When Virgil published his First Eclogue in 35 b.c.,Footnote 1 in which a young man (iuvenis, 1.42) is deified for having restored freedom (libertas, 1.27) to Tityrus and released him from enslavement (servitio, 1.40), the poet could not have foreseen that some fifty years later Augustus, on the verge of divinisation, would open his Res gestae with the sentence:
annos undeviginti natus exercitum privato consilio et privata impensa comparavi, per quem rem publicam a dominatione factionis oppressam in libertatem vindicavi.
Aged nineteen years old I mustered an army at my personal decision and at my personal expense, and with it I liberated the state, which had been oppressed by a despotic faction.
It is striking that in both texts the liberation from slavery is tied up to the intervention of a single individual as liberator. While there is no compelling reason to think that Augustus had in mind Virgil's poem when he looked back on the achievements of his life,Footnote 2 the correspondence between the opening of the Res gestae and the First Eclogue underlines how the official history of a regime can cast a retroactive pall over earlier literary representationsFootnote 3 and, conversely, how poetry can express what would eventually become the central tenet of a master narrative.
Taking this bi-directional interaction as its cue, this paper argues that the frequent identification of Virgil's iuvenis with the future Augustus has much to do with the poem's naturalisation of the power discourse of the Augustan Principate. This naturalising process is most discernible in the poem's conceptualisation of libertas and its idealisation of the figure of the benefactor. Virgil's poem not only frames libertas as a kind of peaceful ease mediated exclusively by the intervention of a powerful iuvenis, but even implies that this benefactor's elevated status and the community's dedication to him are crucial to maintaining civic harmony. In this way, the pastoral drama centred around Tityrus’ worship of his benefactor creates a discourse whereby libertas and dependence on extraordinary power — or to put it another way, freedom and subjection — are notionally compatible,Footnote 4 thereby foreshadowing the defining ideological character of the Augustan Principate.
My argument falls into three parts. In Part I, I will show that the First Eclogue from its outset attempts to associate the benefactor's power with pastoral stability, and that, as the poem proceeds, otium is conflated with libertas. In Part II, I shall consider these aspects of Virgil's poem in connection with the discourse of libertas and the politics of divine self-representation in the triumviral period. It will be argued that the poem's conflation of otium and libertas serves to disembed libertas from its contemporary political context, reframing it evasively as a condition which only an extraordinary benefactor can guarantee, thus sanctifying the concentration of power in one man's hands. This reading will be expanded upon in Part III, where I tackle head-on the question of who the iuvenis is. Here I will suggest that Virgil does not so much invite the reader to identify the deified iuvenis with Octavian (or anyone else, for that matter)Footnote 5 as create an image of a political system with a single powerful ‘liberator’ at its centre — an image that comes remarkably close to the Augustan Principate. It is this prefigurative instantiation of the Augustan regime that has played a large part in persuading readers to see the iuvenis as Octavian. In closing (Part IV), I will contextualise my reading of the poem more broadly within the Eclogues.
In focusing on the issue of libertas and its connection to Octavian's image in the late 40s and early 30s b.c., my work builds on a large body of scholarship that has argued compellingly that the poetry of the triumviral period was particularly alive to the political struggle for libertas. The studies of Du Quesnay, Kennedy and Henderson, among others, have shown that in Satires Book 1 (a near-contemporary of the Eclogues), Horace repeatedly sought to suggest that Maecenas and Octavian — and not the defeated enemy of Octavian — were the true protectors of libertas.Footnote 6 In the case of Virgil's First Eclogue, critics have long thought that Tityrus’ attainment of libertas indirectly casts a positive light on Octavian. For example, Clausen has argued that the poem ‘deliberately confuses the private with the public sense of libertas’ in order to produce a coded praise of Octavian.Footnote 7 In a similar vein, but more teleological in his presentation, Galinsky has suggested that the Virgilian notion of libertas as ‘freedom from interference and oppression’ was precisely the concept of liberty that was later operative under Augustus.Footnote 8
The present study takes the position that something more — and far more insidious — is at play in the First Eclogue. In an illuminating study of the poetic language of patronage, Bowditch has argued that, by assimilating the social discourse of benefaction to the conventions of bucolic voluntarism, Virgil's Eclogues naturalise the triumviral political structure in which power lies in the hands of the oligarchic few.Footnote 9 In this paper, I take a similarly suspicious view of the First Eclogue's apparently sanguine attempt at fostering a connection between the unnamed benefactor and libertas.Footnote 10 Whereas Bowditch's study ultimately finds that the First Eclogue reproduces and reinforces the framework of the triumvirate, this paper argues that the poem's portrayal of the relationship between Tityrus and the iuvenis implicitly endorses the idea that libertas cannot be achieved without accepting a new system of power. Furthermore, I wish to make the case that the anonymity of the iuvenis should not be treated as a riddle to which Octavian is the answer.Footnote 11 Rather, this act of pastoral obfuscation does the hard graft of subtly laying out a new political ideology.
