Publius Vergilius Maro, known as Vergil, produced three important works of poetry in Latin. One of these, his epic* the Aeneid, which describes the founding of Rome, is considered the greatest masterpiece in Latin literature. The Romans regarded the Aeneid as their national poem. Since its publication in the late first century B.C., it has been one of the central masterpieces in Western literature.
Vergil’s life coincided with the period of civil wars that resulted in the end of the Roman Republic* and the beginning of the Roman Empire. Like all educated Romans, he was drawn to the art, literature, and culture of Greece, as well as the simplicity of the rural life of the early republic. Vergil thought that the great political and military power of Rome threatened the values of both Greece and early Rome. He devoted his last and most ambitious poetic work to Rome’s origins and its destiny.
* epic long poem about legendary or historical heroes, written in a grand style
* Roman Republic Rome during the period from 509 B.C. to 31 B.C., when popular assemblies annually elected their governmental officials
Vergil's Life. Vergil was born in the tiny village of Andes near the city of Mantua in northern Italy. Little is known about his family. According to some ancient sources, his father was either a pottery maker or a messenger. If so, Vergil’s mother probably came from a wealthier background because the family had enough money to provide Vergil with a good education. As a young man, he may have studied in the northern cities of Milan and Cremona before completing his education in Rome, where he studied rhetoric* and other subjects.
Vergil intended to have a political career as a senator. However, he became more interested in poetry after meeting friends of the poet Catullus, and he soon turned his attention entirely to literature. Vergil’s first book of poetry, the Eclogues, appeared around 36 B.C. It attracted the attention of a wealthy Roman named Maecenas, who was a patron* of the arts. Maecenas introduced Vergil to the poet Horace, who became Vergil’s close friend, and to Octavian, who later became the emperor Augustus. Soon after publication of the Eclogues, Vergil moved to the coastal city of Naples, south of Rome. For the rest of his life, he considered Naples his home. After completing his second book, the Georgies, around 29 B.C., Vergil began work on the Aeneid.
* rhetoric art of using words effectively in speaking or writing
* patron special guardian, protector, or supporter
Author of the monumental Roman epic the Aeneid, Vergil is shown here with two Muses—the spirits who were believed to inspire the great poets, writers, and artists.
Ten years later, still rewriting and polishing his epic, Vergil visited Greece. On his way home, he became ill and died in the southern Italian city of Brundisium (modern Brindisi). He was buried near the walls of Naples. According to legend, Vergil wrote his own epitaph* as he lay on his deathbed:
Mantua produced me,
Calabria ravished me,
Naples keeps me now.
I have sung of pastures, fields, leaders.
Vergil’s Works. The Eclogues is a collection of ten pastoral poems, modeled on the works of the Hellenistic* poet Theocritus. Pastoral poems are set in a beautiful countryside, where simple shepherds and goatherds sing and dance and talk about love. Although this poetry appears simple and natural at first glance, pastoral poems are carefully constructed. They include many learned references to earlier poets, the ancient gods and goddesses, and myths and legends.
The poems in Vergil’s Eclogues are arranged so that they tell a story when read in order. The first poem describes how the peaceful pastoral life was shattered when the Roman government seized the shepherds’ land to give to former soldiers. Some historians believe that Vergil’s father may have been one of the many Italians who lost their land in this way. Other poems speak of the glorious past and the possible arrival of a new golden age in the future. The most famous of the ten poems is the fourth, in which Vergil wrote of the coming of a child, during whose lifetime the golden age would return. Christians later claimed that this poem foretold the birth of Jesus. For this reason, Christians held Vergil in special regard, believing that he was nobler than the other pagan* poets of the ancient world.
* epitaph brief statement about a person’s life; usually inscribed on a tombstone or monument
* Hellenistic referring to the Greek-influenced culture of the Mediterranean world during the three centuries after Alexander the Great, who died in 323 B.C.
The final poems of the Eclogues return to the shepherds who, driven off the land, walk toward the city. In these poems, which touch on the topics of loss, age, and decay, Vergil asked what value poetry has in the face of human suffering. He did not answer the question but left it for his readers to ponder.
