It is lately fashionable to deemphasize the uniqueness of Christianity, and of Jesus’s Messiahship, in part by arguing that the Romans had a “messianic tradition.”
For instance, in the Crash Course video on Christianity, narrator John Green speaks about a coin depicting Emperor Augustus, saying: “So let’s just state at the outset that in 4 B.C.E. being the son of God, or at least being the son of a god, was not such an unusual thing.”[i]
Claims about this supposed “Roman messianic tradition” are varied. Presently, I will focus upon two main questions. Did the poet Virgil write a Messianic prophecy? And was a Roman named Asinius Gallus a competitor (of sorts) with Jesus of Nazareth for the title “Messiah”?
In order to answer these two questions, let us establish a bit of groundwork.
Firstly, who was Virgil and what was the “prophecy” in question?
Virgil (also sometimes spelled Vergil) was the name of one Publius Vergilius Maro, a Roman poet born in 70 B.C. and who died in 19 B.C., during the early part of the reign of Caesar Augustus. Virgil is best-known for the Aeneid, an epic poem that had to associated ancient Rome with the fabled kingdom of Troy.
Virgil’s Fourth Eclogue is part of a collection of bucolic poetry (the Eclogues), and is expressly addressed to a person named “Pollio.”[ii]
The next question is obvious: Who was Pollio?
“Gaius Asinius Pollio (…75 BC-AD 4) was a Roman soldier, politician, orator, poet, playwright, literary critic and historian… Pollio was most famously a patron of Virgil and a friend of Horace and had poems dedicated to him by both men.”[iii]
Under the subheading “Role in the Civil War,” we read:
“Pollio vacillated between Mark Antony and Octavian as civil war between them brewed,[iv] but ultimately threw in his lot with Antony.[v] …In the division of the provinces, Gaul fell to Antony, who entrusted Pollio with …[particular] administrati[ve duties] …[vi]
“In superintending the distribution of the Mantuan territory amongst the veterans, he used his influence to save from confiscation the property of the poet Virgil. In 40 BC he helped to arrange the peace of Brundisium by which Octavian and Antony were for a time reconciled. In the same year Pollio entered upon his consulship, which had been promised him in 43 BC by the Second Triumvirate. Virgil addressed the famous fourth eclogue to him, though there is uncertainty regarding whether Virgil composed the poem in anticipation of Pollio's consulship or celebrating his part in the Treaty of Brundisium. Virgil, like other Romans, hoped that peace was at hand and looked forward to a Golden Age under Pollio's consulship.”[vii]
If the 4th Eclogue was literally addressed to Pollio, then it is reasonable to suppose that the puer (Latin for “boy” or “child”) spoken of in the poem – insofar as any actual person is intended – is a son of Pollio.
Indeed, scholar Elizabeth Denny Pierce writes that such is “[t]he generally accepted tradition”:
“The generally accepted tradition that the child was a son of Asinius Pollio is doubtless due to the fact that the latter is the only mortal referred to by name in the poem and also to the story of Asconius that Asinius Gallus, the son of Pollio, asserted that he (Gallus) was the puer of this Eclogue.”[viii]
Pierce continues: “Asinius Gallus was the eldest son of Pollio, and was born in 39 B.C. …As his brother Herius Asinius died when a boy, Asinius Gallus was the only son left to succeed his father. …As he had incurred the ill-will of Tiberius not only by his marriage but by certain remarks made in the Senate[ix] he was condemned in 30 A.D., but kept in prison until his death by starvation in 33 A.D. Since Augustus when considering possible successors to the principate had discarded him as one who had ambition but inferior ability, and had chosen Tiberius instead, there had been friction between the rivals [that is, Asinius Gallus and Tiberius]. Gallus's marriage to Vispania after Augustus had forced Tiberius to divorce her, had been another reason for hostility. There is evidence that Gallus had made himself as disagreeable as he could to the second princeps, and it would have been perfectly possible for him to add to the emperor's unpopularity by spreading the story that he himself had been destined to be the saviour of the world.”[x]
This information is in no way “dated.” Readers may compare Fabio Stok’s comment:
“…Asconius recorded (according to Serv. Dan. ad Ecl. 4.11) that the son of Asinius Pollio declared to Asconius that he himself was the puer celebrated in the fourth eclogue.”[xi]
Notice the parenthetical citation. Stok cites “Serv. Dan. ad Ecl. 4.11.”[xii]
“Servius” designates the “late fourth-century and early fifth-century grammarian” Maurus Servius Honoratus who “was the author of a set of commentaries on the works of Virgil.”[xiii]
Keep track of the dates. Late 4th century to early fifth puts us at between, say A.D. 375 and A.D. 425, roughly. This means that Servius is writing about statements and events in the 1st century[xiv] from a vantage point 275-325 years removed – at best.
