Christian interpretations of Virgil's Eclogue 4
Eclogue 4, also known as the Fourth Eclogue is the name of a Latin poem by the Roman poet Virgil. Part of his first major work, the Eclogues, the piece was written around 40 BC, during a time of temporary stability following the Treaty of Brundisium; it was later published in and around the years 39–38 BC. The work describes the birth of a boy, a supposed savior, who once of age will become divine and eventually rule over the world. During late antiquity and the Middle Ages, a desire emerged to view Virgil as a virtuous pagan, and as such, early Christians, such as Roman Emperor Constantine, early Christian theologian Lactantius, and St. Augustine—to varying degrees—reinterpreted the poem to be about the birth of Jesus Christ.
This belief persisted into the Medieval era, with many scholars arguing that Virgil not only prophesied Christ prior to his birth but also that he was a pre-Christian prophet. Dante Alighieri included Virgil as a main character in his Divine Comedy, and Michelangelo included the Cumaean Sibyl on the ceiling painting of the Sistine Chapel (a reference to the widespread belief that the Sibyl herself prophesied the birth of Christ, and Virgil used her prophecies to craft his poem). Modern scholars, such as Robin Nisbet, tend to eschew this interpretation, arguing that seemingly Judeo-Christian elements of the poem can be explained through means other than divine prophecy.
The scholarly consensus is that Virgil began the hexameter Eclogues (or Bucolics) in 42 BC and it is thought that the collection was published around 39–8 BC (although this assertion is not without its detractors). The Eclogues (from the Greek word for "selections") are a group of ten poems roughly modeled on the bucolic hexameter poetry ("pastoral poetry") of the Hellenistic poet Theocritus. The fourth of these Eclogues can be dated to around 40 BC, during a time when the Roman Civil war seemed to be coming to an end. ‘’Eclogue’’ 4 largely concerns the birth of a child (puer) who will become divine and eventually rule over the world. Classicist H. J. Rose notes that the poem “is in a sense Messianic, since it contains a prophecy (whether meant seriously or not) of the birth of a wonder-child of more than mortal virtue and power, who shall restore the Golden Age.”
By the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries AD, Virgil had gained a reputation as a virtuous pagan, a term referring to pagans who were never evangelized and consequently during their lifetime had no opportunity to recognize Christ, but nevertheless led virtuous lives, so that it seemed objectionable to consider them damned. Eventually, some Christians sought to reconcile Virgil's works with the supposed Christianity present in them. Consequently, during the Late Antiquity and beyond, many assumed that the puer referenced in the Fourth Eclogue was actually Jesus Christ.
The first notable person to be fascinated with the supposed prophecy of the Fourth Eclogue and its potential references to Jesus was Constantine the Great, Roman emperor from AD 306 to 337, and he used part of it in an address he gave to the "Assembly of the Saints", which was preserved by the Roman historian Eusebius in his work Vita Constantini. Constantine interpreted the entire work himself although he omitted a few lines that overtly reference paganism, such as the last part of line 10, which names Apollo. Constantine assigned the roles of the virgo in line 6 to the Blessed Virgin Mary, the puer in lines 8, 18, 60, and 62 is Christ, the lions in line 22 to the persecutors of Christians, and the serpent in line 24 to the Serpent of Evil. Constantine argued that the Assyrian flower in line 25 represented the race of people, i.e. the Assyrians, who were "leader[s] in the faith of Christ", and that references in line 30 meant that "those who had borne hardships for the sake of God would perceive that the fruit of their endurance was sweet." The emperor also interpreted the reference to Achilles fighting against Troy in lines 34-36 as a reference to Christ (the "new" Achilles) waging a war against the forces of evil (the "new" Troy). Finally, Constantine proposed that the references to the Golden Age in lines 37-59 do not refer the birth of a mortal child, but rather a being who "mortal parents have not smiled upon": in other words, Jesus Christ, who, according to Christian scripture, "had no parents in the usual sense".
Constantine's primary religious advisor, Lactantius saw references to Jesus in the poem. In fact, he may have actually proposed the idea before Constantine, due to the confusion surrounding the publication date of his book, Divinae Institutiones (The Divine Institutes); in said work, he argues that the poem referred to "the coming of Christ at the millennium" and that Virgil had penned the poem in accordance with prophecies made by the Cumaean Sibyl (the priestess presiding over the Apollonian oracle at Cumae). Likewise, St. Augustine believed Virgil was referencing Christ; he assumed that the poet was writing poetically, since he was writing in the "shadowy" persona of an unnamed narrator, but he was also writing with veracity, since any traces of guilt "could be wiped away only by that Savior concerning whom the verse was written." Echoing the sentiment of Lactantius, St. Augustine opined that the mention of Cumae in line 4 is a reference to the supposed Sibylline prophecy concerning Christ. Ultimately, St. Augustine felt that Virgil spoke non a se ipse ("not from himself"), which is to say he prophesied the birth and coming of Christ, but did not understand what he himself was writing.
