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VERGIL (also spelled Virgil; Publius Vergilius Maro; 7019 bce) was born in Andes, near Mantua, and educated in Cremona and Milan before coming to Rome. His youthful poems include Catalepton 5 and 8. After publication of the Eclogues in about 39 to 38 bce, he joined the literary circle of Maecenas, the close friend and ally of Octavian (the future Augustus).

Vergil's early poems reflect his Epicurean orientation, and evidence of his participation in the Epicurean community at Naples is found in a papyrus from Herculaneum, where he is mentioned by name (Gigante, 1983). The Eclogues reflect the turbulence during the civil wars following the death of Julius Caesar, the defeat of the tyrannicides, and the narrow avoidance of war between Octavian and Antony by the signing of the Treaty of Brundisium. In Eclogue 4, Vergil celebrates this treaty, proclaiming that an unnamed child is about to be born, and his birth will usher in a new Golden Age. Vergil's Golden Age in the fourth Eclogue resembles that of Hesiod, where little human effort is required, but Hesiod's negative connotation of decline is reversed by Vergil's proclamation that the Golden Age is about to return. The idea that it can recur is linked with a Sibylline prophecy of the "final age" before a new cycle of ages begins again. The role of Dikē (Justice) and agriculture derives from Aratus's version (Phaenomena 96136); that Apollo will rule this age is consistent with Augustus's coming religious renewal. The theme of the Golden Age appears again in the Georgics, where Vergil says that Jupiter deliberately brought an end to the inertia characteristic of the Hesiodic Golden Age and imposed labor (toil) on mortals so that they could develop skills and intelligence. Vergil here develops the idea that a new Golden Age will be based on agriculture rather than leisure. In the Aeneid he says that Saturnus brought a Golden Age to Italy, where it was enjoyed by the Latin people but was lost through war. Jupiter prophesies it will recur under the rule of Augustus (Johnston, 1980).

Scholars have tried in vain to identify the child with whose birth the new Golden Age will begin. Candidates have included a child of Mark Antony, of Augustus, or of Pollio (for identifications, see Coleman, 1977; and Clausen, 1994). Christians associated it with Isaiah 7:14 and 9:67, a theme supported by the Jewish associations of Pollio, the poem's dedicatee. References to Sibylline oracles, the return of Virgo (Justice), and other references in the poem were given biblical interpretations. Lactantius interpreted the poem as a prophecy of the birth of the Christ child, and Vergil was thus viewed as a "pre-Christian" and "a vehicle of divine inspiration" (Tarrant, 1997). The emperor Constantine, who had been associated earlier with the reference to Apollo in Ecclesiastes 4:10, accepted this reading, although saints Jerome and Augustine rejected it (Clausen, 1994, pp. 119129). The messianic or Christian interpretation reigned through the nineteenth century despite scholars such as Christian Gottlob Heyne, who rejected it (1767). Eduard Norden (1924) connected the poem with Egyptian and Middle Eastern theology and rituals of Helios (December 25; which H. J. Rose associated with Apollo) and of Aion (January 6, formerly the winter solstice). Günther Jachmann (1952) argued that the child was meant to be a symbol of the new age.

At the end of the Republic, a prevailing attitude of neglect toward the gods caused great concern among intellectuals and leaders. Julius Caesar, and then Augustus, engaged in a series of religious reforms. Augustus was concerned with maintaining the traditional values of an agricultural society in the new Rome; he did not return to such republican practices as auguries and prodigies, which had been abused, but focused on reforms in Roman private religion, such as developing the priesthood of the Fratres Arvales (Arval brothers), and restoring neglected rites as well as the temples of the gods. Particularly important is the cult of Apollo, who, before the time of Augustus, was worshiped outside the pomerium with other foreign gods; under Augustus his temple was placed in the heart of the city on the Palatine Hill. Vergil's Georgics (completed in 29 bce and read by Vergil to Augustus), a poem on the art of agriculture, invokes the gods of the countryside as well as the deities whom Augustus elevates.

