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|Vergilius (70 BCE - 19 BCE) - in English Virgil or Vergil; Latin in full Publius Vergilius Maro|
The greatest Roman poet, called by Tennyson "wielder of the stateliest measure ever moulded by the lips of man." Virgil is known for his epic, the Aeneid (written about 29 BCE, unfinished), which had taken as its literary model Homer's epic poems Iliad and Odyssey. The tale depicts Aeneas's search for a new homeland and his war to found a city. This archetypical character was given much later form in those Western heroes familiar from the books of Owen Wister and Louis L'Amour.
"It is easy to go down into Hell; night and day, the gates of dark Death stand wide; but to climb back again, to retrace one's steps to the upper air - there's the rub, the task." (in the Aeneid)
Virgil was born on October 15, 70 BCE, in Northern Italy in a small village near Mantua – probably but not certainly the modern Pietole. Virgil was no Roman but a Gaul – the village was situated in what was then called Gallia Cisalpina - Gaul this side of the Alps. Publius Vergilius Maro, or Virgil, grew up to be hailed as the greatest Roman poet. And although his work has influenced Western literature for two millennia, little is known about the man himself. His father was a prosperous landowner, described variously as a "potter" and a "courier", who could afford a thorough education for the future poet. This Virgil received. He attended school at Cremona and Mediolanum (Milan), then went to Rome, where he studied mathematics, medicine and rhetoric, and finally completed his studies in Naples. He entered literary circles as an "Alexandrian," the name given to a group of poets who sought inspiration in the sophisticated work of third-century Greek poets, also known as Alexandrians. In 49 BCE Virgil became a Roman citizen. Lucretius influenced his way of thinking, but his early poems were written in the tradition of Theocritus.
After the battle of Philippi in 42 BCE, Virgil’s property in Cisalpine Gaul, or else his father's, was confiscated for veterans. "I leave my father's fields and my sweet ploughlands, / an exile from my native soil," wrote Virgil later in Eclogues. According to some sources the property was afterwards restored at the command of Octavian (later styled Augustus). In the following years Virgil spent most of his time in Campania and Sicily, but he also had a house in Rome. During the reign of emperor Augustus, Virgil became a member of his court circle and was advanced by a minister, Maecenas, patron of the arts and close friend to the poet Horace. Maecenas was twice left in virtual control of Rome when the emperor was away. He gave Virgil a house near Naples.
Between 42 and 37 BCE Virgil composed pastoral poems known as Bucolic or Eclogues ('rustic poems' and 'selections'). The formal model is the collection of Idyls by the Alexandrian cout poet Theocritus. Virgil then spent years on the Georgics (literally, 'pertaining to agriculture'), a didactic work on agriculture, and the cultivation of the olive and vine, the rearing of livestock, and beekeeping. This work, which was probably completed in 29 BCE, took as its model Works and Days by the Greek writer Hesiod, who had composed it around 700 BCE. For centuries, the so-called Appendix Vergiliana was ascribed as juvenilia of Virgil by many Latinists. The poems were collected under this title by J.C. Scaliger in 1572. Nowadays it is believed that they are efforts of imitators. Most of the poems were composed in the Julio-Claudian period, between the death of Augustus and the suicide of Nero.
Virgil's Eclogues was a huge success, and in its famous 'Messianic Eclogue' he prophesied the new Golden Age. "The great cycle of the ages is renewed. Now Justice returns, returns the Golden Age; a new generation now descends from on high." (this was interpreted in the Middle Ages as a prophecy of the birth of Christ. Dante cites the lines in The Divine Comedy). In the poem, according to some interpretations, the shepherd lad who dies is probably Julius Caesar. Of the two contrasting characters, Tityrus and Meliboeus, the former was long considered Virgil in disguise. A phrase altered from Eclogues – Novus ordo seclorum – appears on the reverse of the Great Seal of the United States, first used on the silver dollar certificates, series of 1935. Virgil also supplied the Latin for other phrases of the Great Seal.
