Spring 2007

Virgil’s Fly

Believe it or not

George Pendle

The insect certain is the plague of fables
—Dylan Thomas, “Today, This Insect”

The life of a rumor, like that of a fly, is a fragile and fleeting affair. Yet like any living thing it clings to existence, adapting constantly to environmental pressures. If a rumor can be said to have an evolutionary aim, it is to become bronzed in the armor of fact, transmuting over time from the uncertain to the indisputable. Never has this journey towards believability been more epic than in the circuitous saga of Virgil and his fly.

Within the pages of Ripley’s Wonder Book of Strange Facts (1957), a repository of the curious but true, a tale is told of the lavish funeral the poet Virgil (70 BCE–19 BCE) staged for his pet housefly. Held in the grounds of Virgil’s home on Rome’s Esquiline Hill, the funeral attracted the great and good of the city. Dirges were sung and tributes read. Virgil’s patron, Maecenas, delivered a lengthy and moving eulogy to the departed insect, and Virgil was himself said to have uttered a few of his exquisite verses over the tiny carcass. A tomb had been erected, and the lifeless body of the fly was placed within it to the wails and moans of the professional mourners. So lavish were the commemorations that the cost was estimated at over eight hundred thousand sesterces.

Virgil’s funeral for his pet fly, as depicted in Ripley’s Wonder Book of Strange Facts, 1957. The Latin inscription on the tomb reads: “Fly, may this urn prove light for you, and may your bones rest easily.”

But the reason for the funeral was not due to extravagance, eccentricity, nor even emotion. Having defeated Julius Caesar’s assassins at the battle of Philippi, the Second Triumvirate was at that very moment engaged in confiscating the estates of the rich and dividing them among the war veterans returning from the battlefield. Only one exception was given: if the estate held a burial plot, it was not to be touched. By burying his housefly, Virgil saved his house.

On the face of it, this story seems to chime with the handful of facts we know about the poet’s life: Virgil did have a house on the Esquiline Hill; his mentor was Maecenas; the Second Triumvirate was seizing land for the resettling of veterans; and it has been suggested that Virgil’s land, or that of his father, was contested. Yet Suetonius, the pre-eminent chronicler of the age, does not mention this anecdote. Neither do any of the various commentaries on, or biographies of, Virgil written over the last two thousand years. Presuming that Mr. Ripley had not fabricated the whole story, whence had it come?

During his life, Publius Vergilius Maro (commonly known as Virgil or Vergil) was regarded as the greatest poet the Roman Empire had ever created. His Eclogues and Georgics had been praised as the ultimate perfection of the art of poetry in both sentiment and skill. None had been more voluble in their admiration than the Emperor Augustus himself. But with the Aeneid, his epic imagining of the foundation of Rome, Virgil went from celebrated poet to national hero. As Rome held itself to be the ideal of human greatness, so Virgil became the embodiment of this essential spirit. Yet eternal fame, which only art or war can bestow on men, would reveal itself in the most peculiar of ways.

Shortly after Virgil’s death, a number of works sprang up that were supposedly written by the poet in his youth. Collected together in the Appendix Vergiliana, these ragtag poems are of doubtful quality and uncertain attribution. Nevertheless, for all their flaws, one of the poems had a remarkable persistence. This poem was known as “Culex,” or “The Gnat.”

“Culex” is a pastoral poem, telling the tale of a shepherd who, falling asleep in the shade of a fountain, is about to be attacked by a huge snake when a gnat stings him on the eyelid. The shepherd starts up from his slumber and crushes the gnat to death, whereupon he sees the snake ready to strike. Suitably forewarned, the shepherd snaps off a tree bough and batters the serpent to a scaly pulp before driving his flock towards home. But later that night, the ghost of the gnat comes to him in a dream and upbraids the shepherd for his ingratitude. The gnat tells of its travels through the underworld, of meeting Cerberus and floating across the dark water of the river Lethe (as Aeneas had done in the Aeneid). Suitably chastened, the shepherd builds a monument for the gnat that he surrounds with marble, on which is written the epitaph:

O tiny gnat, the keeper of the flocks
Doth pay to thee, deserving such a thing,
The duty of a ceremonial tomb,
In payment for the gift of life to him.

