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70-19 BC

Virgil, or Publius Vergilius Maro, was the greatest Roman poet. The Romans regarded his "Aeneid," published 2 years after his death, as their national epic.


Virgil's life spans the bloody upheavals of the last decades of the violent Roman civil war (133-31 B.C.) and the first years of the era of order, stability, and peace created by Augustus (the grandnephew and adopted son of Julius Caesar, he succeeded him in power at Rome). Virgil's contemporary poets were the lyricist and satirist Horace and the writers of elegy Tibullus, Propertius, and Ovid. Together they are known as poets of the Golden Age of Latin literature, or more simply, as Augustans. Augustus, the first emperor of Rome, realized the propaganda value of literature, and so he cultivated writers, encouraged them to eulogize his new regime, and subsidized them if necessary. Of all the Augustans, Virgil was the most laudatory of the Emperor's achievements. It is impossible to understand the Aeneid without an awareness of the political situation of the period.

Virgil was born on Oct. 15, 70 B.C., at Andes near Mantua in Cisalpine Gaul (modern Mantova, 20-25 miles southwest of Verona) of humble parentage. His father, either a potter or a laborer, worked for a certain Magius, who, attracted no doubt by the intelligence and industry of his employee, allowed him to marry his daughter, Magia. Because the marriage improved his position, Virgil's father was able to give his son the education reserved for children of higher status. Virgil began his study in Cremona, continued it at Milan, and then went on to Rome to study rhetoric, medicine, and mathematics before giving himself to philosophy under the tutelage of Siro the Epicurean. His education prepared him for the profession of law (the alternative was a military career), but he spoke only once in court. He was shy, retiring, and of halting speech - no match physically, temperamentally, or by inclination for the aggressively articulate Roman lawyers who had inherited Cicero's mantle.

Virgil returned from Rome to his family's farm near Mantua to spend his days in study and writing and to be near his parents. His father was blind and possibly ailing. His mother had lost two other sons, one in infancy, the other at the age of 17. When Virgil's father died, she remarried and bore another son, Valerius Proculus, to whom Virgil left half his fortune.

The minor poems ascribed to Virgil, known generally as the Appendix Vergiliana, belong, perhaps, to this youthful period of his life. Their authenticity is in doubt, however, and only a few can be considered genuine.

In appearance Virgil was tall and dark, his face reflecting the rural peasant stock from which he came. His health was always uncertain. Horace tells us that on a journey to Brundisium in 37 B.C., he and Virgil were unable to join their fellow travelers in their games for he had sore eyes and Virgil was suffering from indigestion. Poor health and his shy nature and love of study made him a recluse. He preferred to be away from Rome, and when he was compelled to go there and was recognized and hailed on the streets, he would flee for refuge into the nearest house.

The farm of Virgil's father was among the land confiscated as payment for the victorious soldiers of the Battle of Philippi (42 B.C.). But Augustus restored the farm to the family. Virgil then rendered thanks to young Caesar in his first Eclogue. He dedicated his earliest Eclogues to Asinius Pollio and mentioned Alfenus Varus in the ninth, where the evils of land confiscation are referred to, to thank them for their help as well.

The final phrase of the epitaph on Virgil's supposed tomb at Naples runs "cecini pascua, rura, duces (I sang of pastures, of sown fields, and of leaders)." This summarizes the progression from Eclogues to Georgics to Aeneid (which appeared in that order) and, as has been said, "proposes a miniature of the evolution of civilization from shepherds to farmers to warriors." This sequence also shows a progression in genre from pastoral to didactic poetry to epic.

Pastoral Poems

The Eclogues (this, the more usual title, means "Select Poems"; they are also known as Bucolics, or "Pastorals") were written between 42 B.C. and 37 B.C. These 10 poems, songs of shepherds, all about 100 lines long, were written in hexameters and modelled on the pastoral poems, or Idylls, of Theocritus of Syracuse, a Greek poet of the early 3d century B.C. who created the genre. The poems are highly artificial and imitative. The natural landscape amid which these unlikely shepherds sing of unhappy loves or engage in singing contests is an idealized one of perennial sunny Italian early afternoon. Artificial though these poems are, Virgil's own deep love of nature keeps them from falling into brittle preciosity.

