Authors: Vergil

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Roman poet

Author Works


Eclogues, 43-37 b.c.e. (also known as Bucolics; English translation, 1575)

Georgics, c. 37-29 b.c.e. (English translation, 1589)

Aeneid, c. 29-19 b.c.e. (English translation, 1553)


Publius Vergilius Maro, known as Vergil (VUR-juhl), author of one of the most familiar epics in all literature, was born in the village of Andes, in what is today northern Italy, on October 15, 70 b.c.e., only a few decades before the end of the Golden Age of the Roman Republic. It is claimed that his father was a potter who, through hard work and an advantageous marriage, had become a landowner prosperous enough to give his son a superior education. The youth studied under eminent teachers at Cremona and Milan and under the Greek poet and grammarian Parthenius at Naples. At the age of twenty-three Vergil went to Rome to study not only poetry and philosophy but also mathematics and physics under Siro the Epicurean, whose philosophy affected Vergil and his writings throughout his life.{$I[AN]9810000346}{$I[A]Vergil}{$S[A]Maro, Publius Vergilius;Vergil}{$S[A]Publius Vergilius Maro;Vergil}{$I[geo]ROMAN EMPIRE;Vergil}{$I[tim]0070 b.c.e.;Vergil}


(Library of Congress)

Although he was a shy, rustic, and slow-spoken youth, his personal charm and the literary ability evident in his early poems won Vergil the friendship of some of the most cultivated and powerful men in Rome, among them Octavian, Maecenas, Pollio, Horace, and Cornelius Gallus. His popularity was such that in 41 b.c.e., when his farm was threatened with seizure, along with surrounding territories to be divided among the victorious soldiers of the triumvirs returning from the battle of Philippi, his friends were able to intercede at Rome to have it saved. Despite his popularity in the capital, however, Vergil spent much time in retirement on his beloved farm, studying Greek and Roman history and literature.

With the encouragement of his friend Asinius Pollio, Vergil continued work on the Eclogues, which were begun around 43 (some scholars say 45) and finally completed about 37 b.c.e. These idyllic pastoral poems were based on the Idylls of the third century b.c.e. Sicilian poet Theocritus. The setting, structure, and language of the Eclogues are highly imitative, but their greater complexity and artificiality reflect a wider range of observation and the background of a more highly developed civilization. They are also original in their extensive use of allegory and their many laudatory references to the author’s friends.

After the publication of the Eclogues, Vergil took up residence at a country estate near Naples, where he spent most of the rest of his life. It was there that he wrote the Georgics, a didactic poem in four books on the subject of husbandry. Written at the request of Maecenas, who wished to revive an interest in the old Roman virtues of industry and a fondness for rustic life, the poems are considered to be the most technically polished and elaborate of all Vergil’s work. Unlike the rather dry, strictly didactic Works and Days (c. 700 b.c.e.) of the Greek poet Hesiod, on which they were based, the Georgics were obviously never intended to teach the specific techniques of successful agriculture to anyone who did not know them already. What they aimed to do, and did most successfully, was to interest the reader in the lost art of agriculture by making it attractive and interesting to him. This the author did by means of graceful language, imaginative imagery, concrete illustrations, and digressions on various subjects which added much to the charm, if not to the unity, of the work.

Vergil was forty-one years old before he embarked on his lifelong ambition, the composition of a Homeric epic which would commemorate the glory of Rome and his friend the Emperor Augustus and would win back the Roman people, unsettled and corrupted by long civil strife, to their primitive religion and ancient virtues. Ancient legend has Vergil working on the Aeneid for eleven years, but seven seems more accurately to fit the evidence. While traveling in Greece, Vergil fell ill to a fever and returned homeward as far as Brundisium before dying on September 21, 19 b.c.e. Final revisions were not yet completed, but Augustus ordered–against Vergil’s stated wishes–that the work be preserved.

Vergil chose as his topic the voyage of the Trojan hero Aeneas to Italy after the fall of Troy, because Aeneas was the only character in the Homeric tale whom poets had connected with the legendary founding of Rome. Although Vergil borrowed heavily not only from Homer but also from Apollonius, Greek tragedy, and the Latin epic poet Ennius, the total conception and expression were all his own. The skillful handling of the hexameters, the imagery, and the characterizations of the central figures were all original, as was the interweaving of numerous old tales and legends into one comprehensive whole. In the character of Queen Dido, particularly, one finds a “modern” treatment of romantic love and its effects on the human character largely foreign to Greek classical literature. The Aeneid is a literary rather than a “true” epic in that it is the result of conscious artistic effort rather than of natural, gradual evolution. However, there is nothing artificial in Vergil’s deeply rooted patriotic sentiment nor in his unquestioning belief in the divine origin and destiny of the Roman state. His Aeneid remains today one of the most stirring productions of a great civilization.

