Vergil

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2060

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...

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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 set forth the ancient origins of the Roman people. It is likely that Vergil began the Aeneid soon thereafter. Dating composition of specific sections is difficult, but Vergil mentions the death of Marcellus, son of Octavia (the sister of Julius Caesar), in the Aeneid. Since it is known that Marcellus died in 23, one can assume that Vergil had outlined the entire poem by this time, the reference appearing almost exactly at the epic’s midpoint. Octavia, supposedly present at Vergil’s reading of this passage, is said to have fainted on hearing the poet’s allusion to her son as a young man of promise who died too young.

It is known that Vergil met Augustus in Athens late in the year 20. Possibly Vergil had intended to continue his tour of Greece, but his health, never strong, was rapidly declining, so he accompanied Augustus first to Megara, a district between the Corinthian and Saronic gulfs, then to Brundisium, on the tip of the Italian peninsula; he died there, at the age of fifty. His body was brought first to Naples, his summer residence, and supposedly interred in a tomb on a road between Naples and Puteoli (Pozzuoli), where, indeed, a tomb still stands. An epitaph, supposedly dating from Vergil’s burial, reads: “Mantua me genuit, Calabri rapuere, tenet nunc Parthenope. Cecini pascua, rura, duces” (“Mantua bore me, Calabria ravished me, now Parthenope holds me. I have nourished flocks, fields, generals”; Parthenope is the ancient name of Naples after the Siren of that name). There is no evidence that Vergil himself composed this epitaph or even that it was on his tomb at the time of his death; nevertheless, the inscription is very old and has always been attributed to the poet.

One of the most dramatic events ensuing on Vergil’s death concerns his will. He left half his property to his half brother Valerius Proculus and named Augustus, Maecenas, and his friends Lucius Varius and Plotius Tucca as other legatees. His final request, however, was that Varius and Tucca burn the Aeneid, which he did not consider in its finished state. Tradition has it that Augustus himself intervened to save the poem and that it was published with the revisions of Varius and Tucca.

Vergil died a wealthy man, thanks primarily to the generosity of Augustus and Maecenas. His residence on the Esquiline Hill included a garden located next to that of Maecenas. Generous grants from his patrons had enabled Vergil to find the security and leisure he needed for writing his verse and enjoying the friendship of amiable fellow artists, such as Horace. Vergil was also fortunate in finding acceptance for his works, which, even during his lifetime, became an essential part of the school curriculum.

One wonders what this most celebrated of Roman poets might have looked like. Though many ancient renderings of Vergil survive, none dates to his own time and all are idealized. Artists, focusing on the certain frailty of Vergil’s health, inevitably portray him as a youthful, frail, and sensitive man with hair covering the ears, longer than the close-cropped Imperial style. In Renaissance paintings, he wears fillets or the poet’s laurel crown and is often shown declaiming a passage from his works to an appreciative Augustus or Maecenas.

Significance

During his lifetime and even more so after his death, the Eclogues, the Georgics, and the Aeneid became classics, known well by every patriotic Roman. They were memorized, recited, and used for rhetorical training. Soon after Vergil’s death, the poet’s works were credited with every variety of mystical allusion. The fourth eclogue, for example, was taken as prophecy of the birth of Jesus Christ, though the boy whose birth will signal a new golden age is more likely the emperor Augustus. Others regularly consulted the Aeneid and collected its “hidden meanings” as the so-called Sortes Vergilianae (Vergilian allotments). This practice began as early as the period immediately after Vergil’s death, becoming an obsession in the Middle Ages. The unusual praenomen (first name) of Magia Polla, Vergil’s mother, implied for many that the poet was a gifted sorcerer as well. The alternate spelling of Vergil’s name (Virgil) itself probably derives from the magician’s virga (wand). That so many were able to see so much beyond the literal in Vergil’s poems is testimony to their enduring value as masterpieces.

There is much information on Vergil’s life, although much of it is embroidered with legend. Aelius Donatus’s fourth century biography, appended to his commentary on Vergil’s poems, is the most important ancient source, although it was derived in part from the rather random remarks in the De viris illustribus (second century c.e.; on famous men) of Suetonius. Suetonius is said to have derived his information from now-lost accounts by Varius (one of Vergil’s literary executors) and from Melissus, a freedman of Maecenas. Other ancient biographies, less reliable, were written by Valerius Probus (first century c.e.) and Saint Jerome (c. 331-420 c.e.). An unattributed life of Vergil is also attached to the Vergil commentaries of Servius (late fourth century c.e.).

Further Reading:

Commager, Steele, ed. Virgil: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1966. This book of essays discusses everything from the landscape that gave Vergil his inspiration to important imagery in his poetry. Includes a chronology of Vergil’s life and a short bibliography.

Comparetti, Domenico. Vergil in the Middle Ages. Translated by E. F. M. Benecke. 1985. Reprint. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1997. This book remains the classic treatment of Vergil’s literary legacy showing how it influenced both education and literature for centuries. It is still the best discussion of Vergilian bibliography available. A respected scholarly source.

Frank, Tenney. Vergil: A Biography. 1922. Reprint. New York: Russell and Russell, 1965. This standard biography discusses the poet’s life through references to his works. Particularly interesting is Frank’s use of the pseudo-Vergilian poems Culex and Cirus, the influence of Epicureanism, and his discussion of the circle of Maecenas.

Jenkyns, Richard. Vergil’s Experience, Nature, and History: Times, Names, and Places. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. This large-scale work concerns itself with examining Vergil’s ideas of nature and historical experience as compared with similar ideas throughout the ancient world. Jenkyns also discusses the influcence of Vergil’s work on later thought.

Knight, W. F. Jackson. Roman Vergil. 1944. Reprint. New York: Barnes and Noble Books, 1968. How Vergil changed the literary world and how Augustus changed the political world are two important concerns in this biographical and literary study. There is also good discussion of Vergilian style, meter, and language, as well as appendices on how Vergil’s poetry advanced Latin as a literary language and on the allegorical and symbolic applications of Vergil’s poems.

Levi, Peter. Virgil: His Life and Times. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999. This notable work by a leading classics scholar places Vergil in the context of his times.

Martindale, Charles, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Virgil. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997. Twenty-one essays (including the editor’s introduction) are divided into four sections covering the translation and reception of Vergil’s works, his poetic career, historical contexts, and the content of his thought. Includes numerous bibliographies.

Otis, Brooks. Virgil: A Study in Civilized Poetry. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1995. Excellent work that argues for Vergil as a sophisticated poet who presented mythic, well-known material in a new and meaningful style to his urban readers.

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