The Image of Gold in Classical Antiquity: The Theme of Golden Age in Lucretius and Virgil

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The Image of Gold in Classical Antiquity:The Theme of Golden Age in Lucretius and Virgil



In Works and Days, the golden race (109) lived like gods, free from care (112). The bounteous earth provided all their needs (117-18). The golden age, however, bore a sad connotation, for it belonged to a lost, distant past. After a grim declaration, “Now is the race of iron” (176), a generalization about the endless misery follows; strife between parents and children, between brothers, and between friends(182-85), absence of reverence for the gods (187), neglect of aged parents(188) and of oaths (190), and rule by violence (192). According to Hesiod, mankind was punished by Zeus for receiving Prometheus´gift( by the creation of Pandora (43-105). But constantly emphasizing a practical and moral value of justice (213ff.), Hesiod seems to say that a state based on justice and labor will flourish in the real world (225-37).

Although Lucretius does not directly concern himself with the myth of the ages, he is very concerned with the theme of deterioration. Man´s early condition, when earth was young and fertile, shared certain features of Hesiod´s golden race, for Lucretius´ early race enjoyed the beneficence of the earth (2.1157-59;5.925ff.). Contrasted to this depiction of the bygone age, is the picture of the present miserable race of men : “The same earth in her prime spontaneously generated for mortals smiling crops and lusty vines, sweet fruits and gladsome pasturage, which now can scarcely be made to grow by our toil.”(2.1157ff.) For Lucretius, however, this is a natural, scientific phenomenon; atoms unite to give birth to the world, and their eventual, inevitable separation explains the decline of the earth (2.1105-52). This is the point in which Lucretius fundamentally differs from Hesiod.

We should also notice that in Lucretius, primitive men also sufferedfrom miserable lot. They were in fear of wild beasts (5.988ff.), andeasily fell the victim to envy (5.1419 invidia): “Skins yesterday,purple and gold(aurum) today, trouble men’s life with cares and weary itwith war” (5.1423-24). According to Lucretius, human beings have alwayssought after wealth and fame (5.1105ff.), which the image of gold(5.1113 aurumque) symbolizes very well. What the poet wishes to stressis this: “If a man would guide his life by true philosophy (veraratione), he will find ample riches in a modest livelihood enjoyed with a tranquil mind” (5.1117-1119).

In the proem of the second book, the same message can be clearlyheard: “If in truth men’s fears and haunting cares fear neither theclang of arms nor wild weapons, if they boldly mingle with kings andsovereigns of the world, if they respect not the gleam of gold nor theglowing light of purple robes, can you doubt then that this powerrests with reason alone?”(2.48-53) Here again the image of gold isnegatively used (cf.2.24 aurea; 27 auroque; 28 aurataque; 51 ab auro) so as to criticize human greed.

In the proem of the third book , however, Lucretius also employs theimage of gold to praise the words of Epicurus (3.12 aurea dicta), which are worthy of everlasting life (3.9-13): “You are my father, thediscoverer of truth, and give me a father’s guidance. From your pages, as bees in flowery glades sip all the sweets, so do I crop all your golden words, golden indeed, and for ever worthy of everlasting life.” Epicurean ataraxia, here implied, means “free from care” , which is one of the characteristics of the traditional golden race (cf.W.D.112).Hesiod valued justice and labor, while Lucretius believed the value of ratio (2.53,3.93). He seems to say that we could actually enjoy the golden age life, if only we understand the true philosophy, the words of Epicurus, however harsh external conditions may be. This, I think, is the Lucretian interpretation of the golden age theme.

In Virgil, on the other hand, the idea that a new golden age (cf. Aen.6.793-4 aurea saecula) will recur is presented throughout his works. In the fourth Eclogue, for instance, he dramatically proclaims that the reign of Saturn (i.e.the golden age) returns now (Ecl.4.6). This new age, which will begin with the birth of an unnamed child, will be marked by freedom from war. Toil will cease, as will trade, for every land will provide all mortal needs (Ecl.4.38-39). In the Georgics, however, we find conflicting thoughts regarding the theme of the golden age. Although Virgil suggests that a new golden age will recur in Rome (2.136ff.; 2.458ff.), he also explains why Jupiter put anend to the age of Saturn (1.118ff.). This passage gives an impression that the Jovian age can be compared with the traditional iron age. Therefore, to present a new perspective, I shall consider the theme of variety in the Georgics.

