The Golden Age in Rome: Virgil and Ovid
Writing in Latin during the turbulent period of revolutionary change at the end of the Roman Republic (roughly between 44 and 38 BC), the poet Virgil moved the setting for his pastoral imitations of Theocritus back to an idealized Arcadia in Greece, thus initiating a rich and resonant tradition in subsequent European literature.
Virgil, moreover, introduced into his poetry the element of political allegory, which had been largely absent in Theocritus, even intimating in his fourth Eclogue that a new Golden Age of peace and justice was about to return:
Ultima Cumaei venit iam carminis aetas;
magnus ab integro saeclorum nascitur ordo:
iam redit et Virgo, redeunt Saturnia regna;
iam nova progenies caelo demittitur alto.
Now the last age by Cumae's Sibyl sung
Has come and gone, and the majestic roll
Of circling centuries begins anew:
Returns old Saturn's reign,
With a new breed of men sent down from heaven.
Somewhat later, shortly before he wrote his epic poem the Aeneid, which dealt with the establishment of Roman Imperial rule, Virgil composed his Georgics (29 BC), modeled directly on Hesiod's Works and Days and similar Greek works. Ostensibly about agriculture, the Georgics are in fact a complex allegory about how man's alterations of nature (through works) are related to good and bad government. Although Virgil does not mention the Golden Age by name in the Georgics, he does refer in them to a time of primitive communism before the reign of Jupiter, when:
Fields knew no taming hand of husbandmen
To mark the plain or mete with boundary-line.
Even this was impious; for the common stock
They gathered, and the earth of her own will
All things more freely, no man bidding, bore.
ante Iouem nulli subigebant arua coloni
ne signare quidem aut partiri limite campum
fas erat; in medium quaerebant, ipsaque tellus
omnia liberius nullo poscente ferebat. (Georgics, Book 1: 125–28)
This view, which identifies a State of Nature with the celestial harmony of which man's nature is (or should be, if properly regulated) a microcosm, reflects the Hellenistic cosmology that prevailed among literate classes of Virgil's era. It is seen again in Ovid's Metamorphoses (AD 7), in which the lost Golden Age is depicted as a place and time when, because nature and reason were harmoniously aligned, men were naturally good:
The Golden Age was first; when Man, yet new,
No rule but uncorrupted Reason knew:
And, with a native bent, did good pursue.
Unforc'd by punishment, un-aw'd by fear.
His words were simple, and his soul sincere;
Needless was written law, where none opprest:
The law of Man was written in his breast.
The Graeco-Roman concept of the "natural man" delineated by Ovid and many other classical writers, was especially popular during the Deistically inclined 18th century. It is often erroneously attributed to Rousseau, who did not share it.
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