What leaf-fringed legend haunts about thy shape
Of deities or mortals, or of both,
In Tempe or the dales of Arcady?
John Keats, Ode on a Grecian Urn
‘Arcadia…was still practically impenetrable at the beginning of the [20th] century. Travellers ventured there only in the company of a courier (or dragoman) who supplied guides, mounts, and food… The secondary roads are hardly more than tracks…
The real Arcadia is a wild country with an austere, impressive, earthly beauty chilled by long icy winters —a frightening labyrinth of mountains rent by ravines and precipices at the bottom of which waterways flow untamed.’
Jean-Louis Vaudoyer, in Doré Ogrizek’s Greece, McGraw-Hill, 1955.
We may with confidence, if not certainty, say that Virgil never ascended into Arcadia. It was an unforgiving place in Roman times, and to some degree it still is: mysterious, certainly, isolated on its plateau in the centre of the Peloponnese: the home of Pan and the birthplace of Mercury, whom ‘fair Maia brought forth on the frozen peak of Mt Cyllene.’* The inhabitants—in their uncouth dialect—said they had been born before the moon; and popular legend made them so primitive that they lived on acorns. Music, and that alone, people said, mitigated their hard life.
Virgil’s Arcadia as a land of idyll has little to do with the actual place. It is of his own imagining, and he seems to be its author. Robert Coleman makes this clear in his note on Eclogue VII.4, where the two shepherds, Corydon and Thyrsis, are
ambo florentes aetatibus, Arcades ambo.
Coleman points out that ‘this is the earliest reference to Arcady in connection with the pastoral myth’.
Theocritus had set his idylls variously in southern Italy, on the island of Cos and especially in Sicily. But Virgil needed a place more inaccessible, which Arcadia certainly was. Professor Coleman concludes that Virgil’s Arcadia is ‘not therefore just a remote region of the Peloponnese glamourized by the poetic imagination, but a truly ideal pastoral world, based to be sure upon elements in the various traditions regarding the actual Arcadia and its inhabitants, yet ultimately detached from any specific reality and enjoying an independent existence of its own.’
Arcadia was to be an ideal place, which people might identify with landscapes of their own memory or imagination.
- Vergil, Eclogues, ed. Robert Coleman, CUP 1977.
- Richard Jenkyns, Virgil and Arcadia, Journal of Roman Studies, November 1989.