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Publius Virgilius Maro (October 15th 70 b.c.e – September 21st 19 b.c.e)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Already had the night completed ten
Of winter’s hours, and by his crowing had
The winged sentinel announced the day,
When Symilus the rustic husbandman
Of scanty farm, solicitous about
The coming day’s unpleasant emptiness,
Doth slowly raise the limbs extended on
His pallet low, and doth with anxious hand
Explore the stilly darkness, groping for
The hearth which, being burnt, at length he finds.
I’ th’ burnt-out log a little wood remained,
And ashes hid the glow of embers which
They covered o’er; with lowered face to these
The tilted lamp he places close, and with
A pin the wick in want of moisture out
Doth draw, the feeble flame he rouses up
With frequent puffs of breath. At length, although
With difficulty, having got a light,
He draws away, and shields his light from draughts
With partially encircling hand, and with
A key the doors he opens of the part
Shut off to store his grain, which he surveys.
On th’earth a scanty heap of corn was spread:
From this he for himself doth take as much
As did his measure need to fill it up,
Which ran to close on twice eight pounds in weight
He goes away from here and posts himself
Besides his quern,’ and on a little shelf
Which fixed to it for other uses did
The wall support, he puts his faithful light.
Then from his garment both his arms he frees;
Begirt was he with skin of hairy goat
And with the tail thereof he thoroughly
Doth brush the stones and hopper of the mill.
His hands he then doth summon to the work
And shares it out to each, to serving was
The left directed and the right to th’ toil.
This turns about in tireless circles and
The surface round in rapid motion puts,
And from the rapid thrusting of the stones
The pounded grain is running down. At times
The left relieves its wearied fellow hand,
And interchanges with it turn about.
Thereafter country ditties doth he sing
And solaces his toil with rustic speech,
And meanwhile calls on Scybale to rise.
His solitary housekeeper was she,
Her nationality was African,
And all her figure proves her native land.
Her hair was curly, thick her lips, and dark
Her colour, wide was she across the chest
With hanging breasts, her belly more compressed,
With slender legs and large and spreading foot,
And chaps in lengthy fissures numbed her heels.
He summons her and bids her lay upon
The hearth some logs wherewith to feed the fire,
And boil some chilly water on the flame.
As soon as toil of turning has fulfilled
Its normal end, he with his hand transfers
The copious meal from there into a sieve,
And shakes it. On the grid the refuse stays,
The real corn refined doth sink and by
The holes is filtered. Then immediately
He piles it on a board that’s smooth, and pours
Upon it tepid water, now he brought
Together flour and fluid intermixed,
With hardened hand he turns it o’er and o’er
And having worked the liquid in, the heap
He in the meantime strews with salt, and now
His kneaded work he lifts, and flattens it
With palms of hand to rounded cake, and it
With squares at equal distance pressed doth mark.
From there he takes it to the hearth (ere this
His Scybale had cleaned a fitting place),
And covers it with tiles and heaps the fire
Above. And while Vulcanus, Vesta too,
Perform their parts i’ th’ meantime, Symilus
Is not inactive in the vacant hour,
But other occupation finds himself;
And lest the corn alone may not be found
Acceptable to th’ palate he prepares
Some food which he may add to it. For him
No frame for smoking meat was hung above
The hearth, and backs and sides of bacon cured
With salt were lacking, but a cheese transfixed
By rope of broom through mid-circumference
Was hanging there, an ancient bundle, too,
Of dill together tied. So provident
Our hero makes himself some other wealth.
A garden to the cabin was attached,
Some scanty osiers with the slender rush
