The description of the blessings brought by the prodigious advent of the child in Virgil's cryptic fourth Eclogue includes the following lines (4.23–5):
Taken at face value, these motifs are conventional vignettes typical of the divine epiphany and the description of the Golden Age.Footnote 1 Yet there appears to be more to it than this. If more is going to be written about this well-known poem, it is because the above verses seem to contain a fine literary allusion which has hitherto gone unnoticed. This intriguing allusion is typical of the way in which Virgil views one literary archetype through another, thus contaminating one with the other (‘mirror-reference’). I suggest that the text hinted at is Pindar's Olympian 6. To make this suggestion plausible it would be useful if we could highlight some other connections between Virgil and this ode. Actually, the proem of the third book of Virgil's Georgics contains many verbal allusions to Olympian 6 which are placed in a Callimachean framework, to which I will return at the end of this article.Footnote 2 A scene from the Aeneid may also be related to the mysterious floral shelter of the baby Iamus,Footnote 3 although here there are no exact reminiscences, so the allusion remains vague.Footnote 4 Hence, it is a working hypothesis that Olympian 6, one of Pindar's most celebrated poems, may have been familiar to Virgil.
As our eyes are now free to view the Pindaric allusion, let us go into details. The first verse in the quotation (ipsa tibi blandos fundent cunabula flores) introduces the general setting, namely that the second aition for Iamus’ name is the bed of violas (ἴων) on which the baby lies (lines 55–6). In Virgil there is a cradle (cunabula) which teems with flowers.Footnote 5 This sensuous and evocative scenario paves the way for a poignant allusion in the consecutive verses. First of all, an aspect of the Latin text: the line with chiastic positioning of verbs and nouns (occidet et serpens et fallax herba ueneni | occidet) distinguishes expressively between two things (serpens and herba ueneni) that are conceptually related. The venomous grass is the food of the adder which induces its poisonous nature (Hom. Il. 22.93–4 δράκων … | βεβρωκὼς κακὰ φάρμακ’ [simile of Hector]; Verg. Aen. 2.471 coluber mala gramina pastus [simile of Pyrrhus]).Footnote 6 Supposing that herbal venom and snake poison are interrelated, we are reminded of the first aition of Iamus’ name connected to the ἀμεμφεῖ | ἰῷ μελισσᾶν (‘harmless poison of the bees’, Pind. Ol. 6.46–7), with which the baby is nourished by two snakes. While in this case the ‘venom’ of the snakes is a metaphor for honey fetched by the animals, in Virgil's account the snake itself and its poison are cancelled out (occidet).
The rare word amomum, which concludes the verse, contributes to the allusion with yet another verbal element. The word for the aromatic shrub, from which a fragrant balsam was made, is in Greek ἄμωμον, which is also the neuter form of the adjective ἄμωμος which means ‘impeccable’, ‘blameless’.Footnote 7 This is synonymous with the Pindaric attribute ἀμεμφεῖ which in this context has the function of turning the negative notion ἰός into something positive, honey, a substance comparable in its scent to the amomum. Consequently, both terms (amomum and ἀμεμφεῖ) mark a change from venom (ueneni … ἰῷ) to a fragrant plant/sweet liquor (amomum/honey). The honey is not mentioned explicitly in our Virgilian passage, but it appears a little later on as a conventional element of spontaneous growth characteristic of the Golden Age (et durae quercus sudabunt roscida mella, 30).Footnote 8 The three relevant notions (ueneni, amomum, mella)Footnote 9 are placed at the end of the verse and marked by a dynamic string of association with explicit counterparts in the Pindaric expression alluded: poison (negated) ~ ἰῷ, odorous amomum ~ ἀμεμφεῖ, sweet honey ~ μελισσᾶν.
These reminiscences seem sufficiently strong to warrant the Pindaric allusion. But what is Virgil's intention with the reference to Iamus’ birth-scene and what makes him conjure up such an elaborate wordplay? Are there general affinities between Virgil's Eclogue 4 and Pindar's Olympian 6 that make the parallel of the puer and Iamus meaningful? First of all, the Arcadian centre of Iamus’ story may be a metapoetical hint at the Arcadian background of the genre ‘idyll’ (not so much the fourth Eclogue, although Arcadia appears briefly in lines 58–9). In fact, the mythical narrative of Olympian 6 deals with the prophetic vocation of the protagonist who receives this gift from his father Apollo,Footnote 10 and who subsequently becomes a seer in Olympia as well as ancestor of the prophetic guild of the Iamidae. Virgil's fourth Eclogue presents itself at the beginning as singing about events foretold in the Cumaean prophecy (ultima Cumaei uenit iam carminis aetas, 4). Thus the narrative element of prophecy in Olympian 6 becomes the discursive frame of Eclogue 4. We may ask ourselves whether Virgil was a sensitive reader of the Pindaric poem and if he realized that prophesying in Olympian 6 is not restricted to Iamus but extends to Pindar's encomiastic ‘I’ as well.Footnote 11 In this case Virgil reflects more deeply upon the structure of the Pindaric ode, and transforms the objective programme of the Pindaric poem (mythical narration) to the subjective programme (poetic discourse) of his Eclogue.