I BENEFACTION, OTIUM AND LIBERTAS
Both the volatility of the triumviral period and the disruption to rural life caused by Octavian's settlement of veterans after Philippi (Suet., Aug. 13) can be detected in the opening exchange of the First Eclogue.Footnote 12 Meliboeus’ song (1.1–5), which discloses that he is about to face exile (1.3–4) while his companion Tityrus somehow manages to hold on to pastoral security (1.1–2, 4–5), already hints at the idea that the shepherds themselves are not in control of their lives.Footnote 13 Tityrus’ reply, while confirming that he is indeed more fortunate, highlights further the shepherds’ lack of agency (1.6–10):
The verbs fecit (1.6) and permisit (1.10) make clear that the pleasures of pastoral life, namely singing and herding (1.1–2, 4–5, 9–10), which Tityrus generalises as otia (1.6), are possible only because a ‘god’ had granted them.Footnote 14 The shepherd himself had no hand in procuring his present condition. Since Tityrus’ explanation rests firmly on his conviction that this good fortune has been mediated exclusively through divine agency, it follows that he implicitly recognises its inherently contingent nature.Footnote 15 By expressing his gratitude in this way, Tityrus’ words underscore the extent to which the livelihood of these shepherds is dependent on the whim of a single benefactor.
What also stands out from this opening exchange is the way Tityrus engages with Meliboeus’ language of contrasting experience (cf. tu and nos, 1.1–4), appropriating it to insinuate that his benefactor can transform not only his own fortune but the lives of many. In his response to Meliboeus, Tityrus quickly asserts that he is one of a number of shepherds who have benefitted from the god (nobis, 1.6), even though the shift from nobis to mihi in the next line (1.7) indicates that the decision to treat this benefactor as a god is Tityrus’ own.Footnote 16 In the next two lines, Tityrus repeats the same trick: ‘nostris … ovilibus’ (1.8) creates the impression that a community of shepherds is making sacrifice to this provider of otium, but ‘meas … boves’ (1.9) makes one wonder who else other than Tityrus has seen such a good turn of fortune. Thus in his response to Meliboeus’ suggestion that the shepherds are suddenly divided into those who have and those who have not, Tityrus repeatedly tries to pass his individual blessing off as a shared positive experience, thereby countering any claim that this benefactor could have sown division in the pastoral community. Combined with his usage of the time-defying adverbs semper (1.7) and saepe (1.8), Tityrus conjures up an idealised image of a patron–beneficiary relation, whereby an act of benefaction will restore long-lasting peace and common satisfaction. For Tityrus, the honouring of his benefactor as a divinity is no mere personal expression of gratitude, but a unifying societal ritual.
Perplexed by Tityrus’ good fortune, Meliboeus then asks him about his ‘god’ (‘sed tamen iste deus qui sit, da, Tityre, nobis’, ‘But still, tell me, Tityrus, who is that god?’, 1.18). At first, Tityrus avoids answering the question by telling Meliboeus that he went to Rome (1.19–20).Footnote 17 However, when Meliboeus presses him on why he had visited the city, Tityrus finally offers a proper reply, but still keeps the nature of his deus elusive (1.26–35):
It appears that Tityrus went to Rome in order to free himself from the psychological and emotional captivity caused by his amatory encounters (1.30–2), as well as to procure some kind of alleviation from unrewarding labour (1.33–5). The terms libertas (1.27; spes libertatis, 1.32) and cura peculi (1.32), both set within the context of economic exchange and poverty (1.33–5), have generally encouraged scholars to view Tityrus as a literal slave and interpret his quest for ‘freedom’ as manumission.Footnote 18 At the same time, since amatory themes are frequent in Theocritus’ Idylls and here Virgil's shepherd is recounting his love life, the language of entrapment in Tityrus’ speech (‘me Galatea tenebat’, 1.31) may suggest that his slavery is also to some extent metaphorical, and that libertas for him is not just manumission, but also the freedom from servitium amoris (specifically from Galatea).Footnote 19 The ambiguity of libertas cannot be solved by the poem's opening image of Tityrus’ pastoral security either. There, he may be construed as both a freedman who has managed to retain his possessions and a lover who is untroubled by his amatory life (cf. ‘formosam resonare doces Amaryllida silvas’, ‘you teach the woods to resound “fair Amaryllis”’, 1.5). In fact, Tityrus’ earlier designation of these delights in his life as otia (1.6) blurs the distinction between economic and political stability and the contented ease of an individual, thereby conflating ‘freedom’ with ‘pleasure’. Libertas understood as manumission or the status of non-subjection implies the attainment or reassertion of agency, control and self-governing authority. However, by conflating libertas with the return of pleasant pastoral life, the term is stripped of its acute political meaning and anti-authoritarian resonance. Instead, as we approach the midpoint of Virgil's poem and with the presence of the benefactor looming, libertas appears to be framed as something akin to an untroubled life, but which can only be mediated through external intervention.