Most modern scholars cannot bring themselves to believe that Virgil wrote such lines. Peter Levi, Virgil’s most recent biographer, describes “Culex” as “a poem 414 lines long of mind-boggling silliness.” But whether Virgil’s contemporaries thought it silly, satirical, or the actual juvenilia of a genius, it stuck. The first link, albeit a tenuous one, had been made between Virgil and flies.

Virgil’s reputation as a poet grew faster in death than in life. His tomb, located just outside of his beloved Naples, became one of the chief attractions of that city. As the Roman Empire drifted into decline, praise for the creator of the Aeneid was only intensified by nostalgia. And with a similar decline occurring in poetry after the death of Augustus, Virgil seemed all the greater by comparison with his successors. As Domenico Comparetti noted in his pioneering study of the poet—Vergil in the Middle Ages (1872)—his works soon became “the Bible of the Ancients.”

This was true in more ways than one. In the years that followed his death, Virgil’s poetry was deemed so inspired that it was felt it must hold some divine truth. By the time of the Antonines in 138 AD, a form of divination had sprung up in which those wishing to deduce the future selected a passage at random from the Aeneid. It is said that these sortes Virgilianae (Virgilian lots) were consulted by both the Emperors Hadrian and Severus, and with each consultation Virgil’s memory began to take on an increasingly mystical air.

This shift was most pronounced in the city of Naples, where Virgil’s tomb had by now become a place of quasi-religious pilgrimage. Because of Virgil’s insistence that he be buried there, and because of the constant stream of visitors to the site, his name began to take on all the trappings of a local folk-hero. He became the city’s unofficial protector, to the extent that it was said that if his bones were ever moved from Naples a terrible tempest would ensue. And from the fifth century on, his remarkable wisdom was being charged with increasingly fantastical achievements, although misremembered slivers of his poetry—and in particular “Culex”—still remained to color these new legends.

One of the most popular Neapolitan myths held that Virgil had created a bronze fly the size of a frog and placed it on one of the gates of Naples. The talisman remained there for eight years, during which time no flies could enter the city. In a similar vein, armies attacking Naples were said to have been harassed by swarms of flies sent after them by the poet. The fly would become Virgil’s magical familiar over the ensuing years, never far from any tale of his exploits. And this was not all. Possibly due to this control of pestilence, Virgil was said to have created baths that cured all illnesses and a butcher’s block on which meat stayed fresh for six weeks. No longer renowned as the master of grammar and philosophy, Virgil’s achievements were put down to his “mathematical knowledge.” In only a few centuries Virgil had gone from being the preeminent poet of the Roman Empire to a Neapolitan enchanter with a penchant for magical insects.

As these stories began to spread across Europe, Virgil found himself robbed not just of his poetic skills but also his role as protector of Naples. By the Middle Ages, we hear that Virgil “becam very connynge in the practyse of the blacke science,” becoming an out-and-out necromancer and traveling through the air on a bridge of brass. The ars notoria had completely replaced the ars poetica, and Virgil’s powers were now ascribed not to superhuman wisdom but to his practicing of the diabolical arts. Indeed, he became a repository for all manner of magical tales that had traveled west from Byzantium and beyond.

In one medieval story, we read how Virgil frees a devil trapped inside a bottle on the condition that the spirit would teach him the dark arts. Once he has learned everything he wants to know, he asks how such a large spirit could have fitted into such a small vessel. The devil—or rather, as it seems, the genie—shrinks back into the bottle, upon which Virgil seals it up with a magic spell. But even in these tales, influenced as they are by Rabbinical and Arabian folklore, a kernel of Virgil’s Roman civic-mindedness still survives. Virgil is not like Faust; he gains the magic arts at no cost to himself, and when in one folk-tale he finds himself surrounded by eighty thousand devils, he orders them not to bring him treasures but instead to pave a long street.

