At the beginning of the fifth book of his Saturnalia Macrobius makes his characters all agree that Virgil is to be considered an orator no less than a poet; such is his mastery of eloquence and his careful observance of the rules of rhetoric. Are we to dismiss this as an example of a type of criticism now fortunately outmoded, or is there something in it? Was Virgil to any important extent influenced by rhetorical precept, and, if so, how did this influence work? These are the questions which I propose to discuss in this paper.
Let us begin with a comparison. Let us first imagine ourselves sitting in a village schoolroom eighty years or so ago. The occasion is a ‘penny reading’, and the rector has chosen for this evening's reading the poet laureate's recently published Enoch Arden. The tale draws to its close, and we reach the last three lines:
So past the strong heroic soul away.
And when they buried him the little port
Had seldom seen a costlier funeral.
Now we transfer ourselves to the year 23 B.C. and the palace of Augustus. Virgil himself is reciting, and the company includes Augustus and Octavia. The poet is reciting from his yet unfinished Aeneid, and he comes to the passage in the sixth book where Anchises shows Aeneas the young Marcellus among the souls yet to be born.
quantos ille virum magnam Mavortis ad urbem
campus aget gemitus! vel quae, Tiberine, videbis
funera, cum tumulum praeterlabere recentem.