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David Wishart

I, Virgil
Hodder & Stoughton, 1995


For anyone familiar with Augustan Rome, this mystery is little more than light bedtime reading. The idea for a first-person narration and the title clearly came from I, Claudius. All the dramatis personae are present, including contemporary poets such as Varro and Horace. The familiar tales of wars, triumvirates, booties, and bounties are skillfully retold, with extended Virgilian similes artfully interwoven. Epicureanism is lucidly explained; and there are the usual parallels between classical and Christian mythologies, especially those with a Messianic tinge or those involving fratricide. Like Romulus and Cain, Virgil murders his older, favored brother, and is himself killed at Augustus's instigation by la belle dame sans merci, which in Italian is rendered belladonna, because of his refusal to omit in the Aeneid symbolic references to the troubled birth of the Augustan age. Virgil's role as official explicator and glorifier of Augustus and his programs began when he was introduced by mutual acquaintances to Asinius Pollio, an up-and-coming nobleman who counterpointed his political interests by dabbling in poetry. When his father's farm was confiscated in one of Augustus's purges, Virgil turns to Pollio, former commander of the Spanish legions under the triumvirs and an accomplished administrator, and to one of his colleagues, Cornelius Gallus, who, together with Pollio, had been appointed deputy governors by Augustus. In return for securing the return of the farm, Gallus, while denying it, demands a quid pro quo by "suggesting" that Virgil introduce a political element into his hitherto Theocritan pastorals, blending social and political issues in a pastoral setting for the purpose of informing and educating his readers. Virgil complies; the poem is published through the good offices of the wealthy and influential nobleman, Maecenas; and the de facto appointment as court poet eventually leads to an invitation to a dinner with Maecenas, whose charm disarms Virgil to the extent that he accepts his new acquaintance's "spontaneous" invitation to accompany him to Brindisi, where a standoff between Augustus and Antony is resolved by the formation of the first triumvirate. This event so relieves Virgil that he is inspired to write his fourth Pastoral, which seems to prophesy the birth of Christ: For you, Child, The untitled earth will pour forth her gifts, Small at first, the smallest of giftlings: Trailing ivy; valerian the healer; Lilies, and the smiling acanthus. Goats will bring, with no man urging, Their milk-swelled udders swaying homeward. Lions Will hold no terrors for the sheep. Your very cradle, Child, Will pour forth flowers in rich abundance To welcome you. Back in Rome after the battle of Naulochus ended the current round of civil wars and marked the end of Sextus Pompey, Virgil, now a poet made famous by his Pastorals, is invited by Maecenas to a dinner at which he meets Varro, and, unexpectedly, Augustus, who encourages him to celebrate the simple peasant virtues which in his view underlie the greatness of Rome. Initially drawing an implicit analogy between himself and Cincinnatus, who put aside his dictator's mantle in order to plow his own acreage, Augustus quickly proceeds to the "suggestion" that Virgil compose an encomium of the Italian countryside praising honest sweat and toil. This work, which became the Georgics, is to be a political pamphlet whose purpose is to explain to the upper classes the purposes of Augustus's programs. By the late spring of the year after Cleopatra's death, this work is largely finished, and, in a series of readings to Augustus, Virgil eventually arrives at his surprise ending, a brief tribute to Cornelius Gallus, who took credit for the successful Egyptian campaign instead of patriotically giving the credit to Caesar. After insisting that this passage be deleted, Augustus makes another suggestion: that Virgil produce an epic ? specifically, one celebrating the heroic story of Aeneas, who has, as the author reminds us, "an impeccable Homeric pedigree" and whose "son Iulus is the ancestor of the Julian clan" from which Augustus traces his descent. With misgivings, the undisputed poet laureate complies with both requests, replacing the passage on Gallus with one on the death of Orpheus while subtly emphasizing the parallelisms: both offended a pitiless ruler and were destroyed for it, while their songs survived. And in the Aeneid Virgil invests the themes so important to Augustus - divine intent, poetry, religious obedience, and the conflict between duty and self-interest, with a Homeric authority that, by analogy, immortalizes Augustus as a divine ruler against whose example all successors will be measured. Thus the epic becomes, in effect, a justification of the ways of god to man. But once again the poet indulges in symbolic deception, implicitly comparing Aeneas's shipwreck in a storm that flung him upon the shore of Carthage with Augustus' own shipwreck before the battle of Naulochus and his consequent insults to the statue of Neptune, god of the sea. Recognizing the deception, in a meeting at Brindisi Augustus commands Virgil to abandon his plan to travel to Greece and "asks" him to return to Rome as soon as a broken plank on his ship is repaired: "Can't mock Neptune, eh? . It's a dangerous practice, Virgil. Mocking gods. It gets you nowhere. Nowhere at all." Five days later, the poet feels a chill, and the observant Augustus summons his personal physician, a trusted Greek named Musa: "He'll fix you up in no time. The ship's ready, and we sail tomorrow. Don't want you to die on us before Brindisi, do we?" I shivered, and it had nothing to do with my chill. I knew then that he had marked me for death. In addition to its intriguing cameos of Virgil's involvement in some of the major events of his time, what signally distinguishes this work is the author's habit of dwelling upon known Roman sexual proclivities, principally homosexuality (despite his assertion that he has played it down) and sadism, in gratuitous ways that elevate sensationalism over convincing psychological motivation. Like newly met dogs who sniff each other's anuses, young men of letters who have just become acquainted reminisce about their schooldays and manage to inform each other that their backsides still bear the scars of schoolmasters' whippings. Virgil, we are told, is dragged by a friend to his only heterosexual experience, a double date with a couple of tawdry prostitutes in a sordid setting. The sound of his friend's moans across a bare room in which the dividing curtain lies crumpled on the floor helps him to stiffen: 'That's better, love,' she said, 'I knew you could get it up if you tried. Now just let me .' 'No!' I pulled myself away, fell heavily off the bed, crawled toward the door, felt the bile rise in my throat, bent over, vomited. I remembered how I had felt when I saw [Eupolis, a former tutor] with the young man in the bath-house. . I leaned my head against a rough-stone wall, and wept. That one experience prove[d] to me that I did not like women. . Far better to suppress the urge. . I have never regretted my decision. Although my self-imposed celibacy has not been an easy burden to bear, it has saved me a great deal of pain. While I was living near Naples, the local people (who are of course Greeks) gave me the nickname Parthenias, Virgin. Virgil the Virgin. How pat. Unlike countless young men of many eras who, as the song goes, either literally or metaphorically "learned about love in the back seat of a Dodge", hardly a romantic setting - Virgil decides that he does not like women, at least sexually, and the parents of his only female friend in the book initially tolerate his companionship with their daughter only because they realize that he is harmless. Such passages may titillate, and perhaps they help to broaden the potential readership for Wishart's book, but they seem to add little to our understanding of the nature of his protagonist. Michael Wells Glueck November 01

- Michael Wells Glueck, 11/1/2001

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