Publius Vergilius Maro (Vergil or Virgil in English) was the greatest Latin poet of the Augustan Age, and has been countlessly compared to Homer for his masterpiece epic, the Aeneid.
Vergil’s early life is still debated. He was born on 15 October 70 BCE at Mantua. He was probably educated in Rome, though Naples is another contender, and it may in fact be both. One preface to a poem attributed to Vergil alludes to him being educated “by the Epicurean philosopher Siro” who had a school in Naples, and the first sure work of his, the Eclogues, is familiar with Epicurean teachings.
Vergil lost his ancestral lands in the seizures of 41, but regained them shortly after publishing the Eclogues. It is possible that Maecenas intervened on his behalf after becoming familiar with the poetry. He then joined the circle of poets around Maecenas, along with Horace and Propertius among others, and continued to publish poetry until his death. He died sailing back from Greece where he was researching the land for his magnum opus, the Aeneid.
Vergil was buried at Naples, and on his tomb was:
Mantua me genuit, Calabri rapuere, tenet nunc
Parthenope; cecini pascua, rura, duces.
Mantua bore me, Calabrians seized me, now holds me
Parthenope; I sang of pastures, the countryside, and leaders.
Parthenope was the original name for Naples, named after a siren from the area.
The earliest possible work by Vergil are some poems of the Appendix Vergiliana, a collection of short poems all attributed to Vergil, though it is likely that most date from the first century CE; in fact, it is possible that none of it was written by Vergil.
The earliest work of the authentic works of Vergil’s are the Eclogae (“Eclogues,” sometimes also called the “Bucolics”), ten poems composed in hexameter verse and published sometime after 40 BCE.
These poems extol the rustic, pastoral, and bucolic lifestyle over that of the city, taking Theocritus’ Idylls as a model. It was with Vergil’s Eclogues that Arcadia, long associated with the wilderness, cemented its status as the idyllic countryside. Each poem is portrayed as a dialogue, typically involving shepherds and beloveds in meadows and groves of the countryside.
With Rome divided between Octavian and Antony, though, Vergil introduces political undertones in many of the poems. The first eclogue’s participant, Meliboeus (“Sheep-cow”) lost his lands due to the events from the first Civil War; some understand this as Vergi’s voice, since he too lost his land. In the fourth eclogue, a child was predicted as bringing peace to Rome and her lands; Christians have long interpreted the prediction to be about Christ, but really it was about Octavian, whom Julius Caesar posthumously adopted in his will.
Vergil’s second publication was the Georgica (Georgics, from the Greek γεωργικά, geōrgika, “pertaining to farming”), a manual on agriculture, but written as poetry in hexameters (the usual genre for didactic literature). These were published in four books in 29 BCE on the occasion of Octavian returning triumphant over Antony and Cleopatra.
Vergil’s final work was the Aeneid, an epic in twelve books narrating Aeneas’ journey from Troy after the Trojan War to Italy, where he follows a prophecy to found the “Roman race.” It begins in media res with Aeneas telling his story to Dido, queen of Carthage, after an angry Juno (whose Greek equivalent, Hera, hated the Trojans in the Iliad) causes a storm, which drives Aeneas’ crew to shipwreck at Carthage in Africa. He relates his tale from the sack of Troy (book II) to his adventures in Greece and Sicily (book III), where he encounters figures from the two other great Greek journey epics, the Odyssey (notably the Cyclops) and the Argonautica (the harpies).
After finishing the story up to this point, Venus causes Dido to fall in love with him, though Aeneas eventually spurns her in order to continue fulfilling the prophecy that he will found Rome. By book VI, the crew lands in Italy, where Aeneas seeks out the Sibyl of Cumae, a seeress who leads him to the Underworld once he has obtained a golden bough. There he is led around by his father Anchises and is shown both ghosts of his past and future great men of Rome.
Book VII marks the turning point in the epic, in which he no longer is journeying, but instead establishes himself in central Italy. He meets the king Latinus, who betroths to Aeneas his daughter Lavinia, which in turn would fulfill part of the prophecy. Juno, however, interferes, and causes Amata, the wife of Latinus, to grow irate (she had favored the Rutilian commander Turnus to marry Lavinia) and cause a war between the two peoples. Aeneas heads to Evander (book VIII), a nearby king of where Rome will eventually be built, to recruit allies. He meets Pallas, Evander’s son, and immediately takes to the boy, treating him like a second son.
When Aeneas returns, he finds the two sides already at war due to an assault from the Rutilians (books IX-X). In the battles that ensued, Pallas is killed by Turnus (book X), which prompts a peace treaty (book XI). Before the conclusion of the treaty, a truce was broken (again due to the machinations of Juno), and Turnus challenges Aeneas to a duel, in which the Rutilian leader loses. Aeneas almost showed him mercy, but saw that Turnus was wearing Pallas’ belt, and thus promptly killed him (book XII).