In 31 BCE Octavian won the Battle of Actium against his former ally Mark Anthony, who had a liaison with the Egyptian queen Cleopatra, and by 29 the way to power was open to him. In 27 BCE he was given the title of Augustus ('venerable'). He pressed his poet to write of the glory of Rome under his rule. "I found Rome brick and I left it marble," he said according to Suetonius. Thus the rest of his life, from 30 to 19 BCE, Virgil devoted to the Aeneid, the national epic of Rome, and the glory of the Empire. Although ambitious, Virgil was never really happy about the task. Moreover, he was a perfectionist, who knew the importance of his work, and did not want to hurry with his lines.
Virgil set out to compose a national epic to be read by generations to come. A contemporary poet, Propertius, acknowledged this – perhaps ironically – with the lines: "Make way, Greek and Roman writers! Something greater than the Iliad is being born." Until the Romantic era, the Aeneid was "the classic of Europe". Following the development of the notion of artistic originality, it was then superseded by Homer's great Greek epics and Virgil was regarded as a gifted imitator of Homer. After the publication of Richard Heinze's Virgils epische Technik (1903) a new interest arose in Virgil's work, his originality, and his use of hellenistic and classical models.
Arms and the man I sing, who, forc'd by fate,
In the famous lines of Book VI, the spirit of Anchises shows to his son the future of Rome: "Romans, these are your arts: to bear dominion over the nations, to impose peace, to spare the conquered and subdue the proud." In 23 Virgil read the second and the fourth books to Augustus and his wife Octavia personally – the emperor had complained a few years earlier that he had not seen any of the text. When Augustus was returning from Samos after the winter of 20, he met the poet in Athens.
Virgil accompanied the emperor to Megara and then to Italy. "Fortune assists the bold," Virgil once said. However, the journey turned out to be fatal and Virgil died of a fever contracted on his visit to Greece. He had instructed his executor Varius to destroy the manuscript of the Aeneid, but Augustus ordered Varius to ignore this request, and the poem was published. Servius Danielis mentions the editorial work of Virgil's literary executors Plotius Tucca and Varius Rufus on the manuscript. Virgil was buried near Naples but there are doubts that the so-called Tomb of Virgil in the area is authentic. However, it soon became a place of pilgrimage.
The Aeneid is a historical epic, depicting one of the great heroes of the Trojan war, recounts Aeneas' wanderings and adventures from the fall of Troy to the establishment of his destined rule in Latium. It was well understood in Virgil's own time that the epic was in its first half an Odyssey and in its second an Iliad. The work was written about 29-19 BCE and composed in hexameters, about 60 lines of which were left unfinished at Virgil's death.
Organized in 12 books, the Aeneid opens when Aeneas is forced to land his fleet on the Libyan coast. He is welcomed by Dido, queen of Carthage, to whom he tells his adventures. Dido is his heroic female counterpart, and an exile, too. She falls in love with Aeneas, but her guest is forced to sail again and Dido prepares to kill herself; her death creates an enmity between Carthage and Rome. The Trojans sail to Sicily, then Aeneas journeys to the underworld where he meets Dido and his father Anchises. "Thrice would I have thrown my arms about her neck, and thrice the ghost embraced fled from my grasp; like a fluttering breeze, like a fleeting dream." Virgil reveals the destiny of Rome in book VI. The Trojans reach Tiber and are received by King Latinus. War breaks out, but the Trojans win with the help of Etruscans the local tribe known as Rutuli. Aeneas marries Latinus' daughter Lavinia and founds Lavinium.
