Finding Arcadia: The Garden in the Cosmos in Latin Literature


Cleveland, OH. Virgil is one of the most common names in Western literature. Apart from the Bible, his writings were perhaps the most read in the history of the West. One cannot read any of the classical creative works of literature, or even works of literary criticism, up through the mid-twentieth century and not find references to Virgil or his voice echoing through the pages.

Virgil’s relationship to the political has oscillated between subversive critic of the Augustan regime to sycophantic admirer whose magisterial Aeneid was considered the culmination of “the pagan project.” While the Aeneid is a fixture in the canon of Western civilization, another of Virgil’s works has all but been forgotten: the Eclogues. Yet Virgil’s Eclogues rival the Aeneid. If the Aeneid was the culmination of the pagan political project and the triumph of civilization through naked violence, then the Eclogues was the culmination of the pagan desire for serenity in a world often plagued by chaos and violence.

This leads us to the question that has concerned scholars for the last century. Was Virgil a subversive critic of Augustus and the Roman Empire, a sort of proto-romantic reactionary yearning for the republican idyll? Or was he an outright propagandist for Augustus and the new regime that stamped order out of the chaos of nearly a century of war and fratricidal conflict?

I think Virgil was both. Like the other great Latin poets, Horace especially, the praise sung to Augustus was not to Augustus per se—as the advocates of the subversive Virgil regularly highlight—but for the Arcadian ideal Augustus allowed to flourish by ending the destructive chaos of war during his rule. The Arcadian idyll is perhaps one of the defining romantic images of Republican Rome. We know the story of Cincinnatus working his little plot of land only to be called back to service to save Rome in her hour of crisis and his return that little sliver of serenity after once again performing his dutiful service for his country. Even Ridley Scott’s Gladiator portrays the Arcadian idyll when Russell Crowe’s General Maximus dies and is reunited with his family in that naturalistic heaven at the close of the film with the tranquility of “Now we are Free” providing a greater élan vital to the idyll aesthetic and experience.

It is perhaps inaccurate to call Virgil a Neoplatonist. Virgil’s own life would have coincided with what is called Middle Platonism whose greatest representative, Plutarch, was born well after Virgil’s death. But what Virgil had in common with the future Neoplatonist was a desire to dwell in the divine realm of nature. The Neoplatonist heart, contrary to popular misconception, did not seek “world flight” but a world-dwelling in the deep roots of the transcendent soul implanted in Nature. The largely ignored Eclogues clearly reveal this impulsive desire in Virgil’s thought.

Discovering Arcadia

The greatest achievement of the Augustan writers was the creation of traditionalism. It is often said that history is written by the victors. Only someone ignorant of Latin literature could have conjured up such a belief. The greatest Latin writer of all-time, Cicero, was one of the losers of the civil war. Lucan, another great Latin poet, was undeniably sympathetic to the anti-imperial and pro-republican cause. So too, I would contend, were Virgil, Horace, and Silius Italicus. Actual losers, and those sympathetic to the losers, wrote the great histories and poems that have survived from Rome’s apogee down to modernity and still inspire generations moved by their aesthetic prose, yearning for peace, and unadulterated celebration of the hedonistic life afforded in Arcadia.

Virgil began composing the poems that comprise the Eclogues during the turbulence of the collapse of the Roman Republic and the Caesarian Civil Wars. The poems often oscillate between a pastoral and erotic desire for an idyll with the looming clouds of chaotic urban civilization, “Rome,” off in the background. As Meliboeus and Tityrus converse in Tityrus’s pastoral home, Meliboeus asks Tityrus who this god is he speaks of as procuring the peaceable pastoral idyll they he enjoys. Tityrus bluntly answers Rome: “Urbem, quam dicunt Romam, Meliboee [The city, Meliboeus, that they call Rome].”

It is perhaps paradoxical to think that the great conflagration that was the decline and fall of the Roman Republic also produced the vitality and creativity of Virgil, Horace, Ovid, Cicero, and other luminaries of Latin literature. Yet it is also not hard to understand why. In the turbulence and turmoil, the educated elite in Roman society yearned for a restoration and a return to their agrarian idylls which had been shattered by mass marches, revolts, and decades of war. Only as their world was fading away did they come to realize with such passionate intensity how much they loved it.