Eclogue 4, the so-called Messianic Eclogue, is the best known. Written in 40 B.C., during the consulship of Pollio, Virgil's benefactor a year or two previously, it hails the birth of a baby boy who will usher in a golden age of peace and prosperity in which even nature herself will participate. The golden age is the new era of peace for which Augustus was responsible, and the child is thought to be the expected offspring of Augustus and Scribonia (the infant turned out to be a girl).

The similarity of language in the poem to that of the Book of Isaiah gave rise to the idea, in the early Christian period, that the fourth Eclogue was indeed a prophecy of the birth of Christ. The similarity may be due to the fact that Jewish ideas spread over Italy in the second half of the first century B.C., and Virgil may have used his acquaintance with them to express the Roman equivalent of a Messianic expectation.

The Georgics ("Points of Farming"), a didactic poem in hexameters in four books, was written from 37 B.C. to 30 B.C. Book 1 treats the farming of land; book 2 is about growing trees, especially the vine and the olive; book 3 concerns cattle raising; and 4, beekeeping. Virgil's acknowledged model is the Works and Days of the Greek poet Hesiod, but Virgil's debt to him is not great. He consulted many other sources, particularly Lucretius, whose poem De rerum natura ("On the Nature of the Universe") had demonstrated that a didactic theme could make inspiring poetry. But Virgil was not confined to handbooks and treatises for information about agriculture. He was of farming stock, and both knew much and cared deeply about rural life.

Virgil's attitude toward nature is altered from that of the Eclogues. Now there is more than happy delight in fields and streams and woods. The poet, still drawn to philosophy (which at the time included what we call science), seeks to understand nature through scientific principles. Failing that, however, he can rest content with a simple love of the beauty of nature.

Poetry as Propaganda

Much, if not most, of the Georgics is boring to the modern reader, who cares little for detailed instructions on plow making, the sowing and tending of crops, winter chores, cattle diseases, and so on (an exception is the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice). But the work, a kind of realistic pastoral, spoke to feelings deep in the hearts of Romans. Small farmers, who, thrifty and hardworking, embodied the ideals of the Roman Republic, had been driven off their land by capitalistic landowners or else were unwilling to live on it as tenants. They migrated to Rome, where they swelled the ranks of the "mob" and added to the general turbulence and unrest. For Romans sickened by years of death and violence, it must have been consoling to become absorbed in a work which offered detailed instructions for pursuing a way of life considered ideal which was now all but lost.

The work was not intended as escapist literature, however, for Augustus wanted to restore or re-create small farms - a way of depopulating Rome - and tried to revive interest in agriculture. Maecenas, his friend and adviser, had urged Virgil to compose the Georgics (the poem is dedicated to him). Virgil was not undertaking hack work, however, when he complied with Maecenas's request. He sincerely believed in Augustus as the bringer of peace and order to Italy. His praise of the Emperor in the Georgics is almost worshipful. Augustus's agricultural program coincided happily with Virgil's own feelings about rural life and his love for Italy. It was a fortuitous conjunction of the conviction of a poet and a national need for its expression. When Virgil completed the Georgics, he read them aloud to Augustus in 4 days, spelled occasionally by Maecenas.

The Aeneid

The Aeneid is one of the most complex and subtle works ever written. An epic poem of about 10, 000 lines composed in graceful and flowing hexameters and divided into 12 books, it tells of the efforts of the Trojan hero, Aeneas, to find a new homeland for himself and his small band of followers, from the time he escapes from burning Troy until, "much buffeted on land and sea … much, too, having suffered in war, " he founds, in Italy, Lavinium, parent town of Rome.

Shortly after Actium, the final battle of the Roman civil war 31 B.C., Augustus, the victor, was looking for a poet who could give to his accomplishments their proper literary enhancement in an epic poem. This was not megalomania on Augustus's part but an established instrument of public relations. Literature was a means of enlisting support for a new regime.

Maecenas offered the commission to Propertius and to Horace, both of whom declined as graciously as possible. Virgil also declined at first. These poets were not against Augustus, but a historical epic posed a difficult problem. Neither the political nor the moral issues of the past 30 years were well defined. Neither side in the civil war had a monopoly on right. Unqualified and uncritical praise of Augustus in a historical epic would have lacked credibility, and these three poets knew it.