II DIVINE SELF-IMAGING AND LIBERTAS IN THE TRIUMVIRAL PERIOD
This evasive re-conceptualisation of libertas, set against the backdrop of Tityrus’ idealisation of his benefactor as a ‘god’, brings to mind the use of divine impersonation and the fluid meaning of libertas during the triumviral period. Recent scholarship on the cultivation of divine associations by prominent figures of the late Republic — commonly referred to as ‘divine imaging’ — has drawn attention to how this practice constituted and shaped the political discourse of that time.Footnote 20 As Cucchiarelli puts it succinctly, ‘the confrontation between the various political leaders took shape in part as a confrontation between different models of divinity’.Footnote 21 In fact, all the evidence we have of divine self-imaging in this period points to it being used as a way of articulating political scenarios — tensions, rivalries, allegiances — in suggestive and animated terms. For example, Octavian's self-presentation as the Divi filius was a way for him to stake his claim to Caesar's legacy and announce his arrival as a genuine political force.Footnote 22 The mutual distrust between Octavian and Antony in the early years of the triumvirate was reflected in the infamous story of Octavian masquerading as Apollo at an ‘Olympian’ banquet (Suet., Aug. 70) — an event that was probably exaggerated (or invented) and circulated by Antony's faction.Footnote 23 By the mid-30s, divine impersonation as political discourse appears to have gathered pace. Soon after Sextus Pompey's defeat at Naulochus in 36 b.c., Octavian and Antony separately adopted Sextus’ Neptunian designs on their own numismatic issues as a means of asserting their maritime supremacy.Footnote 24 The appropriative and dialogic character of their practice strongly indicates that divine self-representation was no mere ‘role play’. Rather, the image of a ‘god-man’ captures how different factions of the triumviral period competed for legitimacy and sought to identify themselves with useful political values.
Chief among these contested political values was libertas. While ‘liberty’ for Romans could be broadly defined as a condition of non-domination,Footnote 25 in the late Republic libertas became an extremely polysemous notion that ‘meant different things to different people’ as various political factions competed to be associated with it.Footnote 26 Following the assassination of Julius Caesar, Brutus and Cassius naturally identified themselves as the liberatores, thus giving the term libertas an anti-Caesarian dimension. But after their defeat at Philippi, Octavian and Antony each claimed to be protecting the libertas of the state.Footnote 27 Later, when the relationship between these two men broke down, the new Caesar, as we saw above (cf. R.G. 1), asserted that he protected libertas by keeping Antony — the unnamed factio in the opening of the Res gestae — away from Rome. The Dionysiac identity cultivated by Antony in the Greek East was weaponised against him by Octavian, who portrayed his rival as a morally bankrupt, disorderly and foreign force that threatened Roman libertas.Footnote 28
With this in mind, let us turn our focus back to the depiction of benefactor-worship and libertas in Virgil's First Eclogue. Set against a contemporary political climate where the meaning and ownership of libertas were fluid and constantly appropriated, the poem's dissociation of libertas from its immediate Roman context is no accident. I would suggest that Tityrus’ evasive aestheticisation of his ‘liberty’, along with the shepherd's enthusiastic worship of his iuvenis, translate the factional political competition for libertas into a quest to find the benefactor who could bring about a better way of life. In doing so, the First Eclogue creates a new discourse of libertas that not only presumes the subject's lack of agency, but even idealises external intervention as salvific power.
III WHO (OR WHAT) IS THE IUVENIS?
