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Publius Vergilius Maro

A bust of Virgil, from the entrance to his tomb in Naples, Italy.
Born October 15, 70 BCE
Andes, Cisalpine Gaul
Died September 21, 19 BCE
Occupation Poet
Nationality Roman
Genres Epic poetry, didactic poetry, pastoral poetry
Literary movement Augustan poetry

Publius Vergilius Maro (also known by the Anglicised forms of his name as Virgil or Vergil) (October 15, 70 BCE – September 21, 19 BCE) was a classical Roman poet, best known for three major works—the Eclogues (or Bucolics), the Georgics, and the Aeneid—although several minor poems are also attributed to him.

The son of a farmer, Virgil came to be regarded as one of Rome's greatest poets. His Aeneid can be considered a national epic of Rome and has been extremely popular from its publication to the present day.


Life and works

Birth and biographical tradition

Virgil's biographical tradition is thought to depend on a lost biography by Varius, Virgil's editor, which was incorporated into the biography by Suetonius and the commentaries of Servius and Donatus, the two great commentators on Virgil's poetry. Although the commentaries no doubt record much factual information about Virgil, some of their evidence can be shown to rely on inferences made from his poetry and allegorizing; thus, Virgil's biographical tradition remains problematic.[1] The tradition says that Virgil was born in the village of Andes, near Mantua[2] in Cisalpine Gaul.[3] Scholars suggest Etruscan, Umbrian or even Celtic descent by examining the linguistic or ethnic markers of the region. Analysis of his name has led to beliefs that he descended from earlier Roman colonists. Modern speculation ultimately is not supported by narrative evidence either from his own writings or his later biographers. Etymological fancy has noted that his cognomen Maro shares its letters anagrammatically with the twin themes of his epic: amor (love) and Roma (Rome). Macrobius says that Virgil's father was of a humble background; however, scholars generally believe that Virgil was from an equestrian landowning family which could afford to give him an education.

Early works

According to the commentators, Virgil received his first education when he was five years old and he later went to Cremona, Milan, and finally Rome to study rhetoric, medicine, and astronomy, which he soon abandoned for philosophy. From Virgil's admiring references to the neoteric writers Pollio and Cinna, it has been inferred that he was, for a time, associated with Catullus' neoteric circle. According to tradition, Virgil preferred sex with males and especially loved two slave-boys,[4][5] however schoolmates considered Virgil extremely shy and reserved, according to Servius, and he was nicknamed "Parthenias" or "maiden" because of his social aloofness. Virgil seems to have suffered bad health throughout his life and in some ways lived the life of an invalid. According to the "Catalepton", while in the Epicurean school of Siro the Epicurean at Naples, he began to write poetry. A group of small works attributed to the youthful Virgil by the commentators survive collected under the title Appendix Vergiliana, but are largely considered spurious by scholars. One, the Catalepton, consists of fourteen short poems[6], some of which may be Virgil's, and another, a short narrative poem titled the Culex ("The Gnat"), was attributed to Virgil as early as the 1st century CE.

The Eclogues

The biographical tradition asserts that Virgil began the hexameter Eclogues (or Bucolics) in 42 BCE and it is thought that the collection was published around 39-38 BCE, although this is controversial.[6] The Eclogues (from the Greek for "selections") are a group of ten poems roughly modeled on the bucolic hexameter poetry ("pastoral poetry") of the Hellenistic poet Theocritus. After his victory in the Battle of Philippi in 42 BCE, fought against the army led by the assassins of Julius Caesar, Octavian tried to pay off his veterans with land expropriated from towns in northern Italy, supposedly including, according to the tradition, an estate near Mantua belonging to Virgil. The loss of his family farm and the attempt through poetic petitions to regain his property have traditionally been seen as Virgil's motives in the composition of the Eclogues. This is now thought to be an unsupported inference from interpretations of the Eclogues. In Eclogues 1 and 9, Virgil indeed dramatizes the contrasting feelings caused by the brutality of the land expropriations through pastoral idiom, but offers no indisputable evidence of the supposed biographic incident. Readers often did and sometimes do identify the poet himself with various characters and their vicissitudes, whether gratitude by an old rustic to a new god (Ecl. 1), frustrated love by a rustic singer for a distant boy (his master's pet, Ecl. 2), or a master singer's claim to have composed several eclogues (Ecl. 5). Modern scholars largely reject such efforts to garner biographical details from fictive texts preferring instead to interpret the diverse characters and themes as representing the poet's own contrastive perceptions of contemporary life and thought.

Thematically, the ten Eclogues develop and vary pastoral tropes and play with generic expectations. 1 and 9 address the land confiscations and their effects on the Italian countryside. 2 and 3 are highly pastoral and erotic, discussing love, both homosexual (Ecl. 2) and panerotic (Ecl. 3). Eclogues 4, addressed to Asinius Pollio, the so-called 'Messianic Eclogue' uses the imagery of the golden-age in connection with the birth of a child (who the child is has been highly contested). 5 and 8 describe the myth of Daphnis in a song contest, 6, the cosmic and mythological song of Silenus, 7, a heated poetic contest, and 10 the sufferings of the contemporary elegiac poet Cornelius Gallus. Virgil is credited in the "Eclogues" with establishing Arcadia as a poetic ideal that still resonates in Western literature and visual arts and setting the stage for the development of Latin pastoral by Calpurnius Siculus, Nemesianus, and later writers.

