Vergil World Literature Analysis

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3726

Vergil’s deathbed request that the unfinished Aeneid be destroyed is an example of one characteristic of his style: insistence upon perfection. He considered this essential to achieve the civilized, cosmopolitan elegance that characterizes all of his verse. Such urbanity appears even in Vergil’s pastorals. The four books of the Georgics ...

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Vergil’s deathbed request that the unfinished Aeneid be destroyed is an example of one characteristic of his style: insistence upon perfection. He considered this essential to achieve the civilized, cosmopolitan elegance that characterizes all of his verse. Such urbanity appears even in Vergil’s pastorals. The four books of the Georgics, for example, took seven years for him to complete. Based on the total number of 2,188 lines, this would mean an average of about one verse per day. Indeed, Aulus Gellius, the second century commentator on assorted literary matters, reproduces a remark attributed to Vergil that he licked his verses into shape the way a mother bear does her cubs.

This slowness toward final form springs partly from Vergil’s perfectionism, but even more from the poet’s need to reflect a Romanized version of Greek forms. It was Vergil’s fate to work in poetic forms in which Greek poets cast an overwhelming shadow, even in the genres of Latin literature: Theocritus and Hesiod in pastoral, and, of course, Homer in epic. To avoid being called a mere Roman imitator of these Greek masters and to push the Latin language to its limits in order to accommodate the style that he felt appropriate to Augustan Rome, Vergil had to proceed slowly.

Some, even among contemporary critics, are content to describe Vergilian poetry as a Latin imitation of Greek models, but that is a convenient dismissal of the specifically Italian character that all Vergil’s poetry attains. The shepherds of his Eclogues have Greek names; their love affairs and concerns resemble those of the characters in the Idyls (c. 270 b.c.e.; English translation, 1684) of Theocritus, but the countryside that they describe is indisputably that of Tuscany and the Campagna. The ten poems that comprise the Eclogues are clearly the collection upon which Vergil worked to hone his specifically Roman style. To be overly concerned with their order of composition overlooks the fact that Vergil valued the unity of larger finished products over any single constituent. Thus, although four eclogues (2, 3, 7, 8) reflect the Theocritean debt that Vergil obviously felt he owed, two others (5, 10) describe a specifically Roman and notably Augustan world. The remainder (1, 4, 6, 9) are the least Theocritean of all and are arguably the finest of the entire collection. In their final arrangement, they form a reciprocal pattern. Briefly stated, this pattern yields the themes of recovered land, lost love, and Augustan greatness. The collection evokes the Caesar element in eclogue 5, foreshadowed in the climax of eclogue 1 (the imperial generosity that restores rightful ownership) and 4, which predicts a second golden age heralded by young Augustus. Topical references sprinkled throughout the work (Asinius Pollio and Vergil’s rival poets Bavius and Maevius) extend the contemporary Augustan tone Vergil sought.

Escaping the poetic tastes of the poetic generation that preceded his own was another task that Vergil faced. These extended in two directions: the erotic verse of Caius Valerius Catullus and, to some extent, the philosophic poetry of Titus Lucretius Carus. One difficulty simply lay in creating a taste for the specifically Roman poetry that Vergil wrote. Augustus’s political program assisted that to some degree, as did imperial subventions to the circle of poets in which Vergil functioned. The enormous financial resources of Gaius Gilnius Maecenas added to Vergil’s financial security, for Vergil was primary among a group of poets supported by this wealthy Roman. Developing a literature that simultaneously glorified Roman origins yet looked toward greatness as the empire’s destiny became paramount for the Maecenas group, and no poet, not even Quintus Horatius Flaccus (Horace) or Publius Ovidius Naso (Ovid), both of whom also received such subventions, could satisfy these goals as completely as Vergil.