Vergil died before he could publish the epic, but his friends disobeyed his dying wishes by saving the Aeneid instead of throwing it into a fire. Though it is mostly finished and certainly in perfect reading quality, there still remain a few lines that do not fully scan (the so-called “half-lines”).
Vergil was writing the Aeneid at the very height of Augustus’ cultural program. After securing his position of emperor, Augustus set about “making Rome great,” famously having “found Rome a city of bricks and left it a city of marble.” Part of this program was a look toward the past, and Vergil’s Aeneid occupies a central part in establishing not just a Roman epic, but a primordial lineage for Julius Caesar and by extension Augustus. Ascanius, for example, was also given the name Iulus, and it was through him that the gens Iulia, the Julian family, descends, including Julius Caesar. Moreover, in the underworld, Anchises points out the assassination of Julius Caesar as a lamentable tragedy and the ascension of Augustus as a new golden age for the city.
Some scholars today do not think it is wholly propaganda, though. They points problematic sections which seem to undermine Augustan claims. For example, upon exiting the Underworld, Aeneas chooses the gate of dreams, which raises the question how much of what he saw was “real” if everything was just a dream. Moreover, the figure of Aeneas himself, often thought to represent Augustus at some level, is constantly pushed around without any real agency on his own, until the very end when he abandons mercy (a central tenet of Julius Caesar’s reign) for irrational bloodshed. Individually, any number of these kinds of points can be disputed, but when taken all together they present a real reason to see Vergil’s skepticism of the Augustan regime. If true, this can be partially explained as coming from Vergil’s latent anger in having his ancestral lands stripped from him by Augustan forces during the war with Antony.
Not long after publication, Vergil’s Aeneid was heralded as an instant masterpiece and quickly rose to canonical status. For it, Vergil became one of the most praised poets of all of Latin literature, but especially of epic poetry. Quintilian, in discussing Roman poets, quotes a conversation with Domitius After:
I asked what poet in his opinion came nearest to Homer, and he replied, “Vergil came nearest to Homer, but is nearer first than third.” And in truth, although we must bow before the immortal and superhuman genius of Homer, there is greater diligence and exactness in the work of Vergil […] The superior uniformity of the Roman’s excellence balances Homer’s pre-eminence in his outstanding passages.
The Aeneid’s impact on the literary world was immediate. Its presence and influence was felt throughout Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Lucan’s Pharsalia, and even as the latter attempted to subvert the epic conventions perfected by Vergil.
Vergil’s Aeneid very soon after became mandatory reading for all Roman school children. Augustine recalled learning it as a child and remembered weeping for the death of Dido, something he regretted after his conversion to Christianity.
Vergil’s other works were likewise held in such a high regard. Whereas before Vergil, the model for bucolic poetry was Theocritus’ Idylls, Vergil transformed the genre, solidifying the role of the rustic in the setting. Arcadia became the location par excellence for the ideal shepherd in his ideal, idyllic life, far from the city, playing the lyre over their sheep. The specifically Vergilian models were adopted by Latin poets in the first century CE like Calpurnius Siculus and Nemesianus.
Perhaps by association with virga (which can mean inter alia a “magic wand”) and because of his descriptions of the underworld in book 6, Vergil himself was used by Dante as his guide to hell, purgatory, and heaven in his Divine Comedy; this association is also why his name is variably spelled Virgil.
Latet anguis in herba.
“The snake lies hidden in the grass.”
Incipe, parve puer, risu cognoscere matrem.
“Begin, little child, to recognize your mother with a smile.”
Omnia vincit Amor: et cedamus Amori.
“Love conquers all; we too will yield to Love.”
Audacibus adnue coeptis.
“Approve of our bold beginnings.” Adopted as one of US mottoes as Annuit Coeptis.
Labor omnia vicit.
“Hard work conquered everything.
Arma virumque cano.
“I sing of arms and a man.”
Forsan et haec olim meminisse iuuabit.
“Perhaps even these things will one day be pleasing to remember.”
Dux femina facti.
“The woman was the leader of the deed.”
Quidquid id est, timeo Danaos et dona ferentis.
“Whatever it is, I fear the Greeks even bearing gifts.” Said about the Trojan horse.
Facilis descensus Averno
“The descent to hell is easy.”
opta ardua pennis astra sequi
“Choose to follow the difficult stars on wings.”
- Cairns, Francis. 1989. Virgil’s Augustan Epic. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.
- Michael C. J. Putnam 1995. Virgil’s Aeneid: Interpretation and Influence. University of North Carolina Press.
- Yasmin Syed, Vergil’s Aeneid and the Roman Self: Subject and Nation in Literary Discourse. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2005.
- Joseph Farrell & Michael C. J. Putnam edd. 2010. A Companion to Vergil’s Aeneid and Its Tradition. Wiley Blackwell.
- Philip Thibodeau, Playing the Farmer: Representations of Rural Life in Vergil’s Georgics. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011.