Other Literary Forms
Vergil’s greatness stems from his poetic works.
Vergil is considered by many to be the greatest poet of ancient Rome, and his influence reaches well into the modern era of Western poetry. Vergil mastered three types of poetry: pastoral (Eclogues), didactic (Georgics), and national epic (Aeneid). This mastery is reflected in the final words of his epitaph, “cecini pascua, rura, duces” (“I sang of shepherds, farmlands, and national leaders”). Vergil’s fame was assured even in his own lifetime, as Tibullus, Sextus Propertius, and Horace praised and emulated him. His harshest critic was himself, and it was his dying wish that the unfinished Aeneid be destroyed. The Emperor Augustus himself intervened, however, and the poem was rescued and edited by Varius and Tucca in 17 b.c.e. The works of Vergil influenced Ovid and Marcus Manilius, and Vergil’s epic craft established a tradition which was followed by Lucan, Statius, Silius Italicus, and Valerius Piaccus. Writers of satire, epigram, and history, such as Juvenal, Martial, Livy, and Tacitus, also show the influence of Vergil’s thought, language, and prosody. The first critical edition of the Aeneid, the work of Probus, appeared in the time of Nero, and the Verona scholia also record interpretations based on editions by Cornutus, Velius Longus, and Asper in the late second century c.e. By this time, the poetry of Vergil had become a school manual, used for teaching grammar, rhetoric, and language.
In the fourth and fifth centuries c.e., Nonius and Macrobius discussed and quoted the works of Vergil. The tradition of centos soon arose, in which poets employed clever rearrangements of lines of Vergilian poetry to create poems with new meanings. The admiration of Vergil’s works eventually approached a kind of worship, with the superstitious practice of consulting random lines of his poetry as one might consult an oracle.
Dante and John Milton both studied Vergil, and their great epics owe much to his works, especially the Aeneid. John Dryden called the Georgics “the best poems of the best poet”; Alfred, Lord Tennyson, described Vergil’s hexameters as “the stateliest measures ever moulded by the lips of man.”
Vergil’s achievement is therefore enormous. He raised the dactylic hexameter to new levels of grandeur, he elevated the Latin language to new beauty, and he set new standards for three types of poetry. Perhaps his greatest achievement lies in the vision of the imperial grandeur of Rome depicted in the Aeneid.
Publius Vergilius Maro was born on October 15, 70 b.c.e., in Andes, an Italian town located near present-day Mantua. He was not born to Roman citizenship, but the franchise was later granted to his native province. His early education took place at Cremona and at Mediolanum, now called Milan. Like most promising young men of his era, Vergil eventually made his way to Rome, where he studied philosophy, rhetoric, medicine, and mathematics; he also completed preparation for the legal profession, although he spoke only once as an advocate. At this time, he also made the acquaintance of the poets who remained from Catullus’s circle and absorbed from them the Alexandrian ideals of poetry. In 41 b.c.e., the farm belonging to Vergil’s family was confiscated and given to the soldiers of Mark Anthony. According to tradition, this personal catastrophe, referred to in eclogues 1 and 9, was remedied by Octavian himself (after 23 b.c.e., the Emperor Augustus) in response to a personal appeal by Vergil, but many scholars believe the loss of the farm was permanent; the references in the Eclogues are subject to interpretation. It was during this period, from about 43 to 37 b.c.e., that Vergil wrote the ten Eclogues, working first in Northern Italy and later in Rome. The success of the Eclogues resulted in an introduction to Maecenas, Octavian’s literary adviser, and this personal connection assured financial support for Vergil’s literary activities and provided an entrée into the circle of Rome’s best writers and poets.
In 38 or 37 b.c.e., Vergil met the great Roman poet Horace and arranged for Horace to meet Maecenas. It was at this time that the two poets and their colleagues, Varius and Tucca, participated in the famous journey to Brundisium described in Horace’s Satires (35, 30 b.c.e.). From that point on, Vergil lived and wrote in Southern Italy, at a country house near Nola and at Naples. From 37 to 29 b.c.e., he worked slowly on the Georgics, a didactic poem in four books which instructs the reader in various aspects of agriculture and animal husbandry. Finally, in 29 b.c.e., Vergil began his greatest undertaking, the Aeneid, an epic poem which describes the journey of the hero, Aeneas, from the ruins of Troy to the west coast of Italy; in the poem, Aeneas’s son Iulus is linked to the Julian clan from which the Emperor Augustus claimed descent. The writing of this poem also proceeded laboriously. In 19 b.c.e., Vergil embarked on a journey to Greece and the East, during which he hoped to polish and revise his epic. During his journey, he fell ill at Megara; shortly after reaching Brundisium, the port city on the east coast of Italy which serves as the gateway to Greece, he died. He was buried at Naples, and his dying request for the unrevised Aeneid to be destroyed was fortunately countermanded by the orders of Augustus.
