poem index

sign up to receive a new poem-a-day in your inbox

About this poet

On October 15, 70 B.C.E. Publius Vergilius Maro, known in English as Virgil or Vergil, was born in the farming village of Andes, near Mantua, in northern Italy. Not considered citizens of Rome until 49 B.C.E., when Julius Caesar expanded citizenship to include men living north of the Po River, Virgil and his father were nearly displaced from their land after Caesar's assassination in 44 B.C.E., when Octavian, Caesar's adopted son and sole heir, confiscated much of the land in the territory in order to reward army veterans.

Influenced by the greek poet Theocritus, Virgil composed his first major work, the Eclogues (also called the Bucolics), using Homeric hexameter lines to explore pastoral rather than epic themes. The poem reflected the sorrows of the times, and exhibited rhythmic control and elegance superior to that of Virgil's successors. Published in 39 to 38 B.C.E., the Eclogues were an immediate success, and received the attention of Asinius Pollio, who introduced the poet to Octavian and secured for him an education in Milan, Rome, and Naples.

Continuing in the pastoral tradition, Virgil spent seven years writing his next great work, the Georgics—a poem John Dryden called "the best Poem by the best Poet." More than two thousand lines long, and divided into four books, the Georgics were modeled after Hesiod's Works and Days, and praise the experiences of farm life. The poem was written at the request of Maecenas, another patron of the arts, and was first read to Octavian in 29 B.C.E., less than a year after the suicides of Antony and Cleopatra which left Octavian the sole ruler of the Roman world.

In the third book of the Georgics, Virgil foreshadows his next and greatest work, the Aeneid: "Yet soon I will gird myself to celebrate / The fiery fights of Caesar, make his name / Live in the future . . ." Virgil spent the next several years working on what became the national epic of the Roman Empire, borrowing both characters and narrative elements from the Homeric epics in his telling of how the Trojan hero Aeneas became the ancestor of the Romans.

Before the work was finished, however, Virgil decided to travel to Greece in 19 B.C.E. During his travels, he met with Octavian (who had since been given the title Augustus) who convinced Virgil to return with him to Italy. On their way from Athens to Corinth, Virgil caught a fever which grew increasingly severe during their voyage. Virgil died on September 21 and was buried near Naples.

Before his death, Virgil reportedly commanded his literary executors to destroy the unfinished manuscript of his masterwork, but Augustus used his power to ensure the epic's safety, and the Aeneid went on to become a popular textbook in Roman and later medieval schools.

After the collapse of the Roman empire, scholars continued to see the value of Virgil's talents, and the Aeneid lasted as the central Latin literary text. He also found an increasing audience of Christian readers drawn both to his depiction of the founding of the Holy City and to a passage in the fourth Eclogue which was interpreted to be a prophecy of Christ. Much later, Virgil's epic was one of the bases for Dante Alighieri's own masterwork, The Divine Comedy, documenting a journey through hell, during which the character of Virgil acts as a guide.

In addition to his poetry, the sequence of Virgil's career also influenced countless poets who progressed from pastorals to more ambitious epics. This pattern is prominent in the careers of Spenser and Pope and traceable in others, such as Milton and Wordsworth.


Selected Bibliography

Poetry
Ecologues
Georgics
Aeneid

The Aeneid, Book I, [Arms and the man I sing]

