Vergil, Philodemus, and the Augustans

By David Armstrong; Jeffrey Fish et al. | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 11
VERGIL’S De pietate:
FROM Ehoiae TO ALLEGORY IN VERGIL,
PHILODEMUS, AND OVID

DIRK OBBINK

Xenophanes said that Homer and Hesiod attributed to the gods all the things that are sources of blame and reproach among men (21 B 11 D-K):

Homer and Hesiod attributed all things to the gods that among men
are reproach and blame, stealing, adultery, deceiving each other.1

Some may not have thought the complaint a fair one, either because they liked these things, or because they were entertained when Homer showed the gods engaging in them. Or they considered, perhaps, that not only the Olympian gods but also the famous families descending from the gods owed their existence to such affairs–so that polygamy and infidelity and even incest, that is, the absolute freedom from restriction in sexual relations, was merely one of the characteristics that defined the Greek gods as essentially different from men. If one, like earlier Greeks, judges the gods either by one’s own fantasies of absolute power or by extrapolation from the observed behavior of local basileis, a large part of what the later philosophical tradition has to say about gods flies out the window.

But starting with Xenophanes’ critique (quoted above), the critical and moral engagement of philosophers with early Greek poetry is our earliest example of literary criticism in the Western tradition and the beginning of Western theology. The agonistic taking to task and defending of poetry in the heat of the public forum was central to the consumption of literature and provides valuable evidence for how works were read and responded to from earliest times.

Among the many improprieties that Philodemus in his treatise De pie-

-175-

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