The opinion that Eclogue 4 was a reference to the coming of Jesus was not universally held by early members of the early Church, however. St. Jerome, an early Church writer noted for translating the Bible into Latin, specifically wrote that Virgil could not have been a Christian prophet without having accepted Christ, and claimed that anyone that had accepted that Virgil was a pre-Christian prophet was being childish. Classicist Ella Bourne, however, noted that the mere fact that St. Jerome responded to the idea is a testament to the belief's pervasiveness.
In the early part of the sixth century, Latin grammarian Fulgentius made a passing reference to the supposed prophetic nature of the eclogue, noting: In quarta vaticinii artem adsumit ("In the Fourth [Eclogue], [Virgil] takes up the art of prophecy"). Yet after this, the historical and scholarly record is silent until the ninth century. According to legend, Donatus, the bishop of Fiesole, quoted the seventh line of the poem to his friars as part of a confession of his faith prior to his death. During the same century, Agnellus, the archbishop of Ravenna, referenced the poem, noting that it was evidence that the Holy Spirit had spoken through both Virgil and the Sybil. The monk Christian Druthmar also makes use of the seventh line in his commentary on Matthew 20:30.
In the eleventh century, Virgil began appearing in plays, such as one particular Christmas work wherein the poet is the last "prophet" called on to give testimony concerning Christ. According to Bourne, the play was particularly popular, and philologist Du Cange gives mention of similar play performed at Rouen. Virgil and his purported prophecy even found itself in the Wakefield Mystery Plays. Around this time, Eclogue 4 and Virgil's supposed prophetic nature had saturated the Christian world; references to the poem are made by Abelard, the Bohemian historian Cosmos, and Pope Innocent III in a sermon. The Gesta Romanorum, a Latin collection of anecdotes and tales that was probably compiled about the end of the 13th century or the beginning of the 14th, confirms that the eclogue was pervasively associated with Christianity.
Virgil eventually became a fixture of Medieval ecclesiastic art, appearing in churches, chapels, and even cathedrals, oftentimes depicted holding a scroll with a select passage from the Fourth Eclogue on it. In a similar vein, Michelangelo included the Cumaean Sibyl on the ceiling painting of the Sistine Chapel. According to Paul Barolsky, the Sibyl's presence "evokes her song in Virgil [i.e. the Fourth Eclogue], prophesying spiritual renewal through the coming of Christ—the very theme of the ceiling." Barolsky also points out that Michelangelo painted the Sibyl in close proximity to the prophet Isaiah; thus, the painter drew a visual comparison between their purported prophecies.
This association between Virgil and Christianity reached a fever pitch in the fourteenth century, when the Divine Comedy was published; the work, by Dante Alighieri, prominently features Virgil as the main character's guide through Hell. Notably, in the second book Purgatorio, Dante and Virgil meet the poet Statius, who, having "read a hidden meaning in lines of Virgil's own", was allowed passage into Purgatory, and eventually Heaven. Bourne argued that this reference is proof enough that Dante, like those before him, believed Virgil to have been an unknowing Christian prophet. In the fifteenth century, a popular story concerning Secundian, Marcellian and Verian—who started out as persecutors of Christians during the reign of the Roman emperor Decius—emerged. The story claims that the trio were alarmed by the calm manner in which their Christian victims died, and so they turned to literature and chanced upon Eclogue 4, which eventually caused their conversions.
The French writer René Rapin (1621–1687) was impressed with the potential connection between Virgil and Christianity, and used the Fourth Eclogue as influence, basing many of his lines in his own Sixth Eclogue, concerning two shepherds meeting with a sibyl near the Jordan River, on Virgil's work. One of the more overt modern references to the Fourth Eclogue, Virgil, and Christianity, appears in Alexander Pope's 1712 poem, Messiah. Bourne wrote that the work "shows clearly that [Pope] believed that Virgil's poem was based on a Sibylline prophecy". Robert Lowth seems also to have held this opinion, noting, by way of Plato, that the poem contains references made "not by men in their sober senses, but [by] the God himself". In the mid-19th century, Oxford scholar John Keble claimed: Taceo si quid divinius ac sanctius (quod credo equidem) adhaeret istis auguriis ("I am silent about whether something more divine and sacred—which is what I, in fact, believe—clings to these prophecies").
Many modern scholars contend that the seemingly Christian nature of the poem is due to Virgil referencing Eastern oracles, which may have been influenced by Jewish texts and prophecies. For instance, Robin Nisbet, after carefully analyzing the work, ultimately concluded that Virgil probably appropriated some elements used in the poem from Jewish mythology by means of Eastern oracles, and later adapted them towards Western (which is to say, Roman) modes of thought.
- Interpretatio Christiana, the adaptation of non-Christian elements of culture or historical facts to the worldview of Christianity
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- Nisbet (1978), p. 71.
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