Virgil

70-19 BC

Publius Vergilius Maro (October 15, 70 September 21, 19 BC), usually called Virgil in English, was an ancient Roman poet of the Augustan period. He composed three of the most famous poems in Latin literature: the Eclogues (or Bucolics), the Georgics, and the epic Aeneid. A number of minor poems, collected in the Appendix Vergiliana, were attributed to him in ancient times, but modern scholars consider his authorship of these poems as dubious. Virgil's work has had wide and deep influence on Western literature, most notably Dante's Divine Comedy, in which Virgil appears as the author's guide through Hell and Purgatory. Virgil has been traditionally ranked as one of Rome's greatest poets. His Aeneid is also considered a national epic of ancient Rome, a title held since composition.




Early Work

According to the commentators, Virgil received his first education when he was five years old and he later went to Cremona, Milan, and finally Rome to study rhetoric, medicine, and astronomy, which he soon abandoned for philosophy. From Virgil's admiring references to the neoteric writers Pollio and Cinna, it has been inferred that he was, for a time, associated with Catullus' neoteric circle.

According to Servius, schoolmates considered Virgil extremely shy and reserved, and he was nicknamed "Parthenias" or "maiden" because of his social aloofness. Virgil also seems to have suffered bad health throughout his life and in some ways lived the life of an invalid.

According to the Catalepton, he began to write poetry while in the Epicurean school of Siro in Naples. A group of small works attributed to the youthful Virgil by the commentators survive collected under the title Appendix Vergiliana, but are largely considered spurious by scholars. One, the Catalepton, consists of fourteen short poems some of which may be Virgil's, and another, a short narrative poem titled the Culex ("The Gnat"), was attributed to Virgil as early as the 1st century AD.




The Eclogues

The biographical tradition asserts that Virgil began the hexameter 10 Eclogues (or Bucolics) in 42 BC and it is thought that the collection was published around 39-38 BC, although this is controversial.

The Eclogues (from the Greek for "selections") are a group of ten poems roughly modeled on the bucolic (that is, "pastoral" or "rural") poetry of the Hellenistic poet Theocritus, which were written in dactylic hexameter. After defeating the army led by the assassins of Julius Caesar in the Battle of Philippi (42 BC), Octavian tried to pay off his veterans with land expropriated from towns in northern Italy, which - according to tradition - included an estate near Mantua belonging to Virgil. The loss of Virgil's family farm and the attempt through poetic petitions to regain his property have traditionally been seen as his motives in the composition of the Eclogues.

This is now thought to be an unsupported inference from interpretations of the Eclogues. In Eclogues 1 and 9, Virgil indeed dramatizes the contrasting feelings caused by the brutality of the land expropriations through pastoral idiom but offers no indisputable evidence of the supposed biographic incident.

While some readers have identified the poet himself with various characters and their vicissitudes, whether gratitude by an old rustic to a new god (Ecl. 1), frustrated love by a rustic singer for a distant boy (his master's pet, Ecl. 2), or a master singer's claim to have composed several eclogues (Ecl. 5), modern scholars largely reject such efforts to garner biographical details from works of fiction, preferring to interpret an author's characters and themes as illustrations of contemporary life and thought.

The ten Eclogues present traditional pastoral themes with a fresh perspective. Eclogues 1 and 9 address the land confiscations and their effects on the Italian countryside. 2 and 3 are pastoral and erotic, discussing both homosexual love (Ecl. 2) and attraction toward people of any gender (Ecl. 3). Eclogue 4, addressed to Asinius Pollio, the so-called "Messianic Eclogue", uses the imagery of the golden age in connection with the birth of a child (who the child was meant to be has been subject to debate). 5 and 8 describe the myth of Daphnis in a song contest, 6, the cosmic and mythological song of Silenus; 7, a heated poetic contest, and 10 the sufferings of the contemporary elegiac poet Cornelius Gallus.

Virgil is credited in the Eclogues with establishing Arcadia as a poetic ideal that still resonates in Western literature and visual arts, and setting the stage for the development of Latin pastoral by Calpurnius Siculus, Nemesianus and later writers.




The Georgics

Sometime after the publication of the Eclogues (probably before 37 BC), Virgil became part of the circle of Maecenas, Octavian's capable agent d'affaires who sought to counter sympathy for Antony among the leading families by rallying Roman literary figures to Octavian's side. Virgil came to know many of the other leading literary figures of the time, including Horace, in whose poetry he is often mentioned,[10] and Varius Rufus, who later helped finish the Aeneid.

