Sunday, September 26, 2010

Decolor Aetas

The notion of a "golden age" must be common to virtually all cultures, given the frequency with which the idea crops up in the world's literature. The Romans, of course, liked to imagine an era of pastoral bliss, presided over by their ancient spirit Saturnus, who was subsequently equated with the Greek Cronos.

For Virgil, however, the "golden age" exists in both the past and the future. So much is clear enough from the dreamy predictions of the fourth eclogue, and several passages of the Aeneid hint at the restoration of Rome's traditional virtues under Augustus. All of which makes the following passage, from Book 8 of the Aeneid, fascinating.

Book 8 is, of course, the Aeneid's patriotic parenthesis, taking Aeneas away from the war for a while to be taught about the humble origins of Rome-to-be, its glorious history, and its religious and social values. Evander, the Arcadian king who acts as his guide, introduces Aeneas to the land on which Rome is to stand, and gives voice to the Roman belief in a blessed past:

primus ab aetherio venit Saturnus Olympo
arma Iovis fugiens et regnis exsul ademptis.
is genus indocile ac dispersum montibus altis
composuit legesque dedit, Latiumque vocari
maluit, his quoniam latuisset tutus in oris.
aurea quae perhibent illo sub rege fuere
saecula: sic placida populos in pace regebat,
deterior donec paulatim ac decolor aetas
et belli rabies et amor successit habendi.

"First came Saturn, from heavenly Olympus, fleeing from Jupiter's weapons, an exile from his stolen kingdom. He brought order to people who were uneducated and scattered among the high mountains; he gave them laws, and preferred for the country to be called Latium, since he had hidden (latuisset) safely in these lands. And they say that the era under that ruler was golden; thus he held sway over the people in untroubled peace, until a degenerate and tarnished time gradually took over, along with the frenzy of war and the love of possession."

(Virgil, Aeneid VIII, 319-327)

Plenty of talking points:

Line 319: almost a golden line, spoiled only by the preposition "ab"! Certainly it is a majestic beginning to the story, with the emphatically-placed "primus", along with the later "indocile", suggesting a bringer of knowledge and skills to a primitive people. There are similarities here with Lucretius's depictions of Epicurus, and in fact the whole passage is very reminiscent of Lucretius.
321: "indocile" is an interesting word choice. The more natural indoctum would fit the metre perfectly well, so why the idea of an "unteachable race", rather than an "untaught" one? Did it perhaps need a being of divine qualities to bring order and civilisation to the primitive inhabitants of Latium...and is there a hint at similar qualities in Augustus, the putative renewer of Saturnian utopia?
322: the emphatic placement of "composuit" is surely quite deliberate. The very word suggests the union of disparate elements, and as a metaphor for civilisation it could hardly be bettered. The mention of "leges", too, fits well with Virgil's theme; the rule of law, so fragile during the past century of Roman history, is seen as central to a properly functioning nation. silent leges inter arma? Not any more, if Augustus (or Virgil) has anything to do with it.
323: a cute bit of folk etymology, beloved of the Roman poets.
324: and here is "aurea" at last, emphatically placed (as is "saecula", its complement, later on). And another interesting word choice: why "perhibent", normally an intransitive verb after all, instead of the metrically acceptable dicunt or memorant? Impossible to know for sure, but I would suggest that perhibent has more of a sense of certainty about it (note the per- prefix); they don't just say it was a golden age, they maintain that it was.
325: the obvious alliteration of the "p" sounds, often indicative of power or violence, here seems to suggest the majesty of Saturnus, a just ruler who commands respect merely by the authority of his personality; by coincidence, Livy makes a similar comment about Evander, the narrator of this passage, in the first book of his Roman history.
326: the rhythm slows down as we go from golden age to decadence, perhaps an appropriate word to use in English given the proliferation of "d" sounds in the line, which balances the repetition of "p" in line 325. And here we have the beautifully constructed phrase "decolor...aetas". Of course decolor is used in a moral sense (the generations following have lost their way), but the image of a golden age going off-colour is cleverly expressed.
327: a splendidly enigmatic line to finish. "belli rabies" is obvious enough as a symptom of the lost lustre of Rome's pristine virtues, but "amor"?!? We have to wait until the emphatic final position for the unexpected finish: "habendi". It is love, in a sense, but it is really the desire or lust for gain. For Virgil, the phrase is probably redolent of the period following the "enlightened" age of the Scipios, in which there was no Carthage to keep Rome honest (as it were) and endless possibilities for personal enrichment among the nobility.

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