This means that we’re not exactly sure just what Servius wrote.
“The first [manuscript tradition] is a comparatively short commentary, which is attributed to Servius in the superscription in the manuscripts and by other internal evidence. A second class of manuscripts, all deriving from the 10th and 11th centuries, embed the same text in a much expanded commentary. The copious additions are in contrast to the style of the original; none of these manuscripts bears the name of Servius, and the commentary is known traditionally as Servius auctus or Servius Danielis, from Pierre Daniel who first published it in 1600.”[xvii]
From Stok’s expanded citation – “Serv. Dan. ad Ecl. 4.11” – we see that the passage in question (i.e., the one that identifies Asinius Gallus as Virgil’s puer) comes to us from the second – and later – manuscript stream.
Furthermore, in an article by W. Warde Fowler, we read that the relevant comment comes, not in the main text, but in “a note of Servius.”[xviii]
The Asinius Gallus claim therefore comes down to this: According to an account first published by one Pierre Daniel in the year A.D. 1600, the 5th-century Roman literary critic (“grammarian”) Servius, reported that the failed 1st-century politician Asinius Gallus once asserted to the historian Asconius that he (Asinius Gallus) was the “puer” spoken of by Virgil – presumably, since Asinius Gallus was the son of the Pollio to whom the poem was addressed.
Fowler observes[xix] that this note from 1,600 years after the events that it describes, is nonetheless “[t]he earliest information we have about the question” of Asinius Gallus’s identication as Virgil’s “boy” (puer). Fowler then opines that “…the statement of Asinius Gallus …is open to grave suspicion”.[xx]
The only other candidate that I was able to discover as having been a credible claimant to the title of Virgil’s “puer” was Jesus of Nazareth. Partly, this paucity of potentials seems due to the fact that most readers of Virgil categorized the Eclogues as political poetry and did not worry overly much about the possibility – made real in virtue of the Christian claims about Jesus – that Virgil had “predicted” a “messiah.”
“St. Augustine (354-430 A.D.) …saw a prophecy of Christ in Vergil’s poem. In De civitate Dei, book x, chap. 27, he quotes 11. I3 and 14, and says that Vergil (poeta nobilissimus) spoke poetically because he was speaking in the shadowy person of another, and yet he spoke truly because the traces of guilt (scelerum vestigia) could be wiped away only by that Savior concerning whom the verse was written. …Cf. St. Augustine, Epist. 137, chap. iii. 12 and Epist. 104, chap. iii. ii, in both of which passages the same two lines of the eclogue are quoted as referring to Christ.”[xxi]
Augustine, lived between the years A.D. 354 to A.D. 430. This makes him a contemporary of Servius. “To St. Augustine the reference in the eclogue is …clearly a prophecy of Christ”.[xxii]
Furthermore Dante Alighieri, who lived from the 13th-14th centuries (A.D. 1265-1321) also “believed, as did St. Augustine, that Vergil was an unconscious prophet of Christ.”[xxiii]
Thus the identification of Jesus as Virgil's puer has testimony in its favor that is at least as ancient (and possibly more ancient, if for example Servius Danielis dates from the 10th century and is not attributable to the historical Servius) as that which identifies Asinius Gallus as the puer.