The Georgics

Sometime after the publication of the Eclogues (probably before 37 BCE),[7] Virgil became part of the circle of Maecenas, Octavian's capable agent d'affaires who sought to counter sympathy for Antony among the leading families by rallying Roman literary figures to Octavian's side. Virgil seems to have made connections with many of the other leading literary figures of the time, including Horace, in whose poetry he is often mentioned,[8] and Varius Rufus, who later helped finish the Aeneid. At Maecenas' insistence (according to the tradition) Virgil spent the ensuing years (perhaps 37–29 BCE) on the longer didactic hexameter poem called the Georgics (from Greek, "On Working the Earth") which he dedicated to Maecenas. The apparent theme of the Georgics is instruction in the methods of running a farm. In handling this theme, Virgil follows in the didactic (instructive) tradition of the Greek poet Hesiod one of whose poems focuses on farming and the later Hellenistic poets. The four books of the Georgics focus respectively on raising crops and trees (1 and 2), livestock and horses (3), and beekeeping and the qualities of bees (4). Significant passages include the beloved Laus Italiae of Book 2, the prologue description of the temple in Book 3, and the description of the plague at the end of Book 3. Book 4 concludes with a long mythological narrative, in the form of an epyllion which describes vividly the discovery of beekeeping by Aristaeus and the story of Orpheus' journey to the underworld. Ancient scholars conjectured that the Aristaeus episode replaced a long section in praise of Virgil's friend, the poet Gallus, who was disgraced by Augustus and committed suicide in 26 BCE. Augustus is supposed to have ordered the section to be replaced. A major critical issue in considering the Georgics is the assessment of tone; Virgil seems to waver between optimism and pessimism, sparking a great deal of debate on the poem's intentions.[9] With the Georgics Virgil is again credited with laying the foundations for later didactic poetry. The biographical tradition says that Virgil and Maecenas took turns reading the Georgics to Octavian upon his return from defeating Antony and Cleopatra at the Battle of Actium in 31 BCE.

The Aeneid

A stamp featuring a mosaic of Virgil which was discovered in a Tunisian villa from the 3rd century CE.

The Aeneid is widely considered Virgil's finest work and one of the most important poems in the history of western literature. Virgil worked on the Aeneid during the last ten years of his life (29-19 BCE), commissioned, according to tradition by Augustus. The epic poem consists of 12 books in hexameter verse which describe the journey of Aeneas, a prince fleeing the sack of Troy, to Italy, his battle with the Italian prince Turnus, and the foundation of a city from whence Rome would emerge. The Aeneid's first six books describe the journey of Aeneas from Troy to Rome. Virgil made use of several models in the composition of his epic;[7] Homer the preeminent classical epicist is everywhere present, but Virgil also makes especial use of the Latin poet Ennius and the Hellenistic poet Apollonius of Rhodes among the various other writers he alludes to. Although the Aeneid casts itself firmly into the epic mode, it often seeks to expand the genre by including elements of other genres such as tragedy and aetiological poetry. Ancient commentators noted that Virgil seems to divide the Aeneid into two sections based on the poetry of Homer; the first six books were viewed as employing the Odyssey as a model while the last six were connected to the Iliad.

Book 1[10] (at the head of the Odyssean section) opens with a storm which Juno, Aeneas' enemy throughout the poem, stirs up against the fleet. The storm drives the hero to the coast of Carthage, which historically was Rome's deadliest foe. The queen, Dido, welcomes the ancestor of the Romans, and under the influence of the gods falls deeply in love with him. At a banquet in Book 2, Aeneas tells the story of the sack of Troy, the death of his wife, and his escape to the enthralled Carthginians, while in Book 3 he recounts to them his wanderings over the Mediterranean in search of a suitable new home. Jupiter in Book 4 recalls the lingering Aeneas to his duty to found a new city, and he slips away from Carthage, leaving Dido to commit suicide, cursing Aeneas and calling down revenge in a symbolic anticipation of the fierce wars between Carthage and Rome. In Book 5, Aeneas' father Anchises dies and funeral games are celebrated for him. On reaching Cumae, in Italy in Book 6, Aeneas consults the Cumaean Sibyl, who conducts him through the Underworld where Aeneas meets the dead Anchises who reveals his Rome's destiny to his son.

Book 7 (beginning the Iliadic half) opens with an address to the muse and recounts Aeneas arrival in Italy and betrothal to Lavinia, daughter of King Latinus. Lavinia had already been promised to Turnus, the king of the Rutulians, who is roused to war by the Fury Allecto and Amata Lavinia's mother. In Book 8, Aeneas allies with King Evander, who occupies the future site of Rome, and is given new armor and a shield depicting Roman history. Book 9 records an assault by Nisus and Euryalus on the Rutulians, 10, the death of Evander's young son Pallas, and 11 the death of the Volscian warrior princess Camilla and the decision to settle the war with a duel between Aeneas and Turnus. The Aeneid ends in Book 12 with the taking of Latinus' city, the death of Amata, and Aeneas' defeat and killing of Turnus, whose pleas for mercy are spurned.

Reception of the Aeneid

Critics of the Aeneid focus on a variety of issues (see Fowler for an excellent bibliography and summary).[11] The tone of the poem as a whole is a particular matter of debate; some see the poem as ultimately pessimistic and politically subversive to the Augustan regime, while others view it as a celebration of the new imperial dynasty. Virgil makes use of the symbolism of the Augustan regime, and some scholars see strong associations between Augustus and Aeneas, the one as founder and the other as re-founder of Rome. A strong teleology, or drive towards a climax, has been detected in the poem. The Aeneid is full of prophecies about the future of Rome, the deeds of Augustus, his ancestors, and famous Romans, and the Carthaginian Wars; the shield of Aeneas even depicts Augustus' victory at Actium in 31 BCE. A further focus of study is the character of Aeneas. As the protagonist of the poem, Aeneas seems to constantly waver between his emotions and commitment to his prophetic duty to found Rome; critics note the breakdown of Aeneas' emotional control in the last sections of the poem where the "pious" and "righteous" Aeneas mercilessly slaughters Turnus.

The Aeneid appears to have been a great success. Virgil is said to have recited Books 2,4, and 6 to Augustus;[7] Book 6 apparently caused Augustus' sister Octavia to faint. Unfortunately, the poem was unfinished at Virgil's death in 19 BCE.

