is very conscientious about the necessity to define words and ideas according to their ancient conceptions. Thus, the introduction begins with a discussion of ancient botany and the definition of “nature” (φύσις and natura). Armstrong’s study of the polysemy of natura in the Georgics foreshadows the nuanced readings of the two main parts of the book.

In the next section, Armstrong turns to ways of understanding the relationship between humans and the botanical world, outlining ancient philosophical interpretations and then modern concepts of “environmentalism” and ecocritical theory. While Armstrong’s own reading of Vergil is not based in a single theoretical approach, she notes that in terms of environmentalism Vergil “veers between the poles of tree-hugger and tree-cutter” (15).

In the third section of the introduction, Armstrong examines gods and plants, beginning with a discussion of “Approaches to numen.” This section establishes the different ways in which supernatural powers in the natural world were understood; this prepares the reader for the overarching topic of the first part of the book. The discussion then shifts to the quotidian use of plants for garlands and crowns in ancient religious practices, as well as the connection between nymphs and trees, establishing further links between the natural world and the divine.

After Armstrong discusses the phenomenon of applying human descriptions to plants, and vice versa, in the final section of the introduction, she considers plants in poetry. With a nod to the metapoetic use of plants, Armstrong concludes the introduction with a requisite discussion of the role of the beech tree and the tamarisk in Vergil.

The remainder of the book is divided into two major sections, “Numen” and “Homo”, each with two chapters.

The first chapter of “Numen” considers the numinous quality of forests and woodland areas through a chronological review of Vergil’s works. Armstrong argues that in the Eclogues, the appearance of wooded areas is frequent and numinous (particularly with the addition of the pathetic fallacy motif), but not laden with overt religious associations. After noting the overlap of pastoral divinities from the Eclogues in the opening of the Georgics, Armstrong explores how Vergil adapts those divinities for his new didactic world. She notes that these pastoral divinities fade as the treatment of wooded spaces comes to straddle a pragmatic agrarian secular world and a numinous religious one.

The Aeneid provides Armstrong with the scope to fully explore spooky, numinous woodland spaces. In Book 6, the trip to the underworld and the woods where the Golden Bough must be found present landscapes dotted with sylvae and luci. However, Armstrong notes that the distinctions between the upper and lower worlds continue to be blurred in the sylvan landscapes of Book 7. As Aeneas rows up the Tiber, the trees are amazed at the warships, and here Armstrong writes “Epic overwrites bucolic, and the supernatural order is changed utterly” (89). In this new supernatural order, as Aeneas tours the future site of Rome, the wild spaces Evander shows him will underpin the culture of Rome.

In the second part of chapter 1, Armstrong looks to cultivated, non-woodland spaces, particularly fields and gardens. Armstrong examines the minor roles Ceres and Bacchus play in the Eclogues and Aeneid in contrast to their more prominent roles in the Georgics, which features festivals in their honor in Books 1 and 2, respectively. Here, she notes the literariness of the festivals, which, while they do not align with known Roman festivals, do establish the primacy of the two gods in the agricultural world. The double aspect of Bacchus as a creative and destructive force is also explored, as the tending of vines and production of wine is a violent and creative labor, requiring man and god to work in harmony. The concept of violence in farming is one that Armstrong explores more fully in the second half of the book.

The second chapter, “Gods’ Special Species” is largely devoted to looking at specific types of plants, particularly trees, in relation to the divinities associated with them. Concentrating on the oak, poplar, pine, olive, laurel, myrtle, cypress, and ivy, Armstrong considers specific instances and scenes involving each given plant and examines its explicit and/or implicit associations with a god. Although each of these plants has connections with gods and much has been written on the subject, Armstrong advances previous scholarship by pinpointing how Vergil variously uses, manipulates, or avoids these associations and connections in his poetry. The last section of this chapter reflects on the magical and medicinal uses of plants, and concludes with a study on the poppy, which is a numinous medicinal plant associated not only with Ceres, but with the underworld; cf. Lethaea papavera (G. 4.545).

