Virgil (Publius Vergilius Maro)

Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010

Virgil (Publius Vergilius Maro)

Virgil (Publius Vergilius Maro) (70-19 B.c.)

Roman poet

The father of the literary epic, Virgil composed classic verse as propaganda promoting the newly formed Roman Empire. Perhaps of Celto-Etrurian ancestry, he was born on October 15, 70 B.c., a contemporary of Rome's first emperor, Octavian, later known as Caesar Augustus. Tall and shy, he was the son of Polla Magia, a daughter of the bailiff Magus, and lived in Andes, a hamlet outside Mantua on the Mincio River in north-central Italy. Virgil learned country ways in his father Maro's pottery shop and from animal husbandry, beekeeping, and lumbering. Groomed for the law courts, he survived his brothers Flaccus and Silo and came to love a half brother, Valerius Proculus, who later inherited half of Virgil's estate.

After homeschooling at a young age, Virgil studied astronomy, math, medicine, and rhetoric in Cremona and Milan and specialized in philosophy. At age 17, he enrolled in oratory and law at Marcus Epidius's school in Rome, where the young Octavian and Mark Antony had studied. After Julius Caesar violated Roman law by bringing his army into Roman territory across the Rubicon River in 49 B.c., Virgil withdrew to Naples. At the Campanian villa in Herculaneum of the philosopher and mentor Siro the Epicurean, he wrote his first verses. His eclectic readings included Hesiod's Works and Days (ca. 700 B.c.); Theocritus's Idylls (ca. 200 B.c.), Lucretius's De rerum natura (On the Nature of Things, ca. 60 B.c.), and the epigrams, elegies, and short epic in verse of Catullus, a late republican experimenter.

A Toppled Nation

The assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 B.c. and the resultant 17 years of civil war shattered loyalties and traditional beliefs. In 42 B.c., two years into Rome's difficult shift from a republic to a benevolent despotism and ultimately to an empire, Virgil lived with his parents and brother Flaccus in Mantua. He lost the Maro family estate as a result of state confiscation when the land was awarded to demobilized legionaries under Octavian who had won the Battle of Philippi in Macedonia on October 23, 42 B.c. In his Eclogues (Selections, ca. 35 B.c.), Virgil reflects on the vicissitudes of war and the arbitrary seizure of family holdings. In the 10th eclogue, as a token of a former idealistic period, he includes the sweeping epigram “Omnia vincit amor!” (Love conquers all) (Virgil 1984, 105).

Although he practiced law briefly, Virgil was determined to make his name as a poet. Perhaps because of ill health, he absented himself from the public forum to pursue literature and philosophy at his town house on the Esquiline Hill in Rome and at his rural retreats near Nola in Campania and in the lower Alps in Cisalpine Gaul. He ordered his days around morning dictation and afternoon polishings of highly distilled verses that he read aloud to friends. In his fourth eclogue, he foresaw a golden era of peace initiated by a divine birth, a messianic PROPHECY intended to elevate the emperor to the divine, the prediction of the Judaean seer Isaiah and an element of Elias Lonnrot's Finnish epic KALEVALA (1836). Critics connect Virgil's mystic poem to the Pax Romana, 27 B.C.-A.D. 180, a period of prosperity and comparative peace fostered by Augustus and his successors.

Augustus curried favor with Romans by discrediting his rival, Mark Antony. Along with the lyric poet HORACE and the epic poet Lucius Varius Rufus, Virgil became a propagandist under the direction of Gaius Maecenas, Augustus's court minister. According to the Roman historian SUETONIUS'S De vita Caesarum (Lives of the Caesars, ca. A.D. 121), after Virgil completed the Georgics (On farming, 29 B.c.), he read them aloud to Augustus (then still Octavian) for four days in honor of Augustus's victory at Actium in the Ionian Sea off the shores of Greece on September 2, 31 B.c. Two years later, Virgil agreed to provide Augustus with a literary epic in Homeric style praising Rome's power.

Until his death at age 51, Virgil labored on the AENEID (17 B.c.), a nationalistic paean to the Trojan prince Aeneas and to Rome's foundations. In anticipation of a monumental work, the elegaic poet SEXTUS PROPERTIUS heralded the epic as a rival to Homer's Iliad (ca. 800 B.c.). Virgil was still refining the concluding books when he joined the imperial entourage across Italy to Greece. At the embarkation point at Brundisium (today's Brindisi) on September 21, 19 B.c., he succumbed to fever. Before his death, he dictated an epitaph describing himself as a singer of pastures, farmland, and rulers. Still marked by a tripod burner, a tribute to Apollo, Virgil's tomb at Piedigrotta outside Naples became a place of pilgrimage for centuries.

Shaping the Aeneid

Not to be cheated of his empire-boosting epic, Augustus countermanded Virgil's order to burn his unfinished manuscript. The emperor appointed two literary executors—Virgil's colleagues Lucius Varius Rufus and Plotius Tucca—to the task of completing the Aeneid, a cohesive work of prophecy and glory that lauds the first kings of Rome and the alleged beginnings of the illustrious Julio-Claudian line. A critical masterwork, the complicated story praises the Roman Empire and extols its leaders for vision and enterprise. To balance imperial expansionism, Virgil credits the protagonist Aeneas with organizational skills and pietas (moral duty), a pre-Christian concept of piety based on obligations to God, nation, home, and family. Like the Hebrew defender Moses in the biblical book of EXODUS (ca. 450 B.c.) and the mighty archer Arjuna, a hero of the Mauryan empire in the BHAGAVAD GITA (ca. 200 B.c.), Aeneas stands above lesser men as the self-controlled warrior who limits any VIOLENCE to actions necessary to the establishment in Italy of a new Troy.

Partly through the adulation for the Aeneid of Horace and the satirist Gaius Petronius Arbiter, Virgil quickly became recognized as Rome's national poet. Following the fall of Rome in A.D. 476 and the consequent rise of the Eastern Roman Empire, the Aeneid maintained its literary primacy among Christian apologists, notably the French historian Gregory of Tours and the Florentine poet Dante Alighieri. The latter chose Virgil as a fictional guide through hell and purgatory in the Divine Comedy (1321), in which Dante venerates his predecessor as a literary light for all ages. The Portuguese poet Luiz DE CAMOES mimicked the Aeneid’s grandeur and cadence in his composition of Os Lusiadas (The Lusiads, 1572). The writers Geoffrey Chaucer, Edmund Spenser, Christopher Marlowe, WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE, John Milton, John Dryden, JEAN DE LA FONTAINE, Tennyson, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, T. S. Eliot, and Walt Whitman all incorporated Virgil's graceful prosody and attention to detail in their own works.


Horsfall, Nicholas. A Companion to the Study of Virgil.

Rev. ed. Leiden: Brill, 2001.

Virgil. The Eclogues. Translated by Arthur Guy Lee. New York: Penguin, 1984.