At Maecenas' insistence (according to the tradition) Virgil spent the ensuing years (perhaps 3729 BC) on the long didactic hexameter poem called the Georgics (from Greek, "On Working the Earth") which he dedicated to Maecenas. The ostensible theme of the Georgics is instruction in the methods of running a farm. In handling this theme, Virgil follows in the didactic ("how to") tradition of the Greek poet Hesiod's Works and Days and several works of the later Hellenistic poets.

The four books of the Georgics focus respectively on raising crops and trees (1 and 2), livestock and horses (3), and beekeeping and the qualities of bees (4).

Well-known passages include the beloved Laus Italiae of Book 2, the prologue description of the temple in Book 3, and the description of the plague at the end of Book 3. Book 4 concludes with a long mythological narrative, in the form of an epyllion which describes vividly the discovery of beekeeping by Aristaeus and the story of Orpheus' journey to the underworld.

Ancient scholars, such as Servius, conjectured that the Aristaeus episode replaced, at the emperor's request, a long section in praise of Virgil's friend, the poet Gallus, who was disgraced by Augustus, and who committed suicide in 26 BC.

The Georgics' tone wavers between optimism and pessimism, sparking critical debate on the poet's intentions, but the work lays the foundations for later didactic poetry. Virgil and Maecenas are said to have taken turns reading the Georgics to Octavian upon his return from defeating Antony and Cleopatra at the Battle of Actium in 31 BC.




The Aeneid

Virgil reading his Aeneid to EmperorAugustus


The Aeneid is widely considered Virgil's finest work, and is regarded as one of the most important poems in the history of Western literature (T. S. Eliot referred to it as 'the classic of all Europe'). The work (modeled after Homer's Iliad and Odyssey) chronicles a refugee of the Trojan War, named Aeneas, as he struggles to fulfill his destiny. His intentions are to reach Italy, where his descendants Romulus and Remus are to found the city of Rome.

Virgil worked on the Aeneid during the last eleven years of his life (29-19 BC), commissioned, according to Propertius, by Augustus. The epic poem consists of 12 books in dactylic hexameter verse which describe the journey of Aeneas, a warrior fleeing the sack of Troy, to Italy, his battle with the Italian prince Turnus, and the foundation of a city from which Rome would emerge.

The Aeneid's first six books describe the journey of Aeneas from Troy to Rome. Virgil made use of several models in the composition of his epic, Homer, the pre-eminent author of classical epic, is everywhere present, but Virgil also makes special use of the Latin poet Ennius and the Hellenistic poet Apollonius of Rhodes among the various other writers to which he alludes.

Although the Aeneid casts itself firmly into the epic mode, it often seeks to expand the genre by including elements of other genres such as tragedy and aetiological poetry. Ancient commentators noted that Virgil seems to divide the Aeneid into two sections based on the poetry of Homer; the first six books were viewed as employing the Odyssey as a model while the last six were connected to the Iliad.

Book 1 (at the head of the Odyssean section) opens with a storm which Juno, Aeneas' enemy throughout the poem, stirs up against the fleet. The storm drives the hero to the coast of Carthage, which historically was Rome's deadliest foe. The queen, Dido, welcomes the ancestor of the Romans, and under the influence of the gods falls deeply in love with him.

At a banquet in Book 2, Aeneas tells the story of the sack of Troy, the death of his wife, and his escape, to the enthralled Carthaginians, while in Book 3 he recounts to them his wanderings over the Mediterranean in search of a suitable new home.

Jupiter in Book 4 recalls the lingering Aeneas to his duty to found a new city, and he slips away from Carthage, leaving Dido to commit suicide, cursing Aeneas and calling down revenge in symbolic anticipation of the fierce wars between Carthage and Rome.

In Book 5, funeral games are celebrated for Aeneas' father Anchises, who had died a year before.

On reaching Cumae, in Italy in Book 6, Aeneas consults the Cumaean Sibyl, who conducts him through the Underworld where Aeneas meets the dead Anchises who reveals Rome's destiny to his son.

Book 7 (beginning the Iliadic half) opens with an address to the muse and recounts Aeneas' arrival in Italy and betrothal to Lavinia, daughter of King Latinus. Lavinia had already been promised to Turnus, the king of the Rutulians, who is roused to war by the Fury Allecto, and Amata Lavinia's mother.

In Book 8, Aeneas allies with King Evander, who occupies the future site of Rome, and is given new armor and a shield depicting Roman history.

Book 9 records an assault by Nisus and Euryalus on the Rutulians; Book 10, the death of Evander's young son Pallas; and 11 the death of the Volscian warrior princess Camilla and the decision to settle the war with a duel between Aeneas and Turnus.

The Aeneid ends in Book 12 with the taking of Latinus' city, the death of Amata, and Aeneas' defeat and killing of Turnus, whose pleas for mercy are spurned. The final book ends with the image of Turnus' soul lamenting as it flees to the underworld.






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