Aelius Donatus
Life of Virgil
tr. David Wilson-Okamura (1996; rev. 2005, 2008)

WARNING: This is an obsolete version, preserved for archival purposes only (see note below, "About the Translation"). Students and scholars should use the current version instead.

About the author. Aelius Donatus (fl. 350) was a teacher of grammar and rhetoric. In the middle ages, he was probably best known as the author of a standard textbook; by the fourteenth century, his name had become a synonym for "grammar." With the exception of some fragments preserved in Servius, the vita translated below is all that survives of Donatus' commentary on the poems of Virgil--not to be confused with the Interpretationes attributed to Tiberius Claudius Donatus (fl. 400).

About the Life of Virgil. A commentary on Virgil's poetry follows the Life proper, but breaks off after the Eclogues. Most of the biographical material is generally thought to derive from a lost vita by Suetonius. Donatus in turn became the main source for later biographers, some of whom returned the favor by filling out the text of his Life with interpolations of various kinds.

About the translation. I have based this translation on the text edited by Jacob Brummer, with major interpolations from Bodleian MS. can. lat. 61 ("sigma" in Brummer's apparatus) marked here by angle brackets, and given in grey. Bold numerals refer to the line numbers in Brummer's text. NOTE: on 20 June 2008, the text was renumbered according to the now-standard edition, by Brugnoli and Stok (1997). The old numbering is preserved on this page for use with articles and books that still refer to it.

Citing this translation. The following format is suggested for the list of works cited:

Donatus, Aelius. Life of Virgil. Trans. David Scott Wilson-Okamura. 1996. Rev. 2005, 2008. Online. Internet. 23 July 1997 (substitute the date you accessed this text). Available HTTP:
Selected Bibliography.

The poet's childhood

Publius Vergilius Maro was a Mantuan of humble parents, especially with regard to his father: some have reported that he was an artisan potter, others that he was employed by a summoner named Magus, that he soon became a son-in-law on account of his industry, and that he built up a fortune of no mean substance by buying up woodlands and tending bees.

5. [Virgil] was born on the ides of October, during the first consulship of Gnaeus Pompeius the Great and Marcus Licinius Crassus [i.e., 15 October 70], in a region called Andes, not far from Mantua. While she was pregnant with him, his mother dreamed that she gave birth to a laurel branch, which struck root when it touched the earth and sprang up on the spot, so that it looked like a full-grown tree, stuffed with diverse fruits and flowers. And the following day, while she was making for the neighboring fields with her husband, she turned aside from the path, threw herself into a ditch, and disburdened herself by delivering the child. In this manner they say that the child was born, and did not cry, so mild was his countenance; that even then, he gave men no small reason to hope that his birth would prove to be auspicious. Another presage was added to this, when the poplar sprout that is immediately planted in the same place by women who have given birth (according to the custom of the region) actually grew up so fast that it stood level with the poplars sown long before. It is called on that account the "tree of Virgil," and prayers for childbirth and safe delivery are still offered with the greatest reverence there by pregnant women and new mothers.

20. He spent the first years of his life at Cremona, until [he assumed] the toga of a man, which he received fifteen years after his birth, at which time those same two men were consuls; as it happened, the poet Lucretius passed away that same day. But then, a short time afterward, Virgil made his way from Cremona to the city of Milan.

His first acquaintance with Augustus

<There, although he labored earnestly at literature, Greek as well as Latin, he also gave himself to medicine and mathematics, with all zeal and diligence. Since he was more learned and more skilled in these matters than others when he came to the city, he quickly met up with Augustus' stable-master, curing the diseases, many and various, that had been consuming the horses. And the stable-master ordered that bread should be given to Virgil each day (like one of the stable-hands) as a reward. Meanwhile, the inhabitants of Crotona sent Caesar the foal of a horse of marvelous beauty, for a gift. In everyone's judgement, the foal showed promise of strength and speed without measure. Yet when Maro saw him, he told the stable-master that he was born of a sickly mare, and that he would be capable of neither strength nor speed. And it was found that this was true. When he heard of this from the stable-master, Augustus ordered Virgil's bread ration to be doubled as a reward. Again, when dogs were sent (along with their parents) to Augustus from Spain, Virgil said that there would be violence and derangement. When he found out, Augustus again ordered Virgil's bread ration to be increased.

