(Historic Lives: The Ancient World, Prehistory-476)

0111201601-Vergil.jpg Vergil (Library of Congress) Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Article abstract: Roman poet{$I[g]Roman Republic;Vergil} Author of an epic poem celebrating the beginnings of the Roman race, pastoral poems, and a poem about the farmer’s life, Vergil is among the greatest poets of all time.

Early Life

Publius Vergilius Maro, or simply Vergil (VUR-juhl), was born in Andes, a village near Mantua in Cisalpine Gaul, in 70 b.c.e., a generation before the death of the Roman Republic. His origins were humble; his father eked out a living by keeping bees on the family’s small farm. Though no record of his father’s name remains, it is known that his mother’s name was Magia Polla. It also seems likely that Vergil received his early education at Cremona and Mediolanum (Milan) and that he received the toga virilis (the toga of manhood) in 55 b.c.e., on his fifteenth birthday. Wearing the toga virilis would signify full rights and privileges of citizenship.

Vergil is said to have learned Greek at Neapolis (Naples) from Parthenius, a Bithynian captive brought to Rome during the war with Mithradates the Great. Supposedly, Vergil based one of his own poems, the Moretum, on a Greek model by Parthenius. The young poet also received instruction in Epicurean philosophy from Siron and training in rhetoric from Epidius. Most scholars believe that Vergil studied with Epidius at the same time as Octavian, the future emperor Augustus who would later become Vergil’s champion and patron. In short, Vergil received a first-rate education in literature, philosophy, and rhetoric, and critics have discerned his broad learning in his Georgics (c. 37-29 b.c.e.), which deals with all elements relating to the farmer’s work during the year. There is no indication that Vergil served in the military or engaged in politics. He was probably excused from these duties because of his fragile health and general bookishness.

About the year 45 b.c.e., on completing his education, Vergil returned to his family’s property near Mantua, but in 42, after victory at Philippi, Octavian, in assigning grants of land to his veterans, allowed his aide, Octavius Musa, to determine boundaries of lands assigned in the Cremona district, and Vergil’s paternal estate was deeded to a centurion named Arrius. Vergil’s influential friends Asinius Pollio and Cornelius Gallus advised Vergil to appeal directly to Octavian; that he did, and the family farm was restored. Vergil would celebrate Octavian’s understanding and kindness in this matter in eclogue 1 of the Eclogues (43-37 b.c.e.). Unfortunately, a second attempt to appropriate the family’s estate, led by Milienus Toro, was successful several years later. (Vergil was almost killed by a ruffian named Clodius in the violence that ensued.)

Paradoxically, some good came from this sordid affair. Vergil took temporary refuge in a farmhouse owned by a neighbor named Siro but immediately thereafter moved to Rome, where he wrote the two collections of verse that attracted the notice of his first sponsor, Gaius Maecenas. The incident is referred to in section 10 of Catalepton, an ancient collection of poetry.

Life’s Work

After Vergil’s pastorals—the Eclogues (sometimes called the Bucolics and probably written with the countryside near Tarentum in mind)—appeared, Maecenas became interested in Vergil’s work. Maecenas led a literary circle, was influential in matters of state, and had the ear of Octavian, soon to be known as Augustus. Although Vergil did not recover his family’s farm, Augustus saw to it that he was compensated with another estate, probably the one located near Nola in Campania to which Aulus Gellius refers in Noctes Atticae (c. 143 c.e.; Attic Nights). Vergil also knew the poet Horace well by this time and was instrumental in admitting him to Maecenas’s circle and securing a patron for him. Horace mentions his acquaintance with Vergil in the Satires (35, 30 b.c.e.; English translation, 1567), a description of a journey from Rome to Brundisium.

The Georgics, completed when its author had been fully accepted as a member of Maecenas’s circle, is clearly the poem of which Vergil was most proud. It appears that he undertook its composition at Maecenas’s suggestion and completed it at Naples sometime after the Battle of Actium (31 b.c.e.). Justifiably, the Georgics was compared with the idylls of Theocritus (c. 308-260 b.c.e.) and the Erga kai Emerai (c. 700 b.c.e.; Works and Days, 1618) of Hesiod, was found worthy of their Greek predecessors, and catapulted Vergil to prominence.

It is likely that for some time Vergil had considered writing the Aeneid (c. 29-19 b.c.e.), the epic poem for which he is best known. As early as 27, while Augustus was on military campaign in Spain, he wrote to Vergil suggesting composition of an epic that would celebrate Aeneas’s founding of a so-called New Troy in Italy and...

(The entire section is 2060 words.)