Further Reading:Benestad, J. Brian. “Paterno on Vergil: Educating for Service.” America 170 (April 2, 1994): 15-17. In this speech, Benestad comments on Penn State’s head football coach, Joe Paterno, and his autobiographical comments on the enormous impression made on him as a student by studying Vergil’s Aeneid. For Paterno, a central message of the epic is that a man’s first commitment is not to himself but to others, for Aeneas was the ultimate team player.Bernard, John D., ed. Vergil at 2000: Commemorative Essays on the Poet and His Influence. New York: AMS Press, 1986. Fifteen essays by noted scholars, concerning most aspects of Vergilian scholarship, including the author’s life and style and his historical background and influence.Commager, Steele, ed. Virgil: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1966. This book of essays discusses everything from the landscape that gave Vergil his inspiration to important imagery in his poetry. Includes a chronology of Vergil’s life and a short bibliography.Comparetti, Domenico. Vergil in the Middle Ages. Translated by E. F. M. Benecke. 1985. Reprint. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1997. This book remains the classic treatment of Vergil’s literary legacy showing how it influenced both education and literature for centuries. It is still the best discussion of Vergilian bibliography available. A respected scholarly source.Frank, Tenney. Vergil: A Biography. 1922. Reprint. New York: Russell and Russell, 1965. This standard biography discusses the poet’s life through references to his works. Particularly interesting is Frank’s use of the pseudo-Vergilian poems Culex and Cirus, the influence of Epicureanism, and his discussion of the circle of Maecenas.Hardie, Philip R. Virgil. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1998. Offers interpretation and criticism of the Aeneid and the Georgics.Jenkyns, Richard. Vergil’s Experience, Nature, and History: Times, Names, and Places. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. This large-scale work concerns itself with examining Vergil’s ideas of nature and historical experience as compared with similar ideas throughout the ancient world. Jenkyns also discusses the influcence of Vergil’s work on later thought.Knight, W. F. Jackson. Roman Vergil. 1944. Reprint. New York: Barnes and Noble Books, 1968. How Vergil changed the literary world and how Augustus changed the political world are two important concerns in this biographical and literary study. There is also good discussion of Vergilian style, meter, and language, as well as appendices on how Vergil’s poetry advanced Latin as a literary language and on the allegorical and symbolic applications of Vergil’s poems.Levi, Peter. Virgil: His Life and Times. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999. This notable work by a leading classics scholar places Vergil in the context of his times.Martindale, Charles, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Virgil. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997. Twenty-one essays (including the editor’s introduction) are divided into four sections covering the translation and reception of Vergil’s works, his poetic career, historical contexts, and the content of his thought. Includes numerous bibliographies.Otis, Brooks. Virgil: A Study in Civilized Poetry. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1995. Excellent work that argues for Vergil as a sophisticated poet who presented mythic, well-known material in a new and meaningful style to his urban readers.Perkell, Christine, ed. Reading Vergil’s “Aeneid”: An Interpretive Guide. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1999. Contains several essays covering various aspects of the work on a book-by-book basis. The editor also provides an introduction discussing the work’s historical background and themes. Several essays on such topics as influences and characters conclude this fine study.Ross, David O. Virgil’s Aeneid: A Reader’s Guide. Boston: Blackwell, 2007. An accessible guide toAeneid that also discusses Virgil’s life and times, and Homer’s influence on his writing. There are six chapters, an appendix and indexes.Rossi, Andreola. Context of War: Manipulation and Genre in Virgilian Battle Narrative. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2004. An excellent study of Vergil’s use of allusion to Homer’s text in the Aeneid. This work points to the classical elements integral to the structure and narrative of the Aeneid, while demonstrating the synthesis of these elements into a new form.Verbart, Andre. “Milton on Vergil: Dido and Aeneas in Paradise Lost.” English Studies 78 (March, 1997): 111-126. Discusses the relationship between Vergil and Milton’s Adam and Eve; notes that in Milton’s epic Adam’s first words to Eve echo Aeneas’s last words to Dido; notes four other parallels that have never been noted and comments on how Vergil’s work has affected the structure of Milton’s epic.Wiltshire, Susan Ford. Public and Private in Vergil’s “Aeneid.” Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1989. An influential study of the theme of duty and public destiny, as well as a consideration of the cost of duty upon the individual in the Aeneid. Examines the ways in which the lessons of the Aeneid are relevant to the modern
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