The Georgies, Vergil’s second work, is a collection of four poems about farming. Each poem is more than 500 lines long. Together they contain a wealth of information about Roman agricultural practices, such as how to make a plow and how to cure the diseases of sheep. Yet the poems are not simply celebrations of country life. Vergil used the subject matter of farming to examine human misery, art, time, war, civilization, and death. The fourth Georgic deals with beekeeping, but in this poem Vergil’s bees are actually a metaphor* for Roman society. Throughout the Georgies, he returned again and again to the question of whether human happiness is possible in this world. Scholars who study the Georgies cannot agree on whether it presents a hopeful or a gloomy view of human existence.
In writing the Aeneid, his third and greatest work, Vergil knew that he was competing with Homer, who composed the Iliad and the Odyssey. The Romans knew Homer’s poems well and regarded them as the standard against which all other epics must be measured. Vergil linked his own poem to the Homeric* epics in two ways. First, he deliberately echoed Homer’s stories and language in the Aeneid. Second, the Trojan War, which was the setting for the story of the Iliad, becomes the first event not only of the Aeneid but of Roman history.
The epic’s hero, Aeneas, is a leader of Troy who escapes from his doomed city along with a small band of followers. Aeneas sails westward to find a place to resettle, but he and his men are shipwrecked off the coast of North Africa. There Aeneas falls in love with Dido, the beautiful queen of Carthage. However, the gods order Aeneas to continue on his journey until he reaches Italy, and in her despair at Aeneas’s leaving, Dido takes her own life. Upon reaching Italy, Aeneas visits the underworld, where he learns about his future descendants, the Romans. A local king, Latinus, offers him and his followers land on which to settle and offers Aeneas his daughter’s hand in marriage. However, the inhabitants of the kingdom consider the Trojans a threat, and a war breaks out, with tragic losses on both sides. In the end, the fighting comes to a climax with a single combat between Aeneas and Turnus, the intended husband of the king’s daughter. Aeneas is the victor, and he founds a city on the banks of the Tiber River, the city that will one day become Rome.
The Aeneid describes events that occurred a thousand years before Vergil’s time. But Vergil also wrote about the Rome of his day and about Rome’s future. At several points in the Aeneid, characters in that ancient, remote world have visions of the Augustan city in the future—the Rome of Vergil and Augustus. In creating an epic past for Rome, a nation born in war, Vergil also explored Roman values, such as pietas, the duty of individuals to act with reverence for their ancestors and fatherland. He also raised challenging questions about the tragedy of war and the possibility of peace.
Vergil was greatly admired both in his own time and by succeeding generations. Just 100 years after Vergil’s death, his works were being studied as textbooks by Roman students. Later many early Christian writers admired his verses. Dante, the great Italian poet of the A.D. 1300s, based his Divine Comedy on a portion of the Aeneid. From the 1500s through the 1700s, many English writers considered Vergil the ideal poet, and many of their works, such as John Milton’s epic Paradise Lost, reflect Vergil’s style. In the 1800s, William Wordsworth and Alfred, Lord Tennyson were also influenced by the great Roman poet. (See also Epic, Roman; Literature, Roman; Poetry, Roman.)
* pagan referring to a belief in more than one god; non-Christian
* metaphor literary device that uses one word or idea in place of another to suggest a likeness
* Homeric referring to the Greek poet Homer; the time in which he lived, or his works
Dido, one of the most memorable figures in the Aeneid, is also the subject of an earlier legend. According to this legend, Dido was the daughter of King Belus of Tyre. She fled to Africa with many followers after her brother killed her husband, Sychaeus. There she founded the great city of Carthage but took her own life to escape marrying the African prince larbas. Vergil used the powerful character of Dido In his own epic but changed her story slightly. Vergil's Dido commits suicide when Aeneas, whom she has treated as a husband, leaves her. Aeneas later sees Dido in the underworld, but by then she is happily reunited with Sychaeus and will not look at Aeneas.