Vergil, the greatest of the Roman poets, sprang from peasant origins. The Roman historian Suetonius reports that his father was either a potter or a day-laborer who married his employer’s daughter. Her name, Magia Pollia, contributed to the medieval practice of reading Vergil’s works as poems of prophecy. This peculiar form of bibliomancy, which came to be known as the sortes Vergilianae, also accounts for the corrupted form of the poet’s name, “Virgil” (from virga, “wand”), which so frequently appears in modern texts.
Curiously, Vergil’s birth in Cisalpine Gaul implies Celtic ethnicity. He would, therefore, have been considered a Gaul, at least in a legal sense, had Julius Caesar not extended Roman citizenship after Cisalpine Gaul became a province of Rome in 59 b.c.e. Vergil’s early education, at Cremona and Mediolanum (Milan), followed the traditional Roman curriculum: rhetoric and literature with basic arithmetic. In his late teens, Vergil went to Rome and continued his studies, which included philosophy and forensic rhetoric. This would indicate a future in law, though he seems to have spoken only once at court. He was by all indications constitutionally shy, a personality essentially unsuited to the speaking style of Roman lawyers.
Perhaps realizing that law was not a viable option, Vergil studied Alexandrine Greek under Epidius and philosophic Epicureanism under Siro, after which, in his early twenties, he returned to his family farm in Andes. In 41 b.c.e., land confiscations claimed his farm, among many others, for Marc Antony’s veterans. Vergil’s appeal to the young Octavian, later the emperor known as Augustus, saved his family’s land. The poet’s gratitude appears as the theme of the first of his ten Eclogues (43-47 b.c.e., also known as Bucolics; English translation, 1575), pastoral poems that parallel the Greek idylls of Theocritus of Syracuse.
The next phase of Vergil’s life places him at Nola and Naples. It is possible that there was a second attempt at confiscation of his family’s farm. It is certain, however, that for seven years he wrote his second masterwork the Georgics (c. 37-29 b.c.e.; English translation, 1589), four books of verse that chart the course of the farmer’s year in the style of the Greek Erga kai Emerai (c. 700 b.c.e.; Works and Days, 1618) of Hesiod. The Eclogues and Georgics brought Vergil into the literary circle of Gaius Maecenas, and this eventually brought him an imperial subvention from Octavian. It was, by general tradition, at the emperor’s suggestion that Vergil began the best known of his poems, the twelve-book epic known as the Aeneid (c. 29-19 b.c.e.; English translation, 1553). The Aeneid parallels Homer’s Odyssey (c. 800 b.c.e.; English translation, 1616) in its first six books and his Iliad (c. 800 b.c.e.; English translation, 1616) in its last six, though it concentrates on the aftermath of the Trojan War and seeks to establish the antiquity of the Roman “race.”
Death, the result of a fever, overtook Vergil after a tour of the East, and he died at Brundusium. On his deathbed, Vergil asked that his unrevised Aeneid be destroyed; Augustus’s intervention rescued the poem, and he commissioned two of Vergil’s colleagues,...
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