Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1067
As is the case with many ancient writers who achieved wide popularity in their lifetimes, much of the vast amount of biographical material written about Publius Vergilius Maro during or immediately after his lifetime is unreliable. From the outset of his career, the Roman poet whom readers popularly identify as Vergil (VUR-juhl) was the poet most associated with the patriotism of the Pax Romana (the worldwide Roman Peace) of the emperor Augustus. Furthermore, Vergil’s poems went almost immediately into the school curriculum; they became the means by which generations of children learned literary Latin, and the Italy that these works portray became an idealized rendering of the Roman Empire under Augustus. Their creator quickly assumed the stature of patriot-poet, and his poems acquired mystical interpretations tied to Rome’s destiny.
Vergil was born on October 15, 70 b.c.e., in Andes, a countrified region near the town of Mantua, in Cisalpine Gaul (now Italy). His background appears fixed in the respectable but not particularly wealthy middle class. That is clear from the solid education that he received at Cremona and Rome. Particularly useful in establishing his family’s relatively modest circumstances is the fact that Vergil’s education lacked the philosophical component of study at Athens. By contrast, Vergil’s poet-contemporary Horace (65-8 b.c.e.) had enjoyed this advantage. It is also certain that the region of Vergil’s birth underwent a dramatic shift in its political allegiance during the first century b.c.e. Though part of Cisalpine Gaul was Romanized, it was not until 49 b.c.e. that the residents of Mantua received the rights of Roman citizenship. Thus, it was not until he had reached the age of twenty-one that Vergil could properly consider himself a fully enfranchised Roman.
Previously, instability and violence had filled Italy. Lucius Sergius Catilina (Catiline), the insurrectionist exposed in Cicero’s Catilinarian orations, died fighting against Roman legions; Vergil would have been seven years old at the time. The civil war between Julius Caesar and Gnaeus Pompeius (Pompey), riots in Rome, Caesar’s assassination on the Ides of March (44 b.c.e.), and the civil war between Caesar’s heir Octavian (who assumed the title “Augustus” in 27 b.c.e.) and Marcus Antonius meant that war filled twenty-nine of Vergil’s fifty-one years. All of these factors plus Augustus’s professed determination to create an environment congenial for artists and the flowering of Roman culture could only have led the young Vergil to recognize the special ties that he had with Augustus’s vision of Rome and, at least initially, to work toward its realization.
It appears that Vergil’s father had been a potter or perhaps a day laborer. Ancient sources testify that Vergil’s mother, Maggia Pollia, was of the lower landed gentry and that her family in some way employed the man whom she would marry, but this is essentially speculation. Similarly, the name of Vergil’s mother appears in medieval testimonies as support for belief in the magical powers of Vergil’s work, the poet’s own name etymologized as from virga (“wand”). That accounts for the corruption “Virgil,” familiar as the spelling one finds in many modern texts.
Vergil pursued his higher studies in forensics, though he was without gifts in oratory, and tradition has it that he argued only one case at the bar. Convinced that a future in the courts was impossible for him, Vergil began higher studies in Greek literature with Epidius and in Epicurean philosophy, the vogue at the time because of Lucretius. Around this time, 41 b.c.e., former soldiers of Marcus Antonius armed with senatorial approval claimed a number of farms in Cisalpine Gaul, Vergil’s among them. The commissioners Gallus, Varus, and Pollio recommended that Vergil petition the young Octavius, and this action saved the family farm. Vergil immortalizes this kindness in Eclogue 1 of the Eclogues (43-37 b.c.e.; English translation, 1575; also known as the Bucolics).
Still, it appears that the emperor’s intervention did not reduce the threat to Vergil’s life or that of his father. Roving bands of former soldiers, frustrated at not having obtained the lands promised them, ranged the countryside in search of the peasants who rightly held these lands, and this threat caused Vergil and his father to flee south. For a time, father and son resided with Vergil’s tutor Siro, then in a villa near Nola and at Naples. It was there that Vergil composed his four-book poem on farming known as the Georgics (c. 37-29 b.c.e.; English translation, 1589).
Vergil’s pastorals brought him to the attention of Augustus, as Octavius now styled himself. Augustus had a definite vision of Rome as a sophisticated, urbanized empire that derived its strength from its ancient origins and sturdy peasantry. The Eclogues and Georgics made Vergil the poet most qualified, in the emperor’s view, to treat the legend of Aeneas’s search for “New Troy” in Italy after the Trojan War. Clearly, Augustus hoped for an epic poem in Latin hexameters corresponding to the Iliad (c. 750 b.c.e.; English translation, 1611) and Odyssey (c. 725 b.c.e.; English translation, 1614) of Homer; it was, of course, the magnificent Aeneid (c. 29-19 b.c.e.; English translation, 1553) that he ultimately received.
Augustus almost did not receive the Aeneid. Vergil repeatedly delayed in complying when the emperor requested to hear sections of the work in progress. To what degree it was complete when Vergil had returned ill from his tour of Asia Minor is a moot question. He had, it is certain, asked that the unrevised manuscript of the Aeneid be burned should he be unable to complete its revision. Just as certain is it that Vergil, whose health had always been delicate, contracted fever at Megara (capital of Megaris, a district of Greece on the isthmus of Corinth), and that his health deteriorated rapidly upon reaching Brundisium (now Brindisi, Italy). On his deathbed at Brundisium, Vergil again requested that his poem be destroyed, since he remained dissatisfied with its degree of revision. Vergil died on September 21, 19 b.c.e. Tradition has it that Augustus’s intervention alone saved the Aeneid and that the emperor commissioned Varius and Tucca with its final editing. This process took approximately two years, and thus it was that in 17 b.c.e. Latin literature produced the most eloquent tribute to Roman glory ever written.
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