The eldest of three sons — his brother Silo died in childbirth, and Flaccus, his other brother, lived only to young manhood — Virgil came from a prosperous family. His father, an industrious potter and cattle farmer, married his landlord’s daughter, worked at beekeeping, and invested in the lumber industry. An ambitious man, he strove to provide Virgil with an aristocratic education to prepare him for a law career.
Virgil attended school in Cremona and then, briefly, in Milan. In 54 or 53 B.C., he went to Rome, where he studied law and rhetoric in the school, or academy, of Epidius. There, he met Octavian, a fellow student, who, as the future emperor Augustus, would become Virgil’s patron. Virgil had intended to become a lawyer as his father wished, but after arguing his first law case he turned to the study of philosophy, finding it more congenial to his temperament.
Virgil’s Early Works
In 49 B.C., the year Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon River with his legions of soldiers and marched on Rome to seize power, Virgil, to escape the civil disturbances that Caesar’s arrival created, left the city and moved to Naples. There, he studied with the philosopher Siro. It is uncertain whether a number of minor poems attributed to Virgil, including “Culex” (“The Gnat”), “Copa” (“The Barmaid”), and “Catalepton” (“Trifles”), were written by him, but if so, some of them may have been completed at this time.
After Caesar’s assassination in 44 B.C., Virgil returned to Mantova, where, a year later, he began the composition of his first important work, a collection of ten poems known as the Eclogues, or “Selections,” sometimes called the Bucolics, or “Pastoral Poems.” Published in 37 B.C., the Eclogues depict the lives and loves of shepherds in idealized rural settings. However, the first and ninth Eclogues, which are more realistic than the others, allude to the politically motivated confiscation of Mantuan farms, which were awarded to war veterans after the forces of Octavian, Lepidus, and Mark Antony defeated Brutus’s and Cassius’s armies at the Battle of Philippi in 42 B.C. When his father’s estate was confiscated in 41 B.C., Virgil appealed to Octavian for restitution, although there is considerable uncertainty and disagreement as to the result of this appeal. The confiscated property may have been regained, or, failing that, residences in Rome and Naples may have been awarded to him as compensation for the loss of his patrimony.
With the publication of the Eclogues, Virgil achieved great popular success. By this time, he had reestablished his friendship with Octavian and had met Maecenas, the future emperor’s wealthy and powerful advisor, whose house was a gathering place for poets and other men of letters. This acquaintance no doubt influenced Virgil’s Georgics, which was his second and final important work before he began writing the Aeneid.
Virgil undertook the Georgics not long after the publication of the Eclogues. A didactic poem of over two thousand lines, the Georgics (“About Farming”) was completed in 30 B.C., after seven years of labor, during which time Virgil lived chiefly in Naples, the city he loved most. On one level, this work, in four books, is about animal husbandry and agricultural methods, topics that might have been suggested by Maecenas, to whom the poem is dedicated, and who was interested in reviving farming as a way of life for war veterans. On a deeper level, the Georgics celebrates the beauty and power of nature and stresses the importance of living in harmony with it. It also contains references to the future emperor Augustus and the peace his reign promises after years of civil war.
Writing the Aeneid
The Aeneid, Rome’s national epic and one of the literary masterpieces of Western civilization, was begun in 30 B.C., and all of Rome, and especially the royal court, followed its progress. As he refined this work during his later years, Virgil led a comfortable, worry-free life, devoting himself to historical research for the Aeneid and enjoying the luxuries that his father’s bequest and the emperor’s patronage provided. Especially encouraged by Augustus, to whom the poem is dedicated, he worked on the epic exclusively until his untimely death eleven years later, when the poem was substantially finished but lacked the final polish that, as a perfectionist, Virgil had hoped to give it.
Virgil had planned to spend three years in Greece and Asia revising the Aeneid while visiting the sites it mentions. He got as far as Athens, where he met Augustus, who, returning from a visit to the island of Samos, persuaded the poet to accompany him to Italy. Already in declining health, Virgil became severely ill en route and died in Brundisium — modern Brindisi — on September 21, 19 B.C., close to his fifty-first birthday. On his deathbed, he reportedly composed a short, subtle epitaph for himself, which his friends inscribed on his now-vanished tomb in Naples: “Mantua me genuit; Calabri rapuere; tenet nunc Parthenope; cecini pascua, rura, duces.” The epitaph, which translates as “Mantua gave me birth, Calabria took me away, and now Naples holds me; I sang of pastures, farms, leaders,” summarizes Virgil’s three great works, which chronicle the history of Rome, from shepherds to farmers to soldiers.
Shortly before his death, Virgil requested that the Aeneid manuscript be destroyed, as he did not want to leave it in its unfinished state, but Augustus, mindful of the genius of a work that would long outlive the passing of his empire, wisely countermanded the poet’s wish. The emperor assigned two of Virgil’s friends, Varius Rufus and Plotius Tucca, to edit the manuscript for publication, but he cautioned them not to make any poetic additions. The work, completed near the end of 18 B.C., achieved immediate acceptance throughout the Mediterranean world as the definitive Roman epic.