Specifically, Roman concerns emerge even more boldly in the Georgics, a four-book didactic poem on agriculture. This work follows the Eclogues by eight years and reflects Vergil’s maturity as a poet. It owes a nominal debt to Hesiod’s Erga kai emerai (c. 700 b.c.e.; Works and Days,1618) or to Nicander’s Georgika (c. 100 b.c.e.), but it is not in any sense Hellenic. Vergil’s Georgics is not an exercise in virtuosic treatment of prosaic subject matter, nor is Vergil (like Lucretius) trying to make difficult subject matter easy, nor does Vergil expect Roman farmers to use the advice that it gives as a practical guide to farming. The Georgics, like the Eclogues, rather represents concerns central to human life in Augustan Rome. It provides a clear set of moral values, which extend to respect for tools and the work itself; a religious justification for the work of farming; a calendar that specifically relates to the growing seasons of Italy and the varied forms of agriculture one finds there; and a substantial final section on beekeeping. As with the Eclogues, there is a clear Augustan message. Hard work and diligent application wrings fertility from infertility, life from death. This remains the work of all farmers at all times, but the Georgics casts it in terms of a theodicy for the Golden Age of Augustus. A clear cosmic sympathy watches over Italy under Augustus; given the application of its people, labor yields justice and prosperity.

It is precisely this destiny that favored creation of Augustan Rome, and Vergil develops the theme even further in his Aeneid. Fatum (fate) through labor (work) tempered by dolor (sorrow and grief) and pietas (piety and humility) led Aeneas to lay aside personal desires for the sake of establishing a “New Troy” at Lavinium in Italy. It would take nearly half a millennium, but the race formed from an amalgam of Trojan and native Italic elements would give rise to that of Romulus. From Romulus and the Roman kings would spring the Roman republic and, ultimately, the empire established by Augustus.

As with both the Eclogues and Georgics, there is also a debt to Greek poetry; obviously, the Aeneid owes its inspiration to Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. Characteristically, however, the similarity is structural rather than aesthetic. The Aeneid is less than half the length of either of Homer’s poems. Vergil has arranged its books to recall first the wanderings of Odysseus (Aeneid 1-6), then a new war at Lavinium (Aeneid 7-12), which corresponds to the Trojan War as described in the Iliad. Thus, rather than concealing the literary past upon which the Aeneid depends, Vergil effectively flaunts it, making it underscore the thesis of the poem itself: that the past and its difficulties are essential to build the new order of his own present, that of Augustan Rome.

Vergilian epic, despite these similarities, thus differs markedly from that of Homer. Vergil’s is an urban, national epic. Critics unfavorably inclined sometimes call it Augustan propaganda, but even if this is so it is also great art and Roman poetry at its highest level of development. One measure of its greatness is the fact that, like Homeric poetry, its style was imitated in a series of works attributed to Vergil. These poems, collectively called the Appendix Vergiliana (c.e. first century) but actually the work of an inferior subsequent imitator, reveal not only the profound effect that Vergil had on Roman poetry but also, by contrast, the superiority of the master.


First published: 43-37 b.c.e. (English translation, 1575)

Type of work: Pastoral poetry

The ten pastorals of this collection successfully translate the settings, characters, and thoughts of their Greek counterparts to a frame of reference specifically that of Augustan Rome.

The Eclogues is a remarkable achievement of Vergil’s late twenties and shows that the poet, even at this early age, intended to develop a style distinct from those of his Greek and Roman predecessors. The ten-poem collection falls into three major categories. Eclogues 2, 3, 7, and 8 are the most Theocritean; the rustic characters that they present have Greek names (Corydon, Amoebaeus, Damon, Alphesiboeus), and the situations that the poems describe find their counterparts in the works of Theocritus. Eclogues 1, 4, 6, and 9 are specifically non-Theocritean; these poems deal with matters particularly significant to life in Augustan Rome (exile revoked, respect for right of ownership, arrival of a new Golden Age, warnings of the passing of this Golden Age, and doubts for the future). The collection turns on Eclogues 5 and 10, the two Daphnis poems; Daphnis represents Caesar in the first of these, and the poet Gallus becomes Daphnis in the second. The clear result of this arrangement is to introduce Augustan reference into what had been the timeless environment of pastoral. The characters thus acquire a tendency toward introspection and a degree of psychological development unmatched by Theocritus.

