A Heated Literary Argument

Macrobius, Saturnalia I.XXIV 5-9

“Then Symmachus said, ‘We will consider Cicero, who is immune to insult, later. Now, since the discussion is about Vergil, I ask you wether the works of this poet are suited only to the education of children, or would you confess that there are other, loftier things in them? For, you seem to me to hold on to the verses of Vergil just as when we, as children, used to recite them back to our teachers.’

Evangelus responded, ‘Nay Symmachus, for when we were children, we admired them without critical discernment, but neither our teachers nor our age would allow us to point out their faults. And no one will shamelessly deny that there are faults, since Vergil himself confessed it. When he, on his deathbed, ordered his poem to be burned, what else could have motivated him but a fear that his reputation would be diminished by the judgment of posterity? And rightly so: he blushed to think of the judgment of future generations, when they read scenes such as Venus begging her one and only husband, with whom she had no children, to make new arms for her son. There are also a thousand other thoroughly embarassing things, whether they be expressed in Greek words here or barbarian words there, or whether they be found simply in the careless organization of the work.’

Everyone shuddered at what he was saying, when Symmachus rejoined, ‘This, my dear Evangelus, is the great glory of Vergil: he gains by no one’s praise, and is diminished by no one’s censure. As for all of your cutting remarks, anyone from the common herd of schoolteachers could refute them (though, in saying this, I do not mean to insult our friend Servius, who excels all of the ancient teachers in his learning). Yet, I ask: since the poetic parts of such a great poet have displeased you, are you at least pleased by the oratorical strands which run so strongly throughout his work?’

Evangelus first responded to this inquiry with laughter, and then added, ‘To be sure, that is what’s left to you, that you would declare Vergil an orator too. It is no wonder, since just a minute ago your absurd puffery exalted him to the lofty ranks of the philosophers.’”

Tum Symmachus: De Cicerone, Evangele, qui conviciis inpenetrabilis est, post videbimus: nunc, quia cum Marone nobis negotium est, respondeas volo, utrum poetae huius opera instituendis tantum pueris idonea iudices an alia illis altiora inesse fatearis? Videris enim mihi ita adhuc Virgilianos habere versus qualiter eos pueri magistris praelegentibus canebamus. 6 Immo pueri cum essemus, Symmache, sine iudicio mirabamur, inspicere autem vitia nec per magistros nec per aetatem licebat: quae tamen non pudenter quisquam negabit, cum ipse confessus sit. Qui enim moriens poema suum legavit igni quid nisi famae suae posteritati subtrahendo curavit? 7 Nec inmerito: erubuit quippe de se futura iudicia, si legeretur petitio deae precantis filio arma a marito cui soli nupserat nec ex eo prolem suscepisse se noverat, vel si mille alia multum pudenda seu in verbis modo Graecis modo barbaris seu in ipsa dispositione operis deprehenderentur. 8 Cumque adhuc dicentem omnes exhorruissent, subtexuit Symmachus: Haec est quidem, Evangele, Maronis gloria, ut nullius laudibus crescat, nullius vituperatione minuatur: verum ista quae proscindis defendere quilibet potest ex plebeia grammaticorum cohorte, ne Servio nostro, qui priscos, ut mea fert opinio, praeceptores doctrina praestat, in excusandis talibus quaeratur iniuria: sed quaero, utrum, cum poetica tibi in tanto poeta displicuerit, nervi tamen oratorii, qui in eodem validissimi sunt, placere videantur? 9 Haec verba primum Evangeli risus excepit. Deinde subiecit: Id hercle restat denique, ut et oratorem Virgilium renuntietis: nec mirum, cum et ad philosophos ambitus vester paulo ante provexerit.

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