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Virgil Murder



Rebellious poets

If we replace the case in the general context of the first century B. C., the real question is not why Augustus killed Virgil, but rather why he did not kill him sooner.

Indeed, there was a substantial incompatibility between Julius Caesar's heir, an ambitious man without any scruples, and the priest of Apollo nicknamed "the Virgin", between the demagogue and corrupt townsman, and the countryman convinced that Rome's regeneration necessitated a return to ancestral values and a submission to divine and cosmic laws. And we must not forget that Virgil was a victim of the expropriations decided by Mark Antony and Octavian. So it would be quite logic to find him in the opposition, even though he was forced to keep subservient appearances. Hence the hypothesis that he used in his works a system of double language in order to preserve his freedom of speech without bringing immediate punishment upon himself (cf. Bibliog. item n° 2). Mere hypothesis, one would say. Not at all. We know by chance that Vipsanius Agrippa accused Virgil and Maecenas of cacozelia latens (Suet.-Don., Vit. Verg. 185-8), a bizarre expression that scholars have traditionally understood as a reference to a sort of stylistic affectedness, as if Agrippa, a military man, could plausibly worry about literary criticism.

Actually, it seems possible to show that, taking up the torch from Catullus and Calvus, themselves victims of Caesar's rage, Virgil concealed in his Bucolics a fierce denunciation of the "Divine Young Man", as he terms derisively Octavian, after Cicero's Philippics. Then, proceding step by step, one discovers that other poets, Horace, Tibullus, Propertius, Ovid, express under the same cover the same hostility against Augustus and his Regime. Naturally, the emperor largely penetrated their subtext, but he tolerated it probably by amusement as well as by calculation. The important thing was that these influential writers seemed to support him; what they really said did not really matter as long as he controlled the situation and could destroy them at any moment. He liked to take his time and repeated at every turn : festina lente. Virgil's fate was linked to the achievement of the Aeneid, the great national epics Augustus had ordered him to write. Suetonius-Donatus and Macrobius tell us of the letters the prince send to the poet, asking for news about the progress of the poem. Virgil could not even escape reading large extracts of his work in Augustus' presence. After ten years, the Aeneid arrived to its completion, and its author's last hour had come.