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Virgil

Virgil

Virgil (70-19 B.C.), 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 modeled 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.

Further Reading

Biographies of Virgil are Tenney Frank, Vergil (1922), and F. J. H. Letters, Virgil (1946). Among the many studies of Virgil's work are W. F. Jackson Knight, Roman Vergil (1944); Viktor Pöschl, The Art of Vergil: Image and Symbol in the Aeneid (1962); Brooks Otis, Virgil: A Study in Civilized Poetry (1963); Michael C. J. Putnam, The Poetry of the Aeneid (1965); Kenneth Quinn, Virgil's Aeneid: A Critical Description (1968); Donald R. Dudley, ed., Virgil, in the series Studies in Latin Literature and Its Influence (1968); W. S. Anderson, The Art of the Aeneid (1969); and Michael C. J. Putnam, Virgil's Pastoral Art (1970). Steele Commager, ed., Virgil: A Collection of Critical Essays (1966), offers a variety of views on the poet's life and work.

See also the discussion of Virgil by C. M. Bowra in From Virgil to Milton (1945) and by Robert Graves in On Poetry: Collected Talks and Essays (1969). Useful background works are Gilbert A. Highet, The Classical Tradition (1949), and R. R. Bolgar, The Classical Heritage and Its Beneficiaries (1954). □

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Virgil

Virgil

Born: October 15, 70 b.c.e.
Andes, Italy
Died: September 21, 19 b.c.e.
Brundisium, Italy

Roman poet

Virgil, or Publius Vergilius Maro, is regarded as one of the greatest Roman poets. The Romans regarded his Aeneid, published two years after his death, as their national epic (a long poem centered around a legendary hero).

Early years and education

Virgil was born on October 15, 70 b.c.e., at Andes near Mantua in Cisalpine Gaul (modern Mantova, 20 to 25 miles southwest of Verona, Italy) of humble parentage. His father, either a potter or a laborer, worked for a certain Magius, who, attracted 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 in Milan, and then went on to Rome to study rhetoric (the study of writing), medicine, and mathematics before giving himself to philosophy (the study of knowledge) under 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 speechno match for the aggressive, well-spoken lawyers of the Roman court.

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 dying. His mother had lost two other sons, one in infancy, the other at the age of seventeen. When Virgil's father died, she remarried and bore another son, Valerius Proculus, to whom Virgil left half his fortune.

In appearance Virgil was tall and dark, his face reflecting the rural lower-class stock from which he came. His health was never strong. Horace (658 b.c.e.) tells us that on a journey to Brundisium in 37 b.c.e., 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, or one who withdraws from the world.

The farm of Virgil's father was among the land confiscated (forcefully taken) as payment for the victorious soldiers of the Battle of Philippi (42 b.c.e.). But Augustus (63 b.c.e.14 C. E.) restored the farm to the family. Virgil then rendered thanks to young Caesar in his first Eclogue.

The final phrase of the epitaph (etching on a tombstone) 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."

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.e. and 37 b.c.e. These ten poems, songs of shepherds, all about one hundred lines long, were modeled on the pastoral poems, or Idylls, of Theocritus of Syracuse (c. 310250 b.c.e.). Eclogue 4, the so-called Messianic Eclogue, is the best known. Written in 40 b.c.e., during the temporary rule of Pollio (76 b.c.e.4 C. E.), Virgil's benefactor (one who gives financial aid) 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 Georgics ("Points of Farming"), a didactic (intended to instruct) poem in four books, was written from 37 b.c.e. to 30 b.c.e. 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 Book 4, beekeeping.

The Aeneid

The Aeneid is one of the most complex and subtle works ever written. An epic poem of about ten thousand lines and divided into twelve 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 he founds Lavinium (in Italy), the parent town of Rome.

Shortly after Actium, the final battle of the Roman civil war 31 b.c.e., Augustus, the victor, was looking for a poet who could give to his accomplishments their proper literary enhancement in an epic poem. Maecenas (c. 708 b.c.e.) offered the commission to Propertius and to Horace, both of whom declined as graciously as possible. 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 (ninth or eighth century b.c.e.), who, tradition held, escaped from Troy and went to Italy. Virgil's models were the Iliad and the Odyssey of Homer.

