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  • Linus as a Figure for Pastoral Poetics in Vergil’s Eclogues
  • Jennifer Ebbeler (bio)

The pastoral world of Vergil’s Eclogues is populated by a motley assortment of characters: writing shepherds, singing goatherds, and mythological figures. Included among them is Linus, who appears twice in the collection. The poet’s brief mention of Linus at Ecl. 4.56–7—to claim that his own carmina could surpass even those of Orpheus and Linus—anticipates Linus’s starring role in Eclogue 6, where he is entrusted with the privilege of passing down to Gallus the calami of Hesiod. It is curious that Vergil gives Linus, a marginal mythological character, such a prominent role in the intensely metapoetic scene of Gallus’s poetic investiture.1 We might suspect that there is more going on than meets the eye, as is so often the case in Vergil’s poetry. Indeed, David Ross (1975, 164) goes so far as to argue that in Vergilian pastoral “Linus came to be the divine archetypal poet of the pastoral world.” Certainly, it is significant that Linus’s two appearances in the Eclogues come in what many readers consider to be the two most dense and allusive poems in the collection.2

This article nuances Ross’s broad claim for Linus’s metapoetic function in the Eclogues to offer the specific suggestion that Vergil discovered in Linus a character whose diverse literary genealogy permitted him to explore the complex interplay of writing and singing in poetic composition. I do not mean to suggest that Vergil’s exploration of orality and textuality was confined to poems in which Linus makes an appearance. In fact, as Brian Breed (2006) has persuasively argued in an important study, images of textuality pervade the Eclogues. Rather, I want to posit that, in the figure of Linus, Vergil lit upon a particularly apt, if marginal, figure for articulating a pastoral poetics that encompassed both oral and written modes of composition. For Vergil (and possibly Gallus before him), Linus embodied the symbiosis of Hesiodic song culture and the erudite, ‘bookish’ poetics of the so-called Alexandrian poets to create a uniquely Vergilian pastoral aesthetic. A defining characteristic of this aesthetic is the poet’s unapologetic declaration that he is a writer of texts as much as a singer. [End Page 187]

My argument for recognizing Linus’s importance to our understanding of the Eclogues as a whole, and poems 4 and 6 in particular, is not intended to resolve all of the complexities of this highly sophisticated poetic libellus. Rather, I hope to suggest an innovative and productive approach to the poems, one that engages with contemporary debates in Roman studies concerning the intricate relationship between song and text in ancient literary production and circulation.3 Following a brief review of Linus’s pre-Vergilian genealogy, I focus my discussion on the interplay of writing and orality in Eclogues 4 and 6.

Linus before Vergil

As was the case throughout the Eclogues, Vergil may well have had Theocritus’s treatment of Linus in mind.4 In Idyll 24, Theocritus narrates a portentous episode from Hercules’s infancy: his barehanded throttling of twin snakes sent by Hera. Alcmena, horrified by her son’s precocious behavior, consulted the seer Tiresias, who promptly assured her that Hercules had a glorious future. The poem then outlines the child’s preparation for the heroic life. In addition to the usual artes heroum—hunting, chariot driving, hand-to-hand combat—Hercules was taught to read and write by the aged hero Linus (, 105–6). In Theocritus’s able hands Linus has been transformed from a music teacher (a role now played by Eumolpus) into a literate Alexandrian.5 The characterization of Linus as a teacher of textual practices is not original to Theocritus, but looks back at least to the fourth century B.C.E. Athenaeus’s Deipnosophistai (Banquet of the Learned), a third-century C.E. anthology of rambling anecdotes on such topics as food, sex, and pornography, preserves a fragment from a comedy of the Greek playwright Alexis to illustrate the connection between books and bellies. In Alexis’s Linos, Athenaeus tells us, Linus instructed his pupil Hercules to...


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