Vergil 70 B.C.–19 B.C.
(Full name Publius Vergilius Maro; also Virgil) Roman poet.
Considered the greatest poet of ancient Rome, Vergil is acclaimed for brilliantly transforming the Greek literary traditions that provided Roman writers with material, themes, and styles. His three major works—the Eclogues, the Georgics, and the Aeneid—have influenced virtually all subsequent Western literature, and Dante Alighieri, Geoffrey Chaucer, Edmund Spenser, John Milton, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Matthew Arnold are numbered among his prominent literary heirs.
Vergil was born on October 15, 70 B.C., at Andes, near Mantua, in Cisalpine Gaul, thereafter a province in the expanding Roman empire. His mother was the daughter of the small landlord who employed Vergil's father, Maro, a day laborer. The couple's marriage elevated Maro's social status, possibly enhancing the quality of his son's education. The boy received elementary schooling in Mantua, then studied rhetoric in Rome and philosophy in Naples. Vergil planned to practice law but proved too shy to speak comfortably in public. Returning to the small family farm his mother and father operated, he studied and wrote poetry until, in 41 B.C., the land was confiscated to compensate retiring soldiers. Friends urged Vergil to appeal to Octavian (known as Augustus after he became emperor in 27 B.C.), Julius Caesar's adopted son and eventual successor. Octavian restored the farm—perhaps, scholars speculate, because he was impressed by Vergil's writings—but the poet soon moved to Naples. There, between 42 and 37 B.C., he composed the Eclogues. These ten poems, also referred to as the Bucolics, depict shepherds singing of unhappy loves in an idealized landscape; their publication attracted widespread praise and the sponsorship of Octavian's friend, the art patron Maecenas. Maecenas allegedly prevailed upon Vergil to compose his next work, the Georgics, as an agricultural paean to persuade Romans, then deserting the countryside in large numbers, to return to farming. Written in Naples between 37 and 30 B.C., the Georgics, or "Points of Farming," consists of four books that offer instruction in grain production, the cultivation of trees and vineyards, animal husbandry, and beekeeping. The work further enhanced Vergil's reputation upon its appearance in 29 B.C. Octavian, to whom Vergil read the completed poem, honored him with two villas and a generous stipend, and Octavian's friends asked Vergil to compose an epic honoring the emperor. This project, which became the Aeneid, occupied the last ten years of Vergil's life. According to several of his friends, he first drafted the epic in prose, then laboriously reworked it in verse. Composition was slow and revision constant;
Vergil responded to one of Augustus's many inquiries about the poem's progress by asserting that he "must have been just about mad to attempt the task." When he left Naples in 19 B.C. to gather new material in Greece and Asia Minor, he planned to devote another three years to revisions, but caught fever at Megara and died soon after returning to Italy.
The ten Eclogues vary in length from 63 to 111 lines. All depict shepherds of poetic temperament whose songs (in six of the pieces) end with the coming of night. Vergil's adherence to his prototype, the Idylls of Theocritus, is eclectic. His stated purpose in the Eclogues was to introduce to Rome the Theocritan pastoral form, which was first composed around 270 B.C. in the Hellenistic North African city of Alexandria, and much of the work (particularly Eclogues 2, 3, 7, and 8) derives directly from the Idylls: shepherd-poets, singing contests, the disruptions of love and death, a rural setting, and mythological digressions. However, Vergil substantially modified the Theocritan features he borrowed and introduced much new material. Vergil's shepherds are depicted much less realistically and ironically than their precursors, and the latter poet dissociates Arcadia from any particular time or place to further idealize it. Yet, by means of numerous allusions, the figures, events, and concerns of Augustan Rome intrude, generating a pervasive tension between the dreamy peace of rural vales and bowers, and the political realities of the Roman civil wars that threaten it. Vergil's innovations are evident in the structure and style of the Eclogues as well. While Theocritus appeared to have arranged his ten Idylls randomly, Vergil ordered the ten Eclogues very deliberately, creating an effect of balanced variety. Similarly, though Vergil adapted Theocritus's hexameter, characters, and dramatic form, the style of the Eclogues differs substantially from that of the Idylls. Vergil's sentences are simply connected and slowly paced, evoking a limpid, lyrical atmosphere. Furthermore, unlike their Theocritan peers, Vergil's characters develop, becoming more sensitive and serious over the course of the poem. Vergil also relies more on narrative as the poem progresses, a trend critics attribute to his gradual realization that he worked better in narrative than in dramatic form.