Virgil's death and editing of the Aeneid

According to the tradition, Virgil traveled to Greece around 19 BCE in order to revise the Aeneid. After meeting Augustus in Athens and deciding to return home, Virgil caught a fever while visiting a town near Megara. After crossing to Italy by ship, weakened with disease, Virgil died in Brundisium harbour on September 21, 19 BCE. Augustus ordered Virgil's literary executors, Lucius Varius Rufus and Plotius Tucca, to disregard Virgil's own wish that the poem be burned, instead ordering it published with as few editorial changes as possible. As a result, the text of the Aeneid that exists may contain faults which Virgil was planning to correct before publication. However, the only obvious imperfections are a few lines of verse that are metrically unfinished (i.e., not a complete line of dactylic hexameter). Other alleged "imperfections" are subject to scholarly debate.

Later views of Virgil and reception

In antiquity

The works of Virgil almost from the moment of their publication revolutionized Latin poetry. The Eclogues, Georgics, and above all the Aeneid became standard texts in school curricula with which all educated Romans were familiar. Poets, following Virgil often refer intertextually to his works to generate meaning in their own poetry. The Augustan poet Ovid parodies the opening lines of the Aeneid in Am. 1.1.1-2, and his summary of the Aeneas story in Book 14 of the Metamorphoses, the so-called "mini-Aeneid", has been viewed as a particularly important example of post-Virgilian response to the epic genre. Lucan's epic, the Bellum Civile has been considered an anti-Virgilian epic, disposing with the divine mechanism, treating historical events, and diverging drastically from Virgilian epic practice. The Flavian poet Statius in his 12 book epic Thebaid engages closely with the poetry of Virgil; in his epilogue he advises his poem not to "rival the divine Aeneid, but follow afar and ever venerate its footsteps."[12] In Silius Italicus, Virgil finds one of his most ardent admirers. With almost every line of his epic Punica Silius references Virgil. Indeed, Silius is known to have bought Virgil's tomb and worshipped the poet.[13] In antiquity Virgil began to take on magical qualities; the sortes Vergilianae, the process of using Virgil's poetry as a tool of divination, is found in the time of Hadrian. In a similar vein Macrobius in the Saturnalia credits the work of Virgil as the embodiment of human knowledge and experience, mirroring the Greek conception of Homer.[14] Virgil also found commentators in antiquity. Servius, a commentator of the 4th century CE based his work on the commentary of Donatus. Servius' commentary provides us with a great deal of information about Virgil's life, sources, and references, however many modern scholars find the variable quality of his work and the often simplistic interpretations frustrating.

Late antiquity and Middle Ages

Even as the Roman empire collapsed, literate men acknowledged that the Christianized Virgil was a master poet. Gregory of Tours read Virgil, whom he quotes in several places, along with some other Latin poets, though he cautions that "we ought not to relate their lying fables, lest we fall under sentence of eternal death".

The Aeneid remained the central Latin literary text of the Middle Ages and retained its status as the grand epic of the Latin peoples, and of those who considered themselves to be of Roman provenance, such as the English. It also held religious importance as it describes the founding of the Holy City. Virgil was made palatable for his Christian audience also through a belief in his prophecy of Christ in his Fourth Eclogue. Cicero and other classical writers too were declared Christian due to similarities in moral thinking to Christianity. Surviving medieval collections of manuscripts containing Virgil's works include the Vergilius Augusteus, the Vergilius Vaticanus and the Vergilius Romanus.

Dante made Virgil his guide to Hell and the greater part of Purgatory in The Divine Comedy. Dante also mentions Virgil in De vulgari eloquentia, along with Ovid, Lucan and Statius, as one of the four regulati poetae (ii, vi, 7).

Virgil continues to be considered one of the greatest Latin poets.

Mysticism and hidden meanings

A 5th-century portrait of Virgil from the Vergilius Romanus.

In the Middle Ages, Virgil was considered a herald of Christianity for his Eclogue 4 verses (Perseus Project Ecl.4) concerning the birth of a boy, which were read as a prophecy of Jesus' nativity.

Also during the Middle Ages, as Virgil was developed into a kind of magus, manuscripts of the Aeneid were used for divinatory bibliomancy, the Sortes Virgilianae (Virgilian lottery), in which a line would be selected at random and interpreted in the context of a current situation (Compare the ancient Chinese I Ching). The Old Testament was sometimes used for similar arcane purposes.

In some legends, such as Virgilius the Sorcerer, the powers attributed to Virgil were far more extensive.

Virgil's tomb

The inscription at Virgil's tomb describes the circumstances of his death and includes the famous verses allegedly composed by Virgil himself: "Mantua me genuit, Calabri rapuere, tenet nunc Parthenope. Cecini pascua, rura, duces." ("Mantua bore me, the Calabrians snatched me away, now Naples holds me. I sang of pastures, countrysides, leaders.")

The tomb known as "Virgil's tomb" is found at the entrance of an ancient Roman tunnel (also known as "grotta vecchia") in the Parco di Virgilio in Piedigrotta, a district two miles from old Naples, near the Mergellina harbor, on the road heading north along the coast to Pozzuoli. The site called Parco Virgiliano is some distance further north along the coast. While Virgil was already the object of literary admiration and veneration before his death, in the following centuries his name became associated with miraculous powers, his tomb the destination of pilgrimages and veneration. The poet himself was said to have created the cave with the fierce power of his intense gaze.

It is said that the Chiesa della Santa Maria di Piedigrotta was erected by Church authorities to neutralize this adoration and "Christianize" the site. The tomb, however, is a tourist attraction, and still sports a tripod burner originally dedicated to Apollo, bearing witness to the beliefs held by Virgil.

