Vergilius Maro (October 15, 70 BC – September 21, 19 BC), later
called Virgilius, and known in English as Virgil or Vergil, was an ancient
Roman poet, the author of the Eclogues, the Georgics and the Aeneid,
the last being an epic poem of twelve books that became the Roman Empire's
national epic. A fictional depiction of Virgil was Dante's guide through
Hell and Purgatory in Dante's epic poem The Divine Comedy.
Virgil was born in the village of Andes, near Mantua in Cisalpine Gaul
(Gaul south of the Alps; present-day northern Italy). Virgil was of
Celtic and non-Roman Italian ancestry.
Virgil received his first education at 5 years old. He later went to
Rome to study rhetoric, medicine, and astronomy, which he soon abandoned
for philosophy. In this period, while Virgil was in the school of Siro
the Epicurean, he began to write poetry. A group of small but great
poems attributed to the youthful Virgil survive, but are largely considered
spurious. 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 mosquito), was attributed to Virgil as early as the 1st
century AD. These dubious poems are sometimes referred to as the Appendix
In 42 BC, after
the defeat of Julius Caesar's assassins, Brutus and Cassius, the demobilized
soldiers of the victors settled on expropriated land and Virgil's estate
near Mantua was confiscated. Virgil explores the various emotions surrounding
these appropriations and other aspects of rural life in the Eclogues,
his earliest poetry first published in the mid-30's BC. A number of
the eclogues, notably the second, but also the third, the fifth, the
seventh and the tenth, touch on the topic of love between males, often
of a pederastic nature. Ancient writers assumed that the character of
Corydon in the second eclogue, lover of Alexis, represented Virgil himself,
and Alexis represented Alexander, a slave given to Virgil by Pollio.
The theme of pederastic love was later also taken up in his epic poem
in the story of Nisus and Euryalus. Modern scholars largely reject the
effort to seek to identify him with characters in his poetry and thus
to garner further biographical details from his own life.
Virgil soon became
part of the circle of Maecenas, Octavian's capable agent d'affaires
who sought to counter sympathy for Mark Antony among the leading families
by rallying Roman literary figures to Octavian's side. He gained many
connections with other leading literary figures of the time, including
Horace and Varius Rufus (who later helped finish the Aeneid). After
the Eclogues were completed, Virgil spent the years 37 BC–29 BC
on the Georgics ("On Farming"), which was written in honor
of Maecenas, and is the source of the expression tempus fugit ("time
flies"). However, Octavian, who had defeated Antony at the Battle
of Actium in 31 BC and upon whom the title "Augustus" had
been bestowed four years later by the Roman Senate, was already pressing
Virgil to write an epic to praise his regime.
the Aeneid and death
A mosaic of Virgil, in a Tunisian villa probably from the 1st century
AD.Virgil responded with the Aeneid, the writing of which took up the
last ten years of his life. The first six books of the epic tell how
the Trojan hero Aeneas escapes from the sacking of Troy and makes his
way to Italy. On the voyage, a storm drives him to the coast of Carthage,
where the queen, Dido, welcomes him, and under the influence of the
gods falls deeply in love with him. Jupiter recalls Aeneas to his duty,
however, and he slips away from Carthage, leaving Dido to commit suicide,
cursing Aeneas as revenge. On reaching Cumae, in Italy, Aeneas consults
the Cumaean Sibyl, who conducts him through the Underworld and reveals
his destiny to him. Aeneas is reborn as the creator of Imperial Rome.
The six books (of
"first writing") are modeled on Homer's Odyssey, but the last
six are the Roman answer to the Iliad. Aeneas is betrothed to Lavinia,
daughter of King Latinus, but Lavinia had already been promised to Turnus,
the king of the Rutulians, who is roused to war by the Fury Allecto.
The Aeneid ends with a single combat between Aeneas and Turnus, whom
Aeneas defeats and kills, spurning his plea for mercy.
with Augustus to Greece. En route, Virgil caught a fever, from which
he died in Brundisium harbor, leaving the Aeneid unfinished. 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.
