If poetry in general is a dying art form, then the corpse of panegyric (along with it’s broader cousin occasional poetry) rotted away centuries ago. Yet its fossilized remains linger in many poems of the classical age, when the courtly role of writers was understood to be a serious calling:
Hos potius, magis hos calamos sectare: Canales
exprime qui dignas cecinerunt consule silvas. (76-7)
“Rather, pursue these reeds more: Press
the pipes which sing of woods worthy of a consul.”
Meliboeus (the patron) is prompting Corydon (Calpurnius) to do something more than simple shepherd songs, but notice he isn’t asking him to abandon the form altogether, just put it to a more noble use. Meliboeus then calls for the lengthy panegyric in lines 82-151:
Ducite, nec mora sit, vicibusque reducite carmen;
tuque prior, Corydon, tu proximus ibis, Amynta. (80-1)
“Go ahead, don’t delay, and make your verses in turn;
You first, Corydon, you will go next, Amyntas.”
The format is something like the contest seen in the second bucolic–with the minor variant of five line stanzas. Note also the opening Ab Iove principium–an echo of Virgil (Eclogues III.60) that invokes the numen of Augustus’ golden age.
The details of the panegyric identify Nero (the presumed subject) as equal to both Jove and Apollo (comitatus Apolline Caesar…Iuppiter…cui tu iam proximus ipse) and moves on to describe a typical miracle (compare his stilling of a storm with Christ’s in Mark 4:35-41 et al.).
The other miraculous events echo the Virgilian description of the golden age, but in Calpurnius’ version the overt influence of Caesar is far more pervasive than that of the unknown child mentioned in Eclogue IV. The description also goes beyond mere natural wonders and seems to hint at political/social ills; for example:
Iam neque damnatos metuit iactare ligones
fossor et invento, si fors dedit, utitur auro.
Nec timet, ut nuper, dum iugera versat arator,
ne sonet offenso contraria vomere massa (117-20)
“No longer does the digger fear to brandish criminal hoes
and, if chance allows, he uses discovered gold.
Nor does the plowman fear, as recently, while tilling his acres,
that a lump of cash might ring against the striking plow”
Although I’m not aware of legal issues regarding dug-up treasure in ancient Rome, I understand the passage as indicating a change in imperial policy regarding “found money” under Nero; it’s too specific to be anything else. There is also:
ecce per illum
seu cantare iuvat seu ter pede lenta ferire
gramina, nullus obest. (127-9)
“See, because of him
whether I delight to sing or dance triple-time the lazy grass,
nothing stands in the way.”
Does this reflect a perceived change in civic liberty in the first few years under Nero?
It’s clear from its theme and organization that this Bucolic is the keystone of the collection (perfectly placed at the center of the four-poem collection). Calpurnius has argued for using the authority of Virgil over what seems like an allegorical description of a circle of poets under the patron Meliboeus (Piso?). Although many of the references (beyond the allusions to Virgil) are lost in the mists of time, the poem seems to place the entire collection within a well-defined context of Nero and his court. In short, there’s probably more to this poem than we can recognize today–and if Nero is at the center of all this, Calpurnius sadly wasted his talent on a man who would soon become the monster known to history. But still, there is an artistic skill at work here–even if we no longer have the tools to perceive its complete scope and impact.
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