The Aeneid can be divided into two parts of six books each or into three parts of four books each. Books 1 through 4, organized around Aeneas's narration of the destruction of Troy and his wanderings, have Carthage as their dramatic setting; Books 5 through 8 act as entertainment between the drama of 1 through 4 and 9 through 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.

Last years

Virgil worked on the Aeneid for the last eleven years of his life. The composition of it, from a prose (writing) outline, was never easy for him. Augustus once wrote asking 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.e. Virgil resolved to spend three 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 refused and ordered Various and Tucca, two friends of the poet, to edit it for publication. It appeared in 17 b.c.e.

For More Information

Gale, Monica. Virgil on the Nature of Things. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Levi, Peter. Virgil: His Life and Times. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999.

Wright, David H. The Roman Vergil and the Origins of Medieval Book Design. London: British Library, 2001.

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Virgil (70 B.C.–19B.C.)

Virgil (70 b.c.19 b.c.)

Ancient Latin poet of Italy whose epic The Aeneid described the mythological founding of Rome, and whose works provided the writers of the Renaissance with their most respected poetic model from the classical world. Born as Publius Vergilius Maro, a descendant of barbarian Celts, he was raised in a small town near Verona, the son of a laborer who managed to give his son a good education. As a young man Virgil made his way to the capital, where he studied rhetoric and philosophy. Although trained to practice law, he was too bashful to make a good impression as a speaker, an essential ingredient for a successful public career in ancient Rome. Instead he turned to books, study, and the writing of poetry.

When his family's farm was confiscated by the Roman government as a reward for its victorious soldiers, the emperor Augustus intervened and returned the property. In thanks for this action, Virgil wrote the Eclogues, a group of ten poems that celebrate nature and the serene life of shepherds and the countryside. In the four books of the Georgics, Virgil describes in great detail the life and the labor of farmers, modeling his writings on the Works and Days of Hesiod, an ancient Greek poet.

The Aeneid, an imposing monument of ancient literature, was written by Virgil on a commission from Augustus for a historical work that would celebrate his own accomplishments in establishing the new empire of Rome. The poem describes the voyages and the battles of the hero Aeneas, a Trojan who wanders the Mediterranean in search of a new home for his defeated companions. Virgil based the twelve books of his epic on the Iliad and the Odyssey of Homer. He began work in 30 b.c. and continued for the last eleven years of his life, leaving the work unfinished at his death in 19 b.c. Although he ordered the entire poem to be burned, Augustus instead had the poem published in 17 b.c. The Aeneid was soon acclaimed as one of the great works of Roman literature, an honor it maintained through the Renaissance and still holds today.

The poem was well known to the manuscript copyists of medieval Europe, where the Aeneid was often used as a book of divination. Dante Alighieri, in The Divine Comedy, made Virgil his own guide to the circles of Hell and Purgatory. Virgil was studied in universities and was a subject of debate and commentary by scholars, philosophers, and poets, who held up The Aeneid as a model of classical clarity and perfection of form.

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Virgil

Virgil (70–19 bc), Roman poet. He wrote three major works: the Eclogues, ten pastoral poems, blending traditional themes of Greek bucolic poetry with contemporary political and literary themes; the Georgics, a didactic poem on farming, treats the relationship of human beings to nature, and the Aeneid is an epic poem about the Trojan Aeneas.

Virgil was highly regarded in the Middle Ages (see Maro, Prophet of the Gentiles). In Dante's poem Virgil guides the poet through Hell and Purgatory.
Virgilian lots a method of divination by selecting a passage of Virgil at random in the sortes Virgilianae (see sortes).

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Virgil

Virgil (70–19 bc) ( Publius Vergilius Maro) Roman poet. Virgil gained a high literary reputation in Rome with the Eclogues (42–37 bc) and the Georgics (37–30 bc), a pastoral but instructive work on farming and country life. His greatest work was the Aeneid, which established him as an epic poet. It relates the adventures of the Trojan hero Aeneas, and echoes the themes of Homer's Odyssey and Iliad. Unfinished at his death, it was published at the command of Emperor Augustus.

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Virgil

Virgil: see Vergil.

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Virgil

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