At the heart of the Georgics, Virgil begins his third Book by laying his farming theme aside for a time to look forward to greater things. Conventional mythological themes from Greece, he says, have become trite, and he sets out his ambition to transcend them with something new and distinctively Roman. In a passage rich in allusions, not only to mythology and Greek locations, but also to the military achievements of Julius Caesar’s nephew Octavian, the future Emperor Augustus, he imagines a future work that he will write on this new and loftier theme. He uses the analogy of the building of a new temple: Octavian will be the resident deity, but in the ceremonial games that will celebrate the temple’s foundation, Virgil imagines he too will stand alongside the great man in a victor’s trappings, having transferred all the poetical resources of the Greek world into a new Latin creation which will extend Octavian’s fame (and Virgil’s) as far into the future as the time that has elapsed since the beginnings of mankind and heroes. In its details the conception is not yet the great historical epic which Virgil will write – Caesar himself, not yet his legendary forebear, Aeneas, is the focus – but it is clear, as Virgil summons up renewed enthusiasm to return to the rural theme that he now needs to complete, that the road to the Aeneid has begun here in this passage of the Georgics.
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Cui non dictus Hylas puer et Latonia Delos
Hippodameque umeroque Pelops insignis eburno,
acer equis? temptanda via est, qua me quoque possim
tollere humo victorque virum volitare per ora.
primus ego in patriam mecum, modo vita supersit,
Aonio rediens deducam vertice Musas;
primus Idumaeas referam tibi, Mantua, palmas,
et viridi in campo templum de marmore ponam
propter aquam, tardis ingens ubi flexibus errat
Mincius et tenera praetexit harundine ripas.
in medio mihi Caesar erit templumque tenebit:
illi victor ego et Tyrio conspectus in ostro
centum quadriiugos agitabo ad flumina currus.
cuncta mihi Alpheum linquens lucosque Molorchi
cursibus et crudo decernet Graecia caestu.
ipse caput tonsae foliis ornatus olivae
interea Dryadum silvas saltusque sequamur
intactos, tua, Maecenas, haud mollia iussa:
te sine nil altum mens incohat. en age segnis
rumpe moras; vocat ingenti clamore Cithaeron
Taygetique canes domitrixque Epidaurus equorum,
et vox adsensu nemorum ingeminata remugit.
mox tamen ardentis accingar dicere pugnas
Caesaris et nomen fama tot ferre per annos,
Tithoni prima quot abest ab origine Caesar.
Who has not been told of the boy Hylas and Latona’s Delos, Hippodame and Pelops, fierce driver of horses, famous for his ivory shoulder? I shall attempt a way by which I too may be able to raise myself from the earth and fly, a victor, through the mouths of men. I will be the first, if life remains to me, to lead the Muses down from their Grecian peak to my own homeland; I shall be the first, Mantua, to bring home to you the palms of Idumaea, and in the green fields by the waters I will found a marble temple, where the mighty river Mincio wanders in lazy curves and fringes his banks with supple reeds. In the middle I shall have Caesar, and he shall possess the temple. I myself shall be by him in a victor’s garb, conspicuous in purple, and drive one hundred four-horse chariots to the river. Leaving Olympia and the groves of Nemea, the whole of Greece shall compete in the races and with the brutal boxing glove. And I, my head wreathed with a trimmed olive crown, shall award the prizes.
But meanwhile let us go on with the tree-nymphs’ woods and the virgin glades, following your orders, Maecenas, hard though they are: without you, my mind can attempt nothing sublime. Come, let’s break free from dull delay: Mount Cithaeron is calling us with a mighty shout, and the Spartan hounds of Taygetus, and Epidaurus the tamer of horses, and the echo rings back, redoubled by the applause of the woodland. But the time will now soon come when I shall gird myself to tell of Caesar’s battles, and carry his name forward on the wings of fame for as many years as lie between the distant origin of old Tithonus and Caesar himself.