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Virgil and the Messianic Eclogue

Ethics and theology in Virgil's Eclogues.

The Roman poet Virgil had, by the thirteen and fourteenth centuries AD, acquired a reputation as the anima naturaliter Christiana. This is Latin for the ?soul of the natural Christian? and it came as the result of the interpretation of some of his poetry, especially the fourth Eclogue. This reputation has stayed with Virgil since that time and it certainly played a role in preserving his poetry when other poetry was lost during the Dark Ages after the fall of Rome in 476 AD. Although Virgil lived before the advent of Jesus Christ and Christianity, it was proposed that his poetry anticipated a Christian ethic before Jesus Christ was born. It is in the fourth of ten Eclogues that this was demonstrated most dramatically.
The Eclogues are a series of ten poems that Virgil wrote circa 40 BC. The majority of these poems deal with shepherds and their various concerns. The fourth Eclogue is decidedly different in this respect. In the poem Virgil makes several statements about a child destined to bring a Golden Age and free the world from fear. Early Christian scholars (such as Saint Augustine) read this poem and concluded that this child that Virgil spoke of had to be the Messiah: Jesus Christ. Later writers, such as the Italian poet Dante, would also interpret this poem to be a prophecy regarding the Christ. More recently in the seventeenth century, John Dryden stated in his introduction to the fourth Eclogue:

?Many of the verses are translated from one of the Sibyl?s, who prophesied of our Saviour?s birth.? [1]

Below is an extended quote from the fourth Eclogue. Consider how this could be interpreted in light of Christian theology.

Now the last age by Cumae?s Sibyl sung
Has come and gone, and the majestic roll
Of circling centuries begins anew:
Justice returns, returns old Saturn?s reign,
With a new breed of men sent down from heaven.
Only do thou, at the boy?s birth in whom
The iron shall cease, the golden age arise?
Under thy guidance, whatso tracks remain
Of our old wickedness, once done away
Shall free the earth from never-ceasing fear.
He shall receive the life of gods, and see
Heroes with gods commingling, and himself
Be seen of them, and with his father?s worth
Reign o?er a world at peace.? [2]

This passage talks about the birth of a boy who will bring a Golden Age to the world. One in which wickedness will be taken away and the earth will be freed from fear. This unnamed child will also ?receive the life of gods? and ?Reign o?er a world at peace.? Compare these ideas to those found in the book of Isaiah in the Old Testament. The Book of Isaiah was written circa 700 BC by the Jewish prophet of the same name. The following passage was interpreted by the Jews as referring to the Messiah, the ?chosen one?, who would come from God to save Israel. Christians believe it refers directly to Jesus Christ. Consider the themes in the above quote from Virgil when reading this passage from Isaiah 9:6-7 from the King James Version of the Bible:

?For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, the mighty God, the everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there shall be no end, upon the throne of David, and upon his kingdom, to order it, and establish it with judgment and with justice from henceforth even forever. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will perform this.?

The similarities between these two passages are striking and both contain similar ideas about a chosen one of God or the gods coming to earth to bring a better way of life. In Christian theology, Jesus Christ came into the world to free humanity from its sins and offer eternal salvation to those who would accept Him in their hearts. This surely would ?free the world from never-ceasing fear.? If Virgil?s promised child would ?Reign o?er a world at peace?, would that not correspond with Isaiah?s ?Prince of Peace?? It is easy to see why this poem was interpreted as referring to Christ. Adding to this belief is how the end of the fourth Eclogue foretold that the time this child would come would be very soon. Virgil wrote this poem about forty years before the birth of Jesus, which is the blink of an eye in prophetic time. That passage reads:

?By Destiny?s unalterable decree,
Assume thy greatness, for the time draws nigh,
Dear child of gods, great progeny of Jove!
See how it totters ? the world?s orbed might,
Earth, and the wide ocean, and the vault profound,
All, see enraptured of the coming time.? [3]

Recent scholarship on the question of the fourth Eclogue has not generally taken the interpretation favored by Saint Augustine, Dante, Dryden or the author of this essay. In fact, no living modern scholar that I know of endorses the link between the fourth Eclogue and Old Testament prophecy that is suggested here. This can be readily explained by a general reluctance among scholars to embrace the supernatural as a plausible explanation for anything. We live in a skeptical age that distrusts all things it cannot explain. Furthermore, there is always the risk the scholar in question will be mocked by his peers or not given tenure if he makes waves with antiquated ideas about Eclogue IV. Be this as it may, I would challenge the reader to consider what has been presented here and investigate for himself. Is it intellectually honest to dismiss an idea merely because there is a supernatural element? Is a messianic interpretation impossible and thus so easy to dismiss? Read the entire fourth Eclogue and draw your own conclusions. Regardless of how the reader decides this question, the fourth Eclogue cannot be ignored in the study of Virgil. The Christian monks that saved much of Western literature after Rome fell believed this poem foretold the coming of Christ. If they had not believed this, the culturally invaluable work of Virgil may have gone to oblivion and the cost to Western culture would have been incalculable.

[!1] John Dryden, trans. The Works of Virgil, (Edinburgh: John Ross and Company, 1870.) 454.

[!2] Virgil, The Poems of Virgil, trans. James Rhoades, (Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952) 14.

[!3] Virgil, 15.

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