After all, Tityrus and Meliboeus enjoy pleasant friendship and peaceable conversation in the first Eclogue—something far removed from tales of flight, fight, and storms.

“Happy old man!” Meliboeus interjects, “Here, amid familiar streams and sacred springs, you shall enjoy the cooling shade. On this side, as of old, on your neighbor’s border, the hedge whose willow blossoms are sipped by Hybla’s bees shall often with its gentle hum soothe you to slumber; on that, under the towering rock, the woodman’s song shall fill the air; while still the cooing wood pigeons, your pets, and the turtle dove shall cease not their moaning from the elm tops.”

The image is quintessentially serene.

The ultimate end of this pastoral idyll is a humanization of the wedding banquet of Peleus and Thetis—minus all the strife. “Yet this night,” Tityrus says, “you might have rested here with me on the green leafage. We have ripe apples, mealy chestnuts, and a wealth of pressed cheeses.” Rome has won this peace and bountiful harvest for men to enjoy. For that reason, Rome is a god. But the god that is Rome is also kept at distance. Tityrus doesn’t pray to this god. He prays to the muses, stags, and starlight that he intimately dwells with. That is what governs and guides his heart. He acknowledges what provides this idyllic serenity, but he doesn’t worship it as he does the Arcadian paradise he calls home.

Ironic Praise

Virgil, like his Greek forebears, was also something of an ironist. Aeneas is driven away from his ancestral homes and into the tumult of the sea by capricious gods who also deny his desire to wed Dido and leave a comfortable and pleasurable life on the shores of Carthage. Aeneas, traveling to the underworld, hears the prophecies of the coming of Rome and the son of Jupiter, Augustus, ruling over the world.

The Aeneid is a poem of strife and war. It is also a poem celebrating the new ideology in the Augustan Empire: pietas. Pietas, in Latin, means duty. English derives the word piety from it. But while we envision gentle grandmothers praying rosaries, the Roman understanding of pietas was imbued with a spirit of masculine struggle and duty: duty to honor the gods, protect your family, and serve your fellow countrymen.

But such a life of constant struggle, as Tityrus implies, is not worth living. We want the idyll. We seek the serenity offered within it. We desire the sumptuous. None of this is possible through the constant laborious struggles of pietas. Augustus will bring peace, yes—this is undoubtedly a good thing—but what is better than Augustus’s mere Pax Romana is the Arcadian idyll of beauty, joy, and peace; the luscious “canopy of a spreading beech, wooing the woodland Muse on slender reed” is what Virgil really sings praise of. As such, Augustus is a mere instrument, a means, to an even greater end. Augustus, ironically, gets passed by as we approach the Arcadian Paradise that calls Virgil home.

When Aeneas travels into the underworld in the sixth book of the Aeneid, the usual descent beyond the realm of the living to experience the transcendent mysteries of esoteric knowledge, it is not so much the prophecy of Augustus that this descent reveals to us but the vision of the Elysian fields—Arcadia—that is true culmination of this revelatory sojourn:

Intersea videt Aeneas in valle reducta seclusum nemus et virgulta sonantia silvae Lethaeumque, domos placidas qui praenatat, amnem. hunc cicum innumerae gentes populique volabant; ac velut in pratis ubi apes aestate serena floribus insidunt variis et candida circum lilia funduntur, strepit omnis murmure campus.

[Meanwhile, in a quiet valley, Aeneas sees a secluded grove and roaring forest thickets and the river of Lethe rippling past many peaceful homes. In the valley danced innumerable peoples and tribes. Out in the meadows, with the blue skies of summer shining overhead, bees land and feast on many-hued blossoms and stream round lustrous flowers and lilies, and all the green pastures murmur with the buzzing and humming of life.] [My translation]

Dancing humans joyfully singing, green forests and rushing waters, and humming and buzzing bees are all seamlessly interwoven together in an unforgettable image of beauty and harmony. This image—this image of joyous peace with man and nature as one—is the true revelation for Aeneas, not the prophecy of Augustus. This image, this image of Arcadia, is what Aeneas is destined to bring for his descendants. Arcadia—these Elysian fields—is what Aeneas is fighting and struggling for.

