(b. Oct. 15, 70 BCE, Andes, near Mantua [Italy]—d. Sept. 21, 19 BCE, Brundisium)
The Roman poet Virgil, best known for his national epic, the Aeneid (from c. 30 BCE), was regarded by the Romans as their greatest poet, an estimation that subsequent generations have upheld. His fame rests chiefly upon the Aeneid, which tells the story of Rome’s legendary founder and proclaims the Roman mission to civilize the world under divine guidance.
Virgil, whose Latin name was Publius Vergilius Maro, was born of peasant stock. He was educated at Cremona, at Milan, and finally at Rome, acquiring a thorough knowledge of Greek and Roman authors, especially of the poets, and receiving a detailed training in rhetoric and philosophy.
During Virgil’s youth, as the Roman Republic neared its end, the political and military situation in Italy was confused and often calamitous. The civil war between Marius and Sulla had been succeeded by conflict between Pompey and Julius Caesar for supreme power. When Virgil was 20, Caesar with his armies swooped south from Gaul, crossed the Rubicon, and began the series of civil wars that were not to end until Augustus’s victory at Actium in 31 BCE. Hatred and fear of civil war is powerfully expressed by both Virgil and his contemporary Horace.
Virgil’s life was devoted entirely to his poetry and studies connected with it. His health was never robust, and he played no part in military or political life. It is said that he spoke once in the law courts without distinction and that his shy and retiring nature caused him to give up any ideas he might have had of taking part in the world of affairs. He never married, and the first half of his life was that of a scholar and near recluse. But, as his poetry won him fame, he gradually won the friendship of many important men in the Roman world.
Virgil’s earliest certain work is the Eclogues, a collection of 10 pastoral poems composed between 42 and 37 BCE. Some of them are escapist, literary excursions to the idyllic pastoral world of Arcadia based on the Greek poet Theocritus (fl. c. 280 BCE) but more unreal and stylized. One eclogue in particular stands out as having relevance to the contemporary situation, and this is the fourth (sometimes called the Messianic, because it was later regarded as prophetic of Christianity). It is an elevated poem, prophesying in sonorous and mystic terms the birth of a child who will bring back the Golden Age, banish sin, and restore peace. It was clearly written at a time when the clouds of civil war seemed to be lifting; it can be dated firmly to 41–40 BCE. It seems most likely that Virgil refers to an expected child of the triumvir Antony and his wife Octavia, sister of Octavian. But, though a specific occasion may be allocated to the poem, it goes beyond the particular and, in symbolic terms, presents a vision of world harmony, which was, to some extent, destined to be realized under Augustus.
One of the most disastrous effects of the civil wars— and one of which Virgil, as a countryman, would be most intensely aware—was the depopulation of rural Italy. The farmers had been obliged to go to war, and their farms fell into neglect and ruin as a result. The Georgics, composed between 37 and 30 BCE (the final period of the civil wars), is a plea for the restoration of the traditional agricultural life of Italy. It is dedicated to Maecenas, one of the chief of Augustus’s ministers, who was also the leading patron of the arts. By this time Virgil was a member of what might be called the court circle, and his desire to see his beloved Italy restored to its former glories coincided with the national requirement of resettling the land and diminishing the pressure on the cities. It would be wrong to think of Virgil as writing political propaganda; but equally it would be wrong to regard his poetry as unconnected with the major currents of political and social needs of the time. Virgil was personally committed to the same ideals as the government.
In the year 31 BCE, when Virgil was 38, Augustus (still known as Octavian) won the final battle of the civil wars at Actium against the forces of Antony and Cleopatra. Virgil, like many of his contemporaries, felt a great sense of relief that the civil strife was at last over and was deeply grateful to the man who had made it possible. Augustus was anxious to preserve the traditions of the republic and its constitutional forms, but he was in fact sole ruler of the Roman world. He used his power to establish a period of peace and stability and endeavoured to reawaken in the Romans a sense of national pride and a new enthusiasm for their ancestral religion and their traditional moral values (bravery, parsimony, duty, responsibility, and family devotion). Virgil, too, felt a deep attachment to the simple virtues and religious traditions of the Italian people. All his life he had been preparing himself to write an epic poem (regarded then as the highest form of poetic achievement), and he now set out to embody his ideal Rome in the Aeneid, the story of the foundation of the first settlement in Italy, from which Rome was to spring, by an exiled Trojan prince after the destruction of Troy by the Greeks in the 12th century BCE.
The theme he chose gave him two great advantages. One was that its date and subject were very close to those of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, so that Virgil could remodel episodes and characters from his great Greek predecessor. The other was that it could be brought into relationship with his contemporary Augustan world by presenting Aeneas as the prototype of the Roman way of life (the last of the Trojans and the first of the Romans). Moreover, by the use of prophecies and visions and devices such as the description of the pictures on Aeneas’s shield or of the origins of contemporary customs and institutions, it could foreshadow the real events of Roman history.
The real greatness of the Aeneid is due to Virgil’s awareness of the private, as well as the public, aspects of human life. The Aeneid is no panegyric; it sets the achievements and aspirations of the giant organization of Roman governmental rule in tension with the frustrated hopes and sufferings of individuals. The most memorable figure in the poem and, it has been said, the only character to be created by a Roman poet that has passed into world literatur —is Dido, Queen of Carthage, opponent of the Roman way of life. In a mere panegyric of Rome, she could have been presented in such a way that Aeneas’s rejection of her would have been a victory to applaud. In fact, in the fourth book she wins so much sympathy that the reader wonders whether Rome should be bought at this price.
The Aeneid occupied Virgil for 11 years and, at his death, had not yet received its final revision. In 19 BCE, planning to spend a further three years on his poem, he set out for Greece—doubtless to obtain local colour for the revision of those parts of the Aeneid set in Greek waters. On the voyage he caught a fever and returned to Italy but died soon after arrival at Brundisium. Whether the Aeneid would have undergone major changes cannot be guessed. The story goes that Virgil’s dying wish was for his poem to be burned, but that this request was countermanded by the order of Augustus.