Augustus was in doubt, whether he was Octavius' son or another man's, and he believed that Maro would be able to discern the truth of the matter, since he ascertained the nature of the dogs and the parentage of the horse. Therefore, laying aside all guesswork, he called him into one of the inner rooms of the house and questioned him alone, to find out who in the world he could be, and how good he was at making people happy. "I know," said Maro, "that you are Caesar Augustus, and that you have just as much power as the deathless gods, to make happy whom you wish." "I am of a mind," responded Caesar, "to make you blessed and happy, if you will answer my question truly." "Insofar as I can," said Maro, "I will answer your question truly." Then Augustus said, "Others think me born of Octavius; some suspect that I was sired by another man." Maro smiled gently, saying "If you permit me to say what I think freely and unpunished, I will tell you." Caesar gave his word, swearing on oath, that nothing he said would be taken ill, so long as he did not avoid the subject. At this, Maro fixed his eyes on the eyes of Augustus. Without hesitating, he said, "In other creatures it is possible to discern the qualities of the parents by means of mathematics and philosophy. With man, it is in no wise possible. But in your case I can hazard a guess that is close to the truth: thus I can perceive how your father was employed." Augustus awaited his answer eagerly, whatever it might be. "Insofar as I can tell," said Virgil, "you are the son of a baker." Caesar was stunned, and immediately his mind went to work, considering what might be done about this. Virgil interrupted him: "Remember," he said, "the terms under which I offered my conjecture. When I revealed and prophesied certain things--things that were only perceptible and intelligible to the most erudite and loftiest of men, you who are the ruler of the world ordered that I should be given bread, again and again. Now that was the kindness, either of a baker, or of a baker's son." Caesar in turn replied, "You shall be laden with gifts, not from a baker, but from a magnanimous king." The jest pleased Caesar, and he esteemed him above all others, commending him to Pollio.>

His character and person

25. Virgil was large in person and stature, with a swarthy complexion, a peasant's brow, and uneven health, for he commonly suffered from pain in his stomach, throat, and head; indeed, he often spat up blood. He was sparing of food and wine. With regard to pleasure, he was partial to boys. <But good men have thought that he loved boys as Socrates loved Alcibiades, and Plato his favorites ( paidiká).> He loved Cebes and Alexander most of all. Alexander was a gift to him from Asinius Pollio; the second poem of his Bucolics refers to him as "Alexis." Nor was the other one unlearned; in fact, Cebes was a poet as well. It is also circulated that he lived together with Plotia Hieria. But Asconius Pedianus maintains that she herself made a habit out of telling stories about the older man; indeed, that although Varius invited him to share, he refused obstinately. For the rest, all are thoroughly agreed that his life was upright, both in mouth and mind, with the result that he was commonly known in Naples as Parthenias ["the Virgin"]. And if perchance someone should spot him in public at Rome (which he passed through very rarely), he would seek refuge in the nearest house, cut off from those who were pointing him out.

39. What is more, when Augustus offered him the property of a certain exile, Virgil could not bear to accept it. Thanks to the generosity of his friends, he had almost 10,000,000 sesterces, and he owned a house in Rome on the Esquiline, next to the gardens of Maecenas (though he had the use of a retreat in the Campania and several in Sicily). <No matter what he asked of Augustus, he never met with refusal. Every year he supported his parents with gold in abundance.>

His education and early poetry

44. Virgil lost his family when he was full-grown, among them his father (deprived of his eyes) and two full brothers: Silo, a boy; and Flaccus, an adult at the time, whose passing he lamented under the name of Daphnis [Ecl. 5.20]. Among other studies, he bestowed his labor on medicine and especially on mathematics. To be sure, he also argued a case before the judges...once, and once only. For it has been handed down by Melissus that [Virgil] was very slow in speaking, almost like someone who had not gone to school. It was at this time that the promising lad made this distich on Ballista the gladiator-master, who was buried under rocks for his infamous highway robberies:

Covered under this mountain of stones, Ballista is buried;
Night and day, traveller, tread this road in safety.
After this--though he was only 26--he composed the Catalecton, as well as pieces about Priapus, as well as epigrams, as well as curses, along with poems about the ciris and the gnat. The argument of this last runs as follows: just as a shepherd, wearied by the heat, had fallen asleep under a tree and a serpent from the marsh was rushing up to him, a gnat flew out and stung the shepherd between the temples. At once the shepherd crushed the gnat and slew the serpent, erecting also a tomb for the gnat and making this distich:
Little gnat, the guardian of the herds repays you with
The favor of a funeral, as befits one who gave his life.
[Virgil] also wrote a poem about Aetna, the argument of which is still a matter of debate. 65. Soon afterwards he made a start on Roman subjects; vexed by his material, however, he switched to the Bucolics, primarily in order to honor Asinius Pollio, Alfenus Varus and Cornelius Gallus, because they kept him from being penalized in the distribution of lands after the victory at Philippi, when the lands on the other side of the Po were being divided amongst the veterans by order of the triumvirate. After that, he published the Georgics in honor of Maecenas, who lent him aid (though he was but little known to him) against the violence of a certain veteran, who nearly killed him in an argument over some disputed land.

