Places: The Death of Virgil

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: Der Tod des Vergil, 1945 (English translation, 1945)

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Philosophical

Time of work: 19 b.c.e.

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*Brundisium

*Brundisium Death of Virgil, The (brewn-dee-see-uhm). Busy Roman port city on the Adriatic Sea (now Brundisi, Italy). Brundisium is shown first from the sea. On a sunny September evening, the sky is mother-of-pearl over the steel-blue waves of the Adriatic, and the flat hills of the Calabrian coast come gradually nearer on the left. A convoy of seven imperial vessels is carrying Augustus Caesar and Virgil from Athens to Brundisium, where Virgil dies eighteen hours later. As slaves carry him on a litter from the harbor to the citadel, he identifies parts of the city by their distinctive smells: the stench of fish-market stalls, the sweet smell of fermentation from the fruit market, the dusty dryness of grain-sacks, and the shavings and sawdust from carpentry shops. Virgil’s entourage then takes an unexpected turn and goes through an alley, where young and old people live in abject poverty: Misery Street. There is a nauseating stench of excrement, and Virgil finds himself the butt of obscene and nasty jeering. It is unclear how much of Misery Street is real and how much a figment of Virgil’s fever. The young boy leading the litter is visible only to Virgil.


Citadel. Building in Brundisium in whose southwest wing Virgil occupies a guestroom with a window overlooking the city and the distant hills. The room has a mosaic floor, a flowing fountain, and a candelabrum decorated with laurel. There is an armchair, a commode, and a bed surrounded by mosquito netting. Alone and awake during his last night alive, Virgil struggles to the window. Below him are the black tile roofs and lighted streets of the city. Above him the constellations Archer and Scorpion shine in the southern sky. A watchman passes regularly. The city then reveals its sordid side to the silent witness. Three drunken citizens argue and fight about the price of room and board, agreeing with each other only when reviling Augustus.

*Roman Empire

*Roman Empire. Mediterranean civilization that is at its peak at the moment in which this novel is set. Four million citizens of the empire are enjoying a time of peace under Augustus, who has no desire to expand the boundaries of the empire beyond their natural limits. Virgil has glorified the history of the Romans in his unfinished Aeneid, but he senses that Roman rule will be replaced by something that is not quite here but at hand, something that governs by the law of the heart, the reality of love. He is disturbed by the unruliness of the mob and by the crucifixion of thousands of the slaves.


*Andes. Village near Mantua that was Virgil’s birthplace. Virgil feels uncomfortable in urban surroundings. He is a peasant by birth and longs for contact with the earth and the peace of rural life. In his dying fever, it often seems to him that he is back home in Andes. He sees its elm trees, its waving wheat fields, and the Mantuan plain. He smells the wet clay of his father’s pottery and hears his parents’ voices. The nostalgic images of Andes spring from Virgil’s inner landscape.

Fore-court of reality

Fore-court of reality. Virgil’s term for everyday perception and experience. He is convinced that something greater lies beyond. All his life, he has been fascinated with death and has sought to recognize where it may lead. As he lies dying, while still quite cognizant of his surroundings, his universe begins to shift. The light comes and goes, the candelabrum swings, and he becomes aware of things and people who are not subject to the normal restrictions of time and space. He is unexpectedly reunited with Plotia, a woman he did not marry, but whose ring he wears. A star appears in the east, a guiding star that shines night and day. Virgil is on the threshold between life and death.

Second immensity

Second immensity. Place of truth accessible only to the dying. All is seen from within. As Virgil loses all earthly memory, he glides through space and witnesses the entire animal world and then the plant world striving toward the star in the east. The circle of time explodes, and the light plunges into the darkness. Only then is he permitted to turn around and survey once more all of creation. An approaching rumbling sound turns into the word, the word of the oath, the pure word that he cannot retain because it is beyond speech. Hermann Broch takes this view of creation from the Gospel of St. John.

BibliographyDowden, Stephen D., ed. Hermann Broch: Literature, Philosophy, Politics (The Yale Broch Symposium 1986). Columbia, S.C.: Camden House, 1988. Includes articles by Luciano Zagari (“‘Poetry is Anticipation’: Broch and Virgil”) and Vasily Rudich (“Mythical and Mystical in The Death of Vergil: A Response to Luciano Zagari”), which deal directly with The Death of Virgil, as well as other essays from the 1986 Yale Broch Symposium, which offer insights into the entire corpus of Broch’s work.Lützeler, Paul Michael. Hermann Broch: A Biography. Translated by Janice Furness. London: Quartet Books, 1987. A thorough and interesting study, which helps to illuminate the circumstances surrounding the creation of The Death of Virgil.Untermeyer, Jean Starr. “Midwife to a Masterpiece.” In Private Collection. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1965. The personal account of the translator of The Death of Virgil, who worked closely with Broch on the translation during his time at Princeton.Wiegand, Hermann J. “Broch’s Death of Vergil: Program Notes.” PMLA 62 (1947): 525-554. Offers a solid discussion of the novel. Includes a letter from Broch to Wiegand which is historically interesting, though later scholarship shows that Broch’s memory of events leading to the writing of the novel is not always completely reliable.Ziolkowski, Theodore. Virgil and the Moderns. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1993. Particularly valuable for its discussion of Broch’s use of Virgil in relation to other twentieth century writers.
Categories: Places