Virgil’s First Eclogue: No Idyll

Seb Hyams

The countryside exists as much in our imagination as it does in reality. Post a picture on social media of an orchard or a thatched roof and thousands of wistful ‘likes’ will come your way. These are, of course, selective snippets rather than the full picture. We want flower bouquets and foraged mushrooms, not dead sheep. The Romans also indulged their fantasies about rural life in their art and literature.

Meliboeus, the herdsman of Virgil’s Seventh Eclogue,[1] narrates a singing competition he observed between a shepherd and a goatherd. The setting is rich in rural detail. For instance:

huc ipsi potum venient per prata iuvenci,

hic viridis tenera praetexit harundine ripas

Mincius, eque sacra resonant examina quercu.

Here young bulls will come through the meadows to drink of their own accord,

Here the river Mincius borders its green banks with delicate reeds,

And out of the sacred oak swarming bees hum. (Ecl. 7. 11–13)

Et In Arcadia Ego (“Even In Arcadia [Am] I”), Nicolas Poussin, 1637 (Louvre Museum, Paris).

So too the world of which the herdsmen themselves sing. One praises muscosi fontes et somno mollior herba, “mossy springs and grass softer than sleep” (7.45). Ilex, oak, arbutus, juniper, chestnut, myrtle, poplar, hazel, ash, pine, and fir trees are all named. The herdsmen are preoccupied with love and the changing of the seasons. A lover gives a boar’s head and stag’s antlers to his beloved. Bowls of milk are offered to Priapus, the rustic fertility god. Trees provide shade from the coming summer sun and a warm hut is remembered as a bulwark against the cold north wind.

The setting is an odd one. The shepherds are described as Arcades ambo, “both Arcadians” (7.4). Arcadia is a region of Greece, but they sing beside the river Mincio, which flows out of Lake Garda in northern Italy, then bends past Mantua, near Virgil’s birthplace. The setting is deliberately impossible. The realistic details of place names and plants add up to an unreal whole. Virgil has created a lush, imaginary, pastoral world, which we now know as Arcadia and which has endured in European art and literature ever since. If, like me, your local drag racers are currently gouging out potholes in the tarmac, then it is a piece of dreamy escapism.

The river Mincio, which drains Lake Garda into the Po, flowing through Mantua, where Virgil was born in 70 BC.

When Virgil began writing the Eclogues around 40 BC, the Italian countryside was far from tranquil. The Civil War between Octavian (later to become Augustus) and his unlikely ally Mark Antony on one side, and Julius Caesar’s killers on the other, had concluded in 42 BC at the Battle of Philippi in northern Greece. Though the war ended overseas, Italy was not spared further, violent, consequences.

Octavian needed to provide land at home for his veterans. Accordingly, he set about carving up the peninsula. Although Octavian would later become both an emperor and a god (!), he could not simply magic up new land. To give to some, he had to take from others. The historian Appian (AD c. 95–165) pitiably describes rural refugees journeying to Rome to decry being evicted from their farms and homes. The urban populace, we are told, wept in sympathy.[2] Worse still, Octavian’s veterans were impatient for their promised land and confident that he needed their loyalty to secure his position. Unwilling to wait for official distributions, they began a land grab.

It was during this vicious disruption to rural Italy that Virgil started the Eclogues (“Selections”), also known as the Bucolics (“Songs of Herdsmen”). He modelled these poems on those of the famous Hellenistic poet, Theocritus, active in the early third century BC. One of the more obvious ways Virgil marks his engagement with Theocritean pastoral is by giving his characters Greek names. Looking back to Eclogue 7, the names of the singing herdsmen, Corydon and Thyrsis, are plucked from Theocritus’ Idylls.[3] However, just as violent eviction disrupted Italy, so Virgil disrupted the world of his literary model.

Illustration for Theocritus’ Idyll 21, from The Bibliophile Society’s edition of The Idylls and Epigrams of Theocritus, Bion and Moschus (3 vols, Boston, 1905).

Theocritus conjured up a beautiful and fantastical rustic world filled with flowers, meadows, herdsmen, and their songs. Indeed, the English word idyllic actually comes from the name of his poems, the Idylls. The route is roundabout: the Greek eidyllion (εἰδύλλιον) signifies a small picture, reflecting that Theocritus’ eidyllia are short poems on a range of topics. Although their range is much greater than pastoral, it is the rural escapism of his poetry which has had the greatest impact on the poetic imagination, including Virgil – and thus idyllic has come to refer to a beautiful rural place. Theocritus’ pastoral poetry is escapist since he himself seems to have been thoroughly urban, a native of Syracuse in southern Sicily and perhaps living too in Alexandria, an ancient megacity in northern Egypt. There is sadness in Theocritus’ countryside: Idyll 1, for example, depicts the pastoral world in mourning, but the rural environment is never existentially threatened.