Incomplete or not,
the Aeneid was immediately recognized as a masterpiece. It proclaimed
the imperial mission of the Roman Empire, but at the same time could
pity Rome's victims and feel their grief. Dido and Turnus, who are both
casualties of Rome's destiny, are more attractive figures than Aeneas,
whose single-minded devotion to his goal may seem almost repellent to
the modern reader. However, at the time Aeneas was considered to exemplify
virtue and pietas (roughly translated as piety, though the word is far
more complex and has a sense of being duty-bound and respectful of divine
will, family and homeland). Nevertheless, Aeneas struggles between doing
what he wants to do as a man, and doing what he must as a virtuous hero.
In the view of some modern critics, Aeneas' inner turmoil and shortcomings
make him a more realistic character than the heroes of Homeric poetry,
such as Odysseus.
Later views of
Even as the Roman empire collapsed, literate men acknowledged that the
Christianized Virgil was a master poet, even when they ceased to read
him. Gregory of Tours read Virgil and some other Latin poets, though
he cautions us that "We ought not to relate their lying fables,
lest we fall under sentence of eternal death." Surviving medieval
collections of manuscripts containing Virgil's works include the Vergilius
Augusteus, the Vergilius Vaticanus and the Vergilius Romanus.
Dante made Virgil
his guide to Hell and Purgatory in The Divine Comedy. Dante also mentions
Virgil in De vulgari eloquentia, along with Ovid, Lucan and Statius
as one of the four regulati poetae (ii, vi, 7).
Virgil is still
considered one of the greatest of the Latin poets, and the Aeneid is
a fixture of most classical studies programs.
Mysticism and hidden
A 5th century portrait of Virgil from the Vergilius Romanus.In the Middle
Ages, Virgil was considered a herald of Christianity for his Eclogue
4 verses (PP Ecl.4) concerning the birth of a boy, which were read as
a prophecy of Jesus' nativity. The poem may actually refer to the pregnancy
of Octavian's wife Scribonia, who in fact gave birth to a girl.
Also during the
Middle Ages, as Virgil was developed into a kind of magus, manuscripts
of the Aeneid were used for divinatory bibliomancy, the Sortes Virgilianae,
in which a line would be selected at random and interpreted in the context
of a current situation (Compare the ancient Chinese I Ching). The Old
Testament was sometimes used for similar arcane purposes. Even in the
Welsh myth of Taliesin, the goddess Cerridwen is reading from the "Book
of Pheryllt"—that is, Virgil.
In some legends,
such as Virgilius the Sorcerer, the powers attributed to Virgil were
far more extensive.
The tomb known as "Virgil's tomb" is found at the entrance
of an ancient Roman tunnel (also known as "grotta vecchia")
in the Parco di Virgilio in Piedigrotta, a district two miles from old
Naples, near the Mergellina harbor, on the road heading north along
the coast to Pozzuoli. The site called Parco Virgiliano is some distance
further north along the coast. While Virgil was already the object of
literary admiration and veneration before his death, in the following
centuries his name became associated with miraculous powers, his tomb
the destination of pilgriimages and pagan veneration. The poet himself
was said to have created the cave with the fierce power of his intense
It is said that
the Chiesa della Santa Maria di Piedigrotta was erected by Church authorities
to neutralize this pagan adoration and "Christianize" the
site. The tomb, however, is a tourist attraction, and still sports a
tripod burner originally dedicated to Apollo, bearing witness to the
Pagan beliefs held by Virgil.
Virgil's name in English
In the Middle Ages "Vergilius" was frequently spelled "Virgilius."
There are two explanations commonly given for the alteration in the
spelling of Virgil's name. One explanation is based on a false etymology
associated with the word virgo (maiden in Latin) due to Virgil's excessively
"maiden"-like (parthenias or pa?????a? in Greek) modesty.
Alternatively, some argue that "Vergilius" was altered to
"Virgilius" by analogy with the Latin virga (wand) due to
the magical or prophetic powers attributed to Virgil in the Middle Ages.
In an attempt to reconcile his pagan background with the high regard
in which medieval scholars held him, it was posited that some of his
works metaphorically foretold the coming of Christ, hence making him
a prophet of sorts. This view is defended by some scholars today, namely
Richard F. Thomas of Harvard.
In Norman schools
(following the French practice), the habit was to anglicize Latin names
by dropping their Latin endings, hence "Virgil."
In the 19th century,
some German-trained classicists in the United States suggested modification
to "Vergil," as it is closer to his original name, and is
also the traditional German spelling. Modern usage permits both, though
the Oxford Style Manual recommends Vergilius to avoid confusion with
the 8th-century Irish grammarian Virgilius Maro Grammaticus.
