Publius Vergilius Maro, better known as Virgil, was a well-known ancient Roman poet of the Augustan period, who was regarded by Roman poets as the greatest among them. He is mainly known for his work ‘The Aeneid’, which is the story of Rome’s legendary founder, Aeneas. From the time of its composition till the present day, this work has been considered the national epic in Rome. Despite the veneration he received in Rome, not much is known about his early life and family. Some scholars are of the belief that Virgil was born into a family of humble means and considered pursuing a career in law before becoming a poet. Romans not only regarded him as their own national poet, but also the spokesman of their ideals and achievements. A much respected figure, he is believed to have reached the ultimate perfection in his art which is reflected in the fact that his poems were used as school textbooks during the 1st century AD. His works have also had a deep influence on Western literature, which is another reason why he is still widely remembered today.
Childhood & Early Life
Virgil was born on October 15, 70 BC, in a village named Andes, near Mantua, in Northern Italy where he also spent most of his early life. His family was of a humble background, though not much is known about them.
He is believed to have started taking formal education from around the age of five. He is said to have travelled to Cremona, Milan and Rome, to study rhetoric, medicine as well as astronomy. He later abandoned these and took up philosophy. He is also believed to have been extremely shy and reserved, and according to many sources, he suffered from poor health almost all his life.
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Most of the poems Virgil wrote in his early life can be found in the collection ‘Appendix Vergiliana.’ But later, scholars learnt that this collection contained poems of other poets from the 1st Century AD as well.
He was mostly influenced by the Greek poet Theocritus, whose poetry inspired his first work ‘The Eclogues’ which was published around 39-38 BC. It was the dramatic interpretation of the revolutionary changes that happened in Rome in the period between 44 and 38 BC.
The work was a combination of visionary politics, as well as eroticism, which made his work an immediate success, and received wide attention. It also caught the attention of the famous Asinius Pollio, an influential poet, politician, as well as a literary critic. Pollio introduced Virgil to Octavian and secured his education in Milan, Rome as well as Naples.
His second work ‘Georgics’ was composed between 37 and 30 BC. It was a plea to several agricultural deities including Augustus, asking for the restoration of the traditional agricultural life that existed in Italy.
‘Georgics’ also had an instruction on things like plowing, growing trees, beekeeping, etc., though the purpose was believed to entertain readers rather than educate farmers. Though Virgil’s work can’t be regarded as political propaganda, it would also be wrong to say that his work wasn’t at all connected to the political scenario of that period.
The Aeneid (His Major Work)
Not only is ‘The Aeneid’ considered Virgil’s finest work, but it is also considered one of the most important works in English literature as well. He had worked on it for the last eleven years of his life (29–19 BC).
The first chapters of the epic deal with the fall of Troy, and how Aeneas, the hero, has to leave his city with his family. During the flight, he loses Creusa, his wife, who before dying tells him to follow his destiny, which is to build a great city and find a royal bride. Aeneas later tells his story to Dido, who falls for him, and pursues him relentlessly.
But because Aeneas has to leave her to pursue his destiny, Dido becomes so distraught that she builds a funeral pyre and slays herself on it using Aeneas's sword. Meanwhile Aeneas and his men continue their journey to find their destiny. Later, he meets the Cumaean Sibyl, the priestess presiding over the Apollonian Oracle at Cumae. She connects him to the underworld where he learns Rome’s destiny.
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The later chapters of the book start with his arrival to Italy and betrothal to the daughter of King Latinus, Lavinia. The later chapters deal mainly with the struggle between the forces of Turnus and Aeneas. Turmus, the leader of the Latin warriors, had opposed Latinus’ decision of allowing the Trojans to settle in Latium, as well as had been angered by Aeneas’ marriage with Lavinia. He is defeated in the end in a duel with Aeneas.
In the poem he not only presents an ideal vision of Rome, but also deals with the private, as well as the public aspects of human life, in which laid its real greatness. Dido, the queen of Carthage, is also considered by many to a very memorable figure in the poem. She was quite opposed to the Roman way of life and Aeneas’ rejection of her is made to appear like a victory to him.
But Dido also gains a lot of sympathy, which leaves the reader wondering whether Rome should be bought at this price. Turnus, who was shown to be quite an uncivilized character, also wins much sympathy in his defeat. Virgil throughout the poem also explores various problems like suffering and how human dealt with sadness.
The poem, unfortunately, was left unfinished and unedited, as Virgil passed away before he could finish the final lines and the final revision of ‘The Aeneid.’
Personal Life & Legacy
Virgil devoted his entire life to poetry, and studies connected with it. He never married and lived the life of a recluse; but as his poetry rose to fame, he gained a lot of influential friends in the Roman world.
In 19 BC, he set out for Greece, where he planned to spend three years working on finishing ‘The Aeneid.’ However, he caught fever on the way, and was brought back to Italy, where he breathed his last on September 21, 19 BC.
His body was buried at the entrance of an ancient Roman tunnel, in Piedigrotta, a district two miles from the centre of Naples. His tomb became a destination for pilgrimages and remained so for the next couple of centuries.
Some of the Christian thinkers viewed him on a level similar to that of the Hebrew Prophets of the Bible because they seemed to find magic and prophecy in his works. He is said to have predicted the birth of Jesus in the fourth poem in Eclogues.
Centuries after his death, he inspired and still continues to inspire countless other poets. Spencer, Pope, Arnold, Tennyson, Milton and Wordsworth received inspiration from the works of Virgil.