Virgil had been less reluctant than the other two and found, through his imagination, a solution. His epic of Augustan Rome would be cast in mythological form, making use of the legend of the founding of Rome by Aeneas, a Trojan hero mentioned by Homer, who, tradition held, escaped from Troy and came to Italy. Virgil's models were the Iliad and the Odyssey of Homer. The first six books, narrating the wanderings of Aeneas, draw material from the Odyssey; the last six, narrating the warfare in Italy which was waged by Aeneas and his followers to establish themselves there, have the Iliad as their model.

Modern readers, unacquainted with the nature of ancient literature, might view this as dull imitation if not downright plagiarism. Such a conclusion is wrong. A Roman writer always looked to the appropriate Greek models before composing something of his own. Originality was displayed technically in the use of language and by means of metrical virtuosity and poetic devices. Also, the manipulation of themes and motifs, images and symbols allowed a poet to create significance and meaning, to make his own statement. Virgil was not a Roman Homer. His artistic purpose was different.

The Aeneid can be divided into two parts of six books each or into three parts of four books each. Books 1-4, organized around Aeneas's narration of the destruction of Troy and his wanderings, have Carthage as their dramatic setting; 5-8 are an interlude between the drama of 1-4 and 9-12, the story of the fighting in Italy. Moreover, the even-numbered books are highly dramatic, while the odd-numbered books reflect a lessening of tension and have less dramatic value.

An Evaluation

Modern interpreters of the Aeneid are not inclined to view the epic simply as a patriotic poem glorifying Rome through the accomplishments of its stalwart hero, pious Aeneas, who embodies the character of Augustus and the quintessential spirit of Rome. Love and glorification of Rome and its mighty empire as well as admiration of Augustus are certainly present (book 6, Anchises' revelation of the future greatness of Rome; book 8, the description of Aeneas's shield on which are engraved scenes from Roman history). But there also runs through the Aeneid a constant undercurrent of awareness of the human cost of Aeneas's undertaking, that is, of the cost of building Rome's empire. This awareness reflects the moral ambiguities surrounding the new regime. Augustus established a much-needed peace and restored order after years of disruption, but his hands were just as bloody as those of anyone else.

Virgil, the most melancholy of Roman poets, saw the life of his time in all its complexity, saw the "tears of things, the human situation which touches the heart, " to paraphrase his most famous line ("sunt lacrimae return et mentem mortalia tangunt"). In the course of the epic, Aeneas, while steadily growing more responsible and more devoted to his great mission, loses, nevertheless, every human tie except that to his son, to whom he is not particularly close. As he advances in pietas, the quality of devotion to duty valued so highly by the Romans, he loses his humanness. He becomes an entirely public man; there is no space in his heart for private feelings or human love.

The last statement has one exception. A modern critic has drawn attention to an important theme of the poem, the subduing of the demonic, represented as furor or ira, "madness" or "wrath, " whether on the cosmic level, as in Juno; the natural level, as in the storm in book 1; or the human level, as in Dido, Amata, or Aeneas himself in book 2. Pietas, especially in Aeneas, seems slowly to subdue the forces of madness and wrath. Yet, in the final lines of the poem, Aeneas, "inflamed by madness and wrath" ("furilis accensus et ira"), in revenge for the death of Pallas, kills Turnus although he had heard the admonition of his father in the underworld to "spare those at your mercy." Lust for vengeance, then, is the only human feeling that remains in the hero, and this passage can be interpreted as a sad commentary on the demands made on Aeneas by his mission. One may note, too, that the final book ends with a death, as do so many of the others. As a recent critic says, "It is this perception of Roman history as a long Pyrrhic victory of the human spirit that makes Virgil his country's truest historian."

Last Years

Virgil worked on the Aeneid for the last 11 years of his life. The composition of it, from a prose outline, was never easy for him. Augustus once wrote to ask to see part of the uncompleted work. Virgil replied that he had nothing to send and added, "I have undertaken a task so difficult that I think I must have been mentally ill to have begun it."

In 19 B.C. Virgil resolved to spend 3 more years on his epic after taking a trip to Greece, perhaps to check on some details necessary for his revision. At Megara he contracted a fever and became so ill that he returned to Brundisium, where he died on September 21. He left instructions that the Aeneid should be burned, but Augustus countermanded them and ordered Various and Tucca, two friends of the poet, to edit it for publication. It appeared in 17 B.C.










This web page was last updated on: 31 December, 2008