Popular Science Monthly/Volume 65/September 1904/A Second Century Criticism of Virgil's Etna

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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, being found in lib. xvii., cap. x., of that work.[1] Owing to its interest to modern readers, we venture to reproduce the entire passage, as follows:

I remember that the philosopher Favorinus, when in the heat of the year he had retired to his host's villa at Antium, and we had come from Rome to see him, discussed Pindar and Virgil somewhat in this way: "Virgil's friends and associates," said he, "in their memorials of his genius and character, say that he was wont to observe that he produced verses after the manner and fashion of a she-bear. For, as this beast produces its cub unformed and unfinished, and afterwards licks the product into shape and figure; so the results of his wits were at first rough-hewn and uncompleted, but afterwards, by rehandling and fashioning them, he gave them lineaments and countenance.

"Now," said he, "the facts prove that this quick-witted poet spoke with as much truth as frankness. For those things which he left polished and perfected—those on which he put the last touch of his censorship and his choice—rejoice in the full praise of poetical loveliness; but those of which he postponed the recension, and which could not be finished owing to the interposition of death, are by no means worthy of the name and judgment of this most elegant of poets. And so, when he was in the grasp of sickness, and felt the approach of death, he earnestly begged and prayed of his dearest friends that they would burn the Æneid, to which he had not yet sufficiently put the file.

"Now among those passages which seem to have been most in need of rehandling and correction, that on Mount Etna holds the chief place. For, while he wished to vie with the verses of the old poet Pindar on the nature and eruptions of this mountain, he wrought such conceits and such phrases that in this place he has out-Pindared Pindar himself, who is generally thought to indulge in too exuberant and luxuriant rhetoric. To put you yourselves" (he continued) "in the position of judges, I will repeat, to the best of my memory, Pindar's verses on Etna."

Now under sulph'r'ous Cuma's sea-bound coast,
And vast Sicilia, lies his shaggy breast
By snowy Aetna, nurse of endless frost,
The pillared prop of heaven, forever press'd;
Forth from whose nitrous caverns issuing rise
Pure liquid fountains of tempestuous fire,
And veil in ruddy mists the noon-day skies,
While, rapt in smoke, the eddying flames expire,
Or, gleaming thro' the night with hideous roar,
Far o'er the red'ning main huge rocky fragments pour.

"Now listen to Virgil's verses, which I would rather call begun than made."

Ample the port, and fenced to every blast;
But night and day grim Aetna thunders nigh
In frightful peals, and now and then doth belch
Black clouds of rolling smoke in pitchy whirls,

With embers glowing white, and flings aloft
Great globes of fire, and licks the stars with flame;
Anon with large discharge out-hurls in air
The shattered entrails of the mountain's maw,
Disploded rocks, and jets of molten stone
Sluiced from its burning core, and brimming now,
O'er all its blazing sides infuriate boils.
'Tis said Encheladus' vast bulk is pressed,
All scorched and scarred, with thunderbolts intrenched,
This mighty mass beneath; and so o'erlaid,
The riven hill, in furnace mouths agape,
Forth spouts his fiery gaspings for the air;
And oft as shifts that weary, tortured side
Trinacria still from base to surface quakes
With inward throes, and shrouds the heaven in smoke.

"Now, in the first place," said he, "Pindar, paying more attention to truth, says what is the fact—what usually happens there and what is seen with the eyes—that Etna smokes by day and flames by night; but Virgil, while laboring for grand and sonorous words, confuses the seasons without any distinction. The Greek said clearly enough that fountains of fire belched from the bottom, and rivers of smoke flowed, and twisted yellow volumes of flame rolled to the shore of the sea, like fiery snakes. But Virgil, by choosing to interpret 'a burning stream of smoke' as 'a black cloud smoking with pitchy gusts and [glowing] ashes,' has heaped things together coarsely and without moderation, and has harshly and inaccurately translated what the other called 'fountains' into 'globes' of flame. Again, when he says that it 'licks the stars,' he has made an empty and idle exaggeration. Moreover, what he says about the black cloud, etc., is inexplicable, and almost incomprehensible. For things which glow are not usually black or smoking—unless he has very vulgarly and improperly used the word candente of ash merely hot, not fiery and shining. For candens is said of the brightness, not the heat.[2] But as for the stones and the rocks being belched and flung up, and the very same ones anon being 'liquefied,' and groaning, and being 'conglomerated in air'—all this is what Pindar never wrote, nor any man heard of, and is of all absurdities the most monstrous."

With respect to the anecdote related above that Virgil ordered his MS. to be burned, the same fact is mentioned by Servius in his introduction to the Æneid, and confirmed also by Pliny (lib. vii., cap. 30). Virgil died in 19 B. C, and the Æneid must have been published soon after. Just as Pindar's verse was imitated by Æschylus, so Virgil served as a model for the unknown author of 'Ætna' a poetical description of more than 600 lines which abounds in scientific details. Although the authorship of this poem has been variously ascribed, the prevailing view of modern scholarship is that it is the work of Lucilius Junior, the philosophical friend and correspondent of the younger Seneca, with whose writings it shows an intimate agreement. Notwithstanding it has been twice re-edited in English, and once in German, within recent years, almost no notice has been taken in geological literature of this remarkable production.[3] Sartorius, Baron of Waltershausen, who gives a list of ancient Etna eruptions,[4] refers to it casually as a 'schönes Gedicht.' Sudhaus, however, in his thesis on 'Ætna' devotes considerable space to the scientific aspects of the poem, and traces a connection between the author's general theories of vulcanism and those of Posidonius.