The centrepiece of the allusion, however, is to be sought elsewhere. It includes the parallel of Iamus and the puer, whereby Virgil capitalizes on a clue in Pindar's text which is peripheral for the ode as a whole and problematic in its original context. At midnight Iamus wades into the river Alpheus, prays to his grandfather Poseidon and to his father Apollo, and requests a ‘people-nourishing’ honour (αἰτέων λαοτρόφον τιμάν τιν᾽ ἑᾷ κεφαλᾷ, 60). This is arguably the honour of a king, but it is not clear what Iamus means exactly when he requests a kingly honour upon his head. Fortunately, this matter does not affect our argument here,Footnote 12 since Virgil might have interpreted λαοτρόφον τιμάν at face value as ‘kingly honour’ and thought that the competence of the seer and that of the king are related and that the meaning can be brought home by a single word.Footnote 13 Now, if Virgil interpreted the figure of Iamus as an outstanding personality endowed with (prophetic and) kingly charisma, this also has some bearing on the way in which the Pindaric allusion accords with the entire poem. I will not go into the mass of interpretations surrounding the fourth Eclogue. It will suffice to voice my sympathy with the line of exegesis which reads the poem in the tradition of Hellenistic encomia for rulers.Footnote 14 Virgil's originality consists chiefly in the tour de force through which he transmogrifies the person of the ruler, who is conventionally presented as a mighty person, into a newborn baby. The decision to do so, though original within the confines of Latin literature, is not without precedent, but it follows well-established Hellenistic literary traditions. It is well known that Hellenistic literature has an affinity for the topic ‘childhood’ and for presenting mythical persons as children, thus gaining a new vista upon topics which through long, canonical usage seemed to have become trite and obsolete.Footnote 15 Regarding the prophecy about the puer we may think of Apollo in Callimachus’ Hymn to Delus (Hymn 4), who delivers his prophecy in a foetal condition from the womb of Leto (lines 88–98, 162–95), foretelling the reign of Ptolemy II Philadelphus.
Consequently, the concept of the baby/child-king in Virgil is part and parcel of a very Hellenistic literary agenda. If we return to the Pindaric allusion with this insight, we realize that the parallel of the puer-to-be-king and the baby Iamus who is going to be a great seer(-king) is most relevant to the conception of the fourth Eclogue. This is why Virgil views Pindar's Olympian 6 through the eyes of Hellenistic poetry. However, we can be more precise about the issue concerning one expression in the given passage. The fragrant balsam amomum, which within the framework of the Pindaric allusion is associated with honey, might have been linked by Virgil to a passage in Callimachus’ Hymn to Apollo (Hymn 2.38–41) as well. Here a mysterious healing substance, the πανάκεια, trickles from the hair of Apollo and repels all kinds of physical injuries. In another paper I showed that Callimachus identified πανάκεια with ambrosia via Homeric allusions. Further, I argued that this substance is a symbol of kingship and represents the divinity of kings.Footnote 16 Now, Virgil may have read this passage in exactly the same way. For in a passage of the Aeneid (12.418–19 spargit … salubris ambrosiae sucos et odoriferam panaceam, where Venus prepares healing liquids for Aeneas) he juxtaposes both terms in what seems to be a sort of hendiadys expressing the notion that ambrosia and panacea have the same healing properties.Footnote 17 This might be an allusion to Callimachus’ Hymn 2.38–41 with the implication that Virgil understood the play with the identity of both substances. If so, he may also have been cognizant of the royal symbols of the sweet/odorous substance (panacea/ambrosia/honey) here and elsewhere in Hellenistic literature (chiefly Poseidonius, Epigr. 36.3A–B γλυκὺν ἱδρῶ), as I showed in the paper cited above. Then the scented plant and the honey-like balsam amomum might convey this royal symbolism, an association which accords with the interpretation of the idyll as a ruler's encomium.Footnote 18 It is quite clear that this complex meaning is brought about by intermingling the Pindaric allusion (the baby Iamus fed with honey) with Callimachean features (divine kingship and its liquid symbols).
This might be part of a more general metapoetic reflection upon the encomiastic genre. Virgil seems to reconstruct a sort of ‘archaeology’ of the political encomium and he traces its origin back to Pindar who wrote victory songs to famous rulers of his era. Here we return to the prologue to the third book of the Georgics, which is embroidered with Pindaric allusions.Footnote 19 Yet the main intertext is Callimachus’ Victoria Berenices (Aet. fr. 54i Harder) from the beginning of the third book of the Aetia (the identical placement of both in the book structure is undoubtedly significant).Footnote 20 In the Georgics the poet's metaphorical chariot-riding is paralleled with the triumph of the ruler Octavian (G. 3.17–18), which makes the allusion to the poetic celebration of Queen Berenice's Nemean victory relevant.Footnote 21 In the fourth Eclogue again the Pindaric reminiscences are integrated into a Callimachean perspective. In this way Virgil suggests that the archetype of celebrating rulers is Pindar's victory ode, which was imitated by Callimachus: now he is imitating Callimachus imitating Pindar.Footnote 22
We may conclude with the assertion that the same double perspective applies to the evocation of the Pindaric Iamus in the fourth Eclogue. First of all, we noted similarities of motifs (a baby cushioned upon flowers, absence of venom, a sweet-smelling substance) and reminiscences (amomum and ἀμεμφεῖ), which by themselves are telltale signs for the attentive reader. Moreover, we can discern other elements which have been imported from outside into the Pindaric allusion and they represent a Hellenistic-Callimachean reading of Pindar's text. Here the baby Iamus becomes a prefiguration of the king as child, and the honey, which is his first nourishment, is a symbolic substance that conjures up the essence of divine kingship. Owing to this intricate reflection of various intertexts, we certainly have the right to speak about ‘Virgil's Callimachean Pindar’.Footnote 23