How Virgil composed

74. Soon after, he commenced work on the Aeneid: a complex theme of diverse moods, the equivalent, as it were, of both Homeric poems; well-acquainted, moreover, with names and objects Greek, as well as Latin; and (in this he took the greatest pains) which would encompass the origin of the city of Rome and of Augustus. It is handed down that, while he was composing the Georgics, he usually dictated a great number of verses which he had thought out in the morning, and would, in revising them throughout the day, reduce them to a very small number, saying that he brought his poem into being in a fashion not unlike the bear's, that in fact he fashioned it by licking. As for the Aeneid, he first drafted it in prose and divided it into twelve books, deciding to construct it bit by bit, so that he could do each part as it seized his fancy, taking up nothing in order. <So some say. Others are of this opinion, that if he had lived longer, Virgil would have written four and twenty books, up to the time of Augustus, and that he meant to hurry through the rest, but to deal with the deeds of Augustus in detail. Wherefore,> lest anything should impede his momentum, he would let certain things pass unfinished; others he propped up, as it were, with lightweight verses, joking that they were placed there as struts, to hold up the edifice until the solid columns arrived.

89. The Bucolics he finished in three years. <The interpolated version reads two years, and continues, He completed the work at the urging of Asinius Pollio, who ruled the region across the Po. It was on account of his favor that Virgil did not lose his lands when they were distributed to the veterans. Maro loved this man Pollio, and received great rewards at his hand. Thus he was invited to dinner and taken captive by the beauty and attentiveness of Alexander, Pollio's slave, and received him as a gift. The son of this Pollio, Gaius Asinius, or Gallus, was a splendid speaker and no mean poet: Virgil esteemed him with a wondrous love. Gallus translated Euphorion into Latin and wrote about his love-adventures with Cytheris in four books. It was here that Virgil's friendship with Caesar Augustus began. Afterwards Gallus was arrested and killed on suspicion of conspiracy against Augustus, but up till then Virgil held this Gallus dear, praising him in his fourth georgic, from the middle to the end. (At the command of Augustus, this section was later replaced by the story of Aristeus.)>

The Georgics he finished in seven years, <at Naples,> and the Aeneid in eleven, <partly in Sicily and partly in the Campania.>

Fame and public recitations

90. The success of the Bucolics was such when he published it, that the cantores recited them frequently, even on stage. <As for Cicero, when he had heard some of the verses, his piercing judgement immediately perceived that these were productions of uncommon vigor, and ordered the whole eclogue to be recited from the beginning. Having familiarized himself with its every nuance, he declared it "the second great hope of Rome," as if he himself were the first hope of the Latin language and Maro the second. These words Virgil later inserted in the Aeneid [12.168].>

91. On the other hand, Virgil read the Georgics to Augustus for four days straight, who was resting his throat in Atella after the victory at Actium; Maecenas took his place reading whenever his voice failed. Nonetheless, his recitation was sweet and strangely seductive. But then Seneca relates what the poet Iulius Montanus was wont to say, that there were certain things he would steal from Virgil, if he might also have his voice and his mouth and his mimicry: for when Virgil read the lines, they indeed sang out; without him, they were lifeless and changed. Even when scarcely begun, the reputation of the Aeneid was such that Sextus Propertius [Carmina 2.34.65] did not hesitate to prophesy thus:

Give way, Roman authors; give way, Greeks:
Something greater than the Iliad is born, I know not what.
Indeed, Augustus (for, as it happened, he was away on an expedition in Cantabria) jokingly entreated him in his letters, with threats as well as prayers, "that you send me" (to employ his own words) "your first sketch of the Aeneid, or the first colon, it does not matter which." Much later, when he had refined his subject-matter, he finally recited three whole books for Augustus: the second, fourth, and sixth--this last out of his well-known affection for Octavia, who (being present at the recitation) is said to have fainted at the lines about her son, "...You shall be Marcellus" [Aen. 6.884]. Revived only with difficulty, <she order ten-thousand sesterces to be granted to Virgil for each of the verses.> He also gave recitations to larger audiences (though not often), and especially of those lines about which he was unsure, the better to make trial of men's opinions. They say that Eros, his secretary and freedman, would report that on one occasion Virgil completed two half-finished lines ex tempore. For when he reached "Aeolian Misenus" [Aen. 6.164], he added "who was unsurpassed"; likewise to this, "in stirring up men with the trumpet" [Aen. 6.165], he attached "and in kindling them to war with song," casting it off with a similar fervor. And at once he commanded Eros to write down both on the scroll.