An idea of the scientific value of 'Ætna' may be gathered from the following selections from the analysis of the poem as given by Professor Ellis in his critical recension of the text (Oxford, 1901).


(1-28) My song is of Aetna and its subterranean fires. The ancient subjects of poetry are exhausted and have become overtrite. Mine is a hardier effort, to explain the causes of Aetna's eruptions and of its burning lava floods.

(222-271) The highest pleasure of the human soul is to search into the causes of things. What is the origin of the universe, what is the nature of ite framework? Will it pass into extinction, or go on forever? By what degree is the moon's orbit less than the sun's? What stars have a fixed circuit, what are the alternations of the zodiacal signs? Such lofty speculations as these should be our chief end and aim, as indeed they are our highest and most divine pleasure. Nor should we forget meanwhile the earth; for folly it were indeed to explore the sky and the stars, yet indolently neglect the great spectacle that lies before us and at our feet.

(187-217) If you ask what is the cause that produces the outbreaks of Aetna as we know them, I appeal to what we see; to touch we are not permitted, the force of the explosion making it dangerous to come near. Ignited sand is whirled up in a cloud, burning masses of rock are heaved skywards, a loud crash bursts from every part of the mountain, the ground is strewn in every direction with masses of sand and stone.

(447-507) Round the sides of Aetna you may see stones in a state of fuming heat, and rocks with the fire smouldering in their pores. When the volcano begins to prepare for an eruption there are premonitory signs, such as cracking of the ground, falling away of the soil, low murmurs from the depths of the mountain, flame. When these occur it is time to withdraw to the safety of some adjoining eminence. The eruption comes in a moment, masses of burning rock are heaved in the air, shoals of black sand are driven up to the stars. They fall into the most fantastic shapes. Some look like troops under
defeat,[5] some are still maintaining a sturdy resistance to the flames; in one part the fiery foe is putting forth its whole strength and seems to pant with the effort, elsewhere it is dying gradually down. The stones thrown out have a different look. Some have a dirty and rugged-seeming surface, like the scoria from smelted iron. Others that have fallen pyramidably upon each other burn away as if in actual furnace. Gradually the inner substance of the stone liquefies, assumes a more intense glow, and at last pours down the slopes of the mountain, sometimes advancing to a distance of twelve Roman miles. . . . But however far the lava-flood may be carried by its own impetus, crossing, for instance, the river Simaethus and joining its banks, once cold and stiff, it is almost immovable. (602-fin.) Once upon a time the volcano kindled into flame and spread destruction over the surrounding country. So swift was its advance that the Catinaeans had hardly begun to know the fire was on its way when it had already reached their walls. Snatching up each what they thought most precious—money, gold vessels, armour, poems—they fled for life in vain, the flames surrounded and consumed them. Two only, Amphinomus and his brother, seeing their parents too infirm to escape, lifted them on their shoulders, and with this pious burden confronted the flames. power of pity unsurpassable! The fire gave way on either side and would not assail them; they escaped with the burden which to them was more than all treasures, their father and mother. For this they are rewarded with eternal remembrance in poetry, and a special mansion in Elysium,[6]
  1. The only complete translation of the 'Attic Nights' in English is that of W. Beloe, in three volumes, London, 1795. The passage on Etna, newly translated by Professor Saintsbury, is included in the Loci Critici of that author, pp. 74-75, his being the rendering we have made use of. It is necessary to add that the translation of Pindar given below is taken from West, that of Virgil from Thornhill (Æneid, iii., 570 sqq.).
  2. Strongly as Favorinus condemns Virgil's indulgence in poetic license, later usage would seem to sanction and uphold him in it. Dante's fondness for incongruous color associations, especially the more sombre shades, is proverbial, and even Milton did not disdain to put into the mouth of Moloch, when uttering his famous speech, the identical expression of 'black fire' (Paradise Lost, ii., 51-100).
  3. Gellius has fared better than the author of 'Ætna,' being quoted in full by seventeenth-century writers on Vesuvius, notably by Alzario della Croce, in his Vesuvius ardens (Rome, 1632).
  4. Sartorius ('Ætna,' Vol. I., p. 202) appears to be uncertain whether the combined statements of Virgil, Livy and Petronius refer to one or two violent eruptions about the middle of the first century B. C. It seems probable that only one is indicated, the date of which was either 44 or 49 B. C. Livy, as quoted by Servius, makes the eruption immediately precede the death of Caesar in 44; Petronius, on the other hand, places it before the passage of the Rubicon in 49.
  5. One may compare H. A. J. Munro's felicitous explanation of this passage in his 'Ætna, Revised, Emended and Explained,' p. 35, (Cambridge, 1867).
  6. The names of the little village Pampiu, near Catania—supposed to be a corruption of Campo pio—and one of Etna's lava-streams, called Fratelli pii, commemorate this ancient legend even at the present day.