This particular discourse of libertas is exactly what we find when Tityrus finally reveals how he met his benefactor (1.40–5):
In this account, Tityrus emphasises again his inability to take action for himself through the impersonal construction ‘me … licebat’ (1.40).Footnote 29 His instinct, as the next verse shows, is to find help from greater authorities (divos, 1.41).Footnote 30 However, the most remarkable aspect of this report is that, instead of elucidating what happened during his encounter with the iuvenis, Tityrus rather obfuscates what his benefactor actually did. While it is clear that Tityrus’ condition has been transformed from a state of servitium to libertas, the quoted injunction of the iuvenis (1.45) suggests not so much a liberation, but rather a restoration (ut ante, ‘as before’, 1.45). To be sure, the attainment of new liberty and the return to pastoral vocation are not necessarily mutually exclusive; but Tityrus ostensibly conflates libertas with otium again, or at least fails to make any meaningful distinction between the two. For this grateful devotee of the iuvenis, freedom, peace, and pleasure mean much the same thing.
Even though both the identity of the iuvenis and the precise nature of his intervention are concealed by Virgil's poem, critics have not stopped trying to ascertain who the iuvenis is.Footnote 31 As mentioned above, ancient commentators and modern scholars have frequently suggested Octavian as the candidate, since he carried out the land confiscations and claimed the title Divi filius during this period. Moreover, given that he was the only triumvir in Rome at the time of the Eclogues’ composition (whereas Antony was in the east and Lepidus was exiled to Circeii after the battle of Naulochus), and Virgil's poem underscores Rome as the site of the perceived divine intervention (cf. hic, 1.42 and 44), Octavian's presence in the city makes him even more likely to be the historical person behind Virgil's iuvenis.Footnote 32 Indeed, the depiction of Octavian as a salvific, divine young man has a precedent in Cicero's Fifth Philippic (delivered on 1 January 43 b.c.). The orator paints a bleak image of life starved of hope and freedom under Antony (‘nondum ullos duces habebamus, non copias; nullum erat consilium publicum, nulla libertas’, ‘we did not yet have any leaders, nor forces; there was no public council, no freedom’, Phil. 5.42), and he welcomes the arrival of Octavian (5.43):
quis tum nobis, quis populo Romano obtulit hunc divinum adulescentem deus? qui, cum omnia ad perniciem nostram pestifero illi civi paterent, subito praeter spem omnium exortus prius confecit exercitum quem furori M. Antoni opponeret quam quisquam hoc eum cogitare suspicaretur.
What god then presented to us and to the Roman people this godlike young man? When every road to our destruction lay open to that baneful citizen, suddenly, to the surprise of all, he arose: he got together an army to oppose Marcus Antonius’ madness before anyone suspected him of such a thought.
Cicero's young Octavian is a divinus liberator, whose appearance is sudden, whose help unexpected and whose action emphatically effective.Footnote 33 This depiction of the Divi filius is similar to that of the iuvenis in the First Eclogue. Tityrus’ suggestion that the Roman youth was more praesens (1.41) than divinities from elsewhere,Footnote 34 and the shepherd's claim that he had ‘seen’ (vidi, 1.42) his saviour,Footnote 35 whose oracular injunction (responsum, 1.44) he could vividly report,Footnote 36 combine to create the impression that Tityrus’ encounter with the iuvenis was surprising, timely, and close to the experience of a divine epiphany.
However, this correspondence between the Ciceronian Octavian and the Virgilian iuvenis should not necessarily be adduced as further evidence for Octavian being the candidate. Elsewhere in the Eclogues, Virgil mentions contemporary Roman political figures without any ambiguity: the names of Pollio, Varus, Julius Caesar, and Gallus appear explicitly in Eclogues 4, 6, 9 and 10.Footnote 37 Therefore we must infer that the undisclosed identity of the divine benefactor in Eclogue 1 is a salient artistic choice, and that this choice is not an obstacle to interpretation, but has a bearing on it.Footnote 38
The point of this act of anonymisation, I would suggest, is twofold. Firstly, the anonymity of the deified iuvenis helps to distance the image of the ‘god-man’ — perhaps especially Octavian's image as the Divi filius — from the suffering and strife described in the poem, and to re-connect it with positive change. The poem's decidedly vague conceptualisation of libertas as a condition which only the ‘god-man’ can provide not only turns the triumviral contest for political legitimacy into an apparently noble process of civic emancipation, but also reframes divine impersonation as a practice rooted in securing peace and stability. At the same time, as Tityrus insinuates that even the worship of an unidentifiable benefactor could have a unifying effect on a community (cf. 1.6–8), the First Eclogue transforms the ‘god-man’ into a personification of political cohesion, which in turn rehabilitates the image of the Divi filius among the poem's contemporary audience.