His death

123. In his fifty-second year, <having revised the Bucolics and the Georgics,> Virgil decided to retire to Greece and Asia [Minor], in order to put the finishing touches on the Aeneid. He meant to do nothing but revise for three straight years, so that the remainder of his life would be free for philosophy. But while he was making his way to Athens, he met up with Augustus, who was returning to Rome from the East. He decided not to retire, and to turn back immediately. While he was getting to know the nearby town of Megara, he took sick under the blazing sun. His journey was suspended, but to no avail, so that when he put ashore at Brindisi somewhat later, his condition was more serious. He passed away there, after a few days, on 21 September [19 BC], during the consulship of Gnaeus Sentius and Quintus Lucretius. His bones were transported to Naples, and buried under a mound, which is on the road to Pozzuoli, less than two miles out from the city. Someone made a distich on it as follows:

Mantua gave birth to me, the Calabrians snatched me away, now it holds me fast--
The city where Parthenope is buried; I sang of pastures, fields, and princes.

Posthumous publication of the Aeneid

138. He bequeathed half of his estate to Valerius Proculus, his brother by an other father; a quarter to Augustus; a twelfth to Maecenas; and the rest to Lucius Varius and Plotius Tucca, who corrected the Aeneid after his death at Caesar's behest. Sulpicius of Carthage's verses on the subject are extant thus:

Virgil had given instructions that it was to be destroyed,
The poem that sang of the Phrygian prince.
Tucca refused, and Varius; likewise you, greatest Caesar,
You do not refrain; you look out for the Latian narrative.
Luckless Pergamum nearly fell in a second fire,
Troy was almost consumed on another pyre.
<There are also a number of very splendid verses on the subject by Augustus [Latin Anthology 672]. The beginning goes like this:
So then, could that voice, with the loftiest of words, have done something so wicked,
Commanded something so unspeakably cruel? Shall it go, therefore, into the flames,
Shall learned Virgil's great poem fall silent?
And a little later:
But we must be faithful to preserve the law; his last wish,
What he commanded, what he ordered to be done, must be obeyed.
Rather let the venerable power of the law be broken,
Than that his accumulated labors, days and nights,
One day should consume....>
Before leaving Italy, Virgil arranged with Varius to burn up the Aeneid if something should befall him; but [Varius] had insisted that he would not do so. Wherefore, when his health was failing, [Virgil] demanded his scroll-cases earnestly, intending to burn them up himself; but since no one stepped forward, it was to no purpose, even though he gave precise stipulations in this matter. For the rest, he committed his writings to the aforementioned Varius and Tucca, on the condition that they publish nothing which he himself had not revised. Nonetheless, Varius published them, acting under the authority of Augustus. But they were revised only in a cursory fashion, so that if there were any unfinished lines, he left them unfinished.1 Many soon endeavored to mend these lines in the same style, but they did not succeed; the task was too difficult, for nearly all of the half-lines were free-standing and complete with regard to sense, except this: "Whom Troy to you now..." [Aen. 3.340]. Nisus the grammarian says that he heard from older men that Varius changed the order of two books, and that which then was second he moved into third place, and even smoothed out the beginning of the first book by subtracting these lines:
I am he that once played a song on the slender pipe;
Leaving the forests, I marked off the lands nearby,
That the fields might yield as much as possible to the eager husbandman--
A labor that pleased the farmers. But now Mars' shuddering
Arms and a man I sing...

Virgil's critics

170. Virgil, <the pillar of the Latin language>, never wanted for detractors. And no wonder! for neither, in fact, did Homer. After the publication of the Bucolics, Numitorius <according to the interpolated version, Paro> wrote a kind of Anti-Bucolics in response: two eclogues only, but the most insipid of parodies. The first begins thus:

O Tytirus, if the toga keeps you warm, what is "the raiment of a beech" [Ecl. 1.1] for?
Followed by:
"Tell me, Damoetas: 'to whom doth this herd belong?' That can't be Latin!"
"No, that's just the way they talk out in Aegon country."2
When this line from the Georgics [1.299] was being recited--
Naked plow and naked sow,...
--someone else added, will catch a fever from the cold.
There is also Carvilius the Painter's critique of the Aeneid, entitled Aeneidomastix ["Aeneid-whip"]. Marcus Vipsanius complained that [Virgil] was put under the yoke by Maecenas in order to invent a new kind of affectation, neither bombastic nor exotic, but constructed of common words, and therefore obscure. Herennius collected only his defects, Perellius Faustus only what he had "stolen." But Quintus Octavius Avitus' eight volumes of Correspondences include both the lines that are derivative and their sources.

