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The Praises of Country Life

The laudes ruris, or "praises of country life" (2.458ff.), the last Golden Age passage of Book 2, makes the points conventionally associated with that theme: he who lives simply avoids the vanities of political life, the dangers of war, the distress of envy and poverty; he experiences the uncorrupted pleasures of family, friends, and the bounty of nature. Since the farmer's life is free from political ambition, he—unlike his urban counterpart—is not driven to defile family ties or to abandon his country in criminal exile (511); rather it is he who sustains country and family (514). The farmer's relationships and purposes, in correspondence with the eternal motions of earth, endure, while political matters have only transient importance (498). Only nature is continually renewed, and the farmer, bound to nature's cycles, participates in its larger eternity. That these points are conventional detracts neither from their truth nor from their power to move readers.[33] Yet such a summary of the passage ignores its implication that the farmer's life, even as it epitomizes early Roman virtue, is, in its own way, flawed and limited. This passage, like many others in the poem, reflects a tension between the farmer's kind of knowledge and the poet's sensibility.

The first verse of the passage (O fortunatos nimium, sua si bona norint,/agricolas! "O happy, too happy, if they were to know their luck, are the farmers!") is suggestive for it recalls the ignorance that was adduced as the farmer's defining problem in


1.41 (ignarosque viae mecum miseratus agrestis, "pitying with me the farmers who are ignorant of the way"). Farmers, as representative of all men, lack illumined purpose in living. There is much of mystery that we can never know, and this mystery limits us. For farmers this inevitable epistemological limitation is compounded by a certain narrowness of experience. Farmers live a rural life and thus have a chance virtue, not virtue as the result of deliberate moral choice. If farmers are fortunate or blessed in their existence, yet without knowing it, they have no awareness or knowledge of their situation in life. Their experience is inadequate to give them the perspective and conscious thoughtfulness to come, for example, to a sophisticated rejection of the extravagance and urbanity of which they are involuntarily deprived. That farmers are ignorant of their "blessings" suggests something of the restricted quality of their lives.[34]

The next two verses

quibus ipsa procul discordibus armis
fundit humo facilem victum iustissima tellus

For them most just earth, of her own accord, far from discordant
Arms, pours forth from the soil an easy living

are at variance with the truth of the farmer's life as it was described in Book 1. There he is not "far from discordant arms," but is swept up into the whirlpool of war, exchanging pruning hook for sword:

non ullus aratro
dignus honos, squalent abductis arva colonis,
et curvae rigidum falces conflantur in ensem.

The plough has so little
Honor, the laborers are taken, the fields untended,
And the curving sickle is beaten into the sword that yields not.


War is reality, and we have seen in Book 1 the easy exchange of roles between farmers and soldiers. The effect of this discrepancy between Books 1 and 2 is to create a tension between certain conventional assumptions about rural virtues and perceived reality.[35]

Such verses as 2.460 (cited on p. 112), and

at secura quies et nescia fallere vita

but calm security and a life that will not cheat

are starkly inconsistent with Book 1 and therefore similarly create tension for the reader, who cannot rely on the narrator for a unified perspective. Consequently the reader must come to an independent perspective on these oppositions. As we saw in Book 1 the farmer's security is vulnerable to disease, storm, or political intrusion, for example; his efforts to make earth productive must be ceaseless (cf. nec requies, "no rest" 2.516) and can nevertheless be unavailing (e.g., 1.324–26). These inconsistencies thrust upon the reader the real conflicts of experience and constitute a challenge to his thoughtful awareness of which problems might be solved by country life and which might not.

To confirm further the moral ambiguity of the whole, the poet indicates that Justice, although planting her last steps among rural people, has departed even the country (2.473–74). Nowhere is there justice, not even among rural people. This ultimate departure of justice from the earth remains unexplained—as is consistent with the poet's method in this poem. A murky multiplicity of causes for the degenerate condition of man is suggested


in the poem's course: the will of Jove (1.121), Laomedon's perjury (1.502), the tendency of all things to deteriorate (1.199–200), the slaughter of animals for food (2.537). The essential thing to note in considering this passage is that, in closing, the poet reminds us that, despite rural virtues, Justice has departed even from the country and hence that no Iron Age life, not even the farmer's, is without moral ambiguity.

Analogous to the departure of Justice from the country is Rome's fratricidal history:

hanc olim veteres vitam coluere Sabini,
hanc Remus et frater, sic fortis Etruria crevit
scilicet et rerum facta est pulcherrima Roma,
septemque una sibi muro circumdedit arces.
ante etiam sceptrum Dictaei regis et ante
impia quam caesis gens est epulata iuvencis,
aureus hanc vitam in terris Saturnus agebat—

Such was the life the Sabines lived in days of old,
And Remus and his brother: thus it was, surely, that
Etruria grew strong and Rome became of all things the finest,
Ringing her seven citadels with a single wall.
Before the rise of the Cretan
Lord, before impious men slaughtered bullocks for the banquet,
Such was the life that golden Saturn lived upon earth.

Romulus and Remus, although living a golden life in the Saturnian Age, nevertheless became the very symbols of fratricide.[36] Since Remus and the Sabines (2.532) were victims of violence even in the Saturnian Age, was Rome corrupt in some way from its inception? In the strengths and virtues of Rome's Saturnian or rural Golden Age, the very foundation of its power and glory, lay—evidently—the seeds of its dissolution:

sic fortis Etruria crevit
scilicet et rerum facta est pulcherrima Roma

Thus it was, surely, that
Etruria grew strong and Rome became of all things the finest.


For this difficulty no facile explanation is offered; the problem is only posed. Even in the Saturnian Age Romans built citadels that reflect the defensive posture characteristic of the Iron Age (2.535). As Richter points out here, ensis ("swords" 2.540) is the last word of the book proper. The poet does not allow the reader to forget, even in reverie, the reality of contemporary experience. While acknowledging the virtues that convention respects, the poet suggests the irresolvable ambiguities of Roman life in particular and of the human condition in general.

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