Political Georgics


Guest post by Charlie Kerrigan.

In this short note ­– an edited version of my spotlight presentation to the WCC 2018 AGM – I’m concerned with the possibility of a politically-engaged approach to the teaching of Latin literature. My thanks to the organisers for an excellent meeting.

The entire discourse surrounding Virgil’s Georgics is influenced by the contexts of its reception, not least the way in which structures of race, gender, and class have limited, over time, access to classical education. There are women whose comments on the Georgics can be recovered in Britain in the period 1800–1930, but they are a minority. Scholarly discourse on the poem is exclusively male, and written mostly by male graduates of Oxford and Cambridge. That discourse is problematic, firstly because it is unrepresentative, and secondly because it obfuscates any sense of conflict – agrarian, political, imperial – in the poem, in favour of depoliticized, highly-aesthetic appreciation. The problem is not Victorian scholars’ championing of the poem’s ‘artistic perfection’ (the phrase is T. E. Page’s, from the preface to his 1898 commentary), but rather the way in which more political contexts were lost amidst the praise. Social contexts influence, in a very real way, what any poem is taken to be, and the depoliticization of the Georgics has had lasting influence in scholarship.

The Georgics describes in its lines a number of peoples and places that were subject to Roman imperialism. Such portrayals can be read as the kind of cultural imperialism with which postcolonial scholars take issue. One example is the cotton groves of the Ethiopians, ‘white with soft wool’ [Virgil, Georgics, 2.120]. While ‘Ethiopia’ is an inexact and very literary toponym in classical literature, it should be remembered that a few years after the Georgics first appeared, a Roman commander is said to have suppressed an Ethiopian revolt, attacked Napata, the royal residence, and sent one thousand prisoners back to Octavian in Rome [see Strabo 17.1.54 (820–1 C), Res Gestae 26.5, Dio Cassius 54.5.4–6]. Literary representation is not unrelated to imperial power, and this is something which informs not just the Georgics itself, but aspects of its later reception.

In 1844, a member of an expedition from British India to Abyssinia published a report on the area around what is now the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa. He was Captain Douglas Graham, Principal Assistant to the expedition’s leader, Major William Cornwallis Harris (1807–48). What Graham finds are a primitive people, who burn their fields, and keep bees, just like the farmers of the Georgics. Passages from the poem, in Latin, are quoted directly in his report. The Georgics is used here to portray a people in primitive and prelapsarian terms. More nefarious, however, is how, in Graham’s eyes, this perceived primitiveness makes the people he describes prime candidates for the benefits of European ‘civilisation’, which is to say imperial intervention. And while Abyssinia suffered the worst excesses of European imperialism only in the twentieth century, a British force did invade the country in 1868, and the cultural treasures it stole still reside in British institutions.

In the context of contemporary classical pedagogy, what strikes me is how politically educative a text like the Georgics and its broader tradition can be. This text can teach not just philological skills, literary history, or appreciation of the natural world, but can also provoke discussion of contemporary, as well historical, political realities: the real effect on scholarship (and on the text) of an unrepresentative academy, past and present; the ways in which imperial power is facilitated and legitimised by writers, journalists, and academics; how the Georgics offers a glimpse into the history of Europe’s relationship with peoples and places beyond its (self-defined) political or cultural borders, and how that relationship still informs, in a global context, issues like climate crisis, food and textile production, and contemporary forms of imperial power.

Dr Charlie Kerrigan recently received his PhD from Trinity College, Dublin. Readers seeking fuller substantiation of the above are directed to the open access version of his dissertation, available here.

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