In praise of Caesar, protector of Roman land
The second Georgic is primarily concerned with the hard labour of farmers on the land (book II in particular features land and fruit trees) and with expounding the natural beauty and plenteousness of Italy’s natural environment. In this passage, in addition to the mineral wealth that the land of Italy produces, Virgil lists some of the great families it can claim, from Rome’s earliest history to the present, closing with a direct address to Octavian, the greatest of all. The broad time-span not only enhances the continued glory of Italy, it also offers “both sides of Rome’s martial greatness” (Christopher Nappa, Reading After Actium, p. 83), as the Volsci were at war with Rome for several centuries. Virgil’s list, then, shows Rome’s greatness not only through the fearsome families it bore, but also the formidable heroes that it conquered. Octavian has proved his worthiness at the top of this list through his successful subjugation of foreign territories, and his protection of Italy from enemy forces. Lancelot Wilkinson points out that the peoples Virgil names in this passage form a subtle tribute to the Roman knights of Italy’s towns, who had been recruited for Actium, and whose victory was celebrated over and above that of the aristocracy in Rome (Lancelot Wilkinson, The Georgics of Virgil, p. 157).
Through allusion to the agricultural writings of the Greek Hesiod (“the songs of Ascra”), Virgil openly exploits foreign inspiration, which in the light of the previous mention of Octavian’s conquests over foreign peoples may imply that he sees himself as the established Roman Hesiod – Roman culture has equalled, and perhaps replaced that of the Greeks. As Richard Thomas identifies, the mention of mineral wealth is problematic, as an abundance of silver and gold is often associated with immorality on the part of a place’s inhabitants (see, for example, Horace, Odes III.24.47-50), as it is suggestive of warfare. However, Virgil merely boasts of Italy’s possession of such mineral wealth – it is not described as being made use of. It is product of a fruitful land, therefore, not a trophy (Richard Thomas, Virgil, Georgics, p. 187-188). Verse 173 alludes to the land of Italy (Saturnia tellus), where Saturn took refuge after being displaced from his rulership by Jupiter. As we see in the Aeneid (VI.792-806), Augustus’s reign will both evoke and surpass that of Saturn. While the Georgics describe the labours that man must undertake to work the land because the Saturnian age has ended, there is no need to see a contradiction in Virgil’s outlook here. While physical labour has increased, the peaceful abundance that the Roman understanding of the age of Saturn (see, for example, Ovid, Metamorphoses I.89-112) venerated was to be recalled through Augustus’s Pax Romana. The tranquil utopia is not resurrected, but re-interpreted through the order and lawfulness that Augustus will bring.
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