Virgil's name in English

In the Late Empire and Middle Ages Vergilius was frequently spelled Virgilius. There are two explanations commonly given for this alteration. One deduces a false etymology associated with the word virgo ("maiden" in Latin) due to Virgil's excessive, "maiden"-like (parthenías or παρθενίας in Greek), modesty. Alternatively, some argue that Vergilius was altered to Virgilius by analogy with the Latin virga ("wand") due to the magical or prophetic powers attributed to Virgil in the Middle Ages. In an attempt to reconcile his non-Christian background with the high regard in which medieval scholars held him, it was posited that some of his works metaphorically foretold the coming of Christ, hence making him a prophet of sorts. This view is defended by some scholars today, namely Richard F. Thomas of Harvard. In Norman schools (following the French practice), the habit was to anglicize Latin names by dropping their Latin endings, hence Virgil. In the 19th century, some German-trained classicists in the United States suggested modification to Vergil, as it is closer to his original name, and is also the traditional German spelling. Modern usage permits both, though the Oxford guide to style recommends Vergilius to avoid confusion with the 8th-century grammarian Virgilius Maro Grammaticus. Some post-Renaissance writers liked to affect the sobriquet "The Swan of Mantua".

Famous quotations from Virgil

"omnia vincit amor" "Love conquers all" (Ecl.10.69)

"arma virumque cano" "I sing of arms and the man" (Aen.1.1)

"urbs antiqua fuit" "There was an ancient city" (Aen.1.12)

"facilis descensus Averni" "Easy is the descent to Hell" (Aen.6.126)

"audentis fortuna iuvat" "Fortune favors the bold" (Aen.10.284)


  1. ^ Don Fowler "Virgil (Publius Vergilius Maro)" in The Oxford Classical Dictionary, (3.ed. 1996, Oxford), pg.1602
  2. ^ The epitaph on his tomb in Posilipo near Naples was Mantua me genuit; Calabri rapuere; tenet nunc Parthenope. Cecini pascua, rura, duces ("Mantua gave birth to me, the Calabrians took me, now Naples holds me; I sang of pastures [the Eclogues], country [the Georgics] and leaders [the Aeneid]").
  3. ^ Map of Cisalpine Gaul
  4. ^ Williams, Craig A (1999), Roman homosexuality : ideologies of masculinity in classical antiquity, Ideologies of desire, Oxford, p. 33, ISBN 9780195125054, 
  5. ^ Suetonius, Vergil 9
  6. ^ a b Fowler, pg.1602
  7. ^ a b c Fowler , pg.1603
  8. ^ Horace, Satires 1.5, 1.6, and Odes 1.3
  9. ^ Fowler, pg.1605
  10. ^ For a succinct summary, see
  11. ^ Fowler, pg.1605-6
  12. ^ Theb.12.816-7)
  13. ^ Pliny Ep.3.7.8
  14. ^ Fowler, pg.1603

Further reading

External links

  • Collected Works
    • Works by P.+Vergilius+Maro at Perseus Project
      • Latin texts & commentaries
      • Aeneid translated by T. C. Williams, 1910
      • Aeneid translated by John Dryden, 1697
      • Aeneid, Eclogues & Georgics translated by J. C. Greenough, 1900
    • Works of Virgil at Theoi Project
      • Aeneid, Eclogues & Georgics translated by H. R. Fairclough, 1916
    • Works of Virgil at Sacred Texts
      • Aeneid translated by John Dryden, 1697
      • Eclogues & Georgics translated by J.W. MacKail, 1934
    • P. Vergilius Maro at The Latin Library
      • Latin texts
    • Works by Virgil at Project Gutenberg
      • Latin texts
      • Aeneid translated by E. Fairfax Taylor, 1907
      • Aeneid, Georgics & Eclogues translated by (unnamed)
      • Moretum ("The Salad") Scanned from Joseph J. Mooney (tr.), The Minor Poems of Vergil: Comprising the Culex, Dirae, Lydia, Moretum, Copa, Priapeia, and Catalepton (Birmingham: Cornish Brothers, 1916).
    • Virgil's works: text, concordances and frequency list.

The article above was originally sourced from Nupedia and is open content.


Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikiquote

Time bears away all things...

Publius Vergilius Maro (October 15, 70 BC – 19 BC), known in English as Virgil or Vergil, was a Latin poet, the author of the Eclogues, the Georgics and the Aeneid, the last being an epic poem of twelve books that became the Roman Empire's national epic.




  • Audacibus annue coeptis
    • Translation: Look with favor upon a bold beginning.
    • Georgics, Book I, line 40
  • Umida solstitia atque hiemes orate serenas,
    • Translation: O farmers, pray that your summers be wet and your winters clear.
    • Georgics, Book I, line 100
  • Ut varias usus meditando extunderet artis
    • Translation: Practice and thought might gradually forge many an art.
    • Georgics, Book I, line 133
  • Ignavum, fucos, pecus a praesepibus arcent.
    • Translation: They keep out of the hives the drones, an indolent bunch.
    • Georgics, Book IV, line 168


  • Latet anguis in herba.
    • Translation: A snake lurks in the grass.
    • Book III, line 93
  • Omnia fert aetas, animum quoque.
    • Translation: Time bears away all things, even our minds.
    • Book IX, line 51
  • Cantantes licet usque (minus via laedit) eamus.
    • Translation: Let us go singing as far as we go: the road will be less tedious.
    • Book IX, line 64
  • Omnia vincit amor; et nos cedamus amori.
    • Translation: Love conquers all things; let us too surrender to love.
    • Book X, line 69

