Virgil’s Georgics exists in the shadow of war, and presents the alternative thereto, the rugged, difficult, intensely disciplined, yet bucolic life of the farmer. The life of the farmer is a welcome escape from that of war (and all the concerns of the city that lead to war). Happy they are, if only they consent to know their happiness:
How lucky, if they know their happiness,
Are farmers, more than lucky, they for whom,
Far from the clash of arms, the earth herself,
Most fair in dealing, freely lavishes
An easy livelihood. (Bk. II)
But it was not always such: there was not always war. Virgil tells of a time before the age of Jove:
And earlier still, before the Cretand king,
Dictaean Jove, held sway and an impious age
Of men began to feast on slaughtered oxen,
This life was led on earth by golden Saturn,
When none had ever heard the trumpet blown
Or heard the sword-blade clanking on the anvil. (Bk. II)
Such an age is no longer. Now war and farming coexist, removed from one another, yet not wholly removed.
At the intersection of these two lives is love, the animal side of it:
Indeed all species in the world, of men,
Wild beasts and fish, cattled and coloured birds
Rush madly into the furnace: love is common
To all. (Bk. III)
The farmer must control it in his animals, avoid it where harmful and use it deliberately where beneficial. Yet equally it lies behind war. Behind the Trojan war, Helen, and the men who desired her; behind the Latin war, Lavinia, and the men who desired her. We may wonder, given this connection, about the possibility of the age prior to Jove.
This is Virgil’s advantage over Homer: he captures the true antagonism. With Homer we have the Iliad, the great story of collective struggle in war, and the Odyssey, the great story of the individual struggle to return home. Virgil recognizes that these are one and the same story, and so combines them in the Aeneid. (He recognizes, further, that in a war-torn land we are exiles, lacking a home to which to return.) They do not form a true contrast. For that is needed an alternative to war and its destruction – and thus we have the Georgics.
This post relies on the Wilkinson translation of the Georgics (Penguin Classics, 1982).