In any case, comparing Virgil poem, which is addressed to the real-life Pollio and invokes deities in the Roman pantheon, is hardly commensurable with the prophecies ultimately applied to Christ. The Jewish messianic tradition, albeit politically-oriented, is both quite ancient (going back hundreds of years before Jesus was born) and extensive. To call one passage, in a 1st-century poem (which was itself clearly a tribute to a real-life person) evidence of a Roman “messianic tradition” is, frankly, risible. Additionally, as I have stated, the identification of Asinius Gallus is neither indubitably ancient (possibly dating from the 5th-10th centuries) and, in any case, is inconsequential. Contemporary records indicate that Asinius Gallus was an ambitious and trouble-making rival to the eventual emperor, Tiberius.
What has all of this got to do with the messianic tradition of 1st-century Palestinian Jews? As far as I can see: not much.
So who was Virgil’s puer? The following seem to be the two most viable options.
If taken literally, Virgil’s “prophecy” merely fits into a picture of ancient mud-slinging and politicking and applies to a definite rivalry between Tiberius and Asinius Gallus, the son of the Pollio mentioned by Virgil.
If taken metaphorically, then a case that Virgil was an anima naturaliter Christiana (that is, a “naturally Christian soul”) and that he, perhaps unknowingly, actually prophesied about the Jesus of Nazareth, seems far and away the only interpretation with any “legs.”
Take your pick!
[ii] To see this, check the English translation posted at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology website, here: Virgil, The Eclogues, 37 B.C., Eclogue 4, <http://classics.mit.edu/Virgil/eclogue.4.iv.html>.
[iii] “Gaius Asinius Pollio [Consul 40BC],” Wikipedia, Nov. 21, 2014, <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gaius_Asinius_Pollio_%28consul_40_BC%29>; citing Jerome [Chronicon 2020] who “says he [that is Pollio] died in AD 4 in the seventieth year of his life, which would place the year of his birth at 65 BC,” ibid.; Virgil, Eclogues 4:8; and Horace, Carmina 2.1.
[iv] Cicero, Letters to Friends 10.32, 10.33; Appian, Civil Wars 3.46.
[v] Appian, Civil Wars 3.97.
[vi] Velleius Paterculus, Roman History 2.76.
[vii] “Gaius Asinius Pollio…,” loc. cit.
[viii] Elizabeth Denny Pierce, A Roman Man of Letters, Gaius Asinius Pollio, PhD dissertation, Columbia Univ. [New York], 1922, p. 45; archived online at <https://books.google.com/books?id=V3pfAAAAMAAJ>.
[ix] Tacitus, Annals, I, 12.
[x] Pierce, op. cit., pp. 45-47.
[xi] “The Life of Vergil Before Donatus,” Joseph Farrell and Michael C. J. Putnam, eds., A Companion to Vergil's Aeneid and its Tradition, Malden, Mass. and Oxford [U.K.]: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010, p. 109.
[xii] Pierce cited “Servius,” ad Ecl., IV, 11.
[xiii] “Maurus Servius Honoratus,” Wikipedia, Sept. 29, 2014, <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maurus_Servius_Honoratus>. The reference to “Asconius” is to the 1st-c. [ca. 9 B.C.-ca.A.D. 76] Roman historian QuintusAsconius Pedianus.
[xiv] I.e., before A.D. 1 and A.D. 100.
[xv] Latin: In Vergilii Aeneidem commentarii.
[xvi] See again Servius’s Wiki entry, given above.
[xviii] As we have seen, this note is cited to Asconius, according to W. Warde Fowler, “Observations on the Fourth Eclogue of Virgil,” Harvard Studies in Classical Philology, vol. 14, Greenough Memorial Volume, 1903, p. 32 [of 17-35]; archived online at <http://www.jstor.org/stable/310376>.
[xix] Op. cit., p. 32.
[xxi] Ella Bourne, The Messianic Prophecy in Vergil's Fourth Eclogue, Classical Journal [a publication of the Classical Association of the Middle West and South], vol. 11, no. 7, Apr., 1916, p. 392 [in 390-400]; archived online at <http://www.jstor.org/stable/3287925>.
[xxii] Ibid., p. 393.
[xxiii] Ibid., p. 398.