186. In a book which he wrote as a response to Virgil's detractors, Asconius Pedianus set forth a few of their objections, especially those concerning his plot and the fact that he took most [of his material] from Homer; but he says that [Virgil] was wont to defend this very crime thus: "Why is it that they, too, do not attempt the same 'thefts'? Indeed, they will perceive that it is easier to steal the club of Hercules than a line from Homer." Nevertheless, he decided to retire (according to Asconius), in order to settle everything to the satisfaction of his ill-wishers.

Virgil's philosophy of life

<Pedianus also reports that he was friendly, that he championed all good and learned men, and that he was so far devoid of envy, that if he came upon the learned saying of another man, he rejoiced in it no less than he would have, had it been his own. He disparaged no one, and good men he praised. His humanity was such that only the perverse did not esteem him, yea, love him to the utmost. He seemed to keep nothing to himself. His books were available to other learned men no less than to himself. He often made use of that old saying of Euripides, "Friends hold all things in common." For this reason, he regarded all the poets of his generation as so close to him, that while much envy burned amongst them, they cherished him, all as one: Varus, Tucca, Horace, Gallus, Propertius. True, it is said that Anser (since he was of Anthony's party) did not take much notice of him. Because his nature was offended by the honor done to Virgil, Cornificius despised him to the point that, when certain people ascribed some of Virgil's verses to themselves, and gained the reputation of skill thereby, not only did Cornificius not take it ill, but inwardly he took pleasure in it. He could not stand Virgil. For instance, Virgil once made a distich praising Augustus and wishing him good luck, but did not inscribe the leaves with the author's name. The distich went like this:

All night it rains; spectacles shall return with the morning:
Caesar shares the power of Jupiter.
For a long time, Augustus sought to find who it could be that had written these verses, but could not discover their author. A mediocre poet by the name of Batillus actually ascribed them to himself, and no one said a word. In consequence, he received honor and gifts from Caesar. Virgil did not take this sitting down, but appended the opening phrase, "Thus do ye, not for yourselves" four times to the same leaves. Augustus requested that the verses be completed. Whereas others attempted the task in vain, Virgil added the following under the distich:
I made these little verses, another took the honor.
Thus do ye, not for yourselves, make nests, ye birds.
Thus do ye, not for yourselves, render your fleece, ye sheep.
Thus do ye, not for yourselves, make honey, ye bees.
Thus do ye, not for yourselves, endure the plow, ye oxen.
This puts me in mind of a story that Bacillus once told at Rome, much indeed to Maro's credit. When he was asked what he had done with Ennius since he had taken him in hand, Virgil replied that he was culling gold from Ennius' dung. For that poet possessed extraordinary thoughts, but did not furnish them well with words.

When Augustus asked, under what constitution a state might be governed most productively, Virgil said, "If the wiser sort should steer, and were good men appointed over evil men, then would the aristocrats (optimi) have the honors that were due to them, while the rest would suffer no injustice." Maecenas asked Virgil, "What thing does man never find cloying?" Virgil replied, "Likeness and abundance are tedious in all things save understanding." Again he asked, "Under what constitution is it possible for someone to preserve his good fortune and prosperity?" "Insofar as you excel others in honor and riches, strive to surpass them in generosity and fairness."

Virgil was wont to say that no virtue becomes a man more than endurance, and that no fortune is so harsh that with prudence a brave man cannot overcome it by enduring. This thought he incorporated into Aeneid 5:

Goddess-born, let us follow our fates, whether they seem to lead, or to withdraw.
No matter what shall be, all fortune can be conquered by endurance. [709-710]
Once a certain friend told Virgil of the hostility and harsh words that Cornificius bore against him. Virgil replied, "What cause has he for ill feeling? For I have never injured Cornificius, and I love him--or," said he, "do you not remember the words of Hesiod, when he said that architect envies architect, and poet poet. That Greek," he said, "comprehended evil men. For good men love those who are more learned than themselves. But along with my great honor and praise, I hold in my hand a means of defense: I shall take more care to strive for virtue, and thus I shall become more refined, whereby he shall be rent the more violently with envy."

