This week, we’ve been interviewing classics scholar Alexandra Garcia-Mata about psychology and fiction in Roman literature. On Monday, she talked about Virgil’s Georgics, and particularly about the way that celebrations of rural virtue and past glory reflected expectations about social interactions, experiences, and psychological states. Her descriptions of the way that elites’ condescending understandings of rustic psychology was represented evoked theory of mind narratives, in which some characters reveal particular understandings of what other characters think and experience. Below, we relate how she also describes the way that these understandings were used to differentiate elites from rustics in terms of their psychological needs.
V: Is it possible to say how much the connection to the soil that you described as a common trope in the Georgics might have replaced the Roman gods or stood in them with similar functions?
A: The Georgics is looking at the agricultural world from the perspective of the elite: the romantic view that we’re connected to the land. But if any of them had been themselves behind the plough, I’d be surprised. And the earliest Roman deities were very abstract agricultural deities like wind and weather. They did not have a native tradition of anthropomorphized deities like the Greeks. Theirs were rather abstract. The word numen was a Roman concept and only later was Saturn – when intellectuals had connections with the Greeks – joined with Chronos and made personified. And in the later writers, it doesn’t work all that well; they try to force the Roman and the Greek together somewhat unsuccessfully.
For the elite Romans, with all these references to gods, you get the sense that this was just ornamental, for the sake of poetry and art. The interesting thing when you’re reading Roman literature, if you change from Virgil to the letters of Cicero, you’re just reading about the ordinary life of people, and their concerns are just as earthbound. You get a rich sense of how much they were just ordinary hard-bitten human beings, competing with each other with all the fears and concerns of ordinary people – and they don’t talk about the gods at all; these people are areligious, completely. They’re just completely immersed in everyday life: politics and friendships and money. They were just really worldly people. It’s perfectly possible that rural people were more religious. But these people that we have records of were the upper crust.
Now that doesn’t mean there weren’t certain cults that drew a lot of followers. The worship of Isis was very popular – this promised everlasting life in the afterworld. And soldiers were known to be very devoted to Mithros. But soldiers were free poor folk and who had joined the army because it could be a decent living of sorts, if you survived.
[Returning to Virgil, one of the interesting things about the way we experience these stories is that] you’ve got two thousands of years of people responding to Virgil and writing operas and retelling the story and translating it and writing the sequel. People used to – there’s a fancy word for it – take individual lines of Virgil and put them together into a new poem. Just as people will open the Bible and put their fingers on a line, and take it as what they should do, people would do that with Virgil: Virgil was taken as some kind of oracle.
Part of the whole Renaissance was people rediscovering the Latin of the classical period and realizing that the Latin of the middle ages was kind of degraded, and they made a conscious effort to go back
V: Is there an idea that in the past, experience itself was different?
A: There does seem to be a feeling that the ancients got it better, that this is when the greatest literature was written.