Augustan time is always present in Vergil’s pastoral world, yet it remains unobtrusive primarily because of the reciprocal pattern of arrangement that Vergil follows. Eclogue 1, for example, finds its parallel poem in Eclogue 9. In Eclogue 1, the content Tityrus explains his happy state of mind to Meliboeus by noting that a god restored his farm. While never leaving the bucolic environment, one imagines the change of scene that takes Tityrus to Rome and an encounter with the young emperor. Vergil never uses the names Octavian, Caesar, or Augustus, yet the automatically generous response of an emperor concerned for his subjects makes the identity of the iuvenis (young man) whom Tityrus sees at Rome unmistakable. Eclogue 9 answers Eclogue 1; both poems refer obliquely to the land seizures of 41 b.c.e., though the ninth pastoral creates a somewhat discordant note. There, a distraught Moeris tells Lycidas that he is about to undertake a similar journey to petition for restoration of his land. This poem specifically recalls the Tityrus poem and implies that Octavian’s ascension to the throne has not automatically eliminated treachery. It is impossible to say what intervened in Vergil’s life to produce this changed mood, but the realism that this poem introduces adds an element that had never appeared in pre-Vergilian pastoral.

Such reciprocity allows grouping of the collection into two major categories. Eclogues 1 to 5 present essentially conciliatory Augustan situations; Eclogues 6 to 10 qualify comparable situations. Thus, while Eclogue 2 asserts the triumph of reason over essentially unworthy love, Eclogue 8 answers by presenting Daphnis bound in the spell of an unworthy love whose consequence is death. Eclogue 3 describes a crude and abusive singing contest that ends in peaceful nondecision; its answer, in Eclogue 7, presents a similar contest in which the mild Corydon defeats the harsh Thyrsis. Eclogue 4, interpreted during the Middle Ages as the “Messianic Eclogue,” predicts the coming of a new golden age under Octavian (again without use of the emperor’s name); Eclogue 4 notes the passing of these hopes into a series of unnatural loves and changes in form. Like Eclogue 9, it implies the transitory nature of happiness and contentment as part of the human condition. Even Octavian cannot alter this essential fact of life. Eclogue 5 presents the death and transfiguration of Daphnis, a poetic masque for Octavian; its answer is Eclogue 10. There, Gallus wastes away for unrequited love of Lycoris, who has run off with an unnamed soldier. The final effect of these poetic answers is to connect the historical to the timeless situation and the realistic outcome to the ideal.


First published: c. 37-29 b.c.e. (English translation, 1589)

Type of work: Didactic poetry

The Georgics represent both a continuation of Vergil’s Augustan program and a departure from pastoral verse in favor of didactic verse.

The Georgics is didactic verse, purportedly instructing readers on matters relating to agriculture. As such, it nominally springs from the tradition established by Hesiod in the seventh century b.c.e. Though its subject provides a rural setting, the Georgics is assuredly not pastoral poetry. Similarly, though its structure is more complex than that of the Eclogues, there is no exalted theme, nor indeed is there any sustained narrative at all. What the Georgics essentially represents is evidence of a mature creative mind, one capable of writing about humble subjects in an elegant way that particularly reflects Augustan Rome.

Though not a narrative, the Georgics is a coherent work, one essentially independent of literary predecessors. On one level, the poem is Vergil’s response to his patron Maecenas’s request for a work that heralds the dignity of Roman agriculture. On another level, however, the Georgics reflects Vergil’s own wish for the rehabilitation of rural Italy from the anarchy, decay, and neglect that followed the civil wars. Obviously, it is only superficially a guide to farming; there is little in it that a farmer would not have already learned from experience, and it is difficult to imagine even the most cosmopolitan Augustan farmer consulting it as a manual.