In the fourth Eclogue, as we have just seen, spontaneity of the earthis characteristic of the new age; “every land will give us everything”:

omnia fert omnia tellus. (Ecl.4.39)
In the Georgics, on the contrary, we find a phrase suggesting that productivity of the earth is restricted by region :

Nec uero terrae ferre omnes omnia possunt. (Geo.2.109)

Virgil apparently denies such golden age as is described in the fourth Eclogue. However, this line (2.109) reflects the theme of variety. Just as different trees grow better in different localities, sodifferent countries have their own special products (2.110-35). This theme first appears just after the proem of the first book (1.50-63),where the variety of nature and the need to learn its rules are morestrongly maintained; before farmers cleave untried land, they must know” what crops each region yields and what each refuses” (1.53). This phrase also forms a clear contrast to the line in the fourth Eclogue (4.39).

But in discussing the sentence mentioned above (Geo.2.109), we should also notice here an obvious echo of Lucretius:

sed mutarentur, ferre omnes omnia possent. (DRN 1.166)
This line reflects his fundamental idea that “nothing can ever becreated by divine power out of nothing”. If this were not so, “allwould be able to bear all” (1.166). The emphasis is on natural orderunder which all living things preserve their kind (1.167ff.). Lucretius deals with nature’s variety in a manner which reinforces his atomic theory, particularly on birth and death (1.263-264): “nature repairs onething from another and allows nothing to be born without the aid of another’s death.”

  This view of Lucretius seems to have influenced the variety theme found in the Georgics. After enumerating various species of trees which grow spontaneously (2.11 sponte sua), Virgil sums up this section in the following way: ” These are the modes nature first ordained; these give verdure to every kind of forest trees and shrubs and sacred groves”(2.20-21).  The thought that nature governs the variety of plants recalls that of Lucretius.

  However, just after speaking of the natural growth of plants (2.9-21), Virgil discusses several methods of propagation which human experience (2.22 usus) has discovered (2.22-34). From here we find acontrast between “natura” and“ars”(cf. 2.48 natura, 52 artis). Talking about the various methods of propagation, Virgil speaks of the possibility that man can change nature as he wishes with the proper application of “ars”(2.49-52).

 Such a view contrasts well with that of Lucretius, who concludes that all things grow from a fixed seed and preserve their own kind (DRN.1.189-90). He definitely denies the possibility of transforming nature; if anything can be created from anything, all kinds of things could be produced from all things; trees would not be constant in bearing the same fruit, “but they would interchange, all would be ableto bear all” (1.166 sed mutarentur, ferre omnes omnia possent). The verbal correspondence with “mutatamque”(Geo. 2.33) and “mutata”(Geo.2.50) suggests strongly that this contrast is very deliberate. For Lucretius, the word symbolizes a catastrophe of nature, while in the Georgics,“ars ”has actually changed nature, always bringing about something new and miraculous (cf. Geo.2.82). However, this should notbe considered a rejection, but a development of Lucretian ideas on Nature’s variety.   Virgil, accepting the motif of regeneration, emphasizes nature’s power by which plants flourish without man’s care (cf.Geo. 2.9-21, 47-49), while he also praises the much wider variety which human“ars”has added to the natural settings.

In the second book of De Rerum Natura, Lucretius develops the theme of variety by noting that appearances are very different. He explains that there are many diversities among atoms (2.333-37). It is due to this principle that there are variations within species which are superficially alike (2.342-48): ” Consider the race of men (genus humanum), the scaly fish that swim in silence, the lusty herds, the creatures of the wild and the various featherd breeds, those that throng the vivifying watery places, by river banks and springs and lakes, and those that flock and flutter through pathless woodlands. Take a representative of any of these diverse species and you will still find that it differs in form from others of its kind.”(2.347-348) He goes on to say,“Nor is there any other way by which the young could recognize the mother or the mother her young.”(2.349-50). Then he abruptly introduces a moving vignette of a cow searching in vain for her calf, which has become a victim of human religion (2.352-66). Here the very fact that the child is the only one in existence (cf.2.366 quiddam proprium notumque) for the mother is emphasized. The sight of other calves (2.364 vitulorum aliae species) does not divert her mind or diminish her concern. Here we notice that the motif of “uniqueness” emphasizes the absolute value of the lost calf.