The Georgics is widely considered the most polished of Vergil's works; John Dryden, who translated all of Vergil's works, called it "the best poem of the best poet." Like the Eclogues, it is structured carefully to offer variety, con trast, and balance. Each of the four books is between 500 and 600 lines long, and each opens with a preface and closes with a long poetic set piece, as does the work as a whole. Books one and three are somber, depicting gruelling labor and emphasizing catastrophe; books two and four are livelier in tone, describing easier labor and offering some alternatives to despair. Vergil interweaves myriad mythical and literary allusions seamlessly, enriching his poem without encumbering it. The poem is also lyrical and evocative in its detailed observations of the Italian countryside. In the view of L. P. Wilkinson, "The Georgics, is, in fact, the first poem in all literature in which description may be said to be the chief raison d'etre and source of pleasure."
The Aeneid, commonly considered the masterpiece not only of Vergil but of Roman culture, consists of twelve books, each between 700 and 1,000 lines long. Critics have praised Vergil's ability to adapt a variety of traditions, motifs, ideas, and literary techniques to suit his poetic intentions. As scholars have maintained, he forged a characteristically Roman epic from such disparate sources as archiac myths and mysteries, Homeric epic poetry, ancient beliefs such as reincarnation, and Stoic precepts. What makes the Aeneid so eminently Roman is its pervasive spirit of Augustan patriotism and imperialism, expressed through the idea of pietas, which, though formally denoting religious respect, in practice describes Octavian's strategy of using religion, history, and morality to secure his grip on Rome. Indeed, as Vergil figuratively suggests in the epic, all Roman history contains the seeds of the city's destiny to preside in judicious peace over a far-flung empire. In this reading, the poem is specifically the Augustan tribute that Maecenas asked Vergil to produce, and Aeneas is a venerable ancestor of the leader who restored peace in Rome after decades of carnage. However, other readers contend that Vergil's epic focuses not on the triumphs but on the human cost of Roman power, as countless individuals were sacrificed for the greatness of Rome. According to this point of view, Vergil did not consider man capable of enacting imperial ideals without yielding to violent impulses. The poem reflects, then, Vergil's pervasive sympathy for human suffering, as seen in the final book's compassionate depiction of characters sacrificed to the entwined destinies of Aeneas and Rome.
Scholars have also carefully studied the formal structures of the Aeneid. Some divide the poem into symmetrical halves, each corresponding to one of Homer's epics, the Odyssey and the Iliad. Thus, in the Odyssean first six books, Aeneas's journey to what will eventually be Rome parallels Odysseus's homeward journey, while the Iliadic last six books recount a Latin inversion of the Trojan War: the Greeks fought to destroy a city, the Trojans fight to found one. This structural reading also supports the perception of some critics for whom the first six books constitute a spiritual journey that matures Aeneas so that he can lead the battles of Books VII–XII. Another popular approach to the epic's structure proposes that the books of the poem are alternately lighter and darker in tone. In this view, the poem is divided into three segments of four books each. The first four books are seen as dark; the middle four, light; and the last four, dark again. Such an interpretation of the poem's structure reinforces the view that Vergil's attitude toward Augustan Rome stresses its human costs and moral ambiguity. One point on which virtually all critics, regardless of theoretical orientation, insist is that the Aeneid must be read as a whole if readers are to appreciate Vergil's masterfully constructed and richly evocative narrative.
Immensely popular in Augustan Rome, Vergil's works became part of the standard curriculum in Roman schools within fifty years of his death, ensuring the production of numerous copies and thus continuous availability to readers throughout the centuries. Critics in that time have closely analyzed the narrative and stylistic aspects of Vergil's great poems and have scrutinized the works' handling of their sources and models—the Eclogues' adaptations of the Theocritan patterns, for example, or the Georgics' pervasive allusions to the works of Homer, Lucretius, and others. A consummate master of form, Vergil has been credited with significantly refining narrative technique and with contributing to psychologically credible characterization in the Aeneid. He has also been praised for developing the typically Greek meter, the dactylic hexameter (a line consisting of six feet, with a predominance of dactyls—a long syllable and two short syllables—over spondees—two long syllables), into an outstanding instrument of Latin poetry. As time has widened the gulf between the present and the pre-Christian world, scholars have increasingly appreciated the encyclopedic description of Greco-Roman culture Vergil's poetry provides. In particular, his work affords us our most insightful perspective on the anxieties of empire during the Augustan Age: Does progress necessarily entail—and justify—human suffering? Can art minister to that suffering? The questions pervading Vergil's poetry have remained relevant. As literary exemplars, revealing artifacts, and continuously pertinent, provocative portrayals of the human condition, Vergil's works endure among the great creations of world literature.