Realer than these Theocritan ghosts were the rural scenes. Here, too, Virgil idealized, but he did not have to imitate. He had heard the woodman’s lusty song and the hovering restlessness of bees; and he had known the emptyhearted despair of the farmer who, like thousands then, had lost his land. Above all, he felt intensely the hopes of the age for an end to faction and war. The Sibylline Books had predicted that after the Age of Iron the Golden Age of Saturn would return. When, in 40 B.C., a son was born to Virgil’s patron, Asinius Pollio, the poet announced in his Fourth Eclogue that this birth would usher in utopia:
Ultima Cumaei venit iam carminis aetas; magnus ab integro saeclorum nascitur ordo. Iam redit et Virgo, redeunt Saturnia regna; iam nova progenies, caelo demittitur alto. Tu modo nascenti puero, quo ferrea primum desinet, ac toto surget gens aurea mundo, casta fave Lucina; tuus iam regnat Apollo-
“Now comes the final age [announced] in the Cumean [Sibyl’s] chant; the great succession of epochs is born anew. Now the Virgin returns, the reign of Saturn returns; now a new race descends from heaven on high. O chaste Lucina [goddess of births]! smile upon the boy just born, in whose time the race of iron shall first cease, and a race of gold shall arise throughout the world. Thine own Apollo is now king.”
Ten years later these prophecies were fulfilled. The iron tools of war were laid aside; a new generation took charge, armed and infatuated with gold. Through the brief remainder of Virgil’s life Rome would know no further turmoil; prosperity and happiness increased, and Augustus was hailed as a savior, though not an Apollo. The quasi-royal court welcomed the optimism of the poet’s verse; Maecenas invited him, liked him, and saw in him a popular instrument of Octavian’s reforms. This judgment showed insight; for to all appearances Virgil, now thirty-three, was an awkward rustic, shy to the point of stammering, shunning any public place where he might be recognized and pointed out, ill at ease in the voluble and aggressive fashionable society of Rome. Besides, even more than Octavian, he was an invalid, suffering from headaches, throat ailments, stomach disorders, and frequent spitting of blood. Virgil never married, and seems to have felt no more than his Aeneas the full abandon of love. Apparently he consoled himself for a time with the affection of a boy slave; for the rest he was known, at Naples, as “the virgin.”
Maecenas treated the youth generously, had Octavian restore his farm, and suggested to him some poems glorifying agricultural life. At that moment (37 B.C.) Italy was paying a penalty for letting so much of her soil go to pasturage, orchards, and vines; Sextus Pompey was blocking the import of food from Sicily and Africa, and a shortage of grain threatened another revolution. City life was enervating the young manhood of Italy; from every standpoint the health of the nation seemed to require the restoration of farming. Virgil readily agreed; he knew rural life; and though too frail now to bear its hardships, he was just the man to paint its attractive features with affectionate memory. He hid himself in Naples, and after seven years of file work emerged with his most perfect poems, the Georgics – literally “the labor of the land.” Maecenas was delighted, and brought Virgil south with him to meet Octavian, then (29 B.C.) returning from his victory over Cleopatra. At the little town of Atella the weary general rested and listened for four enchanted days to the 2000 lines. They fell in with his policies more completely than even Maecenas had foreseen. For he proposed now to disband the larger part of the immense armies that had won the world for him, to settle his veterans on the land, and at once to quiet them, feed the cities, and preserve the state, through rural toil. From that moment Virgil was free to think only of poetry.