Essentially, the Georgics is a virtuosic work of art arranged in four books of verse. Like the Eclogues, it follows a pattern of reciprocal contrasts; these are four in number, between books 1 and 2, 3 and 4, 1 and 3, and 2 and 4. Book 1 outlines the farmer’s continual struggle with inanimate nature. The farmer cares for tools as a warrior does weapons, enters the field to do battle with nature, works by the calendar as does a soldier on expedition, and contends with nature’s extremes as with an enemy. Moreover, Jupiter has deliberately made life hard so that humanity might discover civilization. Book 2 answers 1 in the sense that it enumerates the rewards of nature once ordered. Trees and vines yield their fruit in due course and in appropriate varieties. Sound produce yields healthy livestock, and the varied landscapes of Italy, exemplified by Tuscany, Mantua, and Capua, contribute to this harmony.

Book 3 continues the theme through a discussion of the relationship of love and death. Large and small animals mate, and this fertility contrasts with the pestilence represented by weeds, thieves, snakes, diseases, and plague. This book suddenly shifts the emphasis to animate nature, and while never quite personifying the animals that it presents, nevertheless allows understanding of the love-death process in human terms. It finds its reciprocal in book 4, the major section on beekeeping with which the Georgics concludes. In one sense, the fourth book mirrors the entire structure of the poem (and the cycle of farming) since it moves from location of the hive to encouraging the swarming needed for reproduction, to harvesting, to regeneration (resurrection) of the bee.

Vergil’s Georgics maintains the indefinite outcome that characterizes the Eclogues. Essentially, the farmer fights a continuing battle against the deteriorating nature of things. Though the farmer may do all that is possible to ensure a favorable outcome to his work, nature remains a variable that can destroy all efforts. Augustan Rome provides the best hope for success, but it requires the efforts of all concerned and does not in itself provide automatic solutions.


First published: c. 29-19 b.c.e. (English translation, 1553)

Type of work: Epic poem

The Aeneid shows the full development of its author’s talent, brilliantly extending the range of Latin literature and providing noble ancient origins for Augustan Rome.

It is impossible to gauge the seriousness of the dying Vergil’s request that his Aeneid be burned upon his death. Despite the dramatic command of Augustus to spare it from the flames, it is difficult to imagine that any of Vergil’s contemporaries would have taken it upon themselves to destroy what promised to be the most extraordinary poem ever written in Latin, and that is precisely what those who knew the work in progress realized it to be. It is more likely that Vergil’s request stemmed from the almost manic pessimism that one notes as counterpoint in both the Eclogues and Georgics. Such resolution through a minor key produces great art, however, and Vergil knew that no poetic form yields more easily to an indeterminate conclusion than epic. The Aeneid, despite the difficulties inherent in its composition, thus offered Vergil the surest possibility for ultimate development of his talent.

In one sense, the Aeneid obviously depends upon Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey for its very creation. Echoes and lines parallel to those of Homer abound within it. Nevertheless, Vergil’s purpose and the nature of the verse itself are altogether different, for Vergil’s is urban poetry reflecting the Trojan War myths from a Trojan (and consequently Roman, rather than Greek) point of view. Rather than conceal his use of Homer, Vergil’s use of the Homeric legacy supports a major part of his thesis: that the present draws from the past and that the quality of what was determines the worth of what is.

Typical Vergilian reciprocity appears in the structure of the Aeneid. Its first six books are effectively an Odyssean series of adventures that take Aeneas and the Trojans from their destroyed city to Dido’s North African city of Carthage and ultimately to the Underworld’s Italian entrance at Cumae, near Naples. Aeneid 1 to 6 are Odyssean only in the sense that the adventures externally parallel those of Odysseus. Aeneas, unlike Odysseus, has responsibility for the collective destiny of his nation, and Vergil consistently distinguishes between his hero’s personal preference and what fatum (fate) requires him to do. Hence, Aeneas must flee Troy, though he would have preferred to die there. Fate, through the instrumentality of the storm conjured by joint request of Juno (to delay fatum) and Aeneas’s mother, Venus (to provide rest for her son), casts Aeneas upon Dido’s shore. Venus mercilessly causes the flame of passion to grow in Dido, using the young queen as an instrument to ensure that Aeneas may pursue his destiny to found an Italian Troy. The flames that destroyed Troy thus resolve themselves into the flames of passion that ultimately cause Dido’s suicide and find final expression in the flames of her funeral pyre. Again, Aeneas must lay aside his obligations toward Dido for the larger obligation that he owes the Trojan people.