The Aeneid

  • Arma virumque cano.
    • Translation: I sing of arms and a man.
    • Book I, line 1
  • Forsan et haec olim meminisse iuvabit.
    • Translation: Perhaps it will even be pleasing to remember these things one day.
    • Translation by John Dryden: An hour will come, with pleasure to relate your sorrows past, as benefits of Fate.
    • Book I, line 203
  • Equo ne credite, Teucri.
    quidquid id est, timeo Danaos et dona ferentis.
    • Translation: Do not trust the horse, Trojans. Whatever it is, I fear the Grecians, even bearing gifts.
    • Book II, line 48
    • Variant translation: O Trojans, do not trust the horse. Be it what it may, I fear the Grecians even when they offer gifts.
  • Cessi et sublato montes genitore petivi.
    • Translation: I departed and I sought mountains with my father on my back.
    • Book II, line 804
  • Insanam uatem aspicies, quae rupe sub ima
    fata canit foliisque notas et nomina mandat.
    quaecumque in foliis descripsit carmina uirgo
    digerit in numerum atque antro seclusa relinquit:
    illa manent immota locis neque ab ordine cedunt.
    uerum eadem, uerso tenuis cum cardine uentus
    impulit et teneras turbauit ianua frondes,
    numquam deinde cauo uolitantia prendere saxo
    nec reuocare situs aut iungere carmina curat:
    inconsulti abeunt sedemque odere Sibyllae.
    • Translation: The mad prophetic Sibyl you shall find,
      Dark in a cave, and on a rock reclin'd.
      She sings the fates, and, in her frantic fits,
      The notes and names, inscrib'd, to leafs commits.
      What she commits to leafs, in order laid,
      Before the cavern's entrance are display'd:
      ...many not succeeding, most upbraid
      The madness of the visionary maid,
      And with loud curses leave the mystic shade."
    • Book III, lines 443-452
  • Hic tibi ne qua morae fuerint dispendia tanti,
    quamuis increpitent socii et ui cursus in altum
    uela uocet, possisque sinus implere secundos,
    quin adeas uatem precibusque oracula poscas
    ipsa canat uocemque uolens atque ora resoluat.
    illa tibi Italiae populos uenturaque bella
    et quo quemque modo fugiasque ferasque laborem
    expediet, cursusque dabit uenerata secundos.
    haec sunt quae nostra liceat te uoce moneri.
    • Translation: Think it not loss of time a while to stay,
      Tho' thy companions chide thy long delay;
      Tho' summon'd to the seas, tho' pleasing gales
      Invite thy course, and stretch thy swelling sails:
      But beg the sacred priestess to relate
      With willing words, and not to write thy fate...
      She shall direct thy course, instruct thy mind,
      And teach thee how the happy shores to find.
      This is what Heav'n allows me to relate:
      Now part in peace; pursue thy better fate,
    • Book III, lines 453-461
  • Improbe Amor, quid non mortalia pectora cogis!
    • Translation: O tyrant love, to what do you not drive the hearts of men.
    • Book IV, line 412
  • Varium et mutabile semper
    • Translation: A woman is an ever fickle and changeable thing.
    • Book IV, line 569
  • Possunt, quia posse videntur.
    • Translation: They can because they think they can.
    • Literal translation: They are able because they seem (are seen) to be able.
    • Book V, line 231
  • Tu ne cede malis, sed contra audentior ito.
    • Translation: Yield not to evils, but attack all the more boldly.
    • Book VI, line 95
  • Facilis descensus Averni:
    noctes atque dies patet atri ianua Ditis;
    sed revocare gradium superasque evadere ad auras.
    hoc opus, hic labor est.
    • Translation: 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.
    • Book VI, line 126
  • Quisque suos patimur Manes.
    • Translation: Each of us suffers his own spirit.
    • Variant translation: Each of us bears his own Hell.
    • Book VI, line 743
  • Flectere si nequeo superos, Acheronta movebo.
    • Translation: If I can not bend Heaven, I shall move Hell.
    • Book VII, line 312
  • Audentes fortuna iuvat
    • Translation: Fortune favours the brave.
    • Book X, line 284
  • Experto credite.
    • Translation: Trust one who has gone through it.
    • Book XI, line 283
    • Often quoted as "experto crede".

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1911 encyclopedia

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From LoveToKnow 1911

VIRGIL (PUBLIUS VERGILIUS MARO), the great Roman poet, was born on the 15th of October in the year 70 B.C., on a farm on the banks of the Mincio, in the district of Andes, not far from the town of Mantua. In the region north of the Po a race of more imaginative susceptibility than the people of Latium formed part of the Latin-speaking population. It was favourable to his development as a national poet that he was born and educated during the interval of comparative calm between the first and second civil wars, and that he belonged to a generation which, as the result of the social war, first enjoyed the sense of an Italian nationality. Yet it was only after Virgil had grown to manhood that the province to which he belonged obtained the full rights of Roman citizenship. It is remarkable that the two poets whose imagination seems to have been most powerfully possessed by the spell of Rome - Ennius and Virgil - were born outside the pale of Roman citizenship.

The scenery familiar to his childhood, which he recalls with affection both in the Eclogues and the Georgics, was that of the green banks and slow windings of the Mincio and the rich pastures in its neighbourhood. Like his friend and contemporary Horace, he sprung from the class of yeomen, whose state he pronounces the happiest allotted to man and most conducive to virtue and piety. Virgil, as well as Horace, was fortunate in having a father who, though probably uneducated himself, discerned his genius and spared no pains in giving it the best culture then obtainable in the world. At the age of twelve he was taken for his education to Cremona, and from an expression in one of the minor poems attributed to him, about the authenticity of which there cannot be any reasonable doubt, it may be inferred that his father accompanied him. Afterwards he removed to Milan, where he continued engaged in study till he went to Rome two years later. The time of his removal to Rome must have nearly coincided with the publication of the poem of Lucretius and of the collected poems of Catullus.