Just as Virgil seemed to be losing every last identifiable aspect of his real self, a reappropriation of his character began. Christian scholars had always been troubled by Virgil; his poetic skill was undeniable, yet his pagan sentiments were repugnant to any good ascetic. This led to a certain amount of intellectual self-flagellation. Nothing is more pitiful than reading Saint Augustine chastising his younger self for being moved by the death of Dido. However, this religious ambivalence had been partially alleviated by a line found in the poet’s fourth Eclogue: iam nova progenies caelo demittitur alto (“now a new child has been sent from the heavens”) which many read as being a prophecy of the coming Christ. Despite the fact that Virgil was probably referring to the son of the Emperor Augustus’s sister, Octavia, by the thirteenth century no less a figure than Pope Innocent III was quoting these lines as a confirmation of the faith in a Christmas sermon. Thus, some of the later Virgilian folk-tales are colored not just with a magical and Neapolitan hue, but with a distinctly Christian sensibility as well.

In one transitional medieval story, we are told of an evil magician who had read in the stars of Christ’s birth twelve hundred years before the event, and of a very poor but virtuous man named Virgil who visits him. Thanks to the assistance of a spirit enclosed in a ruby in the form of a fly, Virgil succeeds in taking the magician’s magic books and treasures for himself. Here we see the many strands of Virgilian legend separated and laid bare: Virgil the magician, Virgil the prophet, and, of course, Virgil, lord of the flies.

It was Dante Alighieri in 1300 who was most responsible for resurrecting Virgil’s reputation as a poet, by firmly bonding him to the Christian faith. In the Divine Comedy, Dante wrote of a ghostly Virgil being his guide through the Inferno, as the Sibyl had been an underworld guide to Aeneas in the Aeneid. Although a spirit, Virgil was no longer a magician; he had regained his status as a repository of human wisdom, and Dante purposefully identifies him not as one of the damned, but rather as one of those whose involuntary fault was that they were not baptized.

By the time of the Renaissance, Virgil’s reputation as Rome’s greatest poet was on its way to being completely restored. The slow barnacling accretion of myth that had completely obscured Virgil the poet was now sloughed off under a rediscovery of his work. But as Ripley’s Wonder Book of Strange Facts illustrates, the many myths that had accrued around his name over the centuries were only lying dormant. Admittedly, the Wonder Book is no Encyclopedia Britannica, but we see within it how a rumor that began two millennia ago has finally been declared fact. It may have undergone considerable mutation to make it palatable to a twentieth century audience, but this story ingeniously holds slivers of all the old rumors within it.

“Culex” is, once again, the foundation for the rumor, except that Virgil himself has been transplanted into the sandals of the fictional shepherd, burying the fly. Elsewhere, there are some inspired variations. Whereas traditionally it was Virgil’s tomb that kept Naples safe, now it is the fly’s tomb that keeps Virgil’s Roman home safe. Virgil is still portrayed as wise—as he always has been—but it is no longer poetic wisdom, nor magical knowledge that he relies upon, but rather a distinctly Sgt. Bilko-esque cunning, plucked straight out of the mid-twentieth century. The same insect that was buried by the shepherd in “Culex,” that kept Naples safe from invading armies and pestilence, and that helped Virgil steal an evil magician’s magical scrolls, is now employed as part of a madcap ruse to prevent the government from snatching his property. And with that, the maggot rumor has blossomed into the fly fact—a fact constructed from a legend, built on a lie.

With thanks to Matthew Pincus.

George Pendle has written for the Times, the Financial Times, the Sunday Times, and the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation. He is the author of Strange Angel: The Otherworldly Life of Rocket Scientist John Whiteside Parsons (Harcourt, 2005) and The Remarkable Millard Fillmore: The Unbelievable Life of a Forgotten President (Three Rivers, 2007). He is currently writing a biography of Death. He lives in New York City.

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