VIRGIL'S PIOUS MAN AND MENENIUS AGRIPPA: A NOTE ON AENEID 1.148-53.
Just as when disorder arises among the people of a great city and the common mob runs riot, wild passion finds weapons for men's hands and torches and rocks start flying; at such a time if people chance to see a man who has some weight among them for his goodness and his services to the state, they fall silent, standing and listening with all their attention while his words command their passions and soothe their hearts ... (trans. David West)
Shakespeare's Corolianus opens explosively with the stage direction `Enter a company of mutinous Citizens, with staves, clubs, and other weapons'. As these rebellious spirits are about to surge towards the Capitol, the senator Menenius enters.
1 CITIZEN: Soft, who comes here?
2 CITIZEN: Worthy Menenius Agrippa, one that hath always loved the people.
1 CITIZEN: He's one honest enough, would all the rest were so!
MENENIUS: What work's, my countrymen, in hand? Where go you With bats [i.e. cudgels] and clubs? (I.i.49-55)
Menenius then sets about calming the mob by telling them the political parable of the rebellion by the body's members against the belly, which justifies the fact that it, like the Senate, receives the food first, by asserting that it distributes that food to the rest of the body (I.i.95-153). Menenius' efforts to convince the people of the need for unity in the body politic are successful (`... these are almost thoroughly persuaded', I.i.200).
Shakespeare based this scene on the account of events in Rome in the 490s B.C. given by Plutarch, the Greek biographer of the first and second centuries A.D. After detailing the causes of the people's discontent, Plutarch records that `they fell then even to flat rebellion and mutiny, and to stir up dangerous tumults within the city'. He goes on with an account of how the people, despairing of fair treatment by the Senate, peaceably left the city and camped on the sacer mons by the Tiber (this secession is simply omitted by Shakespeare) -- whereupon the Senate `being afeard of their departure, did send unto them certain of the pleasantest old men, and the most acceptable to the people among them. Of these, Menenius Agrippa was he, who was sent for chief man of the message from the Senate. He, after many good persuasions and gentle requests made to the people, on the behalf of the Senate: knit up his oration in the end, with a notable tale, in this manner.' Now follows the belly parable. `These persuasions pacified the people ...', with the proviso that five tribunes should be appointed to defend them (Plutarch, Coriolanus 5.3, 6.2, 7.1, trans. Sir Thomas North, 1579 and 1595).
Plutarch's account of these events largely follows that of Dionysius of Halicarnassus (Roman Antiquities 6.45-90),(1) who tells us that the belly fable is quoted in all the ancient histories ([GREEK TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] 6.83.2). It certainly features in Livy's account of the episode (2.32-33.2), and Shakespeare seems to have known that version in Holland's translation.(2) Like Shakespeare but unlike Plutarch, the Roman historian gives the facundus vir Menenius a solo appearance before the people (2.32.8). Shakespeare shows considerable fidelity to his ancient sources. The key differences in his handling of the events are that his citizens are armed for aggressive action while the historians portray them as non-violent at this stage, and that his Menenius encounters them in the city when the `historical' event took place in the people's settlement by the Sacred Mount. By these changes Shakespeare makes explicit the violence which is latent in his sources and sets up a supremely effective confrontation between his ignobile uulgus and his honest man.
He in fact creates the scene described so vividly in the first simile in the Aeneid (quoted at the head of this essay) which conveys Neptune's calming of the sea by likening the god to the man of piety and the raging waters to the rampant mob. And I now put the question of whether Virgil may have based this simile on the Menenius episode, included `in all the ancient histories' because of the appeal of the belly fable. Dionysius was a contemporary of Virgil's, but his Roman Antiquities was published after the poet's death. However, there is compelling evidence that Books 1-5 of Livy's Histories were completed no later (and probably for the most part significantly earlier) than 25 B.C.(3) when six years still remained for the composition of the Aeneid.(4) In any event, many historians, as Dionysius tells us, had handled this episode before Virgil wrote his epic. Is the pietate grauis ac meritis uir Menenius Agrippa?