After studying rhetoric he began the study of philosophy under Siron the Epicurean. One of the minor poems written about this time in the scazon metre tells of his delight at the immediate prospect of entering on the study of philosophy, and of the first stirring of that enthusiasm for philosophical investigation which haunted him through the whole of his life. At the end of the poem, the real masterpassion of his life, the charm of the Muses, reasserts itself (Catalepton v.). Our next knowledge of him is derived from allusions in the Eclogues, and belongs to a period nine or ten years later. Of what happened to him in the interval, during which the first civil war took place and Julius Caesar was assassinated, we have no indication from ancient testimony or from his own writings. In 42 B.C., the year of the battle of Philippi, we find him " cultivating his woodland Muse " under the protection of Asinius Pollio, governor of the district north of the Po. In the following year the famous confiscations of land for the benefit of the soldiers of the triumvirs took place. Of the impression produced on Virgil by these confiscations, and of their effect on his fortunes, we have a vivid record in the first and ninth eclogues. Mantua, in consequence of its vicinity to Cremona, which had been faithful to the cause of the republic, was involved in this calamity; and Virgil's father was driven from his farm. By the influence of his powerful friends, and by personal application to the young Octavian, Virgil obtained the restitution of his land. In the meantime he had taken his father and family with him to the small country house of his old teacher Siron (Catalepton x.). Soon afterwards we hear of him living in Rome, enjoying, in addition to the patronage of Pollio, the favour of Maecenas, intimate with Varius, who was at first regarded as the rising poet of the new era, and later on with Horace. His friendship with Gallus, for whom he indicates a warmer affection and more enthusiastic admiration than for any one else, was farmed before his second residence in Rome, in the Cisalpine province, with which Gallus also was connected both by birth and office. The pastoral poems, or " eclogues," commenced in his native district, were finished and published in Rome, probably in 37 B.C. Soon afterwards he withdrew from habitual residence in Rome, and lived chiefly in Campania, either at Naples or in the neighbourhood of Nola. He was one of the companions of Horace in the famous journey to Brundisium; and it seems not unlikely that, some time before 23 B.C., he made the voyage to Athens which forms the subject of the third ode of the first book of the Odes of Horace.

The seven years from 37 to 30 B.C. were devoted to the composition of the Georgics. In the following year he read the poem to Augustus, on his return from Asia. The remaining years of his life were spent on the composition of the Aeneid. In 1 9 B.C., after the Aeneid was finished but not finally corrected, he set out for Athens, intending to pass three years in Greece and Asia and to devote that time to perfecting the poem. At Athens he met Augustus, and was persuaded by him to return with him to Italy. While visiting Megara under a burning sun, he was seized with illness, and, as he continued his voyage without interruption, he grew rapidly worse, and died on the 21st of September, in his fifty-first year, a few days after landing at Brundisium. In his last illness he called for the cases containing his manuscripts, with the intention of burning the Aeneid. He had previously left directions in his will that his literary executors, Varius and Tucca, should publish nothing of his which had not already been given to the world by himself. This pathetic desire that the work to which he had given so much care, and of which such great expectations were formed, should not survive him has been used as an argument to prove his own dissatisfaction with the poem. A passage from a letter of his to Augustus is also quoted, in which he speaks as if he felt that the undertaking of the work had been a mistake. This dissatisfaction with his work may be ascribed to his passion for perfection of workmanship, which death prevented him from attaining. The command of Augustus overrode the poet's wish and rescued the poem.

Virgil was buried at Naples, where his tomb was long regarded with religious veneration. Horace is our most direct witness of the affection which he inspired among his contemporaries. The qualities by which he gained their love were, according to his testimony, candor - sincerity of nature and goodness of heart - and pietas - the union of deep affection for kindred, friends and country with a spirit of reverence. The statement of his biographer, that he was known in Naples by the name " Parthenias," is a testimony to the exceptional purity of his life in an age of licence. The seclusion of his life and his devotion to his art touched the imagination of his countrymen as the finer qualities of his nature touched the heart of his friends. It had been, from the time of Cicero,' the ambition of the men of finest culture and most original genius in Rome to produce a national literature which might rival that of Greece; and the feeling that at last a poem was about to appear which would equal 1 Cf. Tusc. Disp. ii. 2: " Quamobrem hortor omnes qui facere id possunt, ut hujus quoque generis laudem jam languenti Graeciae eripiant," &c. These words apply specially to philosophical literature, but other passages in the same and in other works imply that Cicero thought that the Romans had equal aptitudes for other departments of literature; and the practice of the Augustan poets in each appropriating to himself a special province of Greek literary art seems to indicate the same ambition.

or surpass the greatest among all the works of Greek genius found a voice in the lines of Propertius " Cedite Romani scriptores, cedite Graii; Nescio quid majus nascitur Iliade." The feeling of his countrymen and contemporaries seems justified by the personal impression which he produces on modern readers - an impression of sanctity, as of one who habit .tal l y lived in a higher and serener sphere than that of this world. The veneration in which his name was held during the long interval between the overthrow of Western civilization and the revival of letters affords testimony of the depth of the impression which he made on the heart and imagination of the ancient world. The traditional belief in his pre-eminence has been on the whole sustained, though not with absolute unanimity, in modern times. By the scholars and men of letters of the r6th, 17th and 18th centuries it was never seriously questioned. During the first t? 7.lf of the 19th century his right to be ranked among the great poets of the world was disputed by some German and English critics.

The effect of this was a juster estimate of Virgil's relative position among the poets of the world. It may still be a matter of individual opinion whether Lucretius himself was not a more powerful and original poetical force, whether he does not speak more directly to the heart and imagination of our own time. But it can hardly be questioned, on a survey of Roman literature, as a continuous expression of the national mind, from the age of Naevius to the age of Claudian, that the position of Virgil is central and commanding, while that of Lucretius is in a great measure isolated. If we could imagine the place of Virgil in Roman literature vacant, it would be much the same as if we imagined the place of Dante vacant in modern Italian, and that of Goethe in German literature. The serious efforts of the early Roman literature - the efforts of the older epic and tragic poetry - found their fulfilment in him. The revelation of the power and life of Nature, first made to Lucretius, was able to charm the Roman mind, only after it had passed into the mind of Virgil.

