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The Eclogues

Fiction | Novel | Adult | BCE

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Summary and Study Guide


The Roman poet Virgil wrote his Eclogues (also called the Bucolics) sometime between 42 and 39 BCE, though scholars debate the exact dates of composition. The word “bucolic” originates from ancient Greek (then Latin) and can be translated as “cowherds’ songs.” The collection consists of 10 short poems about rural life written in dactylic hexameter, the meter traditionally shared between pastoral poetry and epic poetry.

Virgil was the first Roman poet to adapt pastoral poetry—invented by the Greek poet Theocritus—into Latin verse. Perhaps recognizing quaint details and themes from his youth in rural Mantua, Virgil embraced the highly literary nature of the genre. Pastoral poetry was less a primer on real country life and more an urbanite’s fantasy, a dream world where farming and sheep-tending were preferable alternatives to city life and its stressors. While Virgil heavily modelled his Eclogues on earlier poems—as all ancient poets did—he also added unique Virgilian flairs and innovations to his primary source text, Theocritus’s Idylls. The result is a collection which both respects its origins and presents a new, wholly Roman version of pastoral poetry.

The Eclogues were immensely influential in their own time and left a mark on western literature as a whole. Their success launched Virgil’s career (though his legacy was cemented by his greatest work, the Aeneid). The Eclogues were particularly beloved by 19th century Romantic poets like Percy Bysshe Shelley and John Keats, who revitalized interest in the genre just as Virgil did for the poetry of his own predecessor, Theocritus.

This guide refers to Barbara Hughes’s 1997 translation of the Eclogues, published by the University of North Carolina Press.

Plot Summary

In Eclogue 1, two shepherds, Tityrus and Meliboeus, discuss their vastly different circumstances. While a mysterious “divine” young man in Rome enabled ex-slave Tityrus to continue his leisurely life in the countryside, his free-born neighbor Meliboeus must leave his farm and relocate to the far reaches of the Roman world.

There is a single speaker in Eclogue 2, the shepherd Corydon, who laments that his romantic obsession, the young slave Alexis, does not reciprocate his advances.

Eclogue 3 features a poetic competition between two crime-loving shepherds, Menalcas and Damoetas. Their contest is judged by a third shepherd, Palaemon, who declares a tie.

Eclogue 4, the most famous of the collection, prophesies that a child will soon be born who’ll usher in a new and prosperous cosmic age.

In Eclogue 5, the shepherds Menalcas and Mopsus enjoy an intergenerational friendship, bonding over their mutual love of pastoral life and music. Their songs mourn the death of a deified pastoral hero, Daphnis.

Eclogue 6 is one of the more mysterious entries in the collection, as its source materials are not entirely known to modern scholarship. The speaker briefly explains why he prefers to write pastoral poetry over epic. He describes how two youths restrain a woodland god, Silenus, who dutifully sings them a song about the creation of the universe and the dangers of Love.

Eclogue 7 features another singing contest, one somewhat more sophisticated than that of Eclogue 3. Virgil already introduced two of the participants earlier in his Eclogues: Corydon, the lovelorn shepherd from Eclogue 2, is one of the competitors, while Meliboeus, the free-born Roman who lost his farm in Eclogue 1, judges the contest and recounts what happened to the reader.

Eclogue 8 revisits the theme of unrequited love. Two jilted lovers take very different approaches to heartache. While Damon longs for death after his beloved, Nysa, leaves him for another man, his female counterpart Alphesiboeus takes matters into her own hands. She uses folk magic to force her ex-boyfriend, Daphnis (not Eclogue 5’s Daphnis), to leave the city and return to her.

Like Eclogue 1, Eclogue 9 comprises dialogue between two shepherds, one of whom was exiled from his home. Virgil underlines the butterfly effect: By uprooting the region’s star singer, land confiscations ruin not only the individual farmer’s life, but those of the neighborhood.

In the last entry of the collection, Eclogue 10, Virgil offers a consolatory poem to a fellow Roman poet, elegist Gallus, who suffers from the pangs of unrequited love.

Related Titles

By Virgil