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p351 Introduction
to Aetna

The poem on Aetna has many claims on the attention of readers. It was placed among the minor works of Virgil by manuscript tradition, though this assignation, which came to be disputed by the time of Donatus, finds few scholars to support it now. But whatever its authorship and its date,1 Aetna was written by an author who must win respect by reason of his earnest enthusiasm for the study of nature. He is in quest of a vera causa to explain volcanic action, and in his concentration of purpose, coupled with his disdain for mythology, there rings, notwithstanding his errors, a note half-suggestive of scientific modernity. If he despises mythology as no true explanation (though, like Lucretius, accepting it as an ornament), the author also despises sightseers who gad about the world to the neglect of the wonders of nature near their homes. His is a call to observe: "study the colossal work of nature the artist" (artificis naturae ingens opus adspice 601). Basing his observations and theories upon Aetna specially — because Vesuvius was mistakenly considered extinct (431‑432) — he argues that the controlling motive force behind eruptions is air operating in the vacua with which the earth is honeycombed, p352and that the volcanic fire gets a nutritive material in the lava-stone (lapis molaris).

There are digressions from which the poem gains in attractiveness. One passage (224‑274) utters a stirring proclamation of the majesty of physical research in contrast with mankind's ignoble cares. Again, towards the conclusion, the poet turns from theorising about physical phenomena to an episode (604‑646) which centres in the human quality of heroic devotion shown by two brothers who rescue their parents from a sea of fire during an appalling eruption.

The difficulty of the poem itself is partly textual, partly stylistic — the former becomes evident in the apparatus criticus; the latter, in great measure, arises from a striving after brevity, a tendency to overload words and phrases, a fondness for metaphor and for personification, and perhaps an occasional adoption of expressions from the sermo plebeius of Rome.2 These points resemble characteristics of the "Silver" Latinity of the early empire. The terseness, too, in mythological references, where details are taken for granted as well known, suggests some degree of lateness in period,3 and is consistent with Buecheler's verdict that the poem must be later than Ovid and Manilius and with Munro's testimony regarding its versification. But it must have been composed before A.D. 63, as the terrible earthquake which devastated the towns close to Vesuvius in that year could not have been overlooked by a didactic poet who had the volcanic zone of Campania under p353consideration and dismissed it as inactive (431‑432). Similarities to expressions in Seneca's Naturales Quaestiones of A.D. 65 do not prove the contention that Aetna came after that work; for both authors may well have used a common source. A summer visit to the volcano may have turned the poet to study Posidonian theories:4 congruity of subject must have directed him to read Lucretius and Manilius, while in the use of the hexameter he had before him as models both Virgil and Ovid.

There is no clear way of deciding the authorship. Seneca's letter to his friend Lucilius Junior (Epist. LXXIX.4‑7), once widely accepted as proof that Lucilius composed the work, implies nothing beyond a prediction that Lucilius was to insert a passage about Aetna in a projected poem on Sicily.


J. B. Ascensius. Virgilii Opera. Paris, 1507.

Jos. Scaliger. In Virgilii Appendix. Leyden, 1573.

J. Le Clerc (Gorallus). Aetna c. notis et interpret. Amsterdam, 1703, 1715.

J. C. Wernsdorf. Lucilii Junioris Aetna in Poetae Latini Minores. Altenburg, 1780‑1799.

F. Jacob. Lucilii Junioris Aetna (Latin notes; translation in German hexameters). Leipzig, 1826.

p354 H. A. J. Munro. Aetna revised emended and explained. Cambridge, 1867.

E. Baehrens. In Poetae Latini Minores, Vol. II. Leipzig, 1880.

S. Sudhaus. Aetna erklärt (German prose trans.). Leipzig, 1898.

Robinson Ellis. Aetna with textual and exegetical commentary (English prose translation). Oxford, 1901.

––––Aetna ("incerti auctoris carmen"): in Postgate's Corpus Poetarum Latinorum, Vol.II. London, 1905.

J. Vessereau. Aetna avec traduction et commentaire. Paris, 1905.

M. L. De Gubernatis. Aetna carmen Vergilio adscriptum (recens. et interpret.). Turin, 1911: also an edition in Paravia series.

F. Vollmer. In Poetae Latini Minores, Vol. I, ed. 2. Leipzig, 1927.

E. Schwartz. Berlin, 1933. (With a limited apparatus, which claims for the editor some emendations made earlier by others: e.g. Ellis' varie 184; Baehrens' moles, frustra489; Vessereau's iunctas509.)

Relevant Works

A. De Rooy. Coniecturae in Martialis libr. XIV et Severi Aetnam. Utrecht, 1764.

F. C. Matthiae. In Neue Bibliothek der schönen Wissenschaften, 59 (collation of Gyraldinian variants). 1797.

M. Haupt. In Opuscula. Leipzig, 1875‑76. (His text of Aetna at end of his edition of Virgil.)

p355 J. Maehly. Beiträge zur Kritik des Lehrgedichts Aetna. Basel, 1862.

