Georgics 1, lines 1 - 42

Virgil begins the Georgics

by Virgil

The dedication to Virgil’s poem on agriculture. The subject seems lowly compared with the epic wars and foundation-myth of the Aeneid – except that land and its produce were the major source of the wealth of the big political players that we read about in the civil wars of first century BCE Rome, and that its peaceful cultivation had been disrupted for decades by them. Highly topical, then, around 30 BCE, and, just as with the Aeneid’s high politics, the new leader, Augustus, has a lot riding on him as a possible solution to some knotty problems. The poetry is intricate, masterful and complete to Virgil’s satisfaction – it’s worth remembering that the later Aeneid was, according to ancient sources, still so much a work in progress that he wanted it destroyed when he realised that he would die before he could revise it further. In the Georgics, he was at the top of his poetic game.

Didactic poems on agriculture went back to the earliest days of Greek literature. The audience for the poem would have been educated enough to know all about that, and to enjoy Virgil’s elaborate mythological references (the “boy who showed how to use the ploughshare” was Triptolemus, who was taught about it by Ceres). The convention was to start, as Virgil does here, with invocations to twelve gods of produce and the countryside (the “brightest lights” at the beginning are the sun and moon). His two enormous sentences invoking, first, the gods, then Augustus, are sophistication itself. Afterwards, the first book will be mainly about how to grow things; and how to know what growers need to know – when to plant and reap, how to maintain the fertility of the land and when good and bad weather is coming. In Virgil’s day, finding all this out depends largely on the stars, and on other clues from nature on every scale from the cosmos to the behaviour of ants. (Before you laugh, consider the appalling hash that modern farming science has made of the natural world and its beauty and sustainability.) This reliance on signs from nature, large and small, has almost vanished from our own world over the past few generations, but survives still just within living memory. Light pollution means that only a small minority of us can now regularly see a proper night sky, but I can still remember very old members of my country family when I was a child who would not have dreamed of planting potatoes at the wrong phase of the moon.

See the illustrated blog post here.

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Quid faciat laetas segetes, quo sidere terram
uertere, Maecenas, ulmisque adiungere uitis
conueniat, quae cura boum, qui cultus habendo
sit pecori, apibus quanta experientia parcis,
hinc canere incipiam. uos, o clarissima mundi
lumina, labentem caelo quae ducitis annum;
Liber et alma Ceres, uestro si munere tellus
Chaoniam pingui glandem mutauit arista,
poculaque inuentis Acheloia miscuit uuis;
et uos, agrestum praesentia numina, Fauni
(ferte simul Faunique pedem Dryadesque puellae:
munera uestra cano); tuque o, cui prima frementem
fudit equum magno tellus percussa tridenti,
Neptune; et cultor nemorum, cui pinguia Ceae
ter centum niuei tondent dumeta iuuenci;
ipse nemus linquens patrium saltusque Lycaei
Pan, ouium custos, tua si tibi Maenala curae,
adsis, o Tegeaee, fauens, oleaeque Minerua
inuentrix, uncique puer monstrator aratri,
et teneram ab radice ferens, Siluane, cupressum:
dique deaeque omnes, studium quibus arua tueri,
quique nouas alitis non ullo semine fruges
quique satis largum caelo demittitis imbrem.
tuque adeo, quem mox quae sint habitura deorum
concilia incertum est, urbisne inuisere, Caesar,
terrarumque uelis curam, et te maximus orbis
auctorem frugum tempestatumque potentem
accipiat cingens materna tempora myrto;
an deus immensi uenias maris ac tua nautae
numina sola colant, tibi seruiat ultima Thule,
teque sibi generum Tethys emat omnibus undis;
anne nouum tardis sidus te mensibus addas,
qua locus Erigonen inter Chelasque sequentis
panditur (ipse tibi iam bracchia contrahit ardens
Scorpius et caeli iusta plus parte reliquit);
quidquid eris (nam te nec sperant Tartara regem,
nec tibi regnandi ueniat tam dira cupido,
quamuis Elysios miretur Graecia campos
nec repetita sequi curet Proserpina matrem),
da facilem cursum atque audacibus adnue coeptis,
ignarosque uiae mecum miseratus agrestis
ingredere et uotis iam nunc adsuesce uocari.

What makes crops flourish, under what star to till the earth, Maecenas, or fix vines to the elm, how to keep cattle, and how sheep, what skills are needed for keeping thrifty bees, now I sing. You, the brightest lights of the world, who guide the year as it slips across the sky; you, Bacchus and gentle Ceres, if by your gift the world changed diet from the acorns of Dodona to rich ears of grain, discovered the grape and how to mix it into drinking-cups of water from streams; and you, native spirits of the countryside, Fauns,(approach, Fauns, and Dryad-maidens too, it is your gifts I sing); and you, for whom Earth first brought forth horses, struck by your great trident, O Neptune; and you, haunter of groves, for whom three hundred snowy cattle browse the lush brakes of Cea; and Pan, protector of sheep, leaving your ancestral grove and the clearings of Mount Lycaeus, if you care for your Arcadian home, come yourself and favour us, Tegean, and Minerva the inventor of oil, and the boy who showed how to use the curved ploughshare, and Silvanus, with a young cypress-tree, roots and all: and every god and goddess, whose charge is the welfare of farmland, who nourish new crops unsown, and send down the abundant rain from heaven on the fields. Yes, and you, Caesar: no-one knows yet which council of the Gods will receive you in time, whether you choose to be God of cities and lands, and boundless creation will receive you as giver of crops and ruler of tempests, brows girt with your mother’s myrtle; or you become God of the vast ocean, and it is your powers alone that sailors will worship, you that far Thule serves, and you that Tethys acquires as her daughter’s bridegroom with all her waves as dowry; or whether you add yourself, a new constellation, to the leisurely months, where space in the night sky opens between Virgo and the Claws – burning Scorpio himself even now, drawing in his arms, has ceded some of his too ample share: whatever you shall be (for Tartarus has no hope of you as its ruler, nor would so grim a wish for kingship occur to you – though Greece loves the Elysian Fields – nor is Proserpina keen to follow her mother when she seeks her out), clear my way, bless my first ambitious steps, share my pity for poor country folk who do not know the way, assume your office and become used now to receive their prayers.