Virgil, History, and Prophecy
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Philosophy and Literature 29.1 (2005) 73-88



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Virgil, History, and Prophecy

Vanderbilt University

Virgil has been very widely acclaimed as a prophet, but the grounds of this acclaim have shifted in the course of history. From ancient and especially from medieval times, this recognition was traditionally accorded him first and foremost, if not exclusively, on the basis of a passage from the Fourth Eclogue celebrating the birth of a new progeny ("progenies nova") from heaven and the consequent renewal of the world.1 This passage lent itself to Christian messianic interpretations, thanks especially to its reference to a Virgin ushering in a return of the golden age of peace on earth ("iam redit et uirgo, redeunt Saturnia regna"). Historical research reveals Virgil to have, in all probability, intended in this text to hyperbolically hail the birth of a son to a particular Roman consul.2 Yet, even apart from historical intentions and inevitable doubts about them, to pin Virgil's claim to being a prophet to this text is to miss the momentous discovery that makes him truly a prophet in a way unprecedented in pagan antiquity.

Modern treatments of Virgil as prophet have not remained beholden to this Christian medieval framework and have opened suggestive avenues for more accurate elucidation of Virgilian prophecy, particularly in terms of its own historical context and the role of the Latin vates in Imperial Rome.3 What I wish to propose, however, is not a more accurately historicized understanding of prophecy in Virgil, but rather a philosophical interpretation of the conception of history as prophetic that is realized in the text of the Aeneid. This is actually analogous to the medieval Christian misprision of Virgil in that it focusses on Virgil's potential significance in a new and different historical context, our own. The justification for this approach lies in the fact that historical research into prophecy during the Augustan Empire cannot exhaustively [End Page 73] explain the significance of Virgil's text in its astonishing creation of an original conception of history as prophetic, nor in its potential to illuminate the nature of prophecy as it may concern us today. Study of Virgil can help make the concept of prophecy vital to reflection on history and the structure of time in our own post-Heideggerian era.

The question of whether Virgil foresaw the birth of Christ concerns prophecy only in the relatively banal sense of being able to foretell the future. In this, Virgil would be no different from myriad seers and divines and sorcerers with which the ancient world was rife. But the originality of Virgil, his particular claim to being an authentic prophet rather than simply, like many other major Roman authors, to have incorporated prophetic topoi into his works rests on his surpassing prophecy in precisely this sense. It is Virgil's single-handed invention, as if out of nowhere, of a genuinely prophetic mode of understanding history that is the seeming miracle on which his justly deserved fame as a prophetic poet has every right to rest.

Whereas the certainly rather forced Christian interpretation of the Fourth Eclogue concerns "prophecy" only in a surface sense of factually foretelling the future, the deep meaning of prophecy as it develops in Virgil and Dante and the whole lineage of prophetic poets they foster down through Tasso, Spenser, Milton, and Blake, concerns rather the interpretation of history from its endpoint and seen as a whole, so that every moment in that history receives new meaning in light of a synoptic vision. In the biblical prophetic tradition, this perspective extends even beyond history and time altogether, and this marks a crucial difference from Virgil, whose end-vision is envisaged primarily as intrahistorical rather than as eschatological or as beyond the end (eschaton) of history. Still, in Virgil, just as in the Bible, the prophetic vantage point transcends history in order to understand it as a whole. This transcendence is expressed, among other ways, in the claim to divine inspiration. Whether this claim to inspiration be understood as a figure for heightened human potency or...


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