Servius Rails Against Idle Nonsense

Servius tries to explain to empty-headed readers why Vergil’s Aeneid begins with the word ‘arma.’ (Commentary 1.1)

“Many people reason in various ways about why Vergil began his poem with ‘arms,’ but it is clear that their heads are full of idle nonsense, since it is obvious that he began his poem in another spot, as has been made clear in the biographical sketch already presented*. By ‘arms’ he means ‘war,’ and this is the literary device known as metonymy. For, he has substituted for war the arms which we use in war, just as the toga which we use in peace may substitute for the peace itself, as in that saying of Cicero, ‘Let arms yield to the toga,’ that is, let war give way to peace.”

*In his life of Vergil, Servius explains that the opening lines of the Aeneid were originally

‘I am he, who once measured out my song on the slender reed,
and emerging from the forests I compelled the neighboring fields
to obey the farmer, however grasping he might be –
all a pleasing work for farmers, but now I sing the awful
arms of Mars, and the man….”

Ille ego, qui quondam gracili modulatus avena
carmen, et egressus silvis vicina coegi
ut quamvis avido parerent arva colono,
gratum opus agricolis, at nunc horrentia Martis

ARMA multi varie disserunt cur ab armis Vergilius coeperit, omnes tamen inania sentire manifestum est, cum eum constet aliunde sumpsisse principium, sicut in praemissa eius vita monstratum est. per ‘arma’ autem bellum significat, et est tropus metonymia. nam arma quibus in bello utimur pro bello posuit, sicut toga qua in pace utimur pro pace ponitur, ut Cicero cedant arma togae, id est bellum paci.

4 thoughts on “Servius Rails Against Idle Nonsense

  1. I was going to ask if Servius (or anyone else) explains why Virgil abandoned the original opening, but have just read (on perseus.tufts.edu) the comment of John Conington: “Those who speak of them [the first four lines Ille ego…&c] as an introduction to the poem, forget that if genuine they are an integral part of the first sentence; and that it is, to say the least, remarkable that the exordium should be so constructed as to be at once interwoven with the context, and yet capable of removal without detriment to the construction, just at the point which forms a much better commencement.” Servius says it is obvious that the poem was meant to start with “arma virumque” and I’ve now found on oxfordscholarlyeditions.com a note titled “A false start to Virgil’s Aeneid” which quotes Donatus as saying that Varius, one of Virgil’s executors, deleted the lines from the poem. Probably most people reading this blog already know these stories, but I didn’t (and will have a lot of fun following them up) and so this note is to thank you for your endlessly fascinating blog. If you know anything about the Arimaspeia of Aristeas I would love to hear it. –– I.S.

    1. According to Servius, Vergil’s literary executors Tucca and Varius were instructed by Augustus to edit the poem by deleting segments, but they were expressly forbidden to add anything. Servius cites some examples of other ‘deleted’ sections, and mentions similarly that this accounts for any truncated lines which can be found in the poem. Of course, Conington makes an excellent point, since horrentia and arma are linked; yet, Vergil surely did not write these four lines with the intention that they should be removed, and we are just impressed by something which is, in effect, a little more than coincidence; Tucca and Varius would have removed them precisely because they were so removable, though it seems that it would have in any case have been unlikely that any poem’s initial lines would have no substantial bearing upon or grammatical interrelation with the following lines.

      This is one of those questions which will always remain open. I myself am inclined to think that the four lines are a part of a later tradition which had crept into some copies of the Aeneid and needed to be explained away. The models for the poem, The Iliad and Odyssey, both begin with substantial, semantically-loaded individual words, and I doubt that Vergil would have neglected this parallel in favor of such a flat, autobiographical opening.

      There is a limit to textual criticism; restoring the author’s original words may indeed be impossible, but it is fairly certain, based on contemporary evidence, that the initial version of the poem which circulated in Rome had ‘arma’ as its opening word; consider the imitation in Ovid’s Amores 1.1, a clear response to the Aeneid: ‘Arma gravi numero violentaque bella parabam…’

      Thanks for reading and providing such an insightful comment!

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