There was a certain Filistius, a companion of Augustus. A public speaker and somewhat knowledgeable about poetry, he possessed a versatile talent of many facets: he always tried to find fault with everything that anybody said, not (as Socrates did) in order to discern the truth, but that he might appear more learned. Whenever he chanced to meet Virgil, he assailed him with abuse and sarcasm. Virgil, therefore, usually retreated in silence or in his overflowing modesty said nothing. One day, however, Filistius declared within earshot of Augustus that Virgil was speechless because he could not defend himself, even where he had cause to. "Stop raving," said Virgil. For this my silence makes Augustus my advocate, as well as Maecenas, and I shall blow that trumpet when I will. Let this be heard everywhere and always: you with your loquacity rend not only men's ears, but the walls. Indeed, Augustus upbraided Filistius with a stern visage. Maro continued: "If there is time," he said, "he shall learn to keep silent, and shall speak seldom. For one should always keep silent, save when silence injures you, or when speech is useful to others. For he that contends to no useful purpose is numbered with the foolish by the wise."

Later on, when Augustus had acquired supreme authority, the thought occurred to him, whether he ought not to abandon his sovereignty, and to return all power to the yearly consuls, and the republic to the senate. His counselors in this matter, Agrippa and Maecenas, were of two minds. Agrippa contended, in a long speech, that it would be to good purpose, not to mention noble, to relinquish his sovereignty. Maecenas endeavored zealously to dissuade him from this, and as a result, the mind of Augustus was carried back and forth. For their advice was contrary, and each was fortified by various reasons. He therefore besought Maro, whether it was fitting for a private man to make himself the sovereign of his own republic. "Tyranny," he said, "is by its very nature irksome to almost everyone, both to those who take control of the republic and to its citizens: what with the grudges and injustice of those who are displaced, one must necessarily live in great anxiety and fear. But, if the citizens knew someone just, and they loved him a great deal, it would benefit the state, if all power could be in that one man. Wherefore, if you apportion justice to all men in the future even as you do now, showing favoritism to no man, your rule will profit the world no less than yourself. For you so possess the good will of everyone that they adore you and think you a god." Caesar followed this advice and held on to his sovereignty.3

From Silo Virgil learned the teachings of Epicurus. Varus was his companion in this instruction. And although he inserted the opinions of opposing philosophers in his books, he himself was of the Academy. For he preferred the judgements of Plato before all others.>

The Eclogues analysed

194. Seeing that we have spoken in summary fashion about the author, now it is time to speak of the poetry itself. A poem is usually treated in two parts: that is, before the work, and within the work itself. Before the work, there is the title, the cause, and the intention. The title is that in which the nature of a thing is discovered; the cause, its origin and, in particular, why the poet ventured to write it; the intention, that in which it is discerned what the poet endeavored to achieve. Within the work itself, we generally observe three things: the number [of the books], the order [of the books], and its articulation.


202. So then, although there are many pseudepigrapha (that is, works that are put out with a false title, under another's name), such as our poet's tragedy Thyestes--which Varius published under his own name--and other works of this sort, yet it is scarcely to be doubted that the Bucolics are clearly Virgil's, especially since the poet himself (fearing this very thing) gave testimony at the beginning of the work,4 and also by saying in another poem [Geo. 4.565-66],

...I who played at shepherd's songs, and emboldened by youth
Sang of you, O Tityrus, under the covert of a spreading beech.

Origin of pastoral poetry

211. Now [such poems] are termed "bucolics"--and rightly they are so called--on the authority of Theocritus. Surely this had been sufficient proof! Nevertheless, a reason should be given. There are three kinds of shepherds that have standing in things pastoral. The least of these are called aipoloi by the Greeks, caprarii ["goatherds"] by us. Somewhat more esteemed are those known as mêlonomoi poimenes [sheepfeeding herdsmen], that is, opiliones [shepherds]. The greatest and best-esteemed are the boucholoi, which we call buculcos [oxen-drivers]. So then, where could you find a more fitting term for pastoral song, than from that rank which is found superior by nearly all herdsmen?

220. The cause is usually investigated along two lines: according to the poem's origin, and according to the desire of the writer. But as to the origin of bucolic song, opinions differ. For there are those who say that this song was first rendered to Diana by herdsmen from Sparta, since all the Greeks were waging war against Persia at the time, and it was not possible for the song to be presented by virgins (as the custom had been). Others say that a song of this kind was offered up to Diana while he was wandering near Sicily, and that he and the shepherds offered it up when he fled with his sister from Taurian Scythia. (He had stolen an image of the goddess, hiding it in a bundle [fascis] of sticks, which is why--they say--she is addressed as "Fascelina Diana". Orestes had been purified from parricide at her altars by his sister, Iphigenia, who was the priestess of the goddess.) Others say that a song of this kind was offered up to "Apollo Nomios" ["Apollo of the Herdsman"]: a natural deity for herdsmen, in that he was anxious (on behalf of Admetus) for the cattle in a storm. Still others say that it was offered up to Liber, the prince of nymphs and satyrs: divinities who take pleasure in country song. Others think that it was written in honor of Pan, the special god of shepherds. In the same manner, others think it was written in honor of Silenus, of Silvanus and the fauns. All this being said, it is most probable that bucolic song draws its origin from ancient times, when men made their living as herdsmen. That is probably why we recognize in characters of this sort a kind of golden age--because of their simplicity; and no doubt it was on account of this quality that Virgil began with nothing less than the world's first occupation, before moving on to other kinds of poetry. For afterwards he took up the cultivation of fields, and last of all, in place of lands well-tilled and fertile, war. What Virgil meant to teach when he sang first of herdsmen, then of farmers, and finally of warriors is evident, therefore, in the very order of his works.