Little is known of the character of Vergil, except that he was a shy and reclusive man who never married. He was also of weak physical constitution, often ill. The main source of information about Vergil’s life and character is the biography by Aelius Donatus, from the fourth century.
In order to understand more fully the poetry of Vergil, his works should be considered in the light of two relationships: his literary connection with the Greek poetry on which his works are modeled, and his personal and ideological connection with the builders of the Roman Empire. Vergil, like most Roman artists, worked within genres invented by the Greeks, but he also left on his works a uniquely Roman imprint. It was his great genius that he was able to combine both Greek and Roman elements so effectively.
Vergil’s earliest major work was a group of ten short poems called the Eclogues, or the Bucolics. The poems are set in an idealized Italian countryside and are populated by shepherds. Vergil has clearly modeled the poems on the thirty idylls of Theocritus, a Greek poet of about 310 to 250 b.c.e. who lived primarily in Sicily. The Eclogues are, in fact, the most highly imitative of Vergil’s three works, although the Roman element asserts itself clearly. In the first eclogue, which is one of the most Roman, Vergil tells of two shepherds, Tityrus and Meliboeus. Tityrus has retained his farm in the face of confiscation, and he relaxes among his sheep while Meliboeus, ejected from his fields, drives his weary livestock to new pastures. Tityrus expresses his gratitude to the young Octavian, whom he depicts as a god. Here, Vergil uses the Theocritean framework, but the content of the poem reflects Vergil’s own private and public Roman experience. Eclogue 2, by contrast, follows Theocritus in both form and substance. Here, the shepherd Corydon bemoans his failure to win Alexis, imitating Polyphemus’s lament of the cruelty of Galatea in the Idylls (third century b.c.e.). Similarly, the capping contest between shepherds Menalcas and Damon in Eclogue 3 closely follows idylls 4 and 5.
Eclogue 4 is perhaps the most famous, as well as the most Roman. Here, the shepherd format has been abandoned. The poem honors the consulship of Vergil’s early local patron, Asinius Pollio, during which the former governor helped negotiate the Treaty of Brundisium. Welcoming the hope of peace, Vergil predicts the coming of a new Golden Age. His ideas about the cycle of ages are based on a number of sources, including the Sybilline Books and the “ages of man” in Hesiod. Because the new era of peace is here connected with the birth of a child, scholars of the Middle Ages believed that the poem held a messianic message, predicting the birth of Christ. Present-day scholars disagree about the identity of the young child: Some argue that Vergil refers here to the children of Pollio, who were born around this time, while others believe that the poem expresses hope for the future offspring of Mark Anthony and Octavia, or perhaps of Octavian and his new wife, Scribonia. In any case, the language of the eclogue is sufficiently vague to preclude any clear identification.
Eclogue 5 returns once again to the Theocritean format: Two shepherds, Mopsus and Menalcas, engage in a contest of amoebaean verse (poetry written in the form of a dialogue between two speakers). They sing of the death and deification of Daphnis, also a shepherd, and in so doing they reprise the song of Idyll 1. Eclogue 6 maintains the pastoral theme: Two shepherds catch Silenus (a mythological woodland deity with horses’ ears and tail) and induce him to sing of the world’s creation and other legends. The preface to this poem, however, deals with more Roman matters: Vergil dedicates the poem to Varus, the man who succeeded Pollio as legate in the region of Vergil’s birthplace. Apparently the new legate had urged the poet to write an epic; here the poet demurs. Eclogue 7, like eclogues 2, 3, and 5, adheres to the Theocritean model: Melliboeus tells of a contest between shepherds Thyrsis and Corydon.
Eclogue 8, like Eclogue 4, is dedicated to Pollio. Two shepherds sing an amoebaeic: Damon grieves over the faithlessness of Nisa, and Alphesiboeus sings of a young woman’s attempts to secure the love of Daphnis by magic charms. The latter topic has as its model Idyll 2 of Theocritus, but the ethos is Roman. Eclogue 9 returns to the farm confiscations discussed in Eclogue 1. Shepherd Moeris has been ejected from his farm; shepherd Lycidas expresses surprise, since he had thought that the poetry of Menalcas (Vergil’s persona) had secured the safety of all the farms of the region. The collection concludes with Eclogue 10, in which Gallus (a real-life Roman) grieves for the loss of an actress named Lycoris.
Critics agree that these poems, although very artificial, are exercises which show the power of a great poet early in his development. Eclogues 2, 3, 5, and 7, among the first written, follow the Theocritean model rather closely, working within the conventionalized framework of the pastoral genre. Other eclogues introduce matters closer to Vergil’s life and times, such as the farm confiscations dealt with in eclogues 1 and 9 (and alluded to in 6) and the problems of Gallus in Eclogue 10. Eclogue 6 offers the promise of greater works to come, and this promise is redeemed first in the Georgics and later in the Aeneid.
