Vergil and His Commentators
Arnaldo Momigliano once remarked that it was not so much pagan historians that disturbed Augustine, “who knew where to look for the real enemy,” as “the idealization of the Roman past which he found in fourth-century Latin antiquarians, poets and commentators of poets.” This, he argued, is why Augustine “went back to the sources of their antiquarianism, and primarily to Varro, in order to undermine the foundations of their work.”1 It is time to follow up, and qualify, this important insight.
Enough has already been said about the popularity of classicizing poetry at the Christian courts of Milan and Ravenna.2 It is easy to see why people like Augustine were distressed to see Christians applauding poems on Christian emperors decked out with pagan gods and goddesses, elaborately described in all their traditional dress and paraphernalia. Among the antiquarians the prime exhibits are the Saturnalia of Macrobius, largely devoted to Vergil, and the massive Vergil commentary of the grammarian Servius, partly because both have been generally assumed committed pagans, but also because of the often stated but never justified modern doctrine of Vergil as a “pagan bible,” a book “venerated, copied and expounded as a sacred text” (p. 608). A more modest illustration is the so-called Origo Gentis Romanae1 the first part in a tripartite corpus of texts covering all Roman history down to Constantius II.3 The Origo goes from Janus and Saturnus to Romulus and Remus, with the first third largely devoted to reconciling Vergil with other traditions. At 1. 6 indeed the anonymous pagan author claims to have “begun to write” a commentary on Vergil. As Christopher Smith has recently remarked, “the Origo is very close throughout to the Virgilian commentators,” and though they often disagree “they are recognizably inhabiting the same mental world.”4
That late fourth- and fifth-centurywestern culture was dominated by Vergil needs no demonstration. The writings, prose as well as verse, of all educated people,
1. Momigliano 1963, 98–99.
2. And at the eastern court in Constantinople, where the tradition lasted much longer.
3. The basic study remains Momigliano 1958, 56–73=Secondo Contributo (Rome 1960), 145–76.
4. C. J. Smith 2005, 97–136, at 101.