Tityrus, a shepherd-poet tells Meliboeus about his encounter with a man who saved him from expropriation
41 BCE to 39 BCE
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Virgil’s Eclogues were his first compositions to be published. The first Eclogue is based around the events following the civil war between Marc Antony and Octavian and the assassins of Julius Caesar, Ocatavian’s adoptive father, which culminated with the death of Caesar’s killers in 42 BC. After the war, it was decided that the veteran troops should be given Italian land, including that near to Virgil’s home in Mantua. As a result, many local farmers were forced off their land. This Eclogue consists of a dialogue between two shepherd-poets, Meliboeus and Tityrus. The latter has been identified by some interpreters with Virgil himself, especially by ancient commentators such as Servius (see his commentaries on Eclogues IV.6 and IX.27), as Virgil lost his own farm in the land confiscations. Indeed, the ninth Eclogue offers some support for this biographical element, but it remains uncertain. Meliboeus has been exiled from his land, and asks Tityrus how he has managed to escape the same fate. He learns that Tityrus went to Rome in order to plead for his freedom. There are reports of such activity, for instance, in Appian’s writings, which record that disgruntled occupants of land given over to veterans came to the forum and temples in Rome to raise their concerns, and were met with a sympathetic ear (Civil Wars, V.12). The city of Rome makes an impression upon Tityrus, a modest countryman visiting the city for the first time. Tityrus divulges that while he was there, he met a youth, who he refers to as a god, and who granted his request, allowing him to return to his land. There is some ambiguity as to the nature of Tityrus’s freedom (libertas), as it appears at first that he is seeking manumission from slave status, yet what he actually receives in Rome is the right to take back his land. The ambiguity is likely deliberate, and as Coleman explains (“Tityrus and Meliboeus,” p. 84-85), even as a slave, he would likely have been able to farm a small piece of land for his own purposes, and could have saved enough money from his peculium (property or land that slaves were entitled to manage) to buy manumission. The generous youth and “god” that Tityrus praises has frequently been identified with Octavian, who was given the title “son of the deified” (divi filius) in reference to the deification of his adoptive father, Julius Caesar, in 42 BCE. Coleman, for instance, claims that it is “beyond all doubt” that the youth Tityrus refers to is Octavian (“Tityrus and Meliboeus,” p. 94). This is supported by the fact that it was Octavian, not Antony, who oversaw the land settlements for war veterans. It is possible that the three mentions of deus in verses 6, 7 and 18 are intended to remind of Octavian’s link with the deified Caesar. Verse 6, for instance, echoes the fifth Eclogue, written shortly prior to the first, and which contemplates the death and deification of Caesar. Moreover, the monthly sacrifices that Tityrus makes to his god in verse 43 might be an allusion to those made to Hellenistic monarchs, which would further emphasise Octavian’s association with his adoptive father. As David Meban states, Virgil uses this Eclogue to secure into Roman memory “the effects of the upheavals… caused by civil war” (“Virgil’s Eclogues and Social Memory,” p. 100). He argues that the poem aims to associate Octavian with the “preservation and recovery of memory” (“Virgil’s Eclogues and Social Memory,” p. 126), the loss of which was frequently understood to be one of the reasons for the downfall of the Republic. Taking the suggestion of scholars such as Wendell Clausen ("On the Date of the First Eclogue"), who suggested that the poem can be dated as early as 35 BCE, Meban argues that Octavian’s mounting success, such as his victory over Pompey the year before, is reflected in its presentation of memory. At the opening of the poem, Virgil describes the idyllic, peaceful setting of Tityrus’s rural home, and the soothing sound of his pipe, which is soon marred by the onset and aftermath of civil war, articulated through Meliboeus’s recollection of his troubles. Tityrus’s situation, on the other hand, is more optimistic thanks to his encounter with his young deus in Rome (I.7). Octavian is therefore presented as the giver of stability, and one who has the capacity to bring a more prosperous future.