Roman Poet Vergil Dies Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Vergil requested that his poem the Aeneid be destroyed on his death as he had not finished its revision; the intervention of the emperor Augustus preserved the Roman national epic.

Summary of Event

The death of any great artist is a tragic event, but that of Vergil acquired dramatic tension as well. The poet’s final wish was that his executor should ensure destruction of his masterwork the Aeneid (c. 29-19 b.c.e.; English translation, 1553) should Vergil be unable to give the poem its final revision. The emperor Augustus himself had to intervene to save the manuscript, and he thereby allowed Rome’s great national epic to be born. This simple episode encapsulates so many of the elements that make for a compelling narrative: the death of a great man; the uncertainty of creation; the emergence of a great poem; the connection of art and the political forces of the day. Vergil Augustus Lucius Varius Plotius Tucca

Vergil.

(Library of Congress)

Nothing about the pattern of Vergil’s life would have foreshadowed the extraordinary circumstances that surrounded his death. The specifics of his birth on the Ides of October (October 15), 70 b.c.e., were not especially distinguished: in a rural area called Andes near Mantua to an artisan potter and a mother whose name was Magia Pollia. As happens often in biography, even these humble origins became stylized, highlighted, and magnified through the prism of Vergil’s death.

While she was pregnant with Vergil, Magia Pollia supposedly dreamed that she had given birth to a laurel branch, the laurel being the tree of Apollo, guardian of the Muses. As soon as the branch struck the ground it sprang up into a tree filled with different fruits and flowers. This folktale, which became current after Vergil’s death, plays on the name of the poet himself, virga meaning “wand.” It further recalls the golden bough that allows Aeneas, while still living, to enter the realm of the dead in the Aeneid, book 6.

It is hardly remarkable, therefore, that bibliomancy attached itself almost immediately after Vergil’s death to all his poems. Both his father and his mother appear as magi or “sorcerers” in many of these folktales, most of which emanate from Calabria and spread quickly after the poet’s death throughout the Italian peninsula. It soon became a custom among Calabrian women who had just borne children to plant a poplar sprout as a “Vergil tree” to ensure the health and fame of a newborn child. This tradition began very soon after Vergil’s death and continued through the high Middle Ages, testimony to the influence Vergil had on the popular imagination.

Observers quickly noted every variety of portent connected with Vergil’s life. On the day Vergil assumed the toga virilis (the “toga of manhood” that marked the transition from adolescence to adulthood) at the age of fifteen, the poet Titus Lucretius Carus died. Lucretius, the late Republican poet of the De rerum natura (c. 60 b.c.e.; On the Nature of Things, 1682), is identifiable with demystifying the life-death cycle. While Vergil’s Georgics (c. 37-29 b.c.e.; English translation, 1589), his early poem on the cycle of the farmer’s year, notes the symmetry of nature in the way its Greek model, Hesiod’s Erga kai Emerai (c. 700 b.c.e.; Works and Days, 1618) of Hesiod (fl. c. 700 b.c.e.), does, Vergil’s Homeric-inspired Aeneid consistently emphasizes the mystical nature of passing from this life to another.

The series of heroes who appear in the ekphrasis (procession) of great Romans Aeneas sees in the Underworld in the Aeneid, book 6, marks an important emphasis on the mystical destiny of the Roman people. This destiny is inevitably related to Cumae, the modern Cuma, a volcanically active town on the Bay of Naples and home to the Greek-founded temple of Apollo. It is here that Aeneas enters the Underworld and here that Rome’s destined greatness first receives utterance. The effect is to consistently tie the prophesied greatness of Augustus’s imperial city to the mythic identity of those dead centuries before.

Vergil’s Eclogues (43-37 b.c.e., also known as the Bucolics; English translation, 1575), a series of ten pastoral poems inspired in their general themes by the Greek poet Theocritus (310-250 b.c.e.) that preceded the Aeneid, contains the so-called Messianic Eclogue 4, which prophesies the birth of a child who will free the land of its burdens. Christians as soon as the first century fastened on this golden child as the mystical poet’s recognition of Jesus Christ’s divinity nearly a half century before the fact. This served their purposes because it tied the prophet of Rome’s destiny to their own fated dominance as the City of God. In actuality, the golden child of Eclogue 4 is the man who would become Vergil’s patron, and assume extraordinary importance in his career, Augustus.

What is important to note in all of this is that the dramatic nature of Vergil’s death became a filter through which the poet’s work and biography achieved prophetic and mystical dimensions. Aelius Donatus (fl. 350 c.e.), the author of the first life of Vergil, collects several folk legends in which the poet becomes Augustus’s personal magus. Vergil first shocks, then pleases the emperor when he calls him the son of a baker, by which he meant that Augustus, who was the man leavened by the world, ordered that the poet be given bread when he was hungry. By implication, this completely apocryphal tale ascribes Christian generosity to a pre-Christian. It fastens on the fact that Augustus actually did save Vergil’s homestead farm from the forced land seizures of the Roman civil wars, a fact obliquely celebrated in Eclogue 1.

