Publius Vergilius Maro (October 15, 70 BC – September 21, 19 BC), usually called Virgil in English, was an ancient Roman poet of the Augustan period. He is known for three major works of Latin literature, the Eclogues (or Bucolics), the Georgics, and the epic Aeneid. A number of minor poems, collected in the Appendix Vergiliana, are sometimes attributed to him.Virgil is traditionally ranked as one of Rome’s greatest poets. His Aeneid has been considered the national epic of ancient Rome from the time of its composition to the present day. Modeled after Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, the Aeneid follows the Trojan refugee Aeneas as he struggles to fulfill his destiny and arrive on the shores of Italy—in Roman mythology the founding act of Rome. Virgil’s work has had wide and deep influence on Western literature, most notably the Divine Comedy of Dante, in which Virgil appears as Dante’s guide through hell and purgatory.
Virgil seems to have suffered bad health throughout his life and in some ways lived the life of an invalid. According to the Catalepton, while in the Epicurean school of Siro the Epicurean at Naples, he began to write poetry. A group of small works attributed to the youthful Virgil by the commentators survive collected under the title Appendix Vergiliana, but are largely considered spurious by scholars. One, the Catalepton, consists of fourteen short poems, some of which may be Virgil’s, and another, a short narrative poem titled the Culex (“The Gnat”), was attributed to Virgil as early as the 1st century AD.
The biographical tradition asserts that Virgil began the hexameter Eclogues (or Bucolics) in 42 BC and it is thought that the collection was published around 39–38 BC, although this is controversial. The Eclogues (from the Greek for “selections”) are a group of ten poems roughly modeled on the bucolic hexameter poetry (“pastoral poetry”) of the Hellenistic poet Theocritus. After his victory in the Battle of Philippi in 42 BC, fought against the army led by the assassins of Julius Caesar, Octavian tried to pay off his veterans with land expropriated from towns in northern Italy, supposedly including, according to the tradition, an estate near Mantua belonging to Virgil. The loss of his family farm and the attempt through poetic petitions to regain his property have traditionally been seen as Virgil’s motives in the composition of the Eclogues. This is now thought to be an unsupported inference from interpretations of the Eclogues.
In Eclogues 1 and 9, Virgil indeed dramatizes the contrasting feelings caused by the brutality of the land expropriations through pastoral idiom, but offers no indisputable evidence of the supposed biographic incident. Readers often did and sometimes do identify the poet himself with various characters and their vicissitudes, whether gratitude by an old rustic to a new god (Ecl. 1), frustrated love by a rustic singer for a distant boy (his master’s pet, Ecl. 2), or a master singer’s claim to have composed several eclogues (Ecl. 5). Modern scholars largely reject such efforts to garner biographical details from fictive texts preferring instead to interpret the diverse characters and themes as representing the poet’s own contrastive perceptions of contemporary life and thought. Thematically, the ten Eclogues develop and vary pastoral tropes and play with generic expectations. Eclogues 1 and 9 address the land confiscations and their effects on the Italian countryside. 2 and 3 are highly pastoral and erotic, discussing love, both homosexual (Ecl. 2) and panerotic (Ecl. 3). Eclogue 4, addressed to Asinius Pollio, the so-called “Messianic Eclogue” uses the imagery of the golden age in connection with the birth of a child (who the child is has been highly contested). 5 and 8 describe the myth of Daphnis in a song contest, 6, the cosmic and mythological song of Silenus; 7, a heated poetic contest, and 10 the sufferings of the contemporary elegiac poet Cornelius Gallus.
Virgil is credited in the Eclogues with establishing Arcadia as a poetic ideal that still resonates in Western literature and visual arts and setting the stage for the development of Latin pastoral by Calpurnius Siculus, Nemesianus, and later writers.
Sometime after the publication of the Eclogues (probably before 37 BC), Virgil became part of the circle of Maecenas, Octavian’s capable agent d’affaires who sought to counter sympathy for Antony among the leading families by rallying Roman literary figures to Octavian’s side. Virgil seems to have made connections with many of the other leading literary figures of the time, including Horace, in whose poetry he is often mentioned, and Varius Rufus, who later helped finish the Aeneid.
At Maecenas’ insistence (according to the tradition) Virgil spent the ensuing years (perhaps 37–29 BC) on the longer didactic hexameter poem called the Georgics (from Greek, “On Working the Earth”) which he dedicated to Maecenas. The ostensible theme of the Georgics is instruction in the methods of running a farm. In handling this theme, Virgil follows in the didactic (instructive) tradition of the Greek poet Hesiod’s Works and Days and several works of the later Hellenistic poets.
The four books of the Georgics focus respectively on raising crops and trees (1 and 2), livestock and horses (3), and beekeeping and the qualities of bees (4). Significant passages include the beloved Laus Italiae of Book 2, the prologue description of the temple in Book 3, and the description of the plague at the end of Book 3. Book 4 concludes with a long mythological narrative, in the form of an epyllion which describes vividly the discovery of beekeeping by Aristaeus and the story of Orpheus’ journey to the underworld. Ancient scholars, such as Servius, conjectured that the Aristaeus episode replaced a long section in praise of Virgil’s friend, the poet Gallus, who was disgraced by Augustus and committed suicide in 26 BC. Augustus is supposed to have ordered the section to be replaced.
