This efflorescence transformed both literature and society. Letters and the arts took on new dignity. Grammarians lectured on living authors; people sang snatches from them in the streets. Writers mingled with statesmen and highborn ladies in luxurious salons such as history would never know again until the flowering of France. The aristocracy became literary, literature became aristocratic. The lusty vigor of Ennius and Plautus, Lucretius and Catullus, was exchanged for a delicate beauty, or a teasing complexity, in expression and thought. Writers ceased to mingle with the people, ceased therefore to describe their ways or speak their language; a divorce set in between literature and life that finally sucked the sap and spirit out of Latin letters. Forms were set by Greek models, themes by Greek tradition or Augustus’ court. Poetry, when it could spare time from Theocritean shepherds or Anacreontic love, was to sing didactically the joys of agriculture, the morality of ancestors, the glory of Rome, and the splendor of its gods. Literature became a handmaiden of statesmanship, a polyphonic sermon calling the nation to Augustan ideas.
Two forces opposed this conscription of letters by the state. One was Horace’s hated and “profane crowd,” which liked the salty tang and independence of the old satires and plays rather than the curled and perfumed beauty of the new. The other was that demimonde of jollity and sin to which Clodia and Julia belonged. This younger set was in full rebellion against the Julian laws, wanted no moral reform, had its own poets, circles, and norms. In letters as in life the two forces fought each other, crossing in Tibullus and Propertius, matching the chaste piety of Virgil with the obscene audacities of Ovid, crushing two Julias and one poet with exile, and at last exhausting each other in the Silver Age. But the ferment of great events, the releasing leisure of wealth and peace, the majesty of a world acknowledging Rome’s sway, overcame the corrosion of state subsidies and produced a Golden Age whose literature was the most perfect, in form and utterance, in all the memory of men.
The most lovable of Romans was born in 70 B.C. on a farm near Mantua, where the river Mincio wanders slowly toward the Po. The capital would henceforth give birth to very few great Romans; they would come from Italy in the century that was divided by the birth of Christ, and thereafter from the provinces. Perhaps Virgil’s veins contained some Celtic blood, for Mantua had long been peopled by Gauls; technically he was a Gaul by birth, for it was only twenty-one years later that Cisalpine Gaul received the Roman franchise from Caesar. The man who most eloquently sang the majesty and destiny of Rome would never show the hard masculinity of the Roman stock, but would touch Celtic strings of mysticism, tenderness, and grace rare in the Roman breed.
His father saved enough as a court clerk to buy a farm and raise bees. In that murmurous quietude the poet spent his boyhood; the full foliage of the well-watered north lingered in his later memory, and he was never really happy away from those fields and streams. At twelve he was sent to school at Cremona, at fourteen to Milan, at sixteen to Rome. There he studied rhetoric and allied subjects under the same man who was to teach Octavian. Probably after this he attended the lectures of Siro the Epicurean at Naples. Virgil tried hard to accept the philosophy of pleasure, but his rural background had ill-equipped him. He seems to have returned north after his education, for in 41 B.C. we find him swimming for life to escape a soldier who seized by force his father’s farm; Octavian and Antony had confiscated it because the region had favored their enemies. Asinius Pollio, the learned governor of Cisalpine Gaul, tried to have the farm returned, but failed. He atoned by giving his patronage to the young man, and encouraging him to continue the Eclogues he was composing. By the year 37 Virgil was drinking in the wine of fame in Rome. The Eclogues (“Selections”) had just been published and had been well received; some verses had been recited on the stage by an actress and had been enthusiastically applauded. The poems were pastoral sketches in the manner, sometimes the phrases, of Theocritus, beautiful in style and rhythm, the most melodious hexameters that Rome had yet heard, full of pensive tenderness and romantic love. The youth of the capital had been long enough detached from the soil to idealize country life; everyone was pleased to imagine himself a shepherd moving with his flocks up and down the Apennine slopes, and breaking his heart with love unreturned.