In the Georgics, we find the same theme, variety within species. “Further, not single in kind (genus haud unum) are sturdy elms, or the willow, or the lotus, or the cypresses of Ida, nor do rich olives grow to one mould-the orchad and radius, and the pausian with its bitter berry” (2.83-86). The phrase“genus haud unum”(Geo.2.83), altered deliberately from Lucretius’“genus humanum”(DRN.2.342), emphasizes the common theme, that might need a careful observation. Virgil stated earlier that various trees grow in various ways (2.9-34), but here the variety of trees extends even to subspecies. The enumeration of various kinds of olives and vines (2.83-108) emphasizes the affection or pride which people have toward each kind. Different kinds appeal to different tastes, and each has its virtues. In short, the “unique” character of each vine has “unique” value, just as in Lucretius, who expresses the “unique” value of the lost calf.

Then comes the key sentence mentioned above (Geo.2.109 Nec uero terrae ferre omnes omnia possunt), which prepares the Praises of Italy (2.136ff.). Virgil suggestively begins this eulogy by “comparing” the glory of Rome (2.138 laudibus Italiae) with the East’s wealth (2.136 ditissima terra). Such preeminence of Rome is the product of human labor (2.155ff.), but the variety of nature should also be considered an important contribution to the history of Rome. In fact, if it were not for this principle of variety in nature, the name of Rome would be meaningless. In a golden age when “every land will produce everything”(Ecl.4.39), it would be impossible to distinguish one nation from another, still less the motif of Roman glory.  In the Georgics, however, by declaring that “every land cannot produce everything”, the poet suggests that under this condition of nature the“unique”character of each nation can be cultivated, hence the excellence of Rome.

Lucretius emphasizes the tragedy of the cow with the motif of uniqueness, while Virgil employs it to praise Rome. We should also remember that in Lucretius this motif is closely connected with the principle of regeneration. The contrasting poetic effects between the Lucretian passage of the cow and the Praises of Italy rest on the reflection of different views regarding birth and death. The former reminds us of a harsh recognition of reality that “death is the end oflife”, while the latter reflects the opposite view that “death is the beginning of new life”, the very Lucretian principle of regeneration, which is regarded as another basic condition that guarantees “eternal” Rome (As to this principle in the Georgics cf.2.315-45).

These two views concerning life and death do not contradict, but complement each other. Lucretius rejects the fear of death (3.830ff.) based on the idea of “death as the beginning of new life”. For him, understanding the principle of regeneration means attaining ataraxia, the ultimate goal of life. Virgil, however, leads us to realize that ars, making full use of this principle, has brought about and will bring about the prosperity of Rome. His firm belief that she will flourish for ever is strongly confirmed by this principle.

There is another influence of Lucretius that we should not miss. The motif of mother and child plays an important role in the Georgics. Virgil glorifies Italy because she is his “mother” country (2.173 salue, magna parens frugum, Saturnia tellus). The poet’s love for Rome is absolute in its nature, quite different from the affection that he feelsfor Italian wines. It is incompatible with any sort of comparison, since Rome is “mother”, herself. Here we are reminded of the Lucretian passage of the mother cow whose maternal love is expressed as absolute.

To sum up, this theme of variety, along with the motif of mother and child, had much influence on the Praises of Italy; these Lucretian themes and motifs are used to emphasize one of the main themes, “the eternal prosperity of Rome” (As to this theme, cf. Aen.1.278-279). But is this all Virgil does with them? In my view, the Praises of Italy, together with the Theodicy, further reveal the poet’s reinterpretation of the Lucretian theme of civilization.

The analysis above is quite in harmony with the Theodicy (1.118ff.), where the need to discover various arts is explained as the will ofJupiter (1.133 ut uarias usus meditando extunderet artis.). Lucretius, on the other hand, deals with nature’s variety to reject the religious assumption that many things happen by divine power (cf. DRN 1.151-154). Furthermore, the Theodicy itself shows Virgil’s reworking of Lucretius (the second half of DRN 5), in which the growth of civilization is fully detailed. Although the two poets share the basic idea that man’s active mind (cf. DRN 5.1455 ratioque, Geo 1.133 meditando) have caused civilization to progress, the fundamental difference is that Virgil attributes the motivation to divine will (Geo.1.121-24): “The Great Father himself has willed that the path of husbandry should not be smooth, and he first made art awake the fields, sharpening men’s wits by care (cura), nor letting his realm slumber in heavy lethargy”. There is no doubt that Virgil has Rome in mind when explaining the will of Jupiter, while Lucretius neither justifies the development of high civilization as the realization of divine will nor connects it with the theme of the Roman prosperity.