And reed perennial defended this;
A scanty space it was, but fertile in
The divers kinds of herbs, and nought to him
Was wanting that a poor man’s use requires;
Sometimes the well-to-do from him so poor
Requested many things. Nor was that work
A model of expense, but one of care:
If ever either rain or festal day
Detained him unemployed within his hut,
If toil of plough by any chance was stopped,
There always was that work of garden plot.
He knew the way to place the various plants,
And out of sight i’ th’ earth to set the seeds,
And how with fitting care to regulate
The neighbouring streams. And here was cabbage, here
Were beets, their foliage extending wide;
And fruitful sorrel, elecampane too
And mallows here were flourishing, and here
Was parsnip,’ leeks indebted to their head
For name, and here as well the poppy cool
And hurtful to the head, and lettuce too,
The pleasing rest at end of noble foods.
[And there the radish sweet doth thrust its points
Well into th’ earth] and there the heavy gourd
Has sunk to earth upon its belly wide.
But this was not the owner’s crop (for who
Than he more straightened is?). The people’s ’twas
And on the stated days a bundle did
He on his shoulder into th’ city bear,
When home he used to come with shoulder light
But pocket heavy, scarcely ever did
He with him bring the city markets’ meat.
The ruddy onion, and a bed of leek
-For cutting, hunger doth for him subdue-,
And cress which screws one’s face with acrid bite,
And endive, and the colewort which recalls
The lagging wish for sexual delights.
On something of the kind reflecting had
He then the garden entered, first when there
With fingers having lightly dug the earth
Away, he garlic roots with fibres thick,
And four of them doth pull; he after that
Desires the parsley’s graceful foliage,
And stiffness-causing rue,’ and, trembling on
Their slender thread, the coriander seeds,
And when he has collected these he comes
And sits him down beside the cheerful fire
And loudly for the mortar asks his wench.
Then singly each o’ th’ garlic heads be strips
From knotty body, and of outer coats
Deprives them, these rejected doth he throw
Away and strews at random on the ground.
The bulb preserved from th’ plant in water doth
He rinse, and throw it into th’ hollow stone.
On these he sprinkles grains of salt, and cheese
Is added, hard from taking up the salt.
Th’ aforesaid herbs he now doth introduce
And with his left hand ‘neath his hairy groin
Supports his garment;’ with his right he first
The reeking garlic with the pestle breaks,
Then everything he equally doth rub
I’ th’ mingled juice. His hand in circles move:
Till by degrees they one by one do lose
Their proper powers, and out of many comes
A single colour, not entirely green
Because the milky fragments this forbid,
Nor showing white as from the milk because
That colour’s altered by so many herbs.
The vapour keen doth oft assail the man’s
Uncovered nostrils, and with face and nose
Retracted doth he curse his early meal;
With back of hand his weeping eyes he oft
Doth wipe, and raging, heaps reviling on
The undeserving smoke. The work advanced:
No longer full of jottings as before,
But steadily the pestle circles smooth
Described. Some drops of olive oil he now
Instils, and pours upon its strength besides
A little of his scanty vinegar,
And mixes once again his handiwork,
And mixed withdraws it: then with fingers twain
Round all the mortar doth he go at last
And into one coherent ball doth bring
The diff’rent portions, that it may the name
And likeness of a finished salad fit.
And Scybale i’ th’ meantime busy too
He lifted out the bread; which, having wiped
His hands, he takes, and having now dispelled,
The fear of hunger, for the day secure,
With pair of leggings Symilus his legs
Encases, and with cap of skin on ‘s head
Beneath the thong-encircled yoke he puts
Th’ obedient bullocks, and upon the fields
He drives, and puts the ploughshare in the ground.

