The Birth of Jesus and Virgil’s 4th Eclogue

One of the most interesting Greco-Roman parallels to the birth of Jesus is found in the famous fourth Eclogue of Virgil. Written at the time of the Peace of Brundisium (40 B.C.), following decades of civil war, it is an ode to a coming “Golden Age” (for the cycle of Ages—Gold to Iron—cf. Hesiod, Works and Days ll. 106-201, and the similar concept in many cultures worldwide).

SICILIAN Muses, let us sing a somewhat loftier strain. 2Not all do the orchards please and the lowly tamarisks. 3If our song is of the woodland, let the woodland be worthy of a consul.
4Now is come the last age of the song of Cumae; 5the great line of the centuries begins anew. 6Now the Virgin returns, the reign of Saturn returns; 7now a new generation descends from heaven on high. 8-10Only do thou, pure Lucina, smile on the birth of the child, under whom the iron brood shall first cease, and a golden race spring up throughout the world! Thine own Apollo now is king!
11-12And in thy consulship, Pollio, yea in thine, shall this glorious age begin, and the mighty months commence their march; 13under thy sway, any lingering traces of our guilt 14shall become void, and release the earth from its continual dread. 15He shall have the gift of divine life, 16shall see heroes mingled with gods, and shall himself be seen of them, 17and shall sway a world to which his father’s virtues have brought peace.
18-22But for thee, child, shall the earth untilled pour forth, as her first pretty gifts, straggling ivy with foxglove everywhere, and the Egyptian bean blended with the smiling acanthus. Uncalled, the goats shall bring home their udders swollen with milk, and the herds shall fear not huge lions; 23unasked, thy cradle shall pour forth flowers for thy delight. 24The serpent, too, shall perish, and the false poison-plant shall perish; 25Assyrian spice shall spring up on every soil.
26But soon as thou canst read of the glories of heroes and thy father’s deeds, 27and canst know what valour is, 28slowly shall the plain yellow with the waving corn, 29on wild brambles shall hang the purple grape, 30and the stubborn oak shall distil dewy honey. 31Yet shall some few traces of olden sin lurk behind, 32-33to call men to essay the sea in ships, to gird towns with walls, and to cleave the earth with furrows. 34-35A second Tiphys shall then arise, and a second Argo to carry chosen heroes; a second warfare, too, shall there be, 36and again shall a great Achilles be sent to Troy.
37Next, when now the strength of years has made thee man, 38-39even the trader shall quit the sea, nor shall the ship of pine exchange wares; every land shall bear all fruits. 40The earth shall not feel the harrow, nor the vine the pruning-hook; 41the sturdy ploughman, too, shall now loose his oxen from the yoke. 42Wool shall no more learn to counterfeit varied hues, 43but of himself the ram in the meadows shall change his fleece, 44now to sweetly blushing purple, now to a saffron yellow; 45of its own will shall scarlet clothe the grazing lambs.
46“Ages such as these, glide on!” cried to their spindles the Fates, 47voicing in unison the fixed will of Destiny!
48Enter on thy high honours—the hour will soon be here—49O thou dear offspring of the gods, mighty descendant of Jupiter! 50Behold the world bowing with its massive dome—51earth and expanse of sea and heaven’s depth! 52Behold, how all things exult in the age that is at hand! 53O that then the last days of a long life may still linger for me, 54with inspiration enough to tell of thy deeds! 55-57Not Thracian Orpheus, not Linus shall vanquish me in song, though his mother be helpful to the one, and his father to the other, Calliope to Orpheus, and fair Apollo to Linus. 58-59Even Pan, were he to contend with me and Arcady be judge, even Pan, with Arcady for judge, would own himself defeated.
60Begin, baby boy, to know thy mother with a smile—61to thy mother ten months have brought the weariness of travail. 62-63Begin, baby boy! Him on whom his parents have not smiled, no god honours with his table, no goddess with her bed!
(transl. H. R. Fairclough, Loeb edition, 1916).

This “Golden Age” is connected with the birth of a child, somewhat similar, perhaps to situation in Isa 7:14 and 9:6-7 (cf. the earlier articles on these passages). Indeed, there are a number of images and motifs in this poem that could almost have been lifted out of Isaiah. It has been suggested that Virgil is drawing upon Jewish or related Near Eastern sources in some fashion (note the details in lines 18-25); though overall the idyllic pastoral picture owes more to Theocritus and other Greco-Roman poets than it does to foreign works. As with Isaiah 7:14; 9:6-7, the identity of the child here is uncertain; many proposals have been made, the most common of which are:

  • The son of Asinius Pollio (the consul in lines 3, 11-12)
  • A son of Octavian (Augustus)—his wife Scribonia was pregnant at the time (but she would bear a daughter)
  • The child is symbolic of the Golden Age

Certainly, Augustus would come to be associated with a reign of peace (Pax Augusta) and be called “savior of the world” (on this Imperial background to the birth of Jesus esp. in the Gospel of Luke, see a previous Christmas season note). Not surprisingly, some Christians saw in this poem a (pagan) prophecy of Jesus’ birth (e.g., Lactantius, Institutes 7:24; Oration of Constantine §§19-21; but cf. Jerome, Epistle 53, for a contrary opinion). There are likely several reasons for this:

  • Reference to the Cumaean Sibyl in line 4—the Sibyls were seen as predicting the coming of Christ in other early Christian traditions (see below)
  • The “Virgin” in line 6 (here the virgin is ‘Justice’)
  • The child’s connection to the new age, especially the miraculous fertility which comes upon the earth (lines 18-25ff, 40-45)
  • Divine (honorific) attributes seem to be given to the child in lines 15-17
  • The (very) rough similarities with details in Isaiah 7:14ff (cf. the time indicators related to the child’s age in lines 26ff, etc)
  • The depiction of the birth and connection with the mother in lines 60-63 may have conjured up associations with Mary and the virgin birth.

Mention of the Sibyl, along with the possibility of Jewish (or Near Eastern) influence in parts of the poem, have led some scholars to theorize that Virgil may have had access to Sibylline “oracles” similar to those which have come down to us today (cf. especially the 3rd book of the Sibylline Oracles). As I discussed in a previous note, these surviving books are a mixture of pagan, Jewish and Christian material—the pseudepigraphic Christian books and sections are largely a reworking of the Jewish oracles, meant to integrate the birth and life of Jesus into the fabric of biblical and world history.

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