Like many of the poets we call Roman, Virgil was not from the city of Rome. He was born in a village near Mantua in northern Italy. An ancient life of Virgil gives the ridiculous story of the poet’s pregnant mother dreaming of giving birth to a laurel tree which immediately blossomed. The next day, as she made her way into the fields, she is said to have jumped into a ditch to give birth.[4] The account is undoubtedly fictional, but the point stands that Virgil’s early life was shaped by rural Italy. It is no coincidence that two of his three major works, the Eclogues and the Georgics, are concerned with rurality. Modern scholars can be shy about attributing emotions to authors based on scant biographical details, but it is easy to imagine the profound sense of loss Virgil would have felt as he watched his fellow countrymen dispossessed.

Virgil’s First Eclogue, in contrast to the Seventh, is un-idyllic. One of the two shepherds in the dialogue has been dispossessed of his land, just like many Italians at the time. Rather than depict a pastoral fantasy, the poet explores the tension between idyll and reality, Theocritean escape and contemporary destruction.

A herdsman named Meliboeus encounters his friend Tityrus lying beneath a beech tree, playing a reed flute. The location and the activity are instantly recognisable as belonging to the pastoral dream. By the third line, however, Virgil has interrupted what we thought was going to be an idyllic song.

Tityre, tu patulae recubans sub tegmine fagi

silvestrem tenui Musam meditaris avena;

nos patriae fines et dulcia linquimus arva.

nos patriam fugimus; tu, Tityre, lentus in umbra

silvestrem tenui Musam meditaris avena;

Tityrus, lying under the cover of a broad beech,

you contemplate the woodland Muse with a delicate reed-pipe,

but we leave our homelands and sweet fields,

we flee our birthplace; but you, Tityrus, lazing in the shade,

teach the woods to echo back ‘Pretty Amaryllis’. (Ecl. 1.1–5)

There is a heavy contrast between the fortunate Tityrus (tu… tu, “youyou”) and the unfortunate Meliboeus, who we will learn later has been evicted from his land by soldiers, along with many others (nos… nos, “we… we”). Likewise, the fantasy of pastoral poetry contrasts with the bitter reality of contemporaneous Italy.

The effectiveness of the poem lies in making the pastoral world ring hollow. Tityrus, for instance, describes journeying to Rome for the sake of libertas, “freedom”, having been left by his former lover Galatea and now being in love with Amaryllis. The tropes of pastoral love and loss jar unpleasantly with the real loss of Meliboeus’ land to confiscation. Tityrus’ complaints about not getting a fair price for his cheese, perhaps quaint in Theocritean pastoral, appear ridiculous in Virgil’s contemporary Italian context.

The Meeting of Meliboeus and Tityrus, illustration from a 15th-century French manuscript of Virgil (Dijon, Bibliothèque Municipale, 493, 3v, c. 1470, which can be explored here).

Meliboeus’ fate is an obviously miserable one, but Virgil taints Tityrus’ happiness too, undermining the pastoral dreamworld even for those who remain within it. Tityrus offers effusive praise for a iuvenis, “young man” (1.42), who ensured he kept his property. The young man is, in his view, a deus, “god” (1.6). A central issue of interpretation is the identity of this deus iuvenis. Most argue for Octavian specifically, since he was then young, in charge of land redistribution, and the adopted son of the deified Caesar. Yet the ambiguity is studied. Anonymity suggests that, whichever potentate rules in Rome (and Octavian’s position was not yet secure), events in Italy’s political centre controlled the fates of those whose lives were formerly a world away. The deus iuvenis, by providing stability to some, destabilises the whole.

The irruption of urban politics into rural Italy is heightened by Tityrus’ incredulity. He explains that he thought his local market town was to Rome as puppies are to dogs and kids to goats. He discovered on his visit, however, that Rome was incomparable, standing out among cities as much as lenta… inter viburna cupressi, “cypress trees… among the pliant Viburnum shrubs” (1.25). The incongruity of describing the city of Rome in pastoral terms highlights the incompatibility of contemporary politics with the rural dream. The very name Roma jars with the pastoral setting. Tityrus’ praise is unsettling because the deus iuvenis and Rome should not control the pastoral world, even if they do benefit some of its inhabitants.