This image provided by Virgil in the Aeneid also helps us understand some of the praise and proto-romantic poetry of Horace. Horace was a hedonist. In his biography of Horace, Suetonius writes, “[Horace] is said to have been exceptionally intemperate in his love affairs, and there is a story that he so disposed his lovers in a mirrored room that whichever way he looked, there was a reflection of sexual intercourse.” It is unsurprising that Horace’s poetry often blurs the lines between sex, love, and lust—but reading Horace also reveals his distaste for fratricidal civil wars and urban progress which destroys the very agrarian idyll which makes the hedonistic life possible.

The contempt that Horace has for civil war—being a man, living from 65 BC to 8 BC, who lived through the constant tumult for much of his life under the aftermath of the Battle of Actium—is readily visible in his poetry:

“Surely if any man shall wish to put an end
to impious slaughter and the madness of civil strife,
if he shall wish his statues
to be inscribed ‘Father of Cities’, let him have courage
to rein back our wild license.”

The horror of war constantly grieves Horace: “Back to war, Venus, after all / these years? Spare me, spare me, I beg you.” War has ruined Horace’s life, destroyed the idyll, and has made the pleasurable life impossible:

“As for me, I no longer take pleasure in a woman
or boy, nor in the fond hope that my love might still
be returned, nor in drinking bouts,
not in binding my brow with fresh flowers.”

Horace goes further in describing war as “mad.” The madness of war is incomprehensible to him. Men like Julius Caesar, Pompey the Great, and Crassus, who thrived on war and sought war to win the praises and acceptance of the republican establishment, utterly horrified him. The madness of war is naturally contrasted with the romanticized Arcadian idyll that was reemerging under Augustus but still threatened by the urbanization of Rome and the broader Italian peninsula:

“But when the thunder of Jove’s winter season
musters the rains and snows, with all his dogs on every side he drives
wild boar into his ring of nets,
or stretches wide-meshed toils on twigs he’s smoothed
to trap the greedy thrushes,
and hunts the timid hare and crane migrating
to his snare—delicious prey.
Amid these pleasures who would not forget
the miseries brought on by love?”

When Horace praises Augustus, like Virgil, the emperor is merely an instrument to be passed by—a shield of peace, to be sure, but not the real focus of the poet’s adoration:

“I was eager to sing of battles and defeated cities,
But Phoebus struck his lyre and forbade me
To sail my little boat
Across the Tyrrhenian sea. Your Augustan age,
Caesar, has given rich crops back
To our fields, has brought the standards back to our Jupiter,
Tearing them from the proud door posts
Of the Parthians…
While Caesar is guardian of the state, neither civil war
Nor civil madness will drive away our peace,
Nor will anger beat out its swords
And set city against unhappy city.”

The end of war is a good. And insofar that Augustus brought about the “civil madness” that drives peace away, Horace has good things to say (let us never forget Horace fought against Augustus at Philippi). But Augustus is never the true subject of Horace’s praise poetry. Arcadia is.

Pilgrimaging to Arcadia

This desire for the Arcadian idyll is inherited even by Christianity. Saint Augustine of Hippo was, at one level, the harshest critic of the emptiness of the Roman ideology in the ancient world. In the City of God, Augustine exhaustively critiqued the propagandistic ideology of Roman exceptionalism—laying to bare for all to see. Despite Augustine’s critical indictment against Rome’s lust to dominate the world and bringing untold misery to millions in its wake, Augustine stops short of condemning political order altogether.

In Book 19 of the City of God, Augustine gives what stood as the most consequential political theology in Christian history—at least until the Second Vatican Council. There is a temporal good that is universal to pagan and Christian alike which politics provides. It is altogether not dissimilar from the praise of peace found in Virgil and Horace. Peace, Augustine argues, is the great good that benefits all and that all aim for: “Anyone who joins me in an examination, however slight, of human affairs, and the human nature we all share, recognizes that just as there is no man who does not wish for joy, so there is no man who does not wish for peace.”

From this perspective, the Second Vatican Council goes deeper into Augustine’s vision of the mission of the Church in the world for the great bishop wrote,

“Thus even the Heavenly City in her pilgrimage here on earth makes use of the earthly peace and defends and seeks the compromise between human wills in respect of the provisions relevant to the mortal nature of man, so far as may be permitted without detriment to true religion and piety. In fact, that City relates to the earthly peace to the heavenly peace, which is so truly peaceful that is should be regarded as the only peace deserving the name, at least in respect of the rational creation; for this peace is the perfectly ordered and completely harmonious fellowship in the enjoyment of God, and of each other in God.”

