BORN: 70 BCE, Andes, Cisalpine Gaul
DIED: 19 BCE, Brundisium, Italy
Eclogues (42-37 BCE)
Georgics (37-30 BCE)
The Aeneid (31-19 BCE)
Vergil, or Virgil (both spellings are considered correct), was a Roman poet who wrote chiefly in the epic genre. His poems, written as the Roman republic was collapsing and the Roman Empire was taking shape under Augustus, reflect the concerns of his day as well as broader human emotions. They remain widely studied and admired both for their technical ability and thematic content.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Pastoral Beginning Publius Vergilius Maro was born on October 15, 70 BCE at Andes, in Cisalpine Gaul (now a part of northern Italy), thereafter a province in the expanding Roman Empire. His mother was the daughter of the small landowner who employed Vergil’s father, Maro, a day laborer. The couple’s marriage elevated Maro’s social status, possibly enhancing the quality of his son’s education. The boy received elementary schooling in Mantua and then studied rhetoric in Rome and philosophy under the Epicurean philosopher Siro in Naples. Vergil planned to practice law but proved too shy to speak comfortably in public.
Restoration of the Family Farm. Returning to the small family farm his mother and father operated, he studied and wrote poetry until, in 41 BCE, the land was confiscated to compensate retiring soldiers. Friends urged Vergil to appeal to Octavian (known as Augustus after 27 BCE), Julius Caesar’s adopted son and eventual successor. Octavian restored the farm—perhaps, scholars speculate, because he was impressed by Vergil’s work—but the poet soon moved to Naples.
Success in Naples. While in Naples, between 42 and 37 BCE, he composed the Eclogues, whose title means ‘‘Selections.’’ These ten poems, also referred to as the Bucolics, depict shepherds singing of unhappy loves in an idealized landscape, no doubt influenced by the rural region in which he grew up. Their publication attracted widespread praise and the sponsorship of Octavian’s friend, the art patron Maecenas. Maecenas allegedly prevailed upon Vergil to compose his next work, the Georgies, as an agricultural paean to persuade Romans, then deserting the countryside in large numbers, to return to farming. Written in Naples between 37 and 30 BCE, the Georgies, or ‘‘Points of Farming,’’ consists of four books that offer instruction in grain production, the cultivation of trees and vineyards, animal husbandry, and beekeeping. The work further enhanced Vergil’s reputation upon its appearance in 29 BCE. Octavian, to whom Vergil read the completed poem, honored him with two villas and a generous stipend, and Octavian’s friends asked Vergil to compose an epic honoring the emperor.
Deathbed Request Goes Unmet. This project, which became The Aeneid, occupied the last ten years of Vergil’s life. According to several of his friends, he first drafted the epic in prose, then laboriously reworked it in verse. Composition was slow and revision constant; Vergil responded to one of Augustus’s many inquiries about the poem’s progress by asserting that he ‘‘must have been just about mad to attempt the task.’’ When he left Naples in 19 BCE to gather new material in Greece and Asia Minor, he planned to devote another three years to revisions, but caught fever at Megara and died soon after returning to Italy. His deathbed request was that his companions burn The Aeneid. However, Augustus countermanded the request, asking Vergil’s friends, the writers Varius Rufus and Plotius Tucca, to edit the manuscript but specifying that they neither add, delete, nor alter significantly. Published in 17 BCE, the epic’s resounding success assured Vergil’s fame. More manuscripts of Vergilian works exist today than of any other classical author.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Vergil's famous contemporaries include:
Augustus Caesar (63 BCE-14 CE): Born Gaius Octavius, grand nephew and adopted heir of Julius Caesar, Augustus rose to become the first Roman emperor.
Cleopatra VII (69 BCE-30 BCE): Hellenistic ruler of Egypt, Cleopatra was the last in a centuries-long dynasty of Greek-speaking pharaohs tracing their lineage back to the conquests of Alexander the Great.
Wang Mang (45 BCE-23 CE): Wang Mang led a palace coup in China, installing himself as emperor of the newly proclaimed Xin dynasty in place of the ruling Han dynasty, though his success was short-lived.
Strabo (64 BCE-24 CE): A Greek academic specializing in history, philosophy, and geography. His seventeen-volume Geographies described the peoples and history of the known world at the time.
Horace (65-8 BCE): Considered by his contemporaries and later historians as one of the greatest Latin poets, Quintus Horatius Flaccus specialized in lyric poetry and coined many famous Latin phrases such as earpe diem (''seize the day'').
