Tuesday, December 27, 2016

The prophecy of the Christ in Virgil's Fourth Eclogue

Marble bust of Publius Virgilius Maro.
In a previous post, I described the messianic prophecy of the Erythræan Sibyl as expounded upon by the Christian Roman Emperor Constantine the Great in his Oration to the Assembly of the Saints, delivered in the early 4th century AD. In this same oration, Constantine cites the prophetic nature of one of Virgil's Eclogues to further support his premise that the coming of the Christ was predicted not only by the Hebrew prophets, but by pagan oracles as well.

Calling Virgil the "prince of the Latin poets," Constantine praises the 4th Eclogue, saying:
"We perceive that these words are spoken plainly and at the same time darkly, by way of allegory. Those who search deeply for the import of the words, are able to discern the Divinity of Christ. But lest any of the powerful in the imperial city might be able to accuse the poet of writing anything contrary to the laws of the country, and subverting the religious sentiments which had prevailed from ancient times, he intentionally obscures the truth. For he was acquainted, as I believe, with that blessed mystery which gave to our Lord the name of Savior: but, that he might avoid the severity of cruel men, he drew the thoughts of his hearers to objects with which they were familiar."
Constantine then proceeds to offer a line-by-line parsing of the text, providing his own commentary on the prophetic nature the verses. He lauds Virgil without reservation, pointing out that he remains a poet via his use of lyrical pagan religious language, and engages in prophecy almost accidentally and without presumption:
"Well said, wisest of bards! You have carried the license of a poet precisely to the proper point. For it was not your purpose to assume the functions of a prophet, to which you had no claim. I suppose also he was restrained by a sense of the danger which threatened one who should assail the credit of ancient religious practice. Cautiously, therefore, and securely, as far as possible, he presents the truth to those who have faculties to understand it."
Here is a complete translation of the Fourth Eclogue done by Paul Carus in 1918.

O ye Sicilian Muses,
   let higher our strains be and grander.
Tamarisks do not please all,
   nor a song of the vineyards, the lowly.
Take we our theme from the woods,
   let the woods of the consul be worthy.
Now comes the era described
   in the verse of the Sybil of Cumae,
From the beginning is started again
   the great order of ages,
Now does the virgin return,
   the Saturnian Kingdom appeareth;
Now from the heavens on high
   is descending a new generation.
"Thus" spake in concert the Fates
   addressing their spindles, according
To the eternal decree of the gods:
   "Run on, oh ye ages!
Bless him, the infant with whom
   discontinues the era of iron;
Bless him with whom will arise
   the new race that is gloriously golden,
Bless, chaste Lucina, the boy;
   now reigneth thy brother Apollo.
Now is beginning this wonderful age
   while thou rulest as consul.
Pollio, under thy sway,
   in thy year, the great months are proceeding.
Thou art the leader, and traces of crime
   that are not yet abolished
Will be forever removed,
   and the earth will be free from its terror.
First will the earth without culture,
   dear boy, bring thee gifts for thy childhood,
Vines of green ivy, and ladygloves
   lovely with wonderful fragrance;
Mixed with the cheerful acanthus
   will grow Colocasian lilies.
Yea, at the cradle for thee,
   there shall blossom the sweetest of flowers;
Goats will return by themselves
   to our homesteads with udders distended,
Nor any longer our cattle
   shall fear huge terrible lions.
Then will the serpent die out,
   and the herbs disappear that bear poison,
While the Assyrian spikenard
   will thrive in most bountiful plenty.
But when the age thou attainest
   to read of the deeds of thy fathers,
And of the heroes, and when thou
   beginnest to know what is virtue,
Then will the ripening ears of the fields
   by and by turn to yellow.
Then will be found the luxurious grape
   upon briars and brambles.
And the hard oaks will be dripping
   with honey, like dew in the morning.
But that boy will partake of the life of the gods,
   he will meet them,
Meet all the heroes; and he
   will in turn by the gods be beholden.
Over a pacified world will he rule
   patriarchic in virtue.
Yet some traces remain
   of the ancient insidious vices
Which will induce bold sailors
   the ocean to dare. It will prompt us
Walls round the cities to build
   and to cleave our acres with furrows.
Then will another ship Argo,
   well steered by a helmsman like Tiphys,
Carry new heroes to Colchis
   and other great wars are expected.
Then against Troy will be sent
   for a second time mighty Achilles.
Afterwards when thine own age
   has endowed thee with vigorous manhood,
Sailors no longer will sail on the sea,
   for no ships will be needed
For an exchange of our goods.
   All produce will grow in each country.
Neither the soil will be tilled with the hoe,
   nor the grape vine need pruning;
Even the bullocks will stray
   from the plow set free by the farmer.
Wool will no longer be dyed
   to exhibit the various colors,
For in the meadows the ram will
   himself grow a fleece that is sometimes
Reddish like purple and sometimes
   will turn into yellow like saffron.
Lambs when they feed, of themselves
   will be dizened in hues that are scarlet.
Deign to accept — for the time is fulfilled —
   the illustrious honors,
Thou, O loved offspring of gods,
   O son of great Jove, the Almighty.
See how the world toward thee
   with its ponderous mass is inclining.
See all the countries, the tracts of the sea,
   and the depth of the heaven,
See how they hail the arrival,
   they all, of the age that is coming.
Oh that my life for the future
   would last but sufficiently longer,
Also my spirit, that I thy glory
   might praise in my verses;
Neither should Orpheus the Thracian,
   nor Linus excel me in singing,
E'en though the former were helped
   by his mother, the last by his father.
Son of Calliope, Orpheus,
   and Linus, the son of Apollo,
Even if Pan would contest
   and Arcadians acted as umpires!
Even God Pan (may Arcadians judge!)
   will confess to be beaten.
Show, little boy, by thy smile
   that already thou knowest thy mother
Who for thy sake hath endured
   ten months of solicitous trouble.
Smile, little infant! on Thee
   have not yet been smiling thy parents,
Nor hast thou dined with the gods,
   nor been wedded as yet to a goddess.

In reading this, it is perhaps more clear why Dante chose Virgil as the first among the virtuous pagans and as a worthy guide for his descent down into the Inferno. For a brief history of Virgil's reputation as a crypto-prophet of Christ, see this excellent article by Ella Bourne (1916): The Messianic Prophecy in Vergil's Fourth Eclogue.

Constantine's complete Oration to the Assembly of the Saints may be found here. His commentary on Virgil's Fourth Eclogue may be found in Chapters 19, 20 and 21.

1 comment:

Lacey said...

Great information! I'm reading the Early Church writings and these sources were very helpful.