|Virgil (70-19 BCE)|
| Roman poet, author
of the masterpiece the Aeneid, the most influential work of literature produced
in ancient Rome.
Virgil was born Publius Vergilius Maro in Andes, a village in northern Italy near Mantua. His father was a farmer. Virgil was thoroughly educated in Greek and Roman literature, rhetoric, and philosophy in the Italian cities of Cremona, Milan, Rome, and Naples. The patronage of Roman statesman Gaius Maecenas relieved him of financial cares and allowed him to devote himself wholly to literary pursuits and to study. He spent the greater part of his life at or near Naples and Nola, numbering among his intimate friends his patron Maecenas; Octavian, who became Emperor Augustus during Virgil's lifetime; and many prominent poets, among them Gaius Cornelius Gallus, Horace, and Lucius Varius Rufus. In 19 BC Virgil set out on a trip to Greece and Asia with the intention of revising his masterpiece, the Aeneid, already substantially completed, and then of devoting the remainder of his life to philosophical study. He met Augustus in Athens, Greece, and returned with him to Italy. Virgil was taken ill before leaving Athens and died shortly after his arrival at Brundisium (now Brindisi, Italy). On his deathbed Virgil gave instructions that the Aeneid should be destroyed but, by Augustus's order, the poem was edited and published after Virgil's death by Roman poets Varius Rufus and Plotius Tucca.
The Appendix Vergiliana, a collection of minor poems, was attributed in antiquity to Virgil. The collection includes short epics (Ciris, Culex), elegies (Lydia, Copa), a didactic poem on volcanism (Aetna), and a group of short poems called the Catalepton, or Poems in a Trifling Vein. The poems are written in the erudite, or learned, innovative style that is characteristic of the poets of the Hellenistic Age (4th century to 1st century BC), many revealing the influence of Roman poet Catullus and his school of poets. The authenticity of the collection, however, is disputed by modern scholars. Some of the poems, especially a few of the Catalepton that deal with the life of Virgil, may be youthful works of his. The Aetna is generally dated in the 1st century AD.
In 37 BC Virgil completed his first major work, the ten Eclogues, or Bucolics, pastoral poems modeled on the Idylls of Alexandrian poet Theocritus. Virgil preserved the pastoral style of his predecessor, such as the good-natured banter of the shepherds and their love songs, dirges, and singing matches, but he gave the Eclogues an original and more national character by introducing real persons and events into the poems and by referring through allegory to other persons and events. The famous fourth Eclogue celebrates the birth of a child who is destined to usher in a new Golden Age of peace and prosperity. This tale may have been Virgil's allusion to an expected child of Mark Antony and Octavia, the sister of Augustus, or the child in the poem may simply have been a symbol for the dawning age. During the later Roman Empire (3rd century AD to 5th century AD) and Middle Ages (5th century to 15th century AD), the poem was regarded as a prophecy of the coming of Jesus Christ.
The Georgics, or Art of Husbandry, a poem in four books on the life of the farmer, was written from 36 to 29 BC. It drew inspiration from the Works and Days of Greek poet Hesiod. The poem exhibits the highest artistic perfection to be found in Latin poetry, and its publication confirmed Virgil's position as the foremost poet of the age. Although ostensibly a treatise on agriculture, the Georgics is in fact a celebration of country life and of Italy. The poem was designed to be universal in scope, as evidenced by the topics of war, peace, death, and resurrection, which respectively conclude each of the four books.
Virgil devoted his last ten years to the composition of the Aeneid, a mythological epic in 12 books describing the seven-year wanderings of the hero Aeneas from the fall of Troy to his military victory in Italy. Aeneas escaped from Troy carrying his aged father on his shoulders and leading his young son Ascanius by the hand. He assembled a fleet and sailed the eastern Mediterranean Sea with the surviving Trojans to Thrace, Crete, Epirus, and Sicily before being shipwrecked on the coast of Africa. Here Dido, queen of Carthage, fell in love with Aeneas and was driven to suicide on his subsequent departure.
After landing at the mouth of the Tiber River in Italy, Aeneas killed Turnus, king of the Rutulians, in a war for the hand of Lavinia, princess of Latium. According to Virgil, the Romans were directly descended from Ascanius, the founder of Alba Longa, mother city of Rome.
The Aeneid's style and treatment are derived from the ancient Greek epics attributed to Homer, the Iliad and the Odyssey. Virgil also was influenced in part by the epic poem Argonautica by Greek poet Apollonius of Rhodes and by the Annales of Roman poet Quintus Ennius, who was the first to introduce dactylic hexameter into Latin epic verse. In the Aeneid, Virgil developed both the music and the technical precision of this meter, or rhythmic pattern, so subtly that his verse has been considered a model of literary perfection ever since.
The Aeneid is usually considered the first great literary epic, in contrast to the Iliad, which is constructed with literary artistry but remains in essence a work of oral poetry. The Aeneid, unlike the Iliad or the Bible, is not an inherited part of a national consciousness but rather a deliberate attempt by Virgil, at the request of Augustus, to glorify Rome by celebrating the supposed Trojan origin of its people and, particularly, the achievements and ideals of Rome under its new ruler. The historical and Augustan elements are especially prominent in books five through eight, the central portion of the poem. Because of its ambitious designs, the smooth beauty of its style, and its deep humanity, however, the Aeneid achieves universal scope.
The Aeneid became a classic in its own day. During the Middle Ages, philosophical meanings were read into it, and Virgil was thought to be a seer, or prophet, and a magician. Italian poet Dante Alighieri took Virgil as his guide through the first part of the Divine Comedy (completed 1321), and English poet Geoffrey Chaucer told part of the story of the Aeneid in his House of Fame (1386?) In the 16th century, English poet Edmund Spenser in The Faerie Queene (1589) was indebted to Virgil for his conception of the epic as a national poem. Virgil's style and technique of versification influenced English poets John Milton, in the 17th century, and Alfred, Lord Tennyson, in the 19th century.