Virgil is the only complete representative of the deepest sentiment and highest mood of his countrymen and of his time. In his pastoral and didactic poems he gives a living voice to the whole charm of Italy, in the Aeneid to the whole glory of Rome. He was in the maturity of his powers at the most critical epoch of the national life, one of the most critical epochs in the history of the world. Keeping aloof from the trivial daily life of his contemporaries, he was moved more profoundly than any of them by the deeper currents of emotion in the sphere of government, religion, morals and human feeling which were then changing the world; and in uttering the enthusiasm of the hour, and all the new sensibilities that were stirring in his own heart and imagination, he had, in the words of Sainte-Beuve, " divined at a decisive hour of the world what the future would love." He was also by universal acknowledgment the greatest literary artist whom Rome produced. Virgil had a more catholic sympathy with the whole range of Greek poetry, from Homer and Hesiod to Theocritus and the Alexandrians, than any one else at any period of Roman literature. The effort of the preceding generation to attain to beauty of form and finish of artistic execution found in him, at the most susceptible period of his life, a ready recipient of its influence. The rude dialect of Latium had been moulded into a powerful and harmonious organ of literary expression by a long series of orators; the Latin hexameter, first shaped by Ennius to meet the wants of his own spirit and of his high argument, had been smoothed and polished by Lucretius, and still more perfected by the finer ear and more careful industry of Catullus and his circle; but neither had yet attained their final development. It was left for Virgil to bring both diction and rhythm to as high a pitch of artistic perfection as has been attained in any literature. This great work was accomplished by the steady devotion of his genius to his appointed task. For the first half of his life he prepared himself to be the poet of his time and country with a high ambition and unresting industry. The second half of his career was a religious consecration of all his powers of heart, mind and spirit to his high office.

Virgil's fame as a poet rests on the three acknowledged works of his early and mature manhood - the pastoral poems or Eclogues, the Georgics and the Aeneid - all written in that hexameter verse which Tennyson has called " The stateliest measure ever moulded by the lips of man." The pastoral poems or Eclogues - a word denoting short selected pieces - were composed between the years 42 and 37 B.C., when Virgil was between the age of twenty-eight and thirty three. By his invocation to the " Sicelides Musae " and " Arethusa," and by many other indications, he avows the purpose of eliciting from the strong Latin language the melody which the " Sicilian shepherd " drew out of the " Doric reed," and of expressing that tender feeling for the beauty of Italian scenes which Theocritus had expressed for the beauty of Sicily.

The earliest poems in the series were the second, third and fifth; and these, along with the seventh, are the most purely Theocritean in character. The first and ninth, which probably were next in order, are much more Italian in sentiment, are much more an expression of the poet's own feelings, and have a much more direct reference both to his own circumstances and the circumstances of the time. The first is a true poetical reflex of the distress and confusion which arose out of the new distribution of lands, and blends the poet's own deep love of his home, and of the sights and sounds familiar to him from childhood, with his Italian susceptibility to the beauty of nature. The ninth is immediately connected in subject with the first. It contains the lines which seem accurately to describe the site of Virgil's farm, at the point where the range of hills which accompany the river for some distance from the foot of the Lago di Garda sinks into the plain about 14 or 15 m. above Mantua. The sixth is addressed to Varus, who succeeded Pollio as governor of the Cisalpine district. Its theme is the creation of the world (according to the Epicurean cosmogony), and the oldest tales of mythology.' The fourth and eighth are both closely associated with the name of Virgil's earliest protector, Pollio. The fourth celebrates the consulship of his patron in 40 B.C., and also the prospective birth of a child, though it was disputed in antiquity, and still is disputed, who was meant by this child whose birth was to be coincident with the advent of the new era, and who, after filling the other great offices of state, was to " rule with his father's virtues the world at peace." 2 The main purpose of the poem, however, is to express the longing of the world for a new era of peace and happiness, of which the treaty of Brundisium seemed to hold out some definite hopes. There is no trace in this poem of Theocritean influence. The ideas are derived partly from Greek representations of the Golden Age, and partly, it is supposed, from the later Sibylline prophecies, circulated after the burning in the time of Sulla of the old Sibylline books, and possibly tinged with Jewish ideas. Some of the phraseology of the poem led to a belief in the early Christian church that Virgil had been an unconscious instrument of inspired prophecy. The date of the eighth is fixed by a reference to the campaign of Pollio against the Dalmatians in 39 B.C. It is founded on the 'apµarceurpia of Theocritus, but brings before us, with Italian associations, two love tales of homely Italian life. The tenth reproduces the Daphnis of Theocritus, and is a dirge over the unhappy love of Gallus and Lycoris. As in the other poems, the second and eighth, of which love is the burden, it is to the romantic and fantastic melancholy which the passion assumes in certain natures that Virgil gives a voice.

There is no important work in Latin literature, with the exception of the comedy of Terence, so imitative as the Eclogues. But they are not, like the comedies of Terence, purely exotic as well as imitative. They are rather composite, partly Greek and partly Italian, and, as a vehicle for the expression of feeling, hold an undefined place between the objectivity of the Greek idyll and the subjectivity of the Latin elegy. For the most part, they express the sentiment inspired by the beauty of the world, and the kindred sentiment inspired by the charm of human relationships. Virgil's susceptibility to the beauty of nature appears in the truth with which his work suggests the charm of Italy - the fresh life of an Italian spring, the delicate hues of the wild flowers and the quiet beauty of the pastures and orchards of his native district. The representative character of the poems is enhanced by the fidelity and grace with which he has expressed the Italian peasant's love of his home and of all things associated with it. The supreme charm of the diction and rhythm is universally recognized. The power of varied harmony is as conspicuous in Virgil's earliest poems as in the maturer and more elaborate workmanship of the Georgics and Aeneid. The Italian language, without sacrifice of the fulness, strength and majesty of its tones, acquired a more tender grace and more liquid flow from the gift - the " molle atque facetum " - which the Muses of country life bestowed on Virgil.

' In the Georgics also Virgil attempts to combine science with the poetic fancies which filled its place in older times.

2 See Virgil's Messianic Eclogue: Its Meaning, Occasion and Sources, three studies by J. B. Mayor, W. Warde Fowler and R. S. Conway (1907).

