Guns, Germs, and Stealing a Continent

Friday, November 4, 2022

5:00 pm


Internal Event

The Poetics of First Contact and Contagion in Fracastoro's Syphilis, Sive Morbus Gallicus

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Zoom link will be sent out via the Classics listserv two days in advance. Contact the EO Prof. Rachel Kousser at with any questions.

Visiting Assistant Professor (and alumnus) Mike Goyette, Eckerd College

This presentation will examine the Renaissance Italian polymath Girolamo Fracastoro’s three-book Latin epic Syphilis, Sive Morbus Gallicus (1530), which theorizes about the origins, transmission, progression, and treatment of syphilis. Written shortly after the time the disease became known to Europeans, this dactylic hexameter poem also contains what may be the earliest representation in European poetry of Indigenous Peoples of the Americas. After providing an overview of the text and its literary, historical, and medical contexts, I will perform a close reading of one passage (Bk 3.141-215), which relates the arrival of Columbus and crew on the island now known as Hispaniola. This fascinating passage, which has previously received very little scholarly attention, depicts the Europeans impulsively shooting their firearms at a flock of parrots immediately upon reaching the new continent, narrated with allusions to classical epic (e.g. the Harpies episode in Book III of Vergil’s Aeneid and the Cyclops episode in Book IX of Homer’s Odyssey). I argue that this passage utilizes these intertextual references, along with metaphors of contagion, to interrogate the ethics of this first instance of gun violence in the “New World” and imperialistic conduct more generally in both ancient and contemporary contexts. While shedding light on how a Neo-Latin poet could engage with the earlier classical tradition, this analysis will offer insight into the complex interrelationship between colonialism, cultural violence, and contagion, or what M.B. Campbell has described as the “epidemiology of conquest”, in the context of Fracastoro’s work and Renaissance understandings of disease transmission.