Secondly, with this act of anonymisation Virgil makes it difficult for the reader to identify the iuvenis with any one particular figure or tradition of divinisation. This pointed avoidance of specificity, I argue, foreshadows Augustus’ self-representation and the political language of the Augustan Principate. As critics have noted, Virgil's depiction of the worship of the iuvenis is informed not only by contemporary political usages of divinising imagery, but also by several other traditions including Hellenistic ruler cult, Epicurean philosophy, Roman republican hero worship, as well as the poetry of Theocritus, Hesiod and Callimachus. To be precise, the appearance and reported speech of the iuvenis recall the Hesiodic Muses in the Theogony (Hes., Theog. 24–6) and Callimachus’ Apollo in the Aetia (Callim., Aet. fr.1.21–4), thereby suggesting that Virgil's iuvenis is likewise an initiator of poetry.Footnote 39 Meanwhile, the idea of a ‘present’ god-man (praesentis, 1.41) suggests the possible influence of the language and practice of Hellenistic ruler-cult on Virgil's poetry (above, n. 34). In terms of the ritual details of Tityrus’ worship, they appear to be modelled on the sacrifices which Ptolemy II Philadelphus and Arsinoe are said to have offered to Ptolemy I Soter and Berenice in Theocritus’ Idyll 17 (especially verses 124–30),Footnote 40 as well as the monthly celebrations of Epicurus held by his followers.Footnote 41 Furthermore, it is also possible that the offerings given to the iuvenis are drawn from the practice of republican hero cult, such as the ones offered to Gaius Marius and Marius Gratidianus.Footnote 42 This amalgamation of different traditions attests to the First Eclogue's varied dialogues with its poetic predecessors and the lively debate surrounding divinisation during the late Republic.Footnote 43 On the other hand, by combining a number of figures and traditions in his depiction, Virgil avoids making his iuvenis look too much like one thing or the other, thus implying that the iuvenis is both the θεὸς ἐπιφανής of Greek ruler cult and the Muse-like figure of Greek poetry (and a whole bunch of other things). In other words, the indecipherability of the status of the iuvenis is part of the point. That the exact nature of this revered iuvenis is not clearly recognisable, but also not entirely unfamiliar, suggestively epitomises the ambiguous position Augustus will come to occupy in the Principate. What is more, the conflation of libertas and otium in Tityrus’ speeches culminates in the dissolution of difference between emancipation (from servitium) and restoration (cf. ut ante); and this discursive evasiveness of Virgil's poem bears the hallmark of the language of the later Augustan Principate, which pointedly refuses to define whether Rome has been transformed or restored by the new Caesar.Footnote 44 In short, the divine young man of the First Eclogue most probably ‘is’ Octavian; but when this poetic portrait is consumed within a cultural milieu shaped by and responding to the politics of libertas and divine self-imaging, the iuvenis is certainly more than just Octavian. Reading deep into this image of a deified Roman benefactor who (somehow) heralds both transformation and restoration, it might just be possible to see the silhouettes of the discursive operation of the Augustan Principate.
IV POETRY, POLITICS, AND THE (AUGUSTAN) GOLDEN AGE
In this final section, I would like to return to the idea that the iuvenis of the First Eclogue, like the Hesiodic Muses and the Callimachean Apollo, is a kind of poetic initiator. Given that Virgil's poem opens with an image of Tityrus singing freely and without worry (1.1–4), the implication that the iuvenis can influence the production of poetry demands further attention. By assimilating the intervention of the iuvenis to the inspiration provided by poetic divinities, Virgil may well be drawing on the literary tradition of depicting one's patron as a god.Footnote 45 However, the iuvenis of the First Eclogue appears to have more control over the shepherds’ artistic output than an ordinary patron: as Tityrus implied, this young man exclusively granted him the permission to sing (permisit, 1.10). If creative productivity and artistic libertas are subject not only to divine inspiration and patronal support, but also to obtaining permission from a figure of authority, it then raises questions about how free Tityrus’ poetic speech really is.Footnote 46 Notably, Meliboeus, who has not encountered a powerful benefactor, announces later in the poem that there would be no more songs from him (‘carmina nulla canam’, 1.77). Pastoral poetry, and the fictional world it generates, is conventionally built on the premise of an organic exchange of songs between shepherds. However, by subjecting this creative process to the whim of a benefactor, through which the framework of exchange is replaced by an economy of permission-and-obligation, the First Eclogue hints at the poetry's transition into an aesthetic product of a new ideological system.
