Wednesday, July 29, 2015

What is Vergil's Most Familiar Verse?


While aimlessly exploring Latin philology this morning, I stumbled on a rather curious quote. Hugh Andrew Johnstone Munro, a classical scholar at Cambridge wrote the following in 1859 [emphasis my own]:

"cara deum suboles, magnum Iovis incrementum (Virgil Ecl. iv, 49)
Probably no verse of Virgil is more familiar to his readers than the above." 
"Lucretius, Catullus, Vergil," P. 290, in Journal of Classical and Sacred Philology 4, Cambridge University Press (2012, originally published 1859).

As a philologist writing in 2015, this quote struck me as nearly bizarre, since I had actually never even seen this quote until I happened on it through accidental research.



I mean, if you asked me what verse of Vergil is most familiar to people generally, I would say, by way of the well-known quote, "Beware of Greeks bearing gifts," timeo Danaos et dona ferentes (Aeneid 2.49).

But if the question is, which verse is most familiar to his readers (meaning people reading it in Latin), it would be most difficult to answer.

Certainly, the famous first line of the Aeneid, arma virumque cano, I sing arms and the man (Aeneid 1.1) would warrant consideration.

Just off the top of my head another personal favorite might be forsan et haec olim meminisse juvabit, perhaps one day it will help to remember even these things (Aeneid 1.203). 

A scan through Wikiquotes for Vergil reminds me of many more:

Omnia vincit amor, et nos cedamus amori, Love conquers all, so let us yield to love (Ecl. 10.69)

audentes fortuna iuvat, Fortune helps those who dare (Aeneid 10.284)

sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt, These are the tears of things and mortal matters touch the mind (Aeneid 1.462)
Conington's translation is better, "E'en here the tear of pity springs, And hearts are touched by human things."

But what verse from Vergil does not appear at all on Wikiquote's list? The one that Munro states is the most familiar to Vergil's readers in 1859!

And here's the thing. We really shouldn't doubt Munro's opinion on this matter. He was then a considerably more accomplished classical scholar that I am now. He published that assertion in a well respected academic journal. If the statement would have been seen as bizarre by the editors, I would imagine it would not have made print even in 1859.

Which brings us to the curious apparent fact that we are reading Vergil quite differently today than they did in the mid-19th century. And a little research shows this, in fact, to be quite the case. 

In that same journal, Munro, reviewing Conington's then new edition of Vergil, wrote:

"...during the next half century, the reputation of the poet [Vergil] will stand much higher than it has done in that which has just elapsed, in the course of which it probably reached its nadir." (P. 286, Journal of Classical and Sacred Philology 4, 1859)

Frank M. Turner argues that a positive reassessment of the Emperor Augustus during the Victorian Age led to a parallel resurgence in interest for Vergil himself. (P. 297, "Virgil in Victorial classical contexts" in Contesting Cultural Authority: Essays in Victorian Intellectual Life, Cambridge University Press, 1993).

A rise in appreciation for Augustus likely also resulted in a new focus on the national epic Vergil wrote, commissioned by the Emperor himself. And in the course of time schoolchildren in Great Britain and the United States read Vergil's Aeneid as the pinnacle of their Latin education, and not, say, the Eclogues. I'm going to admit that, while I read the Aeneid in high school, and it's all of Vergil my Latin students ever see, I've never cracked open his other works at all.


Today's discovery makes me want to explore Vergil's Eclogues and Georgics. Apparently, for over a hundred years, many of us have really been missing something.


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