Virgil the magician

March 10 2011

There was never a time – not even at the blackest nadir of a Western Dark Age – at which this Hellenistic Christian civilization did not “have” the poetry of Virgil in the sense of possessing manuscripts of the text and retaining a sufficient knowledge of the Latin language to be able still to construe the literal meaning of the words. Yet there were at least eight centuries, running from the seventh to the fourteenth century of the Christian Era inclusive, during which Virgil’s poetry was beyond the comprehension of even the most gifted, pious, and industrious Western Christian students of it, if we take, as our standard of what constitutes a genuine understanding, an ability to divine in Virgil’s poetry the meaning that had been intended by the poet himself and that had been duly apprehended by kindred spirits in his own world, from a contemporary Horace down to a fourth-century Servius and Augustine. Even a Dante, in whose spirit the first glimmer of an Italian renaissance of Hellenism was already beginning to dawn, saw in Virgil a figure which the historical Virgil would have taken, not for his own unassumingly human self, but for some augustly mythical Orpheus or Musaeus; and, in the mental vision of less enlightened Medieval Western souls, the true lineaments of the classical poet were still further transmogrified into the quite unrecognizable shape of a wonder-working magician who had left his mark on a Neapolitan landscape where the historical poet had lived a quiet life of literary seclusion and where his mortal remains had eventually been laid to rest in a tomb on the road between Naples and Puteoli. [Footnote: See Comparetti, D.: Virgilio nel Medio Evo, 2nd ed. (Florence 1896, Seeber), Parte Seconda: ‘Virgilio nella Leggenda Popolare.’]

Dante made Virgil his guide in Hell and most of Purgatory in The Divine Comedy. He mentions Virgil in De vulgari eloquentia, along with Ovid, Lucan and Statius, as one of the four regulati poetae.

In later antiquity Virgil was thought to have had the magical abilities of a seer. His “Messianic” Fourth Eclogue was said to have predicted the birth of Christ. The prediction helped Christians to be reconciled to him.

The sortes Virgilianae, the process of using Virgil’s poetry as a tool of divination, is found in the time of Hadrian and continued into the Middle Ages. A line would be selected at random and interpreted in the context of a current situation. The Old Testament was sometimes used for similar purposes. Compare the I Ching.

Macrobius in the Saturnalia credits the work of Virgil as the embodiment of all human knowledge and experience, mirroring the Greek conception of Homer.

The structure known as Virgil’s tomb is found at the entrance of an ancient Roman tunnel (the grotta vecchia) in the Parco di Virgilio in Piedigrotta, a district two miles from old Naples, near the Mergellina harbour, on the road heading north along the coast to Pozzuoli (Puteoli).

Roman bust at the entrance to “Virgil’s tomb”

A Study of History, Vol IX, OUP, 1954

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