Indeed, the final scene of Eclogue 1 goes even further by suggesting that social cohesion too relies on this new system of benefaction (1.79–83):
A lot hangs on how one construes the verb poteras (1.79). The form of the imperfect can be hypothetical (i.e. ‘you might have/could have rested here with me’), in which case Tityrus is not really offering hospitality, but rather gesturing towards the end of the old dispensation under which it would have been normal for Meliboeus to spend the night at his.Footnote 47 But if the poteras is supposed to introduce a genuine invitation, then Tityrus’ offer of temporary accommodation (1.79) and personal produce (1.80–1) puts him in the role of the benefactor. Through this promise of aid, which is delivered in the form of a song-reply (just like the richly poetic speech-act of the iuvenis), security and community spirit are thus restored, albeit for one night only (‘hanc … noctem’, 1.79). Bowditch has argued that here pastoral song succeeds in ‘assimilating the social and historical discourse of benefaction to the conventions of bucolic generosity and community’, which in turn ‘dramatizes the ideological potential of pastoral song […] to overcome historical division and provide a shared set of values’.Footnote 48 By closing his poem with an idealised image of pastoral song mediating social cohesion, Virgil leaves the door open for readers to construe the First Eclogue as a text that is complicit in implementing a socio-political system that relies on and privileges the agency of an empowered individual. It is in this respect that the First Eclogue appears to produce the grammar of authoritarianism, articulating what will eventually become the central ideological tenets of the Augustan Principate.
Of course, the Eclogues are not short of moments where Virgil displays profound sympathy for those who have become victims of the triumvirs’ struggle for power. The voice and suffering of Meliboeus in Eclogue 1 counteract the poem's discourse of idealised authoritarianism. In Eclogue 9, which is widely considered a companion-piece to Eclogue 1 (and possibly the earlier of the two), we find another example of this dynamic.Footnote 49 Here the shepherd Moeris is forced off his land, just as Meliboeus is in the opening poem; and Moeris’ account of the new landowner's tyrannical brutality paints a stark picture of authoritarian power (‘haec mea sunt; veteres migrate coloni’, ‘these are mine; move on, old tenants’, 9.4). In the ensuing exchange between Moeris and Lycidas, we learn that the shepherds had hoped that their song-master Menalcas would come to their rescue in the land dispute, like the iuvenis of the First Eclogue (‘audieram … | omnia carminibus vestrum servasse Menalcan’, ‘I had heard that your Menalcas had saved everything with his songs’, 9.7–10). But this turns out to be false (‘audieras, et fama fuit’, ‘you had heard it, and that was the story’, 9.11), and the failure of Menalcas makes clear that he is no iuvenis.
Indeed, Eclogue 9 appears to undercut the notion that a powerful figure of authority could make things better. In parallel to the anonymous iuvenis who comes to the aid of Tityrus in a moment of crisis, Eclogue 9 ends with Moeris appealing for help from a figure of authority identified only as ipse (9.66–7):
Commentators are surely right to identify ipse (9.67) as Menalcas, but the vagueness of the final line is troubling. Venerit anticipates the arrival of the song-master, but we are not told when that will be. ‘Melius … canemus’ looks ahead to the resumption of pastoral singing,Footnote 50 but that seems unlikely when Menalcas has already failed to save the shepherds with song (9.7–11, above). Indeed, Virgil's poem appears to cast doubt on both the efficacy of song and the prospect of pastoral recovery. Earlier in the poem, Lycidas tries to console Moeris by reciting a song he had once heard from his friend — a song about a blessed age heralded by the star of Caesar (9.44–50; especially, ‘ecce Dionaei processit Caesaris astrum, | astrum quo segetes gauderent frugibus’, ‘see the star of Caesar, born of Dione, has risen — the star by which the fields rejoice with corn’, 9.47–8).Footnote 51 However, Moeris immediately says that he cannot remember singing it (9.51–5). By distancing himself from a song about peace under the deified Caesar, Moeris’ reaction not only underlines the fragmentation of shared cultural memory and the breakdown social cohesion in contemporary Rome,Footnote 52 but also punctures the idealism that the pastoral world can depend on the power of a benefactor for stability. Set against this backdrop where the power of song is repeatedly dismissed in the face of crisis, any optimism in the poem's final line is undercut.
