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The Fourth Eclogue of Virgil:
Christmas message from pagan lips

(Article published in the Dec 23, 2002 issue of TODAY, Business Section)

Saint Jerome may have been correct in considering the reading of the Fourth Eclogue of Virgil as a pagan prediction of the birth of Christ as a product of ignorance, but it is still worth our while to read that piece of bucolic poetry, at this time of year, if only to realize that not just the Jews but the pagans too, of the ancient world, were hoping for deliverance from the forces that made their lives extremely miserable. We pagans of the present, sporting a veneer of Christianity and blinded by commercialism to the message of the Child in the manger, would benefit from a change of pace and a tap into this vein of hope from the past.

Latin poet Publius Vergilius Maro, who lived ahead of the gospel writers by a century, wrote his Fourth Eclogue – a short poem replete with imagery from the countryside – in 40 B.C. Italy was then reeling from a hundred years of civil war and peace seemed at hand when Octavian and Mark Anthony made the Peace of Drundisium. He may have had a personal agenda in writing the eclogue. His land, which was confiscated by the state two years before in order to pay the victorious veterans of the battle of Philippi which was won by Octavian and Marc Anthony against Brutus, was restored to him through the intercession of Asinius Pollio. Even in those days, some people in what was the equivalent of the media, benefited personally from their connections with the powers that be.

The 63-line poem, after a transition from the tenor of the preceding eclogues, announces the coming of a new age, a child was "now to be born, under whom the race of iron will cease and a golden race will spring up over the whole world". Like John the Baptist’s proclamation, the coming is imminent; in fact, Virgil was very specific, saying "this glorious age will begin in your consulship, O Pollio, as the mighty months commence their course". Pollio is the Asinius Pollio who was consul in 40 B.C. In this regard, he parts with John the Baptist who had no kind words for the ruler of his time.

The child is heaven-sent—an idea common to many cultures—and is extra-ordinary, if not himself divine. He is a "dear descendant of the gods", "a mighty ally of Jove", and "will receive divine life and see heroes mingling with gods and will himself be seen by them".

Nature will salute his birth with abundance as "without cultivation the earth will give as her little gifts vines everywhere climbing wild and intermingling with rustic nard…without being called, the goats will come home, their udders swollen with milk, and the herds will not be afraid of the mighty lions". His "cradle will produce a cornucopia of flowers" and "the serpent will perish, as will the deceptive poison herb", resonating, perhaps, Isaiah’s "the nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den" (11:8).

The era of prosperity is to start early, at the child’s youth. An understandable expectation from one who just got back his estate. The precise time is as soon as the child "can read about the praises heaped on heroes" and "can know what valor consists in". At that time, "the plain will slowly become golden with waving grain, and the ripening grape will hang from the wild briers, and the stern oaks will yield dewy drops of honey".

But while the child’s coming will see to it that "whatever traces of our guilt remain will disappear, freeing the earth from its perpetual fear", still conflict awaits the child, because "traces of the sin of old will perdure, causing men to attempt the sea in ships, to build walls around cities and to plow the earth with furrows…there will be a second series of wars and once more a great Achilles will be sent to Troy".

However, the child’s final victory is assured. When "the years have made" him "a strong man, even the merchant will leave the sea, and the ship built with pine will cease its merchant journeys. Every land will be fruitful; yet the earth will not feel the rake, the vine feel the pruning hook. Indeed, the sturdy plowman will set his oxen loose from the yoke. No longer will one learn to dye wool various colors; for by himself the ram in the meadows will change his fleece, at times a sweetly blushing shade of purple, at times saffron yellow, and spontaneously the grazing lambs will be clothed in vermillon."

The case for hailing Virgil as an Isaiah of the pagan world is, of course, extremely week. Father Raymond Brown’s The Birth of the Messiah clearly demonstrates that they were not talking about the same child. But Matthew and Luke and Virgil are telling us the same thing: there is an end to all these problems of ours. Hang in there. Deliverance is at hand.

Merry Christmas to pagans and followers of Christ alike.