Virgil (70-19 BCE)

(Virgil Reading the Aeneid to Augustus, Octavia, and Livia, by Jean-Baptiste Wicar (1762–1834), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)

 

The poet Publius Vergilius Maro, better known as Virgil, was born in the rural village of Andes, near the modern day region of Mantua, Italy. He grew up during a tremendous time of tumultuous change. In the 1st Century BCE, the power of the Roman Senate was challenged by many powerful authoritarian figures. The dictator, Lucius Cornelius Sulla, had only been dead for nine years when Virgil was born, and Julius Caesar was leading Roman legions into modern Switzerland, France, Belgium and England during Virgil’s teenage years.

When Virgil was in his twenties, the Roman world descended into a chaotic civil war between Julius Caesar and Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus (Pompey the Great). Viril was cultivating his poetic craft when Caesar and Pompey clashed for control of Rome. From his place of study, Virgil heard news of Caesar’s many victories in battle, the assassination of Pompey in Egypt and Caesar’s campaigns against the last Pompeian forces in Africa and Spain. In 44 BCE, Virgil was only around twenty-six years old when Julius Caesar was assassinated in Rome.

Shortly after Julius Caesar’s assassination, Virgil began his first major work of poetry—Eclogues, produced between 42-37 BCE. Though Virgil’s youth was filled with an atmosphere of war and empire building, the majority of the poet’s work focused on rural and pastoral themes, such as farming and country life in Italy. Virgil was extremely proud of his Italian and Roman identity, but he did not actually receive Roman citizenship until he was around twenty-one years old, when Julius Caesar granted citizenship to the northern Italians in 49 BCE. Virgil’s Ecloguesreflected the poet’s love of the Italian landscape and his disappointment in the civil wars causing death and destruction in Rome.

Though Virgil was reportedly a shy and sometimes reclusive man, the publication of his Eclogues brought the poet to prominence. Virgil’s peers described him as a tall man who dressed with rustic simplicity. In common conversation, Virgil was reported to have been a slow and unimpressive speaker, but when he began to read his poetry, his voice became filled with enough emotion and feeling to possibly challenge the great orator, Cicero. Despite Virgil’s shy and reserved character, his poetic mastery gained him great and powerful friends, including Octavian, the future Emperor Augustus.

While he was in his thirties, Virgil began writing his second book of poetry, the Georgics (composed around 37-30 BCE), when Octavian and Marc Antony were hunting down the assassins of Julius Caesar, and fighting among themselves. The Georgics, like the Eclogues, was about rural life in Italy—particularly farming. By the time Virgil was writing and revising the Georgics, he was a friend of Octavian, and frequently read out his latest lines to the future emperor and any other guests present, such as Octavian’s sister, Octavia. Virgil finished his editing and revising of the Georgics by the time Octavian defeated Marc Antony and Cleopatra in the 31 BCE Battle of Actium. While Octavian was consolidating his power over the Roman Empire, Virgil lost no time embarking on the construction of his third great work, The Aeneid.

Virgil likely began writing his masterpiece, The Aeneid, around 30 BCE, after the Battle of Actium. He continued writing and revising The Aeneid until his death in 19 BCE. For this, his third book of poetry, Virgil set aside his pastoral and rural themes for a grand, epic poem based on the ancient Greek poet, Homer.  The Aeneid expanded on Homer’s character, Aeneas, who was the Trojan son of Aphrodite. Aeneas fought alongside Hector to defend the city of Ilium from the Greeks. In The Aeneid, Virgil sent Aeneas on a journey similar to that of Odysseus in The Odyssey. While Odysseus voyaged back to his hometown of Ithica, Aeneas fled from his massacred home of Troy and set off to find a new life in Italy. Just like in Homer’s works, the gods took sides with or against Aeneas, causing trouble and war. Nevertheless, Aeneas overcame all odds and survived to settle his followers in Italy, laying the groundwork for Romulus and Remus, Aeneas’ descendants who, according to legend, founded Rome.

 It is thought that Virgil spent eleven years working on his Aeneid. He had finished the twelve books of the epic poem, and read most of it to Emperor Augustus (supposedly making the emperor’s sister, Octavia, faint during one reading), before he died from a fever in 19 BCE. Though the poem was complete, he still wanted to spend multiple years editing and revising his work. When he was on his deathbed in modern Brindisi, Italy, Virgil was still worried about the state of The Aeneid. He reportedly told his attendants that he wanted The Aeneid destroyed because it was not yet revised to perfection. It is only thanks to Augustus, who had heard The Aeneid from Virgil’s own mouth, that the great epic poem was saved from destruction and preserved for later generations. Even though the fifty-one year old Virgil on his deathbed did not think his epic poem was ready for publication, The Aeneid still remains widely regarded as a timeless masterpiece to this day.

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