Furthermore, the absence of Menalcas’ name in final line of Eclogue 9 contrasts sharply with the ending of Eclogue 5, which has Menalca as its last word (5.90). In that poem, Menalcas not only knew songs like those of Eclogues 2 and 3 (5.86–7), but was even able to divinise Daphnis and reinvigorate the pastoral community with song (5.56–80).Footnote 53 The absence of Menalcas’ name at the end of Eclogue 9 therefore hints at the elusiveness of pastoral recovery. If the unknown identity of the salvific iuvenis of Eclogue 1 adds to his powerful mystique, then the absence of Menalcas’ name here does precisely the opposite. Far from signalling that change is under way, the anonymity of ipse gestures at the unlikelihood of the shepherds’ salvation and the intangibility of hope. As the poem ends, we are left with no secure idea of what help this vaguely identified ipse will bring, or when, or how. The poetics of anonymity cuts both ways: it may be used either to open up salvific possibility (all the more potent and appealing for being undefined), or to undermine this potential altogether.
The tension between the Eclogues’ naturalisation of authoritarian ideology and the poems’ sympathy and despair for the victims of despotic forces cannot be resolved. Nor does it need to be. This irresolvability is what makes the pastoral world of the Eclogues so pertinent to its contemporary readers: it is through this tension that these poems speak to reality. In other words, to get a better sense of the Eclogues’ political inclinations, we need to find moments where Virgil lets go of tension and enters instead the realm of idealism. Luckily, there is one such instance: Eclogue 4.
In this poem, Virgil envisages the return of the Golden Age inaugurated by the birth of a miraculous puer. The poem's unhindered optimism was probably generated by the temporary reconciliation between Octavian and Antony following the Treaty of Brundisium (40 b.c.), brokered by G. Asinius Pollio.Footnote 54 If so, the puer at the time of the poem's composition most likely represented an anticipated offspring of Antony and Octavia (whose marriage sealed the alliance), or a symbol of hope for peace in the Roman world.Footnote 55
In its sketch of Rome's Golden Age, Eclogue 4 strikes a parallel with Eclogue 1 by integrating the idea of willing subjection into its discourse on libertas. The poem imagines the forthcoming glorious age first and foremost as a time in which the Roman world will be freed from fear and ancestral sin (‘si qua manent sceleris vestigia nostri, | inrita perpetua solvent formidine terras’, ‘if some traces of our sin remain, they will be nullified and free the lands from lasting fear’, 4.13–14); and we know from the later works of Virgil and Horace that the imagery of the Romans’ past sins often operates as a metaphor for the civil war.Footnote 56 However, as soon as Virgil proclaims this forthcoming liberation and age of peace for his fellow Romans, the poet makes the anonymous puer their ruler (4.15–17):
The expression ‘reget … orbem’ (4.17) unmistakably carries the connotation of the authoritarian rule of a single man;Footnote 57 but in Virgil's formulation of Rome's Golden Age, this form of domination happily coexists with the return of libertas. In addition, as Hunter has noted, these lines of Eclogue 4 allude to the divinisation of the Ptolemies in Theocritus’ Idyll 17.13–22.Footnote 58 By assimilating the puer to Hellenistic monarchs, Virgil conflates the beginning of Rome's journey towards a Golden Age of liberty with the introduction of a new, un-republican, system of power.
Furthermore, just as the First Eclogue relies on the conventions of bucolic generosity to naturalise a system of benefaction and inequality, here in Eclogue 4 the idea of Golden-Age voluntarism is used by Virgil to romanticise consent to autocratic rule. In this passage, the puer is depicted as eventually ‘accepting’ (accipiet, 4.15) a life amongst the gods as if he were receiving a gift. The implicit characterisation of his divinisation as an honour conferred upon a benefactor implies that the reign of the puer was something that people gratefully consented to and celebrated. Later in the poem, even the natural world appears to be responding enthusiastically to the boy's reign, as the earth happily produces ‘little gifts’ for him (‘nullo munuscula cultu … tellus … fundet’, 4.18–20). By the end, socio-economic exchange ceases to exist and is replaced by agricultural voluntarism (‘nec nautica pinus | mutabit merces; omnes feret omnia tellus’, ‘nor will the pine ship trade goods; every land will produce everything’, 4.38–9).Footnote 59 This shift from reciprocity to unidirectional and spontaneous production, glossed here as utopian fecundity, aestheticises the onset of a hierarchy based on willing submission. By imagining Rome's future in this way, Eclogue 4 — much like Eclogue 1 — creates a conceptual framework wherein the advent of autocratic power would be embraced.