Authorial intention

250. We still need to consider what cause prompted the poet's desire to write a bucolic poem first. For either he was enticed to imitate Theocritus by the sweetness of his song, or he followed the order of the ages with regard to human existence (as we said above). Or, since there are three styles [modi] of speech--what the Greeks call charaktêrai: ischnos, which is understood to mean "meagre" [tenuis]; mesos, "moderate" [moderatus]; and hadros, "powerful" [validus]--one might think that Virgil desired to devote his Bucolics to the first mode, his Georgics to the second, and the Aeneid to the third, in order to distinguish himself in every kind [genus] of poetry. Or rather, did he write the Bucolics first because a poem of that kind is somewhat freer and more varied than the rest, thinking thereby to gain an opportunity to capture the Emperor's favor and regain his lost land?

How Virgil regained his land

262. This is how he lost his land. After Gaius Caesar was cut down in the senate building on the ides of March, the veterans appointed Augustus Caesar (he was practically a boy) as their leader--and not without the senate's approval! Nevertheless, as civil war was breaking out, the Cremonians, along with some others, gave aid to Augustus Caesar's adversaries. When he had won, Augustus ordered his veterans to settle on the lands of the Cremonians. But since their land was not sufficient, the Mantuans (among whom the poet Virgil was still living) also lost the better part of their territory, because they were neighbors to the Cremonians. But Virgil trusted that his songs would be rewarded; confident in the friendship of certain powerful men, he made bold to stand in the way of Arrius the centurion, who immediately reached for his sword (since he was a soldier). The poet rushed out to flee, nor did the pursuit end until Virgil had thrown himself into a river and in so doing, had swum across to the other bank. But afterwards and with the help of Maecenas (as well as the three officers in charge of land division: Varus, Pollio, and Cornelius Gallus) the reputation of his poetry obtained the favor of Augustus, and from that time on he enjoyed the emperor's intimate affection.

Imitation and allegory

281. The intention of the book, what the Greeks call its skopos, is to compose in imitation of the poet Theocritus, who was a Sicilian and a resident of Syracuse. The book also intends to praise Caesar and the other leading men who helped him to regain his residences and his lands. Wherefore the purpose and intention of this poem is to produce both pleasure and utility, in accordance with the rules.

286. It is often asked, why did he not write more than ten eclogues? As for that, his inability to produce more than that number will seem no cause for wonder, if one has taken into account the diversity of his pastoral dramas, especially since he seems to have feared that the eclogue entitled "Pollio" would be judged "less rustic," as the thing itself indicates when he prefaces it by saying [Ecl. 4.1],

Muses of Sicily, let us sing of somewhat ampler subjects...

And he does likewise in two others. In this regard, he was more self-conscious than Theocritus.

294. We say at the outset, keep this in mind: in the Bucolics of Virgil, something is said figuratively (that is, allegorically) on occasion and not everywhere. These things are conceded to Virgil only so far as the praise of Caesar and the loss of his lands. For Theocritus (whom our poet was striving to imitate) composed in a manner that was plain and simple.5

Order and contents of the Eclogues

300. It usually follows now to consider the poem itself: that is, the number of the books, the order of the books, and their exposition.

302. The number of eclogues is obvious, for there are ten, of which seven are "bucolics" properly so-called, because three of them do not fall into this category: the "Pollio," the "Silenus," and the "Gallus." So then, the first eclogue contains public complaint and private thanksgiving on the subject of the land; it is called the "Tityrus." The love of a boy forms the contents of the second eclogue, which is called the "Alexis." The third contains a contest between herdsmen and is called the "Palaemon." The fourth contains a nativity poem and is called the "Pollio." The fifth contains an epitaph and is called the "Daphnis." The sixth contains tales of metamorphosis and is called the "Varus" or the "Silenus." The recreation of herdsmen forms the contents of the seventh eclogue, which is called the "Corydon." The loves of the opposite sexes form the contents of the eighth eclogue, which is called the "Damon" or "The Sorceress." The ninth eclogue contains the poet's own appeal for his lost land and is called the "Moeris." The pining of Gallus for Volumnia Cytheris6 forms the contents of the tenth eclogue, which is called the "Gallus."