The greatest Roman
poet, called by Tennyson "wielder of the stateliest measure ever
moulded by the lips of man." Virgil is known for his epic, the
AENEID (written about 29 B.C.E., unfinished), which had taken as its
literary model Homer's epic poems Iliad and Odyssey. The tale depicts
Aeneas's search for a new homeland and his war to found a city. This
archetypical character was given much later form in those Western heroes
familiar from the books of Owen Wister and Louis L'Amour.
"It is easy
to go down into Hell; night and day, the gates of dark Death stand wide;
but to climb back again, to retrace one's steps to the upper air - there's
the rub, the task." (from Aeneid)
Virgil was born on October 15, 70 B.C.E., in Northern Italy in a small
village near Mantua - probably but not certainly the modern Pietole.
Virgil was no Roman but a Gaul - the village was situated in what was
then called Gallia Cisalpina - Gaul this side of the Alps. Publius Vergilius
Maro, or Virgil, grew up to be hailed as the greatest Roman poet. And
although his work has influenced Western literature for two millennia,
little is known about the man himself. His father was a prosperous landowner,
described variously as a "potter" and a "courier",
who could afford a thorough education for the future poet. This Virgil
received. He attended school at Cremona and Mediolanum (Milan), then
went to Rome, where he studied mathematics, medicine and rhetoric, and
finally completed his studies in Naples. He entered literary circles
as an "Alexandrian," the name given to a group of poets who
sought inspiration in the sophisticated work of third-century Greek
poets, also known as Alexandrians. In 49 BC Virgil became a Roman citizen.
Lucretius influenced his way of thinking, but his early poems were written
in the tradition of Theocritus.
After the battle
of Philippi in 42 B.C.E., Virgil’s property in Cisalpine Gaul,
or else his father's, was confiscated for veterans. "I leave my
father's fields and my sweet ploughlands, / an exile from my native
soil," wrote Virgil later in ECLOGUES. According to some sources
the property was afterwards restored at the command of Octavian (later
styled Augustus). In the following years Virgil spent most of his time
in Campania and Sicily, but he also had a house in Rome. During the
reign of emperor Augustus, Virgil became a member of his court circle
and was advanced by a minister, Maecenas, patron of the arts and close
friend to the poet Horace. Maecenas was twice left in virtual control
of Rome when the emperor was away. He gave Virgil a house near Naples.
Between 42 and 37
B.C.E. Virgil composed pastoral poems known as BUCOLIC or Eclogues ('rustic
poems' and 'selections'), spent years on the GEORGICS (literally, 'pertaining
to agriculture'), a didactic work on agriculture, and the cultivation
of the olive and vine, the rearing of livestock, and beekeeping. The
work took as its model Works and Days by the Greek writer Hesiod, who
had composed it around 700 BC. Eclogues was a huge success, and in its
famous 'Messianic Eclogue' he prophesied the new Golden Age. "The
great cycle of the ages is renewed. Now Justice returns, returns the
Golden Age; a new generation now descends from on high." (this
was interpreted in the Middle Ages as a prophecy of the birth of Christ.
Dante cites the lines in The Divine Comedy). In the poem, according
to some interpretations, the shepherd lad who dies is probably Julius
Caesar. Of the two contrasting characters, Tityrus and Meliboeus, the
former was long considered Virgil in disguise.
In 31 B.C.E. Octavian
won the Battle of Actium against his former ally Mark Anthony, who had
a liaison with the Egyptian queen Cleopatra, and by 29 the way to power
was open to him. In 27 BC he was given the title of Augustus ('venerable').
He pressed his poet to write of the glory of Rome under his rule. "I
found Rome brick and I left it marble," he said according to Suetonius.
Thus the rest of his life, from 30 to 19 B.C., Virgil devoted to The
Aeneid, the national epic of Rome, and the glory of the Empire. Although
ambitious, Virgil was never really happy about the task. Moreover, he
was a perfectionist, who knew the importance of his work, and did not
want to hurry with his lines. A contemporary poet, Propertius, acknowledged
this - perhaps ironically - with the lines: "Make way, Greek and
Roman writers! Something greater than the Iliad is being born."