Georgics Book 1, lines 461 - 514

Catastrophe for Rome?

by Virgil

Immediately after invoking the gods at the outset of his poem, Virgil has lavished praise on Octavian, the future Emperor Augustus, stressing his importance for the well-being of the city and representing his destiny as divine. Now, at the conclusion of his first book of Georgics, on cultivation, Virgil returns to the subject in a very different tone. Abruptly turning from weather signs given by the sun, he launches into a dire account of apocalyptic portents that followed Julius Caesar’s death some fifteen years before, and the catastrophe of the civil strife that has ensued. It is stark stuff, and the message is that Octavian’s survival in power is essential if the Roman world is to avoid the utter ruin with which it is still threatened: the omens and miracles described follow established conventions and are found in other poets of the time, but the effect is no less striking and doom-laden for that. The tone is almost despairing, as Virgil ends the first book by comparing the Roman world to a chariot race in which the competitors are careering out of control.

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Denique quid vesper serus vehat, unde serenas
ventus agat nubes, quid cogitet humidus Auster,
sol tibi signa dabit. solem quis dicere falsum
audeat? Ille etiam caecos instare tumultus
saepe monet fraudemque et operta tumescere bella.
Ille etiam exstincto miseratus Caesare Romam,
cum caput obscura nitidum ferrugine texit
inpiaque aeternam timuerunt saecula noctem.
tempore quamquam illo tellus quoque et aequora ponti
obscenaeque canes inportunaeque volucres
signa dabant. Quotiens Cyclopum effervere in agros
vidimus undantem ruptis fornacibus Aetnam
flammarumque globos liquefactaque volvere saxa!
armorum sonitum toto Germania caelo
audiit, insolitis tremuerunt motibus Alpes.
vox quoque per lucos volgo exaudita silentis
ingens et simulacra modis pallentia miris
visa sub obscurum noctis, pecudesque locutae,
infandum! sistunt amnes terraeque dehiscunt
et maestum inlacrimat templis ebur aeraque sudant.
proluit insano contorquens vertice silvas
fluviorum rex Eridanus camposque per omnis
cum stabulis armenta tulit. Nec tempore eodem
tristibus aut extis fibrae adparere minaces
aut puteis manare cruor cessavit et altae
per noctem resonare lupis ululantibus urbes.
non alias caelo ceciderunt plura sereno
fulgura nec diri totiens arsere cometae.
ergo inter sese paribus concurrere telis
Romanas acies iterum videre Philippi;
nec fuit indignum superis, bis sanguine nostro
Emathiam et latos Haemi pinguescere campos.
scilicet et tempus veniet, cum finibus illis
agricola incurvo terram molitus aratro
exesa inveniet scabra robigine pila
aut gravibus rastris galeas pulsabit inanis
grandiaque effossis mirabitur ossa sepulchris.
Di patrii, Indigetes, et Romule Vestaque mater,
quae Tuscum Tiberim et Romana Palatia servas,
hunc saltem everso iuvenem succurrere saeclo
ne prohibete! satis iam pridem sanguine nostro
Laomedonteae luimus periuria Troiae;
iam pridem nobis caeli te regia, Caesar,
invidet atque hominum queritur curare triumphos;
quippe ubi fas versum atque nefas: tot bella per orbem,
tam multae scelerum facies; non ullus aratro
dignus honos, squalent abductis arva colonis
et curvae rigidum falces conflantur in ensem.
hinc movet Euphrates, illinc Germania bellum;
vicinae ruptis inter se legibus urbes
arma ferunt; saevit toto Mars inpius orbe;
ut cum carceribus sese effudere quadrigae,
addunt in spatia et frustra retinacula tendens
fertur equis auriga neque audit currus habenas.

What late evening brings, where the breeze is bringing the peaceful clouds from, what tricks the rainy south wind is plotting, the Sun will tell you. Who would dare call the Sun untruthful? He often gives warning when unforeseen conflicts threaten, and treachery and hidden wars are brewing. He it was who took pity on Rome when Caesar was killed, when he hid his shining head in tawny darkness and a faithless age feared everlasting night. At that time earth and the ocean waters, evil-boding curs and birds of ill omen gave portents too. Time and again we saw Etna, pouring its flows from fractured forges, boiling over onto the fields of the Cyclopes, rolling down fireballs and molten rocks! Germany heard the sound of clashing arms all across the sky, and the Alps shook with unheard-of earthquakes. People heard a giant voice ring through the quiet woods, pale phantoms were eerily and obscurely seen at nightfall, cattle spoke, a thing that should never be heard! Rivers stood still, earth gaped, in temples sad ivories wept and bronzes sweated. The Po, king of rivers, from a madly towering height tore up woods and washed them away, and across the whole countryside swept off the herds, byres and all. In that time there was no end of threatening threads seen in the organs of inauspicious sacrifices, or blood seeping from wells, and high-built cities rang all night with the howl of wolves. Never did more thunderbolts fall from clear skies or more ominous comets blaze. And so Philippi saw a second time Roman armies, wielding identical arms, close and fight each other; nor did the gods find it unworthy that Macedon and the broad plains of Thrace should twice grow fat upon Roman blood. The time will surely come when farmers there, working the land with the curving plough, will come across javelins bitten by scabby rust, strike empty helmets with their heavy mattocks, and marvel at the huge size of the bones from graves they have dug open. You gods of our fathers, heroes of our nation, Romulus and you, mother Vesta, who protect the Tuscan Tiber and the Palatine Hill of Rome, at least may you not prevent this young man from coming to the rescue of an age turned upside down! We have long since paid enough in our blood for the broken oaths of Laomedon’s Troy, and long since has the kingdom of heaven begrudged you to us, Caesar, complaining that you care for the triumphs of men: truly, right and wrong have been reversed, so many wars are there all over the world, so many forms of crime; there is none of the respect that is due to the plough, the farmland is derelict, its landsmen led away, and curved sickles are reforged into the hard-edged sword. Here Euphrates, there Germany, make war; neighbouring cities, their legal bonds torn apart, bear arms against each other; immoral wars rage throughout the world; as when racing-chariots, bursting out of the starting-gates, gather speed lap by lap and the driver is carried along struggling vainly with the harness, nor will the chariot answer to the reins.

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