Translation Joseph J Mooney.

 

 

 

 

How Publius Virgilius Maro, so beloved by the beaks of old and powerful educational institutions, and Latin scholars, came by his revered reputation, is a story of how the power of the state and the church came to infiltrate and debase genuine poetry, and compel its submission to suit the sordid requirements of politics and religion.

Virgil’s toadying to the great Augustus, who needed Latin equivalents of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey in order to dignify his newly acquired imperial status, as well as a Latin impersonator of Homer to add  the much needed  sheen of pedigree and order to Rome’s muddled historical past, gave Virgil his first opportunity to infect with tortured contrivances and artifice the hitherto healthy body of Latin poetry.

Two centuries later, when imperial Rome had begun its descent into dissolution and decay and upstart Christianity commenced its progress towards  assuming the mantle of the state, some chance lines Virgil had written in order to congratulate his old teacher Pollio on the birth of a son, were found, and dusted off, and because of their resemblance to the words of the Hebrew prophet Isaiah, came to be  enshrined as a pre-Christian prophesying of Jesus’  birth. This of course brought about what was to be Virgil’s second incarnation as a state-sponsored luminary at a later time, when church and state were to fuse in their evil binary.

The irony in all this, is that the felicitations Pollio received from Virgil were the snide congratulations of one pederast to another. Pollio was being praised for amending his ways after a life spent in the pursuit of boys, when he  finally married and fathered a son. These inflated and overblown lines (Virgil was never a moderate writer) turned out to be such perfect fodder for the Catholic church, that he was given special standing

From that point on, this heavy, swarthy, stammering dyspeptic man of ‘rustic’ appearance, (nicknamed ‘Parthenias’ or ‘maiden’)’ came to be a fixture in the curricula of respected universities. It was a further fillip to a thoroughly unmerited reputation, that another overrated literary revenge-fantasist, Dante Alighieri, took Virgil to be his guide in a prolonged survey of the infernal regions.

All this came about as a result of Virgil’s liberal borrowings from a motley collection of disparate documents, said to have been gathered from the far reaches of the Roman empire, which claimed to contain the prophesies of the Sybil. These Virgil mined and re cycled for his fulsome praises of Pollio’s infant. It is quite possible that Isiah’s prophesy was included in the weird bundle of state- acquired papers, which as a literary hireling of Augustus, came to rest in Virgil’s hands. This of course resulted in the parts of his fourth Eclogue which in Mormon-like fashion helped transform  Virgil  into a postmortem Christian.

Though it has come to be attributed to Virgil, “Moretum” may have been written by his Greek teacher, possibly Parthenius. Virgil had had a long history of plagiarising – eight volumes of his plagiarisms were collected and published in his lifetime.  But several lines in “Moretum” do smack quite strongly of Virgilian silliness and ignorance,  for instance,  when Symilus the farmer frees his arms from his goatskin garment, and uses its tail to brush the mill. Anyone who the slightest ability summon the image of this little pantomime of hairy Symilus dusting off his quern with the tail of the goat-skin he is wearing, will probably howl with unrestrained laughter at the vision this brings to mind.

And then there is the unfortunate matter of Virgil’s chronic tendency towards inelegant and superfluous periphrasis. A rooster becomes a “winged sentinel,” a farmer a “rustic husbandman” and Symilus does not merely fix his lunch, he waxes  “solicitous about the days unpleasant emptiness.” Nor does he simply get out of bed, but “slowly raise the limbs extended on his pallet low.”

This is Virgil’s attempt to trick the mind by means of seducing the ear. He uses Homeric hexametres –  with which the  well educated Greek-reading  Romans of his day were familiar, to add lustre to and elevate the preparations of the noble Roman peasant preparing his daily fare to the level of the glorious acts of Greek and Trojan heroes.  Symilus grinding his corn and mixing his herbs comes to resemble  –in metre at least – Hector speaking to Andromache or Achilles wielding his weapons.

In order to slyly accomplish his ends, Virgil had to  ruthlessly subverted content to form, the form being of course those dactylic hexametres so flawlessly applied in Homer’s native Greek, but so hopelessly unsuited to Virgil’s own language Latin. It was no easy task, and his repeated failures are thickly strewn throughout the Aeneid.

Virgil’s real ambition is of course not to elevate the poor Roman peasant, several of whom he doubtless displaced and ruined with his large slave-run agribusiness with which no honest peasant could compete, but to sneak his way under the mantle of Homer and share his laurel. This of course was manifestly impossible: The chasm which yawns between a mere hack and a bona-fide genius can never be bridged – and in the words of mark Twain the difference between them is similar to that which exists between the lightning bug and lightning.

When Virgil allows his fancy to range free about how a Roman peasant goes about preparing breakfast, he lets still more of his slip show. The statement that a farmer needs 16 pounds  (or more accurately 11.53 pounds, the Roman pound being the equivalent of 327 grams) of grain for his daily fare, is of course another Virgilian gaffe. We could of course be generous and suppose that some of the bread was to be shared with Scybele, and some to be saved for dinner – but that would still leave a daily ration of 5 3/4 pounds of bread each,  which might be rather difficult to swallow even for a hard-working peasant, let alone a modern reader.

And what to say of the fact that this hoary son of the soil sings country ditties at what must be four o clock of a winter morning …. a sturdy soul he have been indeed, but slightly daft as well.

