the Fourth Eclogue

fourth eclogue, Cumaean Sybil
the Cumaean Sybil

Around 40 years before the birth of Jesus, Virgil wrote his renowned fourth eclogue. The most well-known lines from that poem are:

[…]
Now the last age of the Cumaean prophecy has come.
The great cycle of eras will start anew.
At last, the Virgin returns, and so does the realm of Saturn.
A new generation will descend from heaven.
When the boy is born, under whom the iron race shall cease
and a golden breed will spring up throughout the world,
be kind to it, you pure light

[…}

When I first read those lines, I could well imagine that Christians interpreted them as an announcement of the advent of Jesus.

Christian writers on the fourth eclogue

In the third century, the writer Lactantius brought the fourth eclogue to Christian attention. In his book about the coming Kingdom of God, he quoted the following line from the poem: “the cattle will not fear the mighty lions“. He already knew that prediction from the Old Testament in which Isaiah prophesied about the Kingdom of God that “the lion will eat straw like the ox“. Lactantius did not yet claim though, that Virgil had predicted the coming of Jesus. He just used the similarities between Virgil and Isaiah to show that the Christian prophecy of the Kingdom of Peace was correct. He did not draw any further conclusions.

But a century later, Church Father Augustine did. In his Epistulae ad Romanos, he stated unequivocally that Virgil had announced Jesus’ advent in his fourth eclogue. In the Middle Ages, this view became so accepted that the Vatican decided to canonize the pagan poet Virgil. But was that justified? To answer that question, I want to examine four elements of the poem: the boy, the virgin, the cycle of eras, and the golden realm of Saturn.

the golden realm of Saturn

The Romans weren’t waiting for the Kingdom of God but for the golden realm of Saturn. Are those different names for the same concept, or did the Romans hope for something else? According to Roman mythology, Saturn once ruled the earth. But he was defeated by his son Jupiter, who then became the supreme god. The Romans, however, longed for the return of Saturn’s reign. Why?

The Roman writer Macrobius explained: “Saturn was born of heaven itself“, “there was abundance” “slavery was non-existent” and “all property was common“. Is that the Christian definition of the Kingdom of God? Maybe it was for the early Christians, but today “common property” rather refers to the ideology of Karl Marx, than to the Christian doctrine of salvation.

the cycle of eras

Like the Maya, the Romans believed that history was cyclical and would repeat itself over and over again. History started with Saturn’s golden age, the age of abundance. Then Jupiter came to power and the silver age began, in which man had to work for his food. Agriculture made its appearance. The silver age was followed by the bronze age. Weapons were forged from bronze and with them, the war entered our lives. The last era was that of the Romans themselves, the iron age they called it. It was during that period that crime arose.

The first stoics believed that the iron age would end in “ekpyrosis“: a fire that would devastate the universe. After that, the cycle would restart. The Romans abandoned that theory. Or actually, they renounced all cosmology. For them, the new cycle began with the birth of their Prince of Peace. But anyhow, ekpyrosis or not, the future Virgil predicted differs from the Christian worldview, since Christians believe that the coming Kingdom of God will be eternal.

the virgin

Just like the Christmas story, the fourth eclogue has a virgin. This virgin, however, doesn’t give birth to a son, but she returns. In Latin, her name was Virgo; in Greek Astraea. She was the goddess of justice and the last goddess to live among the people on Earth. Until the Iron Age, she managed to endure them. Then she fled, from all the crimes mankind committed. But after the end-time, she will return and the world will know righteousness again. At least, that’s how the Romans believed.

the boy of the fourth eclogue
the fourth eclogue, Titus Flavius Vespasianus, messiah
Josephus’ messiah

As mentioned, Christians identify the boy of the fourth eclogue with their messiah Jesus. They can do so because Virgil is not explicit about the nature of the child. The fourth eclogue does not even reveal whether the child was already born in his time. However, other Roman writers provide additional information about the coming “Prince of Peace”. Suetonius, for example, wrote that in Judea someone would arise who would assume world domination. Tacitus even mentioned a name. Or actually two: Emperor Vespasian and his son Titus.

Flavius ​​Josephus, a Jewish writer and priest – and one of the main characters in my novel The Third Temple – also stated that the messianic prophecy related to Emperor Vespasian. He did so in Bellum Iudaicum, his account of the Jewish war. He was somewhat biassed though since he had written the account in the commission of Vespasian.

Josephus wrote the passage while Vespasian was still alive. In my novel, Josephus’ insight continues to develop after Vespasian’s death. Based on the prophecies in the Torah, and some opportunism, he concludes that not Vespasian, but Titus is the Messiah. Not the old man, but the boy, as Virgil already wrote. And the boy also seems willing to build the third Jewish temple.