Who Was Virgil?
Virgil's last and most notable work was the epic poem the Aeneid, where he strove to exemplify what he positioned as Rome’s divine destiny. Written in 12 books, the poem is still regarded as a literary masterpiece today, with some questioning whether the poet also exhibited ambivalence over the cost of empire. After his death, Virgil’s influence continued to inspire other poets throughout the ages.
Publius Vergilius Maro, known in English as Virgil or sometimes Vergil, was born on October 15, 70 B.C. in Andes, near Mantua, Italy. Born into a peasant family, the Italian countryside and its people influenced him early on and was later reflected through his poetry. With his father marrying into a clan of economic means, Virgil received his education at Cremona in Milan and Rome where he studied Greek and Roman authors and poets.
During his younger years, political and military strife afflicted Italy when the Roman Republic dispelled. A civil war between Marius and Sulla was followed by turmoil between Pompey and Julius Caesar. Caesar began a series of civil wars that lasted until the victory of Caesar Augustus (also known as Octavian) in 31 B.C. These experiences seared Virgil deeply, creating an abhorrence and fear of civil war that was often reflected in his text.
Virgil’s earliest work was the Eclogues, written between 42 and 37 B.C. The 10 hexameter poems reflected a stilted exploration of the pastoral world that Virgil perennially revered, with the Greek poet Theocritus providing inspiration for the collection. Virgil's fourth eclogue has also been referred to as his Messianic Eclogue as it told of the birth of a special child whom would bring wide social peace, thus being later seen as prophesying the birth of Jesus Christ. (Some scholars assert the passage most likely referred to the imminent birth of a child of Augustus and his wife Octavia.)
Virgil also composed the Georgics, written between 37 and 30 B.C., towards the end of the civil wars. Georgics focused on the ins and outs of agricultural life, serving as a straightforward treatise supported by Augustus. Rural Italian farms were left in ruins when the war forced farmers to serve, with many countryside denizens ultimately relocating to a packed Rome, much to the emperor's dismay. Virgil’s poetry quickly gained popularity not only due to his national ideals and Italian heritage, but also for his exemplary poetic skills of structure, diction and meter.
Virgil’s last and most notable work was the epic poem the Aeneid, where he strove to exemplify Rome’s divine destiny. Written in 12 books, the poem heavily relied upon Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey from the eighth century B.C. It told the saga of an exiled hero Trojan prince named Aeneid after the destruction of Troy by the Greeks in the 12th century B.C. The poem reflected on the realm of Roman history from its earliest days, foretelling significant events leading to its current reign by Augustus.
One of the most famous passages as noted in a Harvard University reading of the Aeneid is, “Easy is the descent to Avernus, for the door to the underworld lies open both day and night. But to retrace your steps and return to the breezes above—that's the task, that's the toil.”
Virgil spent 11 years working on the Aeneid, left unfinished at the time of his death. His art inspired others such as his younger contemporary, poet Ovid, whose work was reminiscent of Virgil's but with his own bold aesthetic—a practice repeated through the ancient literary Silver Age. The Aeneid was also the inspiration for John Milton’s Paradise Lost, which reflected its epic structure, style and diction.
A testament to the admiration of Virgil can be found in Dante's epic poem, Divine Comedy. In Divine Comedy, Virgil served as Dante's guide as he traveled through Hell to the gates of Heaven. The Aeneid is still regarded as a literary masterpiece today with students continuing to study the work and debate its merits.
Personal Life and Death
The statuesque Virgil never wed and was in fact known to be attracted to men. He also chose not to become deeply involved in affairs of state due to his mild demeanor. Though the poet preferred a country life, he maintained connections with notable members of Roman society and thus wield influence on affairs of state himself.
In 19 B.C. Virgil traveled to Greece where he planned on spending the next three years completing the Aeneid. During his journey he became ill with fever and returned to Italy, where he died on September 21, 19 B.C. soon after arriving at Brundisium (modern day Brindisi). On his deathbed Virgil supposedly requested the destruction of the Aeneid, possibly believing the work to be imperfect or no longer backing its general message, but Augustus is said to have intervened and mandated its publication.
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