Fatum thus governs all: the furor (anger) that Aeneas must direct at those who would impede founding of a new Troy at Lavinium in Italy; labor (work), the struggle to escape and reach the site of the new city; dolor (grief), the suffering that requires decisions for the collective well-being; and pietas (piety), the humility needed to accept what fate decrees. All of these elements bring Aeneas to his Underworld meeting with the shade of his father Anchises in Aeneid 6. It is there that Aeneas beholds a procession of as yet unborn heroes important to the destiny of a city to rise in the remote future. Aeneas knows nothing of Rome and no more of the heroes important to its history, yet he knows that what he witnesses is in some way important. Augustus himself appears among these unborn heroes, and his connection with Aeneas (if ever doubted) becomes explicit in this scene.

Aeneid 7 to 12 looks toward Trojan establishment of Lavinium, the city that must rise if Rome itself is ever to rise. These are the Iliadic books, since they describe a second Trojan War with the Trojans cast as invaders of the Italian city on the site fated for Trojan habitation. Lavinia, daughter of King Latinus, thus has a role that corresponds to that of Helen in the Trojan War. Aeneas is destined to marry Lavinia to begin amalgamation of the Trojan and native italic peoples, but Lavinia is already promised to the Rutulian warrior Turnus. Since Turnus is hardly committed to this marriage agreement, war might have been avoided had it not been for Juno’s long-standing anger against the Trojans. The fury that she causes provokes violence that spreads across the countryside, and the Trojan War in Italy begins in earnest.

Preparations for the war allow Vergil to establish the antiquity of the peoples of Italy. Aeneas, for example, journeys north on the Tiber to the Etruscan city then known as Pallanteum, but which is located at the site of what would one day be Rome, the city of Romulus. Aeneid 8 takes the reader through Pallanteum, which even then has landmarks familiar to an imperial Roman. Evander, king of Pallanteum, concludes an alliance with Aeneas and gives him men, as well as his own son Pallas, a protégé whose counterpart in the Iliad is Patroclus.

Back at Lavinium, Ascanius (the young son of Aeneas, now called Iulus to establish his identification with the Julio-Claudian emperors) distinguishes himself in the fight against the Latins and their allies. A renegade Etruscan king named Mezentius has allied himself and his son Lausus with the Latins. Cast out by his own city of Caere, Mezentius has found refuge with King Latinus and now fights against his own people. This villain paradoxically acquires the reader’s sympathy upon the death of Lausus, killed when he interposes himself between his father and the advancing Aeneas. Despite Mezentius’s contemptible deeds as king of Caere, and though he hates the gods, Mezentius is still a father, and Lausus has shown him due filial pietas. When Mezentius dies immediately thereafter, also at Aeneas’s hands, his death assumes a tragic aspect; such is Vergil’s skill for the dramatic that he can make pitiable even the death of a villain.

The death of Pallas at Turnus’s hands clearly corresponds to Aeneas’s killing of Lausus, and Vergil presents both deaths sympathetically. Obviously, Vergil avoids setting what would have been a more logical contest between young warriors, that of Iulus and Lausus. That is clearly because Iulus, called Ascanius in Aeneid 1 to 6, represents the link between Troy past and the new incarnation of that city in Italy. When Iulus distinguishes himself on the battlefield, he does so against uniformly undeveloped personalities in order to allow him alone to hold the central position in the narrative. Accordingly, Iulus remains unscarred by his battlefield contests, almost but not quite succeeding in encountering Turnus.

Meeting Turnus on the battlefield is Aeneas’s fate, and Aeneas enters the fray in much the same state of mind as had Achilles in the Iliad following the death of Patroclus. The final question that faces Aeneas once he has the Rutulian Turnus at bay is whether to administer the death stroke. He decides to do so as soon as he sees that Turnus wears the belt that he had stripped from young Pallas upon killing him. Thus, the Aeneid ends in the middle of events, as is characteristic of epic poetry, but also with the element of qualification that characterizes all Vergil’s works.

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