Another candidate for a historical tamer of mob violence has been mooted as the inspiration for the simile. This is Cato the Younger, and the event relating to him, which dates from 54 B.C., is recounted by Plutarch at Cato Minor 44.3-4.(5) The episode is certainly similar to the pious man's confrontation, but the Cato riot is aimed specifically at him and before he can speak to calm the people's shouting (as he does), he is haled along by them until he lays hold of the rostra. Virgil's plebeians stop their rioting as soon as they have caught sight of the man in question. The respect that they feel for him soothes them instantly.(6) Furthermore, Plutarch makes the point that Cato's praetorship in this year was not marked by dignity: on the contrary he disgraced his office (44.2). Menenius seems altogether the more plausible choice for a figure from the Roman historians to fit the Virgilian bill, especially since Livy includes in his obituary on him a tribute to his services to the state (huic interpreti arbitroque concordiae ciuium, 33.11-2: cf. Dionysius, Roman Antiquities 6.96). Here is a man truly grauis meritis (Aeneid 1.151).
If I am right in this identification, we see Virgil adapting history in exactly the same way as Shakespeare. The ancient historians' at that stage non-violent plebeians are transmuted into a rioting mob. Both poets' dramatic and artistic instincts lead them to set their action on a similar collision course between mob frenzy and a man who carries great respect, before awarding victory to the latter. And it is entirely characteristic of Virgil to engage in the kind of polarization that will set furor and pietas in so close a confrontation -- as well as to place the words arma and uirum in such an antithetical juxtaposition (1.150-1). However, my main aim in writing this brief essay is to suggest that by exploring the way in which great artists shape their material, we can go beyond a particular poet's traits and learn a more comprehensive lesson about the creative process. We should scarcely be surprised if Virgil and Shakespeare simplify the historians' account of Menenius' encounter with the mob in precisely the same way. Both are writing poetry, history, and drama simultaneously. In both cases, the result is a synthesis that transcends all three.
Of course Virgil does not give us the belly story. It is decidedly too homespun for the epic context (Dionysius dubs it [6.83.2] [GREEK TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] `in the manner of Aesop'); in any case it is too lengthy and complex to be included in a simile. But, if the identification with Menenius is correct, the well-known belly parable will inevitably be invoked as a subtext. After all, what were the words which command the people's passions and soothe their hearts? Here we can see a typically subversive Virgil at work. Menenius was certainly a man of piety who did the state some service. At the same time he was the spokesman of an oppressive political regime and, while he posed as the champion of concordia, his belly story `justifies aristocratic economic power and leisure'.(7) The people were duped by patronizing rhetoric. Even so, they got their tribunes.
(1.) See D. A. Russell, `Plutarch's Life of Coriolanus', JRS 53 (1963), 21-2.
(2.) See n. at I.i.134-9 in Shakespeare, Coriolanus, ed. P. Brockbank, the Arden Shakespeare (London, 1976). I have taken quotations from Coriolanus from this edition. R. M. Ogilvie's note on Livy's Menenius parable is valuable (A Commentary on Livy, Books 1-5 [Oxford, 1965]).
(3.) See A. J. Woodman, Rhetoric in Classical Historiography (London, 1-988), 128-35.
(4.) For Livy's influence on Virgil, see Woodman, `Virgil the Historian' in J. Diggle, J. B. Hall, and H. D. Jocelyn (edd.), Studies in Latin literature and its Tradition (PCPhS Suppl. xv, 1989), 132-5: `... Livy's first pentad ... had established itself quickly as a classic; and many scholars have noted similarities of wording between the two authors [Livy and Virgil] ... which indicate that one author was familiar with the other's work' (134). Woodman suggests that `Virgil wrote lines 630-62 of Book 8 with Livy's first pentad in mind' (134).
(5.) For the suggestion of Cato, see Virgil Aeneid I, ed. R. G. Austin (Oxford, 1971), n. at 148ff. S. J. Harrison (`Virgil on Kingship: the First Simile of the Aeneid', PCPhS 34 , 55-9) finds the link with Cato `attractive' but goes on to suggest (in my view more persuasively) that there is a reference in the Virgil simile to Hesiod on the gifts of the Muses to kings (Theogony, 81-93). Of course, as Harrison justly remarks, `we need not limit the poet to one model only for a simile' (56).
(6.) It is of course true that riotous assemblies are a common feature both of Latin literature and of Roman history. See, e.g., P. A. Brunt, `The Roman mob' in M. I. Finley (ed.), Studies in Ancient Society (London, 1974), 74-5. What is unusual -- and perhaps limited in Roman history to the episodes of Menenius and Cato -- is the quelling of such assemblies by great personal qualifies.
(7.) See A. Drummond's entry on Menenius Lanatus, Agrippa on p. 959 of the Oxford Classical Dictionary, ed. S. Hornblower and A. Spawforth (Oxford, 1996)