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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 VI, [First, the sky and the earth]

Virgil
                                                              "First,
the sky and the earth and the flowing fields of the sea,
the shining orb of the moon and the Titan sun, the stars:
an inner spirit feeds them, coursing through all their limbs,
mind stirs the mass and their fusion brings the world to birth.
From their union springs the human race and the wild beasts,
the winged lives of birds and the wondrous monsters bred
below the glistening surface of the sea. The seeds of life—
fiery is their force, divine their birth, but they
are weighed down by the bodies' ills or dulled
by earthly limbs and flesh that's born for death.
That is the source of all men's fears and longings,
joys and sorrows, nor can they see the heavens' light,
shut up in the body's tomb, a prison dark and deep.
                                                              "True,
but even on that last day, when the light of life departs,
the wretches are not completely purged of all the taints,
nor are they wholly freed of all the body's plagues.
Down deep they harden fast—they must, so long engrained
in the flesh—in strange, uncanny ways. And so the souls
are drilled in punishments, they must pay for their old offenses.
Some are hung splayed out, exposed to the empty winds,
some are plunged in the rushing floods—their stains,
their crimes scoured off or scorched away by fire.
Each of us must suffer his own demanding ghost.
Then we are sent to Elysium's broad expanse,
a few of us even hold these fields of joy
till the long days, a cycle of time seen through,
cleanse our hard, inveterate stains and leave us clear
ethereal sense, the eternal breath of fire purged and pure.
But all the rest, once they have turned the wheel of time
for a thousand years: God calls them forth to the Lethe,
great armies of souls, their memories blank so that
they may revisit the overarching world once more
and begin to long to return to bodies yet again."

Lines 836-869 from "Book Six: The Kingdom of the Dead," from Virgil: The Aeneid by Virgil, translated by Robert Fagles, copyright © 2006 by Robert Fagles. Used by permission of Viking Penguin, a division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

Lines 836-869 from "Book Six: The Kingdom of the Dead," from Virgil: The Aeneid by Virgil, translated by Robert Fagles, copyright © 2006 by Robert Fagles. Used by permission of Viking Penguin, a division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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
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
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
"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