However, in not giving this authoritarian system a ‘recognisable face’, Virgil makes an important point about contemporary Roman politics and the nature of power. Both Eclogue 4 and Eclogue 1 present an unidentified individual as being more significant than other established forms of power; yet in both instances, Virgil pointedly refuses to identify this one entity that matters. In Eclogue 4, the entire Roman world pins its hope on the puer, while traditional deities barely feature: they show up when the boy is born (‘iam redit et Virgo’, ‘now too the Virgin returns’, 4.6), politely give their support (‘tu modo nascenti puero … | casta fave Lucina’, ‘only do you, chaste Lucina, smile on the birth of the child’, 4.8–10), and wait for him in heaven (4.15–16, above). The puer clearly overshadows the importance of the Olympian pantheon. In Eclogue 1, Tityrus draws a sharp contrast between the absence and insufficiency of traditional divi (1.41) and the presence and power of the singular iuvenis. Indeed, one gets the impression that the pastoral world simply would not function without him. Virgil's emphasis on the efficacy of one-ness, I would suggest, mirrors the way that the triumvirate (three men competing for power) is moving towards the Principate (one man in power). In fact, the way in which all the wannabe one-man rulers of the triumviral period identify themselves with one particular divinity — and wear these identities as masks that conceal their own — further underscores this movement towards a new, depersonalised one-ness. Against this background, Virgil's strategy of not identifying the actual figure of authority subtly constructs one-man rule as a deeply anonymised form of government, wherein the one person who matters the most is so removed from ordinary mortal men that the locus of power is ultimately unknowable.
Later in Aeneid 6, Virgil redeploys imagery from Eclogues 1 and 4 in a eulogy of Augustus (Aen. 6.791–4):
Virgil's Augustus — here introduced with the words hic vir (6.791) — answers not only the puer of Eclogue 4, but also the description of the iuvenis as iste deus in Eclogue 1 (line 18); and this act of literary self-referentiality, as Geue well notes, is highlighted by the words ‘tibi quem promitti saepius audis’ (6.791): we have indeed heard all about him before.Footnote 60 By presenting the arrival of Augustus as something that has long been anticipated, Virgil frames political transformation as predestined history, thus naturalising the emergence of the Principate.Footnote 61 That Augustus appears so compellingly as the eventual manifestation of the unnamed saviours of Eclogues 1 and 4 is precisely because in the earlier poems Virgil makes the power of an supreme individual not merely compatible with, but the defining feature of, a new age of peace and prosperity. However, the poet's ‘demystification’ of earlier anonymous characters does not render Augustus any closer. The evocation of the puer and the iuvenis creates the sense that Augustus emerged from the unknown to become the ruler of Rome right in front of our eyes (cf. hic … hic, 6.791). Virgil's de-anonymisation is not just for dramatic effect: it hints at how autocratic power can dazzle and take hold before you even know it.
Virgil's First Eclogue translates the harsh reality of citizens’ disempowerment amid the triumviral contest for political legitimacy into a narrative of liberation, whereby the oligarchic few, and Octavian in particular, are framed as the only party capable of restoring ‘liberty’ and bringing positive change. In so doing, the poem not only redefines libertas as a condition of security and peacetime pleasure which can only be activated by those who already have political agency, but also naturalises the idea of political benefaction, which necessarily entails subjection and dependence. Combining this particular interpretation of ‘liberation’ with a story of a benefactor's divinisation, Virgil's poem sanctifies a political structure headed by an overwhelmingly influential individual. It hardly matters who this individual is, because Virgil's poem manages to naturalise a system of power. The anonymity of the poem's iuvenis is part of this naturalising strategy, as it allows anyone — Octavian or some other charismatic leader — to be placed in the role of society's saviour. Seen in this light, the divinisation of the iuvenis in Eclogue 1 is far more than an expression of gratitude for the benefactor or a flattering depiction of the patron's higher social status. Rather, by glorifying the idea that beneficent power rests with a singular charismatic man, and by idealising one's total dependence on an influential benefactor, the First Eclogue gives expression to what will become the central ideological tenets of the Augustan Principate.