Vergil labored painstakingly over all his poems. Having worked on the Aeneid for nearly eleven years, he decided, at the age of fifty-one, to make the arduous sea journey to Greece and Asia Minor to complete his final revision of the poem. Supposedly, in Athens he met Augustus, who was returning to Rome from Asia Minor, and it was the emperor himself who convinced him not to remain in Greece and Asia Minor for the three years he had planned.

En route home, Vergil caught sunstroke in the town of Megara, near Athens. He postponed his return to Italy for a time hoping that his fever would abate, but to no avail. He decided to return nevertheless, and though he reached Brundisium (modern Brindisi), he died there a few days later, on September 21, 19 b.c.e., in the consulship of Gnaeus Sentius and Quintus Lucretius. By tradition, Vergil’s bones are interred on the Pozzuoli road outside Naples. The site remains Vergil’s burial place by popular assent, and a famed epitaph marks the spot:

Mantua bore me, the Calabrians snatched me, Now the city of Parthenope’s burial holds me. I have sung of pastures, fields, leaders.

The epitaph is quite elegant. It touches on every facet of Vergil’s life: the city of his birth; the region of his death; identification of Naples, the place of his burial, as the same as that of the siren Parthenope, who threw herself into the sea for love of Odysseus. This oblique reference to the Homeric tradition that Vergil expands in his Aeneid simultaneously links the two poets and identifies Vergil’s poetry with the sirens’ enchanting music. The final phrase sums up the three major poems of Vergil’s career in three words: pastures for the Eclogues; fields for the Georgics; leaders for the Aeneid.

Vergil had requested Lucius Varius to destroy the entire manuscript of the Aeneid should he be unable to finish its revision. This request came either before leaving for his trip to the East or, more dramatically, on his deathbed at Brundisium. Donatus records that Varius refused to do this and claims that Vergil himself called for his scroll-cases while dying. By tradition, Augustus intervened to save the poem and entrusted Varius and Plotius Tucca with the final revision. If one follows Donatus, Vergil acquiesced in this with the stipulation that nothing of the Aeneid appear that he himself had not revised. This is the argument scholars have used for the appearance of half-lines in the poem: that they were originally intended for completion but left unfilled by the master’s direction.

The grammarian Nisus claimed that he had heard testimony that Varius made major revisions, reversing the order of Aeneid books 2 and 3 and subtracting the lines that appear in major Latin editions before the famous invocation Arma virumque cano (Arms and man I sing). Most modern scholars do not believe that Varius made any major changes and hold that the lines appended to the invocation are a scribal insertion.

Significance

Vergil’s works parallel the pastorals of Theocritus and Hesiod as well as the epics of Homer. If Vergil had done nothing except contribute to making Latin a recognized literary language, he would have accomplished a great deal. As it happens, the fortunate preservation of the Aeneid created a national epic that almost immediately after Vergil’s death entered the core curriculum of the Roman schools. It remained so into the high Middle Ages, and what is more acquired the attention of the peasantry of Europe. For them, the Aeneid was a poem with magical qualities that could be used for prophecy.

Dante (1265-1321 c.e.) was clearly aware of the poem’s immense influence. In Inferno, canto 20, Dante’s Virgilio warns the Pilgrim to distrust any text that presents an alternate explanation for the founding of Mantua, the birthplace of Vergil. Ironically, the alternate version appears in Vergil’s own Aeneid. One implication is that Dante’s poem has replaced Vergil’s, though even if this were so it would not have happened until the publication of La divina commedia (c. 1320; The Divine Comedy, 1802, 3 vols.).

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Comparetti, Domenico. Vergil in the Middle Ages. Translated by E. F. M. Benecke. 1872. Reprint. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1997. Has remained the standard volume on Vergilian traditions, legends, and literary heirs.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Johnson, W. R. Darkness Visible: A Study of Vergil’s “Aeneid.” Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976. A revisionist approach to Vergil’s poetry, particularly the Aeneid, that deconstructs the text to find implicit criticism of Augustus and the pax Romana (Roman peace) he had brought by force of arms to the Empire.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Martindale, Charles. Cambridge Companion to Virgil. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997. A multi-authored guide suitable for students and general readers. Emphasis on responses to Vergil over the centuries, particularly by other creative artists.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Otis, Brooks. Virgil: A Study in Civilized Poetry. 1964. Reprint. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1995. A classic study that emphasizes the refinement that its author sees as characteristic of both Vergil’s poetry and the vision that Augustus had for Rome itself. Excellent biographical and critical examinations of all Vergil’s poems.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Vergil. Aeneid. Translated by David West. Reprint. New York: Penguin, 2003.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Vergil. The Eclogues of Virgil. Translated by David Ferry. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2000.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Vergil. Georgics. Translated by L. P. Wilkinson. New York: Penguin Classics, 1983. Vergil’s works in translation.
Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: Ancient World</i>

Augustus; Catullus; Homer; Juvenal; Lucretius; Ovid; Pindar; Sappho; Terence; Vergil.

Categories: History Content