The Georgics comprise four books of dactylic hexameter verse on the subject of farming and animal husbandry. The basic Greek model is Hesiod’s Works and Days (c. 700 b.c.e.); however, Vergil’s sources for the Georgics also include the Alexandrian scientific poets and the Roman Epicurean poet, Lucretius. The Georgics are very Italian, and the Hesiodic model provides only a form and an outline: The poet distances himself from his model to a much greater degree than in the Eclogues. Vergil’s own words suggest that Maecenas, the great Augustan literary patron, suggested the subject matter of this poem. Augustus’s vision of the new order, the Pax Romana, had as its cornerstone a revival of “old Roman” virtues, religion, and the simple agrarian life. The Georgics, then, aimed to present the simplicity and beauty of Italian country life as an important element of Augustus’s new empire. Once again, Vergil is working with a Greek model and Roman ideas, but in the Georgics the model is less intrusive and the Italian element predominates.
Book 1 of the Georgics deals with the farming of field crops and the relationship of weather and constellations to this pursuit. Vergil stresses the importance of Jupiter and of Ceres, the goddess of agriculture. Near the end of the book, the discussion of weather phenomena leads the poet to a description of the ominous cosmological omens that accompanied the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 b.c.e.; Vergil closes the book by expressing his hope that Augustus will save Rome and by expressing his regret that years of civil war have prevented the people of Italy from peacefully farming their lands.
In book 2, Vergil treats the matter of vines and trees, especially the olive tree. He instructs the reader on the propagation, growth, planting, and tending of these plants. Technical discussions of soils, vines, and proper seasons are included, and here the Hesiodic and Alexandrian models are evident, although not predominant. Praise for the agriculture of Italy leads to praise of the country as a whole, and then of its chief, Augustus. The book concludes with a paean to the life of the farmer, especially as contrasted with the life of war. The themes of Augustus’s new order find eloquent voice.
Book 3 of the Georgics takes up the subject of cattle and their deities. At the beginning of the book, Vergil tells the reader that Maecenas urged the writing of the Georgics, and Vergil also promises future works in praise of Augustus and Rome. Following these literary comments, the poet once again turns to technical matters: care of broodmares, calves, and racing foals; the force of love among animals; sheep and goats; and the production of wool, milk, and cheese. A discussion of disease in sheep leads into the very famous and poignant description of the plague, based on similar passages in Lucretius and Thucydides.
In book 4, Vergil turns to the subject of bees and beekeeping. He discusses the location of hives, the social organization of bees, the taking of honey, and the very ancient practice of obtaining a new stock of bees by using the carcass of a dead animal. The book closes with the stories of Aristaeus and Arethusa, and finally of Orpheus.
The matter of sources, then, is much more complex in the Georgics than in the Eclogues. The Georgics reveals a wide variety of sources and a poet who is more confident and thus more willing to depart from his models. Vergil’s relationship to Maecenas, Augustus, and the new Roman order manifests itself both in the overall intent of the poem and in specific passages. The artificial landscape of the Eclogues yields to the reality and beauty of the Italian countryside.
The final and most important work of Vergil’s career was the twelve-book hexameter epic called the Aeneid. Vergil wished to pay homage to the great Greek epics of Homer (the Iliad and the Odyssey, both c. 800 b.c.e.) and Apollonius Rhodius (the Argonautica, third century b.c.e.), but Vergil also sought to create a work that would supplant the work of Ennius and glorify the Rome of his own day and its leader, Augustus. The solution lay in telling the mythological story of Aeneas, a Trojan hero who fought on the losing side in the great Trojan War. Homer mentions that Aeneas was purposefully rescued by the gods, and a firm post-Homeric tradition told of the hero’s subsequent journey to Italy. Vergil, then, would tell the story of Aeneas’s travels and of the founding of the Roman race, and in so doing would remain close to the Homeric era; at the same time, prophetic passages could look forward to the Rome of Vergil’s lifetime, and the poem overall would stress Roman virtues and ideals. In the figure of Aeneas, Vergil had discovered the perfect transition from the Homeric world in which epic was rooted to the Augustan era of his own day.
The first six books tell of the wandering journey of Aeneas and his men from Troy to the western coast of Italy, a voyage which was impeded by false starts, the anger of the goddess Juno, and Aeneas’s own fears, hesitations, and weaknesses. Vergil chose as his basic model for these books Homer’s Odyssey, also a tale of wandering. Since books 6 through 12 of the Aeneid describe the battles between Aeneas and the Italic tribes which opposed him, the poet here emulated the Iliad, an epic of war. Indeed, the opening phrase of the Aeneid, “I sing of arms and of the man” (“Arma virumque cano”), sets forth this two-part plan very clearly.
Book 1 begins with an introduction in which Vergil...