Preserving the Aeneid through the Centuries
Three manuscripts of the Aeneid from the fourth and fifth centuries are the basis of the text of the poem in use today. Surprisingly, these manuscripts are relatively free from mistakes and generally agree with one another — evidence that the scribes who reproduced them were working with consistently good, earlier copies of the poem, which had to be painstakingly copied again and again by hand, a method that invited error.
It was the custom when composing by hand, as Virgil did, to write on tablets coated with wax. The text was etched into the wax surface by means of a stylus, an instrument with a sharp point at one end and a flat edge, used for erasing, at the other. Later, professional copyists, using a primitive pen and ink, transcribed the individual books of the Aeneid onto papyrus, a form of paper made from the papyrus plant. The papyrus sheets were then glued together and rolled into a scroll. The reader would hold the scroll in one hand and unwind it with the other onto another spool, a very unwieldy method.
After Virgil’s death, the Aeneid magnified his fame. It was studied in schools, and numerous biographies of the poet were written — a sure sign of popular interest. The earliest and longest of these, dating from the fourth century, is by the grammarian Aelius Donatus, whose source of information was a lost Life of Virgil by the Roman historian Suetonius, who is best known for his Lives of the Caesars, about the first twelve Roman emperors.
Around the end of the fifth century, Ambrosius Macrobius, another grammarian, composed a dialogue called Saturnalia, in which guests at a fictional dinner party discuss the Aeneid. The dialogue offers a picture of Rome’s cultured pagan society as it was just before it became Christian. Among the guests at the dinner is a professor named Servius, who in real life wrote a commentary on the Aeneid that, in spite of factual errors, has been a valuable source of information for later scholars.
Following Rome’s conversion to Christianity, Virgil continued to be highly regarded. During the Middle Ages, he was thought to have had “a naturally Christian soul” — the conventional expression used to identify a person who, it was believed, would have embraced Christianity but for the accident of having been born before Christ. This conviction was based on the evidence of Virgil’s compassionate nature, which is manifested throughout the Aeneid, and on the belief that Virgil had foretold the coming of Christ in the fourth Eclogue, in which he prophesies a golden age of peace and good will ushered in by the birth of a divine child. He also became the subject of many legends that obscured his real importance as a poet by featuring him as a magician with supernatural powers. Still, his works continued to be read; even people who abhorred Rome’s former worship of Jupiter, Minerva, and other pagan gods used Virgil’s texts to teach Latin grammar and style.
During the European Renaissance — roughly, the 1500s to the 1700s, an era marked by a rebirth of interest in classical art, learning, and literature — both Greek and Roman writers were fervently admired and imitated. Knowledge of the Greek language, which had been lost during the Middle Ages, was once more available. Homer was again read in the original, and Virgil was increasingly and universally admired.
The eighteenth century was one that especially esteemed elegance and artifice, and so Virgil was prized. However, under the influence of romanticism, which came toward the end of the century and prevailed in the first part of the next, there was a change in critical standards. Enthusiasm and the free expression of individual feelings were prized by Keats, Shelley, Byron, Wordsworth, and Coleridge — the great poets of this era, and all radically different in spirit from Virgil. For these romanticists, Aeneas represented the hero who favors the founding of a state over the more important goals of personal happiness and fulfillment.
The Aeneid continues to be read today for two main reasons. The first is that, like all successful poets, Virgil expresses in powerful and beautiful language the humanity that we share with him over the centuries that separate us. The second reason why the Aeneid continues to be read is that, along with other Roman writings and achievements, it forms a priceless part of the cultural heritage of modern Western civilization. Although the events described in the epic belong far more to the realm of myth and legend than to actual history, the poem gives us, for that very reason, an idealized picture of the way a great people wished to see themselves and their place in the world. Our understanding of their aspirations adds to our knowledge of our past.
The Aeneid, then, in addition to appealing to us as a timeless work of literature, also has a documentary interest for present-day readers. In this light, it can be seen as an attempt to inculcate in its first readers a reverence for the history of the Roman Empire and a love for traditional Roman virtues and for Rome itself. Many of the laws and customs that were so prized by Romans remain our own, and other achievements of Rome continue to affect us as well. For example, Roman architecture, derived from Greek models but made more daringly massive and imposing because of Roman engineering genius, influenced the style of edifices that have followed down to our own time. Perhaps most important, Latin, in which the Aeneid was written, is the foundation of the modern romance languages — notably French, Spanish, and Italian — now spoken in the countries that occupy the regions that were once part of the Roman Empire, and from which the English language is also derived.
While we cannot approach the epic poem in the patriotic fervor of its first readers, for whom it was a national epic intended to glorify Rome’s power and destiny, the adventures of Aeneas and his followers, who go in search of a new homeland after the Greeks’s destruction of Troy, continue to interest us because they appeal to our basic human desire to believe in a meaningful world watched over and directed by a divine providence, in which heroic perseverance is finally rewarded.