Dante adopted themes from the Aeneid in his epic poem The Divine Comedy. Virgil is also Dante's guide through Inferno and Purgatory. Petrach questioned Virgil's choice of Dido as the heroine, especially because the poet knew she "died out of zeal for chasity and the preservation of widowhood" but he made her "yield to a wanton love." The Argentinian author Jorge Luis Borges once wrote: "Virgil. Of all the poets of the earth, there is none other who has been listened to with such love. Even beyond Augustus, Rome, and the empire that, across other nations and languages, is still the Empire. Virgil is our friend. When Dante made Virgil his guide and the most continual character in the Commedia, he gave an enduring aesthetic form to that which all men feel with gratitude." (Jorge Luis Borges, in Total Library, 1999)
T.S. Eliot argued in his presidential address to the Virgil Society in 1944 that as "Aeneas it to Rome, so is ancient Rome to Europe." Eliot hailed Virgil as the centre of European civilization. Hermann Broch took another view on the epic in his novel The Death of Virgil (1945), one of the great monuments of exile literature. The story focuses on the feverish last days of the dying poet, who rejects the poem's glorification by the Augustan regime. He is ready throw the Aeneid into the flames because poetry is useless in a doomed society.
For further reading: Reading Vergil's Aeneid: An Interpretive Guide, ed. Christine Perkell (1999); Reading Virgil and His Texts: Studies in Intertextuality by Richard F. Thomas (1999); Virgil, ed. Philip R. Hardie (1999); Patterns of Redemption in Virgil's Georgics by Llewlyn Morgan (1999); Virgil; His Life And Times by Peter Levi (1998); Virgil's Epic Designs: Ekphrasis in the Aeneid by Michael C. J. Putnam (1998); The Georgics of Virgil: A Critical Survey by L. P. Wilkinson, Niall Rudd (1997); The Cambridge Companion to Virgil, ed. Charles Martindale (1997); The Chil and the Hero: Coming of Age in Catullus and Vergil by Mark Petrini (1997); Vergil's Aeneid: Contemporary Literary Views Book, ed. Harold Bloom (1996); Virgil As Orpheus: A Study of the Georgics by M. Owen Lee (1996); True Names: Vergil and the Alexandrian Tradition of Etymological Wordplay by James J. O'Hara (1996); Virgil's Aeneid: Interpretation and Influence by Michael C. J. Putnam (1995); A Companion to the Study of Virgil, ed. Nicholas Horsfall (1995); Virgil by Jasper Griffin (1995); Virgil: A Study in Civilized Poetry by Brooks Otis (1995); A Commentary on Virgil Eclogues by Wendell Clausen (1995); Epic and Empire: Politics and Generic Form from Virgil to Milton by David Quint (1993); The Language of Virgil: An Introduction to the Poetry of the Aeneid by Daniel H. Garrison (1993); Virgil's Epic Technique by Richard Heinze, et al. (1993); The Epic Successors of Virgil: A Study in the Dynamics of a Tradition by Philip Hardie (1993); Virgil and the Moderns by Theodore Ziolkowski (1993); Vergil's Aeneid: A Poem of Grief and Love by Steven Farron (1993); Death and the Optimistic Prophecy in Vergil's Aeneid by James J. O'Hara (1990); Virgil, ed. Ian McAuslan, Peter Walcot (1990); The Poet's Truth: A Study of the Poet in Virgil's Georgics by Christine G. Perkell (1989); Public and Private in Vergil's Aeneid by Susan Ford Wiltshire (1989); Pastoral and Ideology; Virgil to Valery by Annabel Patterson (1987); The Art of Vergil by Viktor Poschl (1986); Vergil at 2000: Commemorative Essays on the Poet and His Influence, ed. John D. Bernard (1986); Effects of Divine Manifestation on the Readers Perspective in Vergils Aneld by Elizabeth Block (1981); The Social Poetry of the Georgics by Edward W. Spofford (1981); Fathers and Sons in Virgil's Aeneid: Tum Genitor Natum by M. Owen Lee (1980); Introduction to Virgil's Aeneid by W. A. Camp (1979, paperback); Patterns of Time in Vergil by Sara MacK (1978); Roman Poets of Augustan Age: Virgil by W. Y. Sellar (1970), Virgil's Aeneid: A Critical Description by Kenneth Quinn (1968); Roman Vergil by W.F. Jackson Knight (1944)