Vergil's Aeneid

The Aeneid (published by Varius after Vergil's death in 19 bce) tells of the fall of Troy and the search by the surviving Trojans, led by Aeneas, to found a new homeland. The poem embodies the religious motifs of Vergil's earlier works: the struggles (labores ) necessary to build a new society, embodied in the suffering of Aeneas, who was later depicted on the Ara Pacis as a heroic founder figure, like Romulus. In the poem Aeneas, whose regular epithet is pius (pious), is the embodiment of pietas (piety, which many medieval readers interpreted as "pity" and hence interpreted his killing of Turnus as a lack of pietas ). Aeneas's piety is reflected in his religious attitude, in his patriotic mission, and in his relations with his father, son, and companions as he labors selflessly to fulfill the commands of the gods and to found a new home for his people and his family. The motifs of the loss and promised return of a Golden Age are prominent, particularly in the second half of the poem, in the prophecies of the gods that such an age will recur under Augustus, and in the revelation that the Latin race, which once enjoyed such an age, lost it through the madness of war.

In the Aeneid fate and the gods provide divine machinery that advances the plot: Aeneas is driven by his destiny or fate to found a new civilization, and the anthropomorphized gods aid him in his pursuit of that destiny. Although his destiny is fixed, Aeneas's mortal failings threaten to undermine his pursuit of that goal, as when he is motivated to die in battle in Book 2 or when he is tempted to remain at Carthage with Dido in Book 4. Jupiter, who to some degree is the personification of fate, serves throughout the poem as the final power who resolves conflicts between other gods who oppose what fate has ordained. Venus, mother of Aeneas, supports his quest, and Juno, for a variety of reasons, opposes it. The deities participating in the action include Greco-Roman gods, particularly Apollo (who is closely associated with Augustus and Actium) and Herakles (who serves as a model for Aeneas and for Augustus), as well as Eastern deities (Cybele) and indigenous deities (Faunus, Tiber-god, and Portunus). For Aeneas, as representative of the Trojans, prayer and ritual are constant concerns. This is reflected throughout the poem, as when the Trojans arrive at or depart from Thrace, Delos, Actium, and Castrum Minervae; after visions of the Penates, Anchises's ghost, and the Tiber-god; at signs from Venus; when Aeneas's ships are converted into nymphs; and in the honors he pays to the dead.

The underworld in Book 6 of the Aeneid

Aeneas enters the underworld at Lake Avernus in Cumae, guided by the Cumaean Sibyl, after performing funeral rites for Misenus and obtaining the Golden Bough, required for passage into the underworld. His descent to the underworld to consult with his deceased father, Anchises, is the main theme of Book 6. Vergil's underworld is more complex than previous accounts. Whereas Homer's Odysseus goes only to the entrance, Aeneas descends through each level until the road diverges, one leading to Tartaros, the lowest level, which he is not permitted to enter (the sinners and their punishments are described by the Sibyl), and one leading to Elysium, a locus amoenus (a pleasant place), thus providing the first distinction in destinies according to the manner in which one has lived one's life.

Vergil describes the levels of the underworld, beginning with the evil shapes and spirits at the entrance, which are harmless. On one side of the River Acheron huddle the dead who have not been properly buried. After crossing the river, they confront the dog Kerberos, then those who have died prematurely, including Dido. Next he sees Trojans and Greeks who died at Troy, and finally he comes to the parting of the ways, which leads him to Elysium, where he meets with Anchises and beholds the future heroes of Rome. His departure from the underworld, through the gates of ivory, is mysterious because Vergil says that falsa insomnia (false dreams) pass through these gates (6.896), as opposed to the "true dreams," which pass through the alternate gates of horn.

Vergil as a Suitable model For Christian Speculations until Dante

By the fourth century ce Vergil had become the common property of pagans and Christians. Not only were his works central to literary education, but the themes of his worksthe miraculous child of the fourth Eclogue as a prophecy of the birth of Christ, the reading of the first half of the Aeneid as an allegory for the progress of the soul to maturity, and Vergil's description of the underworld in Book 6were seen as suitable models for Christians. Like the Cumaean Sibyl guiding Aeneas through the underworld, Vergil guides Dante Alighieri to the brink of Paradiso, which he is not permitted to enter because, having lived before the time of Christ, he cannot be a Christian. Vergil leads the way to a Christian era and represents the imperial values that a Christian must leave behind.

See Also

Afterlife; Descent into the Underworld; Fate; Golden Age; Roman Religion; Sibylline Oracles.


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Courcelle, Pierre. Lecteurs païens et lecteurs chrétiens de l'Enéide. Rome, 1984.

Enciclopedia virgiliana. Rome, 19841991. Includes several articles pertaining to religion, including articles on deities, festivals, heroes, and forms of piety.

Galinsky, Karl. Augustan Culture: An Interpretive Introduction. Princeton, N.J., 1996.

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Patricia A. Johnston (2005)

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