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