316. With regard to the order of the books, it is important to know that the poet only wished to maintain a sequence in the first eclogue and the last: just as in the one,7 he established the beginning (as he says in the Georgics [4.566], "I sang of you, O Tityrus, under the covert of a spreading beech"), so in the other he indicates the end, by saying, "Concede to me this final labor, Arethusa" [Ecl. 10.1]. For the remaining eclogues, however, it is quite certain that there is no natural, connected order. But there are those who would say that the beginning of this bucolic song is not "Tityrus" [Ecl. 1.1] but "She first deigned to play with the verse of Syracuse" [Ecl. 6.1].


326. This leaves the articulation, which we shall cut down to size. For we advise you to remember this thing above all: bucolic poetry differs from the heroic mode in this, that the lines of such poetry have certain kinds of caesura peculiar to themselves, and are distinguished by their own rules. For a meter, of course, is judged according to these three things: caesura, scansion, and measure [modificatio = ?the fixed pattern of diaereses]. The verse will not be bucolic, unless there is diaeresis in the first foot, unless a caesura follows a "trochee" in the third foot,8 unless the fourth foot is a dactyl (rather than a spondee) with diaeresis,9 and unless its fifth and sixth feet constitute an unbroken expression.10

336. But what Theocritus for the most part observed, Virgil disregarded, conquered by the difficulty of the task. Only in the beginning did he place a bucolic verse:

[Tityre tu patulae recubans sub tegmine fagi...]
And whether this was deliberate or accidental is uncertain. For the dactylic foot "Tityre" coincides with the end of a word. "Tityre | tu patu|lae recu|bans" includes a "trochee" in the third foot, encompassing the prefix re- in defiance of the regular style. "Tityre | tu patu|lae recu|bans sub | [tegmine | fagi]" shows a spondee instead of a dactyl in the fourth foot, with diaeresis. "Tegmine fagi" completes a whole phrase; a marvellous attentiveness to this can be observed in many of the lines of Theocritus.

<Those who read the preceding with keen discernment, and those who consider it diligently, will easily comprehend what Virgil's intention was in the Georgics, what his purpose, no less than in the Aeneid.>


1 The interpolated version of this story is as follows: <Sensing that his illness was getting worse, he called often and with great urgency for his writing-cases, intending to reduce the Aeneid to ashes. When no one complied, he gave orders in his will that it should be burned, as a thing uncorrected and unfinished. But Tucca and Varus advised Augustus not to permit it. Then Augustus entrusted his writings to this same Tucca and Varus, on one condition: that they produce nothing that was not already begotten, and also that if there were any unfinished verses, they should be left alone. Virgil also wished his bones to be transferred to Naples, where he had, for a long time, lived pleasantly. Moreover, as his health failed, he made a distich for himself, as an epitaph. Wherefore at the command of Augustus his bones were moved to Naples, just as Virgil had appointed, and entombed on the road to Pozzuoli, less than two miles out from the city. The distich that he had made was also inscribed on his tomb, thus...>

2 A reference to the first line of Ecl. 3, "Dic mihi Damoeta, cuium pecus? an Meliboei?" Even in Virgil's time, the adjective cuius -a -um was markedly archaic (though Numitorius seems to suggest that it is rustic). Aegon (like Damoetas) is a character in Virgil's poem.

3 This dialogue is apparently adapted from an episode described in Dio Cassius, The Roman History 52.

4 Eclogue 1 begins with the lines,

Tityrus, reclining under the covert of a spreading beech,
You do reverence to the woodland muse with a slender pipe.
The digest (preserved in BL add. 32.319A and Brussels Latin 10017) adds that "The title [of the work] is Virgil's Bucolics."

5 simpliciter conscriperit; that is, Theocritus did not employ allegory.

6 An actress, and Mark Antony's mistress.

7 See note 4, above.

8 Trochaeus here probably means nothing more than "a long syllable followed by a short syllable." Used in this sense, it is possible to think of a dactylic foot as "containing" a trochee.

9 The fourth-foot diaeresis described here is commonly referred to as "bucolic diaeresis."

10 The expression is unbroken here because (a) the first syllable of the fifth foot coincides with the beginning of a word, owing to the aforementioned bucolic diaeresis, and (b) the enjambement of a single word is extremely rare, suggesting an implicit prohibition on the practice.