B. Kruczkiewicz. Poema de Aetna Vergilio esse tribuendum. Cracow, 1883.

P. R. Wagler. De Aetna poemate quaestiones criticae. Berlin, 1884. (With index verborum.)

R. Unger. Aetna (suggested readings). Journal of Philology, XVII.34, pp152‑154. Cambridge, 1888.

L. Alzinger. Studia in Aetnam collata. Leipzig, 1896.

J. Franke. Res metrica Aetnae carminis. Diss. Marburg, 1898.

R. Hildebrandt. Beiträge zur Erklärung des Gedichtes Aetna. Leipzig, 1900.

S. Sudhaus. Zur Ueberlieferung des Gedichtes Aetna in Rh. Mus. LX pp574‑583. Frankfurt-a‑M. 1905.

E. Herr. De Aetnae carminis sermone et de tempore quo scriptum sit. Marburg, 1911.

E. Bickel. Apollon und Dodona (ein Beitrag zur Datierung, etc.) in Rheinisches Museum, LXXIX. 3. Frankfurt-a‑M. 1930.


C = Cantabrigiensis: in Cambridge University Library, Kk. v.34, 10th century (considered by Ellis the best codex). See note at end of this introduction.

S = fragmentum Stabulense, now in Paris, 17177, 10th or 11th century. (Besides about 260 fairly complete lines, it has about 86 more in a truncated form.)

Z = a lost archetype whose text is represented (see Vollmer's stemma codicum) by three related MSS. of the 15th cent: viz.

p356 H = Helmstadiensis 332,

A = Arundelianus 133, in British Museum,

R = Rehdigeranus, 125 in the city Library, Breslau.

V = Vaticanus 3272 (lines 1‑434 fecundius aethna), 15th century.

Exc. = florilegia of excerpts, 11th to 13th cent.

(Two are in Paris, 7647 and 17903, and one in the Escorial, Q. 1. 14.

G = readings of a lost codex used by Lilius Gyraldus (Giglio Giraldi) in the 16th century and represented by N. Heinsius' collation for lines 138‑287, and by a copy of lines 272‑287 surviving in codex Laurentianus 33.9. [The value of the recorded Gyraldinian readings for those 150 lines has been estimated differently by critics. Some are attractive, but it is difficult to see how others, though plausible on the surface, could ever have been corrupted into what C gives. Schwartz5 has recently suggested that alterations and errors in G may be due not to a late humanist, but to a Carolingian "corrector."]

codd. = general consensus of MSS.

A text of Aetna, in view of the unsatisfactory evidence of the manuscripts, must be eclectic. Some passages are frankly matter for despair, and are incurable by the licence of emendation, or rather rewriting, in which Baehrens allowed himself to indulge. But there are other passages where p357Robinson Ellis' scholarship, ingenuity, and palaeographical knowledge enabled him to make conjectures of a high degree of probability. Many of these are here adopted.

The corrupt state of the tradition has necessitated what may appear to be a considerable apparatus criticus, but it does not profess to be exhaustive.

Note on C

The text in C is neatly, though often inaccurately, written on vellum as part of a miscellaneous volume which begins with a patristic comment on the story of the prodigal son and contains extracts from Ausonius among others, with the Culex immediately preceding the "Aethna" at the end. These poems are both ascribed to Virgil in the manuscript.

Bibliographical addendum (1982)

Aetna (with German translation), ed. W. Richter, Berlin 1963.

Aetna (introduction, text, apparatus, commentary, index verborum), ed. F. R. D. Goodyear, Cambridge 1956: text and apparatus reproduced in Appendix Vergiliana (OCT) pp37‑76, Oxford 1966.

Thayer's Note: The Bibliographical addendum remains under copyright (© Harvard University Press 1982). It is so brief as surely to fall under fair use.

The Author's Notes:

1 See J. Wight Duff, A Literary History of Rome in the Silver Age, 1927, pp338‑339.

2 See J. M. Stowasser, Zur Latinität des Aetna in Zeitschrift für d. oesterr. Gymn., 51 (1900), p385.

3 E. Bickel, Rhein. Mus. LXXIX.3 (1930).

4 e.g. on πνεῦμα (= spiritus) as a volcanic agent: cf. Aetna, 213, 344. Poseidonius (c. 130‑50 B.C.), born at Apamea in Syria, was a traveller of encyclopaedic knowledge, whose works are now lost. Apparent from eminent services to eclectic stoicism, he devoted much attention to physical science. A great authority on earthquakes and volcanoes, he is constantly quoted by Strabo (c. B.C. 63‑25 A.D.) in his Geography (see index to Loeb ed., vol. VIII). Seneca in the Nat. Quaest. often cites him and his pupil Asclepiodotus. For a full account of his influence on Aetna see Sudhaus' ed. pp59‑81.

5 ed. 1933, p8.

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