The Church as peacemaker—“blessed be the peacemakers”—is also for an even greater end: the true Arcadian idyll that is the beatific peace in God.

As the Vandals were sweeping through North Africa, Augustine upbraided Count Boniface—the Roman general and master of the soldiers in Africa—for his dereliction of duty. Augustine and Boniface were friends. Boniface, in fact, had sought to retire from the army and join a monastery but Augustine talked him out of it so that he may provide the peace that so many of his fellow citizens benefited from. As Boniface dithered and refused to face the Vandals, Augustine excoriated him for lack of Christian charity in upholding his vows to Rome to provide peace and security in North Africa, “Do not think that it is impossible for anyone to please God while engaged in active military service.”

Augustine, the great critic of Rome and the emptiness of politics in the first half of the City of God, is not contradicting himself in the latter half of the City of God or in his letters to Boniface. Augustine does not see—as Virgil and Horace did—the temporal peace wrought by the force of Rome as providing the serenity that all humans desired. Augustine goes even further than that.

Imperfect as Rome was, and it most certainly was in Augustine’s critique, it nevertheless provided a sense and space and temporal order for the journey to Arcadia, the true Arcadia, the New Eden where the “only peace deserving the name” existed and the true joy that all humans seek is actualized. Augustine’s praise of the peace won in temporal politics, as in Virgil and Horace, is a praise that aims beyond the political. The reason why peace is good is because it allows us to sojourn to Arcadia, to find that true peace and joy all humans seek. This is what political order ought to allow for us. In more modern parlance, from a man who was steeped in the classical tradition, “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” But that life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness would eventually lead to the discovery of a garden.

Horace shares with Augustine this instinctive desire for Arcadia—the land of bountiful joy, peace, and serenity:

So let us seek the Blessed Fields and Wealthy Isles,
where every year the land unploughed gives grain,
and vines unpruned are never out of flower,
and olive shoots unfailing bud, and set their fruit,
and dusky fig ungrafted graces its own tree,
the honey flows from hollow ilex, and from hills
the streamlet lightly leaps with sounding footfall.
There to the milking pails unbidden come the goats,
and friendly flocks their swollen udders bring.
When evening comes no howling bear patrols the pens,
no viper heaves its mound of earth.
Enchanted, we shall wonder at it all.”

It is now unmistakable that what really governs the heart of Latin literature, from the pagan poets to the Christian artists whom we call theologians: the green pastures with all their ripening fruit and flowers bestowing peace and happiness to mankind. In that garden, as Augustine says, “How great shall be that felicity, which shall be tainted with no evil, which shall lack no good, and which shall afford leisure for the praises of God, who shall be all in all!” In that garden, the New Eden, the chaos of the cosmos finds its calm. It that garden, the restless heart of man finds it final and perfect rest.

Ad Astra

What the politics of Latin literature confers to us is the desire for peace and joy, a peace and joy found in an intimate environment of beauty which the poets, even theologians, described as a garden. They do not praise the generals or emperors or consuls as such. When they are praised these offices are merely a passing instrument, the people who attained peace and allowed the Arcadian idyll to become a reality, however fleeting.

The Golden Age of Latin Literature and running through its nadir with the collapse of Rome, finds itself replete with the same symbolism from the pagans to the Christians. Our world is often beset by chaos and strife, disorder and civil unrest, but in the midst of it there is the yearning and journeying to a peace and serenity that calls us all and brings healing and wholeness to friendships, cities, and sinful human beings. The taste of that reality, which is always found in peace, sets us on the journey for that new horizon.

But the greater wisdom, however terrifying, is that the race to Arcadia runs through strife, war, and murder. That fact makes the Arcadian idyll even more desirable. So, like Dante, we find ourselves on that same hallowed path our forebears tread:

“From those holiest waters I returned
to her reborn, a tree renewed, in bloom
with newborn foliage, immaculate,
eager to rise, now ready for the stars.”

In that journey we might just find, as Dante did, the echoes of Virgil by our side as we realize the love that guides the cosmos is intimately bound up with the reality of a garden with the luminescent stars of Latin writers—pagan and Christian alike—illuminating that garden as we journey to it.

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