As for the implication that Symilus could not afford to bring red-onions home from the market – what impediment could there ever have been to his growing them? If indeed the conventional attribution to Virgil is correct, this would be just another of his filchings, and that would make it a little less galling to me as a naturalised American, that  a slight variant of my country’s motto (except for a single letter) is found in a ‘poem’ about a nutritious edible paste.

Virgil obviously prided himself on his knowledge of agriculture and animal husbandry, but most of his ‘knowledge’ was mere embroidery of legitimate country themes with a liberal dose of pure superstition and blatant ignorance. For example, book IV of Virgil’s Georgics,  where one comes across a terrible poem which includes instructions for ‘creating’ bees.

This process according to Virgil (who again ‘borrows’ and enlarges on an old Greek superstition which may have originated with Meleager) requires that a two year old bull be suffocated to death, and its carcass be shut up in some ‘constricted place’ , and allowed to rot. Virgil asserts that bees are then formed from this unimaginable mass of putrefaction. Virgil the ‘husbandman’ is completely unable to tell the difference between maggots and bee larvae, or meat-wasps from bees.

Far from being an agriculturist, Virgil was the owner of slave-run farms, which put out of business  – which is to say denied a living –  to the many  much smaller holdings which were the sole livelihood of men such as Symilus.  Virgil was to the  small farmer what Wal-Mart is to the corner grocery and drug-store.   Though of an appearance that was described as ‘rustic’, he was neither robust nor prepossessing in appearance.  Like another over-rated fixture of western literature, Hamlet, Virgil was  not only “fat and short of breath,” but he suffered from dyspepsia and haemorrhoids as well.

When he died at the age of 51, Virgil left instructions In his will for his writings to be burned, and for this we must give him credit. But Emperor Augustus had paid far too much money and waited far too long for his imperial commission to permit it to simply go up in flames. So Virgil’s output of one line per day was quickly put together, and the Aeneid with its weight of errors came to become required fare for the generations of scholars from the time of Augustus, when a quickly manufactured pedigree was an urgent necessity for aspiring Rome, to the scholars of Church-supported western university, who became the natural heirs to the revisionist medieval writers who mined the Latin ‘classics’ in order to find in them whatever would support the requirements of holy mother church.

Virgil seized his main chance when Augustus’  imperial ambitions came to coincide neatly with his own.  Several centuries later, in the middle-ages, when the church itself had been safely  ‘rendered unto Caesar’, which is to say the pope, the dehumanising mockery of state-run religion combined with state -sponsored ‘poetry’, formed the unholy alliance that has  come to be the curse of our literary and spiritual inheritance.

 

 

 