Virgil
Arms and the man I sing, who, forced by fate
And haughty Juno's unrelenting hate,
Expelled and exiled, left the Trojan shore.
Long labors, both by sea and land, he bore;
And in the doubtful war, before he won
The Latin realm and built the destined town,
His banished gods restored to rights divine,
And settled sure succession in his line;
From whence the race of Alban fathers come,
And the long glories of majestic Rome.
     O Muse! the causes and the crimes relate,—
What goddess was provok'd, and whence her hate;
For what offense the Queen of Heav'n began
To persecute so brave, so just a man;
Involv'd his anxious life in endless cares,
Expos'd to wants, and hurried into wars!
Can heav'nly minds such high resentment show,
Or exercise their spite in human woe?
     Against the Tiber's mouth, but far away,
An ancient town was seated on the sea,—
A Tyrian colony; the people made
Stout for the war, and studious of their trade:
Carthage the name; belov'd by Juno more
Than her own Argos, or the Samian shore.
Here stood her chariot; here, if Heav'n were kind,
The seat of awful empire she design'd.
Yet she had heard an ancient rumor fly,
(Long cited by the people of the sky,)
That times to come should see the Trojan race
Her Carthage ruin, and her tow'rs deface;
Nor thus confin'd, the yoke of sov'reign sway
Should on the necks of all the nations lay.
She ponder'd this, and fear'd it was in fate;
Nor could forget the war she wag'd of late
For conqu'ring Greece against the Trojan state.
Besides, long causes working in her mind,
And secret seeds of envy, lay behind;
Deep graven in her heart the doom remain'd
Of partial Paris, and her form disdain'd;
The grace bestow'd on ravish'd Ganymed,
Electra's glories, and her injur'd bed.
Each was a cause alone; and all combin'd
To kindle vengeance in her haughty mind.
For this, far distant from the Latian coast
She drove the remnants of the Trojan host;
And sev'n long years th' unhappy wand'ring train
Were toss'd by storms, and scatter'd thro' the main.
Such time, such toil, requir'd the Roman name,
Such length of labor for so vast a frame.
     Now scarce the Trojan fleet with sails and oars
Had left behind the fair Sicilian shores,
Entering with cheerful shouts the watery reign,
And plowing frothy furrows in the main,
When, laboring still, with endless discontent
The Queen of Heaven did thus her fury vent:—
     "Then am I vanquished? must I yield?" said she,
"And must the Trojans reign in Italy?"
So Fate will have it, and Jove adds his force;
Nor can my power divert their happy course.
Could angry Pallas, with revengeful spleen,
The Grecian navy burn and drown the men?
She, for the fault of one offending foe,
The bolts of Jove himself presumed to throw;
With whirlwinds from beneath she tossed the ship
And bare exposed the bosom of the deep:
Then, as an eagle gripes the trembling game,
The wretch , yet hissing with her father's flame,
She strongly seized, and with a burning wound,
Transfixed and naked, on a rock she bound.
But I, who walked in awful state above,
The majesty of heaven, the sister-wife of Jove,
For length of years my fruitless force employ
Against the thin remains of ruined Troy.
What nations now to Juno's power will pray,
Or offerings on  my slighted altars lay?"

From Book One of The Aeneid by Virgil, translated by Edward Fairfax Taylor. First published by J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd., London, 1907.

From Book One of The Aeneid by Virgil, translated by Edward Fairfax Taylor. First published by J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd., London, 1907.

Virgil

Virgil

On October 15, 70 B.C.E. Publius Vergilius Maro, known in English as Virgil or Vergil, in the farming village of Andes, near Mantua, in northern Italy

by this poet

poem
"So, you traitor, you really believed you'd keep
this a secret, this great outrage? Steal away
in silence from my shores? Can nothing hold you back?
Not our love? Not the pledge once sealed with our right hands?
Not even the thought of Dido doomed to a cruel death?
Why labor to rig your fleet when the winter's
poem
When spring begins and the ice-locked streams begin
To flow down from the snowy hills above
And the clods begin to crumble in the breeze,
The time has come for my groaning ox to drag
My heavy plow across the fields, so that 
The plow blade shines as the furrow rubs against it.
Not till the earth has been twice
poem
A grove stood in the city, rich in shade,
Where storm-tost Tyrians, past the perilous brine,
Dug from the ground, by royal Juno's aid,
A war-steed's head, to far-off days a sign
That wealth and prowess should adorn the line.
Here, by the goddess and her gifts renowned,
Sidonian Dido built a stately shrine.
All