A false start to Virgil’s Aeneid

October 7, 2015

Authored by Patrick Finglass, Professor of Greek at the University of Nottingham, a Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, and an editorial board member for Oxford Scholarly Editions Online.

Arms, and the Man I sing, who, forc’d by Fate          
 And haughty Juno’s unrelenting Hate:                       
Expell’d and exil’d, left the Trojan Shoar;                  
Long Labours, both by Sea and Land he bore …  

The sonorous opening to John Dryden’s translation of the Aeneid is almost as memorable as Virgil’s original. Yet someone who turns from Dryden to the Latin offered by Arthur Hirzel’s Oxford Classical Text, published by Oxford University Press in 1901, would be surprised to see that Dryden apparently started translating only from line five:

Ille ego, qui quondam gracili modulatus avena 
carmen, et egressus silvis vicina coegi                
ut quamvis avido parerent arva colono                
gratum opus agricolis, at nunc horrentia Martis  
arma virumque cano, Troiae qui primus ab oris 
Italiam fato profugus Lavinaque venit                  
litora¬––multum ille et terris iactatus et alto . . .

"I am the man who once tuned his song on a slender reed, and, on leaving the woods, forced the neighbouring fields to obey the husbandman (however greedy), a work pleasing to farmers, but now of Mars’s bristling arms and the man I sing, who first from the shores of Troy, an exile through fate, came to Italy and the Lavinian shores; he was much battered on land and sea . . ."

In the first four lines above the narrator evokes the two works that Virgil completed before the Aeneid: his pastoral poem the Eclogues (line two of that poem ends with the similar phrase tenui . . . meditaris avena) and his didactic poem about farming, the Georgics. Only then does the narrative proper begin, with its description of Aeneas’ journey from the ruins of Troy to the future site of Rome.

Hirzel in the critical apparatus underneath his text remarks ‘many editors deny these brilliant lines [i.e. lines 1-4 above] to our poet, wrongly’ (‘versus praeclarissimos iniuria poeta abiudicaverunt editores plerique’). Yet in the revised Oxford Classical Text published in 1969 by Roger Mynors (and recently added to Oxford Scholarly Editions Online), these four opening lines are ejected from the text. Mynors does not even mention them in his critical apparatus at the bottom of the page, so sure is he that they are not by Virgil – instead, he includes them in his (impeccably Latinate) preface among spurious passages associated with the poem, and begins his text with the words arma virumque cano. Here, then, is a case where it really matters which edition of a poem we use.

The disputed lines are not found in the original text of any manuscript of Virgil, although they have been added in the margin of one in a demonstrably later script. Their source lies rather in the Life of Virgil by the fourth-century Roman grammarian Donatus, who comments that Varius, one of the executors of Virgil’s will, deleted these verses from the text of the Aeneid. Whether or not this tale has any basis in fact, we should treat with scepticism the idea that Virgil (who died before he could produce the final version of the poem) really intended to begin his epic in this way. The personal note in these lines is quite untypical of ancient epic, which usually begins with its central subject – in the Iliad, the anger of Achilles, in the Odyssey, Odysseus and his wanderings – not a mini-biography of its author. And Latin poets, such as Ovid, Persius, and Martial, all refer to Virgil’s poem with the words arma virumque, which suggests that, for them, this was its opening phrase.

But the evidence is not confined to literature. The words arma virumque cano are found written at least fifteen times on the buildings of Pompeii, ‘in material contexts which range from the walls of cookshops to the interiors of wealthy houses’; we even encounter a parody of the opening line, the hexameter fullones ululamque cano, non arma virumque, ‘I sing of fullers and the screech-owl, not arms and the man’, near a picture of Aeneas fleeing Troy with his family. The first line of a poem is almost always better known than any other; indeed, the second-most frequent Virgilian verse in Pompeii is the opening line of Aeneid book two. It is inconceivable that the phrase arma virumque cano would have achieved such celebrity if it occurred only in line five.

In his great edition of Aristophanes’ Clouds (OUP 1968), Kenneth Dover noted that, when it comes to crafting an edition, simply following the manuscripts is never enough, since ‘the decisive evidence may appear from any quarter and from any distance.’ For an editor deciding what to print at the start of Virgil’s Aeneid, part of the decisive evidence comes from a most unexpected quarter, the mute walls of a long-buried city; and the textual critic must owe a debt of gratitude to the graffiti-artist.

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