|A SECOND CENTURY CRITICISM OF VIRGIL'S ETNA.|
CHIEF amongst natural phenomena to impose upon the imagination and challenge the understanding of classic authors was vulcanism in its direct and associate manifestations. Speculations as to the causes of earthquakes have at least as remote an antiquity as Thales and Pythagoras, of the sixth century B. C, and the relation between volcanic activity and proximity to the sea was clearly perceived in the time of Aristotle. Descriptions of Etna and Vesuvius have ever been a favorite theme for writers of both prose and poetry, the younger Seneca, in fact, complaining in one of his epistles that the topic had become trite and threadbare: "for this commonplace of poetry," as he calls it, "was fearlessly attempted again by Cornelius Severus even after it had been handled by Ovid, and more perfectly by Virgil."
Pindar's beautiful first Pythian ode, in honor of Hiero, has preserved for us not only the earliest, but at the same time one of the most graphic and altogether accurate accounts of Etna in eruption, so that it is scarcely dubitable that the poet was an eye-witness of the outburst whereof he speaks. The latter is in that case to be identified with the second eruption mentioned by Thucydides, the date of which is referred to the year 475 B. C. The odist's few masterly lines depict very clearly the principal features of an active volcano, and it is to be noted that some of them, such as the emission of smoke by day and flames by night, were recognized as typical characteristics by later observers and copyists, of whom Æschylus was the first.
Otherwise, however, was the case with Virgil, who, whether spectator or not of the disturbances which shook Etna shortly before the Christian era, drew more upon his imagination than upon observed facts for the portrayal given by him in the Æneid. Animated and suggestive as is the Latin singer's description of Etna, it lacks the verisimilitude of Pindar's, and this defect has given rise to the criticism of which we are about to speak.
The first to point out the lesser accuracy of Virgil's verse, as compared with Pindar's, was a philosopher of Hadrian's time, named Favorinus or Phavorinus, all of whose writings are lost. This criticism of the Virgilian Etna is preserved along with a host of interesting narrations in that curious scrap-book of Aulus Gellius, Nodes Atticæ,