Vergil/Virgil and Augustus

I’ve been reading Vergil (Virgil) recently.

Fun fact: Virgil’s name is actually Vergil, but everyone misspelled it.

Vergil is famous for the Aeneid, the continuation of the Iliad with a focus on Aeneas, the mythical Roman ancestor. It’s possible that this story isn’t merely legend. The DNA of Tuscany and that of NW Turkey are similar. The legendary migration may have happened. You probably have heard something of this poem, about “Arms and a man,” the tale of the Trojan Horse, and the adventures that follow. It’s very good. Better in Latin, but a masterpiece that extols the glories of Augustus’ Rome.

I have used to think that Vergil must have been executing a commission, that he couldn’t have been that much on board with Augustus, that there was some esoteric meaning in the text. Perhaps Aeneas is an unreliable narrator when he tells his own story, perhaps the fact that we are all usually sympathetic with Dido and not Aeneas, leaving the underworld through the gate of false dreams–all of this could mean that the discerning reader is supposed to detect the note of irony behind the story.

But then I read Eclogue I, a pastoral poem, one of the poems that made Vegil’s reputation and got him the gig with Augustus. It’s a dialogue of two shepherds, bemoaning the fact that the land is disturbed, that there is turmoil, that the goat is bearing her kids on the futile rocky land. One of the shepherds says the following:

 O Meliboee, _deus nobis haec otia fecit_.
 namque erit ille mihi semper deus, illius aram
 saepe tener nostris ab ouilibus imbuet agnus.
 ille meas errare boues, ut cernis, et ipsum
 ludere quae uellem calamo permisit agresti.


O Meliboeus, a god has given us this leisure.
For he will always be a god to me, whose altar
will often be adorned with a tender lamb from my flock.
He it is who allows my cattle to wander, as you see, 
and he permits me to play what I like on my country flute. 

The god is, of course, Augustus. Imagine that your country had been beset with civil war for a hundred years. The fields lay barren, soldiers tear everything up, no plans can be made for the future, and your life is constant striving just to survive. Then someone comes who defeats all the others and establishes order, so that you can have peace, tend your fields, or even indulge in some genuine leisure. Note that this isn’t the leisure of current times, vegetating in front of a screen, but the leisure necessary for high culture. Vergil has the shepherd say that he can play what he likes, that he can write poetry, which isn’t nearly as possible when the countryside is subject to war.

So, maybe I was wrong, and Vergil isn’t being ironic in the Aeneid. Or maybe he’s only a little ironic, as if he’s saying “Look, you and I, we know that Augustus isn’t really a god, but he is certainly godlike in the peace that he has brought. Let the little people worship him. It’s ok.”