This extract from one of Virgil’s Eclogues, or pastoral poems, modelled on the Sicilian Greek poet Theocritus (hence the “Sicilian Muses”), was interpreted by many early Christians as a prediction of the birth of Christ. This helps to explain the special status that Virgil enjoyed in the middle ages as a virtuous pagan prophet, including his appearance in Dante’s work, the Divine Comedy, as the poet’s guide through Hell, Purgatory and Paradise. Pollio, to whom Virgil addresses himself, was a general whose writings are gone, but who had a literary reputation and was also mentioned by Horace. Cumae was the seat of a famous Sibyl-prophetess. Lucina is the Goddess of childbirth. Who the divine child was meant to be, we don’t know, but Pollio’s consulship was in 40 BCE, the year in which Mark Antony married the sister of Octavian, the future Emperor Augustus, in an unsuccessful attempt to counter the growing pressures on their creaky alliance. That this poem was written to celebrate the marriage seems as good a guess as any – the reference near the end to putting an end to (the) guilt (of civil war?) would fit, but something about the poem remains strangely disproportionate.
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Sicelides Musae, paulo maiora canamus.
non omnis arbusta iuvant humilesque myricae;
si canimus silvas, silvae sint consule dignae.
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.
teque adeo decus hoc aevi, te consule, inibit,
Pollio, et incipient magni procedere menses;
te duce, si qua manent sceleris vestigia nostri
inrita perpetua solvent formidine terras.
ille deum vitam accipiet divisque videbit
permixtos heroas et ipse videbitur illis
pacatumque reget patriis virtutibus orbem.
Sicilian Muses, let’s sing of slightly greater things.
Orchards and lowly tamarisk aren’t everyone’s delight;
if we sing of woods, let them be worthy of a consul!
The last age of Cumaean prophecy has come,
the great sequence of the ages is born afresh.
The virgin and the reign of Saturn come again,
now a new child is sent from heaven above.
Chaste Lucina, smile on the new-born boy,under whom
the iron race shall make way, a new, golden race rise
throughout the world; now your Apollo reigns. With you,
you, Pollio, as consul, this glory of the age shall
come in, its months begin their great, successive march;
under your consulate, if vain traces of guilt remain,
they shall release the world from its perpetual fear.
He shall have the life of the Gods, see heroes
consorting with the Gods, himself be seen by them, rule
a world that owes its peace to his fathers’ powers.