Think back to Eclogue 7 with its lush foliage and sleepy springs. That is what a pastoral landscape should look like. Tityrus, however, fortunate though he is, does not get this. Rather, Meliboeus remarks:

fortunate senex, ergo tua rura manebunt

et tibi magna satis, quamvis lapis omnia nudus

limosoque palus obducat pascua iunco.

Fortunate old man, so your land will remain yours,

great enough for you, even though naked stone

and marsh with muddy reeds covers the entire pasture. (Ecl. 1.46–8)

Far from the dream of the literary pastoral world, in the violent atmosphere of Virgil’s Italy, even a muddy field is magna, “great”, and indeed depressingly satis, “enough”, given the ruin of others. After all, Meliboeus laments that he will not even be able to look at his thatched hut and his few ears of corn. Remember that this is the world of pastoral: Meliboeus was herding goats at the start of the poem. But here he imagines looking at arable fields, an experience rather closer to those dispossessed by Octavian’s confiscations. The gap between reality and the literary world of pastoral is aptly at its narrowest here, just before Meliboeus reveals who will take his land – an impius miles, “impious soldier” (1.70).

Peace is restored to the countryside as the poem ends. There are apples, chestnuts, cheese, and huts smoking in the background. Tityrus invites his fellow herdsman to share this on a bed of leaves, but just for hanc… noctem, “this night” (1.79). We are conscious of the temporary status of the calm. Virgil does not need to spell out that, when the sun comes up, what little that is left of Meliboeus’ pastoral dream will be gone.

Context is crucial in getting the most out of Roman poetry, and certainly out of this Eclogue. Paradoxically, the depiction of a pastoral dreamscape is rooted in the distinctly undreamy violence of Virgil’s Italy in the 40s and 30s BC. But it is also hard not to read our own preoccupations into the ancient text, to find similarities and differences. This, I think, is when Latin poetry goes beyond material for scholarly analysis and starts to speak to us, whoever we are.

The River Welland, between Stamford and Uffington, Lincolnshire.

Depending on where you are, the immediacy and nature of threats to the rural world will differ. The Amazon is being mowed down to satiate our desire for cheap meat. Swathes of the planet are being dug up for metals to drive the tech revolution. Modern Meliboeuses will be driven from home as climate refugees. I moved to a small town in Lincolnshire, in eastern England, two years ago, having previously lived only in cities many times its size. It is surrounded by beautiful woodland, fields, and farms. But ‘green field’ land is being built on, and when I walk by the river after work, it is hard to miss the enormous metal pylons which break out like pimples from the grass.

The Classical world does not map neatly onto our own, nor will its poetry offer neat solutions to 21st-century problems. But beyond the poeticism, the cleverness, and the historic interest of Eclogue 1, it has additional value in encouraging us to think about our own relationship to the countryside, at home and abroad. Who are the impious soldiers of our world? What can we do to stop them? Are they, in fact, us? The First Eclogue is a fitting poem for the modern age because, unlike Theocritus, it does not sell its readers a dream. Instead, it shows us how political exigency and greed interrupt, and possibly destroy, our fantasies.

Seb Hyams teaches Classics at the Stamford Endowed Schools in Lincolnshire, England.

Further Reading

For general context on the Roman imagination of landscapes, see Diana Spencer’s Roman Landscape: Culture and Identity (Greece & Rome New Surveys in the Classics 39, 2013). On the Eclogues in particular, Philip Hardie’s chapter in Virgil (Greece & Rome New Surveys in the Classics 28, 1998) is a good starting point. Robert Coleman’s commentary has good notes and introduction (Cambridge UP, 1977), and a much fuller account is given in Wendell Clausen’s commentary (Oxford UP, 1994). Michael Putnam’s Virgil’s Pastoral Art: Studies in the Eclogues (Princeton UP, 1970) can be read here. Finally, to explore the evolution of Virgil in the hands of mediaeval readers, see Domenico Comparetti’s Vergil in the Middle Ages (first published in 1872 but available in a revised translation), which can be consulted in the original Italian here, and in an early translation here.


1 This work can be explored in Latin here, and via a readable English translation here.
2 The account can be read in Greek and English here.
3 The afterlife of these names usefully illustrates European literature’s indebtedness to Classical authors. Corydon appears in Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene (1590–6) and elsewhere. Thyrsis is the name that Matthew Arnold gave to his elegy which includes the famous description of Oxford (in 1865) as “that sweet city with her dreaming spires”.
4 This tale can be read in the first paragraph of the Life of Virgil (the Vita Vergilii attributed to the 4th-century scholar Aelius Donatus), accessible in Latin here and English here.