Works in Literary Context
Considered the greatest of Roman poets, Vergil is acclaimed for transforming the Greek literary traditions that provided Roman writers with material, themes, and styles. Latin authors, Joseph Farrell explains, were fully expected to imitate their Hellenic (Greek) precursors, and Vergil’s three major works adapt the characteristics of numerous Greek models, although particular influences predominate. Vergil’s pastoral poem, the Eclogues, is modeled after Theocritus’s Idylls.; his poetic treatise on the significance of human labor, the Georgies, after Hesiod’s Works and Days; and his epic poem of Augustan Rome, the Aeneid, after Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. However, Farrell and numerous critics agree that surpassing the Greeks was far more esteemed than merely emulating them, and Vergil, synthesizing a more diverse array of literary examples than other Latin poets, reworked Hellenic influences so completely that he supplanted them.
Vergil’s literary developments include populating a more idealized pastoral setting with contemporary figures, synthesizing vivid description with philosophical inquiry, increasing grammatical complexity, and enhancing psychologically realistic characterization. These technical innovations have informed all subsequent literature, yet Vergil is equally noted for his awareness of the uncertainties specific to the times in which he lived, as well as those inherent in the human condition. In addition, his work offers an insightful perspective on the anxieties of empire during the Augustan age.
The National Epic. The Aeneid was composed at least in part to celebrate and promote the rebirth of the Roman way of life under Augustus. The epic poem also universalizes Roman experience, ideals, and aspirations. Critics have praised Vergil’s ability to adapt a variety of traditions, motifs, ideas, and literary techniques to suit his poetic intentions in the work. As scholars have maintained, he forged a characteristically Roman epic from such disparate sources as archaic myths and mysteries, Homeric epic poetry, ancient beliefs such as reincarnation, and Stoic precepts. What makes The Aeneid so eminently Roman is its pervasive spirit of Augustan patriotism and imperialism, expressed through the idea of pietas, which, although formally denoting religious respect, in practice describes Augustus’s strategy of using religion, history, and morality to create a Roman national identity with himself at the center.
Scholars have also carefully studied the formal structures of Vergil’s epic. For example, Brooks Otis divides The Aeneid into symmetrical halves, each corresponding to one of Homer’s epics. Thus, in the first six books, Aeneas’s journey to what will eventually be Rome parallels Odysseus’s homeward journey, while the last six books recount a Latin inversion of the Trojan War: the Greeks fought to destroy a city, while the Trojans fight to found one. This structural reading also supports the perception of some critics for whom the first six books constitute a spiritual journey that matures Aeneas so that he can lead the battles of Books VII-XII. Another popular approach to the epic’s structure proposes that the books of the poem are alternately lighter and darker in tone. Viktor Poschl and George Duckworth perceive the poem as divided into three segments of four books each. The first four books they see as dark; the middle four, light; and the last four, dark. Such an interpretation of the poem’s structure reinforces the critics’ view of Vergil’s attitude toward Augustan Rome—both believe that he stresses its human costs and moral ambiguity.
Poetic Innovations. Vergil is credited with significantly refining narrative technique in The Aeneid. A characteristic reworking of Homeric episodes consists in shifting from an objective tone to the subjective perception of his characters. In addition to contributing to psychologically credible characterization, this narrative procedure enabled the poet to introduce ironic contrasts between different characters’ interpretations of a particular event, and between the reader’s wider and the characters’ more limited knowledge. Vergil is also noted for developing the dactylic hexameter (a line consisting of six feet, with a predominance of dactyls—a long syllable and two short syllables), a typically Greek meter that such early Roman poets as Ennius used with questionable success, into an outstanding instrument of Latin poetry. Vergil was able to do this without unduly complicating his syntax, which generally remains straightforward.
Legacy Endures after Rome Falls. Immensely popular in Augustan Rome, Vergil’s poems became part of the standard curriculum in Roman schools within fifty years of his death, ensuring the production of numerous copies. After the collapse of the western Roman Empire in the fifth century CE, Vergil’s works remained accessible to scholars through numerous manuscripts copied in monasteries throughout Christendom during the early Middle Ages. In particular, the surge of scholarly interest in classical literature during the reign of Holy Roman emperor Charlemagne (800-814) produced numerous cursive copies, many annotated and elaborately illustrated. Collectively, the four most reliable codices, so considered because they are the oldest, provide complete copies of Vergil’s three major works; they are preserved in the Vatican library and the Church of San Lorenzo in Florence.