Regarding civilization, Lucretius suggests that ataraxia can be achieved without concern for it, even implying the possibility of its collapse (cf.6.1138ff.). As we have seen, he further predicts the collapse of the earth on the basis of his atomic theory; the earth was created by nature (2.1058), so it cannot avoid decaying (2.1087-1089; 1105ff.). As evidence, he says that fertile land once produced everything abundantly, but now the yield decreases and man is compelled to work to cultivate it (2.1150-74). Lucretius thus interprets the traditional golden age theme in a way that would never contradict with his atomic theory.

Furthermore, Lucretius suggests there is no “center”in the universe (1.1070), because no limit can be found (1.958ff.,2.1048ff.). He even asserts that there are other worlds in other regions (2.1064-66; 1074-76), saying that“there is no one thing (res nulla sit una) in the wholesum which is created “unique” (unica), and grows up “unique” and “alone”(unica solaque)(2.1077-78). By contrast, Virgil suggests in the Praises of Italy that Rome is“unique”as the“center”of the world. The repetition of the word “extremus” (Geo.2.114, 123, 171) suggests the idea that Rome is the “center” of the world. He might not be able to accept the idea that there are other worlds where nations like Rome are to be found and that they will collapse into crumbling ruin.


Lastly, I’d like to supplement the above discussion with another glance at the motif of“miracle”in this poem. We have seen that ars is shown to have the potential of changing nature, always creating something“new”and“miraculous”(2.30 mirabile dictu; 2.82 miraturquenouas frondes et non sua poma). In Lucretius, on the other hand, this motif appears in a peculiar context. For him, any miraculous phenomena can be understood intellectually. In the second book, for example, after considering variations in atoms, Lucretius declares“this is no wonder”(DRN 2.338 nec mirum), then explains this on the basis of the atomic theory referred to above (2.338ff.). He seems to emphasize that a thorough understanding of nature could diminish man’s awe of the mysterious existence of the universe and dispel terror from the mind (cf. 2.1040-42). Those who do not understand his theory tend to ascribe phenomena to divine power(1.154 divino numine) and suffer great dread (1.151-54).

Virgil, on the other hand, confesses his wish to understand the science of nature, but if it is intellectually too difficult, he will be satisfied with an unsophisticated love of her marvels (2.475-89). He contrasts his beatitude with that of Lucretius: “Blessed is he who has been able to win knowledge of the causes of things, and has cast beneath his feet all fear and unyielding Fate, and the howls of hungry Acheron! Happy, too, is he who knows the woodland gods, Pan and Silvanus and the sister Nymphs! “(2.490-94) Mysteries of nature will diminish, if one is able to“know”(2.490 cognoscere) the causes of things. Virgil proclaims that he“knows”(2.493 nouit) rural gods, that is to say, he admits divinity working behind the natural phenomena (cf.Geo.1.5-23). This is the very stance that Lucretius criticizes intensely. In the Georgics, the motif of miracle can be related not only with the development of civilization, but also with the workings of divinity, thus making a clear contrast to the Lucretian interpretation.

As we have noticed, Lucretius introduces the theme of variety to confirm his atomic theory, which denies divinity and compels the fear of death. From this comes ataraxia, which is described as the essence of a“golden age life”.  According to Virgil, however, Jupiter didn’t permit human society to be “inactive” (1.121ff.). If all Romans were too keen on dispelling cura from their heart to privately achieve the Lucretian goal of ataraxia, would it not be possible for Rome to become”inactive”? Or would man himself become “inactive”, once he attains ataraxia? Paradoxically, the more one uses his reason to diminish the“wonder”of nature, the more interest he may lose in the outer world. Giving a different interpretation of the motif of “miracle”, Virgil states emphatically that the Jovian age could not be regarded simply as a harsh age, but also as a “wonderful” age, when man’s creative mind can always be activated to contribute in some way to the prosperity of Rome.

Many scholars have paid much attention to the theme of labor in this poem. Of course, they have Hesiod in mind. But the influence of Lucretius is also significant. As seen above, Virgil neither wants us merely to work hard all the time nor be keen on attaining private happiness. The character of the Jovian age is summarized rather in the following phrase:

Nec uero terrae ferre omnes omnia possunt. (Geo.2.109)
This line not only emphasizes the theme of labor, but also reminds us of Virgil’s acceptance and refinement of the Lucretian themes and motifs, thus giving a new perspective to the understanding of the Jovian age. In our interpretation, therefore, Jupiter should no longer be regarded as a mere force that compels man to work hard, but as a guarantor of the fundamental conditions of Rome’s perpetual prosperity. In other words, Virgil’s golden age theme gives a new religious explanation for man’s role and mission in the most highly civilized nation, Rome.


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