Iam nox hibernas bis quinque peregerat horas
excubitorque diem cantu praedixerat ales,
Simylus exigui cultor cum rusticus agri
tristia venturae metuens ieiunia lucis
membra levat vili sensim demissa grabato
sollicitaque manu tenebras explorat inertes
vestigatque focum, laesus quem denique sensit.
Parvolus exusto remanebat stipite fomes
et cinis obductae celabat lumina prunae.
Admovet his pronam summissa fronte lucernam
et producit acu stuppas umore carentis
excitat et crebris languentem flatibus ignem.
Tandem concepto, sed vix, fulgore recedit
oppositaque manu lumen defendit ab aura
et reserat clausae quae pervidet ostia clavis.
Fusus erat terra frumenti pauper acervos:
hinc sibi depromit quantum mensura patebat,
quae bis in octonas excurrit pondere libras.
Inde abit assistitque molae parvaque tabella,
quam fixam paries illos servabat in usus,
lumina fida locat; geminos tunc veste lacertos
liberat et cinctus villosae tergore caprae
pervertit cauda silices gremiumque molarum.
Advocat inde manus operi partitus utrique:
laeva ministerio, dextra est intenta labori.
Haec rotat adsiduom gyris et concitat orbem
(tunsa Ceres silicum rapido decurrit ab ictu)
interdum fessae succedit laeva sorori
alternatque vices. Modo rustica carmina cantat
agrestique suom solatur voce laborem,
interdum clamat Scybalen (erat unica custos,
Afra genus, tota patriam testante figura,
torta comam labroque tumens et fusca colore,
pectore lata, iacens mammis, compressior alvo,
cruribus exilis, spatiosa prodiga planta)
hanc vocat atque arsura focis imponere ligna
imperat et flamma gelidos adolere liquores.
Postquam implevit opus iustum versatile finem,
transfert inde manu fusas in cribra farinas
et quatit ac remanent summa purgamina dorso.
Subsidit sincera foraminibusque liquatur
emundata Ceres. Levi tum protinus illam
componit tabula, tepidas super ingerit undas
contrahit admixtos nunc fontes atque farinas,
transversat durata manu liquidoque coacto,
interdum grumos spargit sale. Iamque subactum
levat opus palmisque suom dilatat in orbem
et notat impressis aequo discrimine quadris.
Infert ince foco (Scybale mundaverat aptum
ante locum) testisque tegit, super aggerat ignis.
Dumque suas peragit Volcanus Vestaque partes,
Simylus interea vacua non cessat in hora,
verum aliam sibi quaerit opem neu sola palato
sit non grata Ceres, quas iungat comparat escas.
Non illi suspensa focum carnaria iuxta,
durati sale terga suis truncique vacabant,
traiectus medium sparto sed caseus orbem
et vetus adstricti fascis pendebat anethi:
ergo aliam molitur opem sibi providus aeris.
Hortus erat iunctus casulae, quem vimina pauca
et calamo rediviva levi muniebat harundo,
exiguo spatio, variis sed fertilis herbis.
Nil illi deerat ,quod pauperis exigit usus:
interdum locuples a paupere plura petebat.
Nec sumptus erat ullis, sed regula curae:
si quando vacuom casula pluviaeve tenebant
festave lux, si forte labor cessabat aratri,
horti opus illud erat. Varias disponere plantas
norat et occultae committere semina terrae
vicinosque apte circa summittere rivos.
Hic holus, hic late fundentes bracchia betae
fecundusque rumex malvaeque inulaeque virebant,
hic siser et nomen capiti debentia porra
grataque nobilium requies lactuca ciborum
……….crescitque in acumina radix
et gravis in latum dimissa cucurbita ventrem.
Verum hic non domini (quis enim contractior illo?),
sed populi proventus erat, nonisque diebus
venalis umero fasces portabat ad urbem:
inde domum cervice levis, gravis aere redibat
vix umquam urbani comitatus merce macelli.
Caepa rubens sectique famem domat area porri
quaeque trahunt acri voltus nasturtia morsu
intibaque et venerem revocans eruca morantem.
Tunc quoque tale aliquid meditans intraverat hortum.
Ac primum, leviter digitis tellure refossa,
quattuor educit cum spissis alia fibris,
inde comas apii gracilis rutamque rigentem
vellit et exiguo coriandra trementia filo.
Haec ubi collegit, laetum consedit ad ignem
et clara famulam poscit mortaria voce.
Singula tum capitum nodoso corpore nudat
et summis spoliat coriis contemptaque passim
spargit humi atque abicit. Servatum germine bulbum
tinguit aqua lapidisque cavom demittit in orbem.
His salis inspargit micas, sale durus adeso
caseus adicitur, dictas super ingerit herbas
et laeva vestem saetosa sub inguina fulcit:
dextera pistillo primum flagrantia mollit
alia, tum pariter mixto terit omnia suco.
It manus in gyrum: paulatim singula vires
deperdunt proprias; color est e pluribus unus,
nec totus viridis, quia lactea frusta repugnant,
nec de lacte nitens, quia tot variatur ab herbis.
Saepe viri nares acer iaculatur apertas
spiritus et simo damnat sua prandia voltu,
saepe manu summa lacrimantia lumina terget
immeritoque furens dicit convicia fumo.
Procedebat opus nec iam salebrosus ut ante
sed gravior lentos ibat pistillus in orbis.
Ergo Palladii guttas instillat olivi
exiguique super vires infundit aceti
atque iterum commiscet opus mixtumque retractat.
Tum demum digitis mortaria tota duobus
circuit inque globum distantia contrahit unum,
constet ut effecti species nomenque moreti.
Eruit interea Scybale quoque sedula panem,
quem laetus recipit manibus, pulsoque timore
iam famis inque diem securus Simylus illam
ambit crura ocreis paribus tectusque galero
sub iuga parentis cogit lorata iuvencos
atque agit in segetes et terrae condit aratrum.

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