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
The Aeneid is one of the great poetic national epics; other such works, that succinctly encapsulate the spirit and outlook of a people in verse form, include:
The Kalevala. Passed down via oral tradition for centuries, this national epic of Finland was compiled and put into print in the nineteenth century by Elias Lonnrot. Its length (more than twenty-two thousand verses) and narrative depth made an immediate impact on students of folklore and mythology; J. R. R. Tolkien claimed it as an inspiration for developing his own mythology for Middle Earth.
The Song of Roland. First appearing in the twelfth century and in other forms over the following two centuries, this epic poem of France describes the historical exploits, recast in a legendary, mythological mode, of Charlemagne and his paladin Roland, who fought a doomed battle against Spanish Moors. The poem's popularity was such that it launched an entirely new literary genre, the chanson de geste (''song of heroic deeds'').
Mabinogion. A collection of prose and poetry, drawn from both oral and written sources, this is the medieval Welsh folkloric tradition encapsulated in a single volume. There is evidence that certain details may be rooted in pre-Christian, Iron Age society.
Beowulf. Dating from between the eighth and eleventh century, this Anglo-Saxon epic poem is the oldest work of English literature. Despite the fact that it describes events in the Saxon homeland of Scandinavia and Germany, it is often called England's national epic.
Works in Critical Context
Although critical reception of Vergil’s works has fluctuated over the centuries, his themes and techniques have influenced virtually all subsequent Western literature, with Dante Alighieri, Geoffrey Chaucer, Edmund Spenser, John Milton, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Matthew Arnold numbering among his prominent heirs. As centuries have widened the gulf between the present and pagan antiquity, scholars have increasingly appreciated the encyclopedic description of Greco-Roman culture Vergil’s poetry provides.
The Aeneid. Even in his own lifetime, Vergil’s poetry had become a school text. Early Christian writers who attempted to reject Vergil could escape neither his style nor his attitudes. Christian thought assimilated them both. The Aeneid and the Bible were arguably the two most consistently read books in Western Europe for two thousand years. In that time, The Aeneid has been a pagan bible, a Latin style manual, a moral allegory, a document of European unity, a pacifist document—and one of the most-read and most-studied works of world literature of all time.
The Georgies. Joseph Farrell has deemed the Georgies the most allusive poem of antiquity, and, though Hesiod’s Works and Days is Vergil’s most commonly cited model (perhaps because Vergil characterized his poem as ‘‘a Hesiodic song for Roman cities’’), the influences of the De Rerum Natura of Lucretius, the Odyssey and the Iliad of Homer, the De Re Rustica of Varro, and the Phaenomena of Aratus are also significant.
The Georgics is widely considered the most polished of Vergil’s works; John Dryden, who translated all of Vergil’s works, called it ‘‘the best poem of the best poet.’’ In the view of L. P. Wilkinson, ‘‘The Georgics is, in fact, the first poem in all literature in which description may be said to be the chief raison d’etre and source of pleasure.’’
Responses to Literature
1. Define the difference between folk and literary epics. Into which category would you place The Aeneid ? Why?
2. Roman civilization was strongly associated with the city, yet poets like Vergil were fond of writing about rural settings, describing them in the highest terms. Why do you think this was the case? Can you draw any parallels to our own modern, urban society?
3. Why do you think Vergil chose Aeneas as a hero for Romans to look up to? What was the significance of his Trojan heritage, and of his activities after the Trojan War? What were the personal traits of Aeneas that Romans might have looked up to?
4. How did the ongoing political situation during Vergil’s lifetime affect his composition of The Aeneid? Was the work meant to stand above current politics, or did it address contemporary issues?
Bloom, Harold, ed. Virgil. New York: Chelsea House, 1986.
Commager, Steele, ed. Virgil: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1966.
Frank, Tenney. Vergil: A Biography. New York: Russell & Russell, 1965.
Knight, W. F. Jackson. Vergil, Epic and Anthropology. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1967.
Williams, R. D. Virgil: His Poetry through the Ages. London: British Library, 1982.
Dictionary of Literary Biography Vol. 211: Ancient Roman Writers. Edited by Ward W. Briggs. A Bruccoli Clark Layman Book. Detroit: Gale, 1999.