A major critical issue in considering the Georgics is the assessment of tone; Virgil seems to waver between optimism and pessimism, sparking a great deal of debate on the poem’s intentions. With the Georgics Virgil is again credited with laying the foundations for later didactic poetry. The biographical tradition says that Virgil and Maecenas took turns reading the Georgics to Octavian upon his return from defeating Antony and Cleopatra at the Battle of Actium in 31 BC.
The Aeneid is widely considered Virgil’s finest work and one of the most important poems in the history of western literature. Virgil worked on the Aeneid during the last eleven years of his life (29–19 BC), commissioned, according to Propertius, by Augustus. The epic poem consists of 12 books in dactylic hexameter verse which describe the journey of Aeneas, a warrior fleeing the sack of Troy, to Italy, his battle with the Italian prince Turnus, and the foundation of a city from which Rome would emerge. The Aeneid‘s first six books describe the journey of Aeneas from Troy to Rome.
Virgil made use of several models in the composition of his epic; Homer the preeminent classical epicist is everywhere present, but Virgil also makes especial use of the Latin poet Ennius and the Hellenistic poet Apollonius of Rhodes among the various other writers to which he alludes. Although the Aeneid casts itself firmly into the epic mode, it often seeks to expand the genre by including elements of other genres such as tragedy and aetiological poetry. Ancient commentators noted that Virgil seems to divide the Aeneid into two sections based on the poetry of Homer; the first six books were viewed as employing the Odyssey as a model while the last six were connected to the Iliad.
Book 1 (at the head of the Odyssean section) opens with a storm which Juno, Aeneas’ enemy throughout the poem, stirs up against the fleet. The storm drives the hero to the coast of Carthage, which historically was Rome’s deadliest foe. The queen, Dido, welcomes the ancestor of the Romans, and under the influence of the gods falls deeply in love with him. At a banquet in Book 2, Aeneas tells the story of the sack of Troy, the death of his wife, and his escape, to the enthralled Carthaginians, while in Book 3 he recounts to them his wanderings over the Mediterranean in search of a suitable new home. Jupiter in Book 4 recalls the lingering Aeneas to his duty to found a new city, and he slips away from Carthage, leaving Dido to commit suicide, cursing Aeneas and calling down revenge in a symbolic anticipation of the fierce wars between Carthage and Rome. In Book 5, Aeneas’ father Anchises dies and funeral games are celebrated for him. On reaching Cumae, in Italy in Book 6, Aeneas consults the Cumaean Sibyl, who conducts him through the Underworld where Aeneas meets the dead Anchises who reveals Rome’s destiny to his son.
Book 7 (beginning the Iliadic half) opens with an address to the muse and recounts Aeneas’ arrival in Italy and betrothal to Lavinia, daughter of King Latinus. Lavinia had already been promised to Turnus, the king of the Rutulians, who is roused to war by the Fury Allecto, and Amata Lavinia’s mother. In Book 8, Aeneas allies with King Evander, who occupies the future site of Rome, and is given new armor and a shield depicting Roman history. Book 9 records an assault by Nisus and Euryalus on the Rutulians, Book 10, the death of Evander’s young son Pallas, and 11 the death of the Volscian warrior princess Camilla and the decision to settle the war with a duel between Aeneas and Turnus. The Aeneid ends in Book 12 with the taking of Latinus’ city, the death of Amata, and Aeneas’ defeat and killing of Turnus, whose pleas for mercy are spurned. The final book ends with the image of Turnus’ soul lamenting as it flees to the underworld.
Unfortunately, some lines of the poem were left unfinished, and the whole was unedited, at Virgil’s death in 19 BC.
Virgil’s death and editing of the Aeneid
According to the tradition, Virgil traveled to Greece around 19 BC in order to revise the Aeneid. After meeting Augustus in Athens and deciding to return home, Virgil caught a fever while visiting a town near Megara. After crossing to Italy by ship, weakened with disease, Virgil died in Brundisium harbor on September 21, 19 BC. Augustus ordered Virgil’s literary executors, Lucius Varius Rufus and Plotius Tucca, to disregard Virgil’s own wish that the poem be burned, instead ordering it published with as few editorial changes as possible. As a result, the text of the Aeneid that exists may contain faults which Virgil was planning to correct before publication. However, the only obvious imperfections are a few lines of verse that are metrically unfinished (i.e., not a complete line of dactylic hexameter). Other alleged imperfections are subject to scholarly debate.
In the Middle Ages, Virgil’s reputation was such that it inspired legends associating him with magic and prophecy. From at least the 3rd century, Christian thinkers interpreted Eclogues 4, which describes the birth of a boy ushering in a golden age, as a prediction of Jesus’ birth. As such, Virgil came to be seen on a similar level as the Hebrew prophets of the Bible as one who had heralded Christianity.
Possibly as early as the second century AD, Virgil’s works were seen as having magical properties and were used for divination. In what became known as the Sortes Vergilianae (Virgilian Lots), passages would be selected at random and interpreted to answer questions. In the 12th century, starting around Naples but eventually spreading widely throughout Europe, a tradition developed in which Virgil was regarded as a great magician. Legends about Virgil and his magical powers remained popular for over two hundred years, arguably becoming as prominent as his writings themselves. Virgil’s legacy in medieval Wales was such that the Welsh version of his name, Fferyllt or Pheryllt, became a generic term for magic-worker, and survives in the modern Welsh word for pharmacist, fferyllydd.