The second half of the book, Homo, considers first “Tame Plants” and then “Wild Plants,” terms which Armstrong again acknowledges are slippery but still useful.

The chapter on tame plants is divided into sections called “Symbiosis” and “Conflict.” In the first, Armstrong considers tame plants in terms of their usefulness, for example, when people and plants symbiotically benefit from cultivation or labor. As an example, she discusses the vine, which bridges the gap between symbiosis and conflict, because it requires cultivation (i.e., “conflict” through pruning); however, a flourishing vine is symbiotically beneficial to both the plant and the cultivator. Farming is then examined in terms of conflict and violence, noting the military metaphors that populate agricultural vocabulary: e.g., training, shafts, spears, and the imposition of order. Agricultural vocabulary is also used in the Aeneid in the military settings, where killing is “reaping” and weapons can be scattered like seeds. Amidst the farming-as-war and war-as-farming metaphors, Armstrong also examines grafting, which can be read as a grotesque combination of disparate species of trees, but also as an example of human ingenuity. In either case, grafting trees as a means of propagation can be seen as art or as abuse, as the subheading (“Grafting: Art or Abuse?”) indicates.

The last chapter, on “Wild Plants” first wrestles with the definition of “wild.” Here again, Armstrong shows her willingness to explore meanings and acknowledges the difficulty of establishing clear definitions based on ancient literary evidence. Next, the chapter explores the blurred lines that flowers and trees present. Flowers, as she argues, were usually spontaneous and unfarmed, and flowers within tended gardens were often allowed to grow naturally.  Armstrong then shifts her focus to bees, which are themselves both wild and cultivated. In the last section on flowers, Armstrong considers how Vergil uses them as a mirror for human beauty and sexuality, as well as metaphors for death, particularly in descriptions of slain warriors. Trees, on the other hand, can be represented as “wild” in several ways – they can be the uncultivated form of a cultivated tree, as with the oleaster/wild olive (which is a different species than the cultivated olive), or they can be “wild” in the sense that they reproduce spontaneously, which Armstrong reads as an “evocation of an irrational, even mystical element… found in wild plants.” (259)

The second part of this chapter turns from flowers and trees to weeds. Here Armstrong contends with the definition of “weeds” by focusing on Georgics 1.147-159 and simultaneously demonstrates the myriad ways to read a passage about plants. A plant like grass, for example, offers both fodder and a locus amoenus, but is also a place where snakes and other dangers may lie. In the coda to the last chapter, Armstrong discusses the language of felling trees and their relationship with words used (or not used) in describing the deaths of warriors in the Aeneid.

Armstrong concludes her book with a discussion of one last scene from the Aeneid: the preparation for Misenus’ funeral pyre in Book 6.179-182. This passage is used to demonstrate the various ways one can approach plants in Vergil. The passage nods to Ennius, Homer, and the epic tradition, but also diverges from their traditions. The felling of trees also alludes to the advancement of civilization, recalling Lucretius’ ideas of agricultural fields supplanting forests. The trees, however, are being felled to perform a religious rite, and the felling of trees in itself can have religious and moral implications. While the wood is being gathered, Aeneas reminds us a few lines later that he must also find the golden bough here, adding to the numinous quality of place.

The breadth of Armstrong’s study is both a strength and a weakness. Chapter sections, though thoroughly researched and supported by current and ancient scholarship, are only thematically linked, so that the chapters lack an over-arching argument.  The individual sections, however, reveal a careful close reading of not only Vergil, but also his botanical sources and literary predecessors.  There are only minimal editing issues (page 27 “Nymphs relationship”), though citations of Thomas’ commentary on the Georgics do not follow the citation style for other texts or commentaries. Vergil’s Green Thoughts will be valuable for scholars interested in the many ways of thinking about plants and their significance in Vergil, and about the botanical connections among his three works.