The Sortes Vergilianae : A Philological Study
Abstract: This study discusses the sortes Vergilianae, which are commonly defined as a form of ancient divination practiced by randomly finding a verse in a volume of Virgil. The practice of sortes Vergilianae has been described as widespread in antiquity. However, the one attestation of the phrase sortes Vergilianae and only examples of the prophetic use of Virgil are found in the complicates late 4th-century work Historia Augusta, a collection of vitae of emperors and pretenders. There are instances said to describe the sortes Vergilianae, found in the vitae of Hadrian, Pescennius Niger, Clodius Albinus, Alexander Severus, and Claudius Gothicus. In the present study these passages are discussed and interpreted intertextually within the Historia Augusta, but also other works, especially Virgil. There is also an overlap in the use of certain verses from Virgil with Christian sources, such as Augustine. This study argues that the instances of prophetic verses from Virgil in the Historia Augusta cannot be regarded as proof of Virgilian divination in antiquity. Instead, it is suggested that the sortes Vergilianae are not an ancient form of divination, but rather a complex literary game. Virgil’s verses are invoked, both with an understanding of the original context, by fashioning the verses into new narratives by reinterpretation and by alluding to other uses of the same verses in other contexts, much like in the genre of the cento.The so-called sortes Homericae, divination with verses from Homer, are also examined to identify possible influence. Also, the sortes Biblicae, the use of the Scripture for the same purpose, are studied, especially passages in Augustine. The study ends with an overview of the afterlife of the sortes Vergilianae. The redefinition of sortes Vergilianae in the renaissance, when the phrase became connectied with book, is outlined. The evolution of the phrase sortes Vergilianae is followed from antiquity and onwards.
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