But these Muses had a more serious and dignified function to fulfil than that of glorifying the picturesque pastime, the " otia dia," of rural life. The Italian imagination formed an ideal of the happiness of a country life nobler than that of passive susceptibility to the sights and sounds of the outward world. It is stated that Maecenas, acting on the principle of employing the poets of the time in favour of the conservative and restorative policy of the new government, directed the genius of Virgil to the subject of the Georgics. No object could be of more consequence in the eyes of a statesman whose master inherited the policy of the popular leaders than the revival of the great national industry, associated with happier memories of Rome, which had fallen into abeyance owing to the long unsettlement of the revolutionary era as well as to other causes. Virgil's previous life and associations made it natural for him to identify himself with this object, while his genius fitted him to enlist the imagination of his countrymen in its favour. It would be a most inadequate view of his purpose to suppose that, like the Alexandrian poets or the didactic poets of modern times, he desired merely to make useful information more attractive by the aid of verse. His aim was rather to describe with realistic fidelity, and to surround with an atmosphere of poetry, the annual round of labour in which the Italian yeoman's life was passed; to bring out the intimate relation with nature into which man was brought in the course of that life, and to suggest the delight to heart and imagination which he drew from it; to contrast the simplicity, security and sanctity of such a life with the luxury and lawless passions of the great world; and to associate the ideal of a life of rustic labour with the beauties of Italy and the glories of Rome. This larger conception of the dignity of his subject separates the didactic poem of Virgil from all other didactic, as distinct from philosophic, poems. He has produced in the Georgics a new type of didactic, as in the Aeneid he has produced a new type of epic, poetry.

The subject is treated in four books, varying in length from 514 to 566 lines. The first treats of the tillage of the fields, of the constellations, the rise and setting of which form the farmer's calendar, and of the signs of the weather, on which the success of his labours largely depends. The second treats of trees, and especially of the vine and olive, two great staples of the national wealth and industry of Italy; the third of the rearing of herds and flocks and the breeding of horses; the fourth of bees.

As he had found in Theocritus a model for the form in which his idler fancies were expressed, he turned to an older page in Greek literature for the outline of the form in which his graver interest in rural affairs was to find its outlet. The Works and Days of Hesiod could not supply an adequate mould for the systematic treatment of all the processes of rural industry, and still less for the treatment of the larger ideas to which this was subsidiary, yet that Virgil considered him as his prototype is shown by the line which concludes one of the cardinal episodes of the poem " Ascraeumque cano Romana per oppida carmen." Virgil accepts also the guidance of the Alexandrian poets who treated the science of their day - astronomy, natural history and geography - in the metre and diction of epic poetry. But, in availing himself of the work of the Alexandrians, Virgil is like a great master making use of mechanical assistants. A more powerful influence on the form, ideas, sentiment and diction of the Georgics was exercised by the great philosophical poem of Lucretius, of which Virgil had probably been a diligent student since the time of its first appearance, and with which his mind was saturated when he was engaged in the composition of the Georgics. Virgil is at once attracted and repelled by the genius and attitude of the philosophic poet. He is possessed by his imaginative conception of nature, as a living, all-pervading power; he shares his Italian love of the beauty of the world, and his sympathy with animal as well as human life. He recognizes with enthusiasm his contemplative elevation above the petty interests and passions of life. But he is repelled by his apparent separation from the ordinary beliefs, hopes and fears of his fellow-men. Virgil is in thorough sympathy with the best restorative tendencies - religious, social and national - of his time; Lucretius was driven into isolation by the anarchic and dissolving forces of his.

So far as any speculative idea underlying the details of the Georgics can be detected, it is one of which the source can be traced to Lucretius - the idea of the struggle of human force with the forces of nature. In Virgil this idea is modified by Italian piety and by the Italian delight in the results of labour. In the general plan of the poem Virgil follows the guidance of Lucretius rather than that of any Greek model. The distinction between a poem addressed to national and one addressed to philosophical sympathies is marked by the prominence assigned in the one poem to Caesar as the supreme personality of the age, in the other to Epicurus as the supreme master in the realms of mind. The invocation to the Di agrestes," to the old gods of mythology and art, to the living Caesar as the latest power added to the pagan Pantheon, is both a parallel and a contrast to the invocation to the all-pervading principle of life, personified as " Alma Venus." In the systematic treatment of his materials, and the interspersion of episodes dealing with the deeper poetical and human interest of the subject, Virgil adheres to the practice of the older poet. He uses his connecting links and formulas, such as " principio," " nunc age," &c., but uses them more sparingly, so as to make the logical mechanism of the poem less rigid, while he still keeps up the liveliness of a personal address. All his topics admit of being vitalized by attributing to natural processes the vivacity of human relationships and sensibility, and by association with the joy which the ideal farmer feels in the results of his energy. Much of the argument of Lucretius, on the other hand, is as remote from the genial presence of nature as from human associations. Virgil makes a much larger use than Lucretius of ornament borrowed from older poetry, art, science and mythology. There is uniformity of chastened excellence in the diction and versification of the Georgics, contrasting with the imaginative force of isolated expressions and the majesty of isolated lines and passages in Lucretius. The " vivida vis " of imagination is more apparent in the older poet; the artistic perfection of Virgil is even more conspicuous in the Georgics than in the Eclogues or the A eneid. The principal episodes of the poem, in which the true dignity and human interest of the subject are brought out, occur in the first and second books. Other shorter episodes add variety to the different books. These episodes are not detached or isolated ornaments, but give a higher unity to the poem, and are the main ground of its permanent hold upon the world. There is indeed one marked exception to this rule. The long episode with which the whole poem ends - the tale of the shepherd Aristaeus, with which is connected the more poetical fable of Orpheus and Eurydice - has only the slightest connexion with the general ideas and sentiment of the poem. It is altogether at variance with the truthful realism and the Italian feeling which pervade it. But we are distinctly told that the original conclusion had contained the praises of Gallus, the friend of Virgil's youth, who, about the time when Virgil was finishing the poem, had gained distinction in the war against Cleopatra, and had in consequence been made the first governor of the new province of Egypt. Such a conclusion might well have been in keeping with the main purpose of the poem.

After the fall of Gallus, owing to his ambitious failure in his Egyptian administration, and his death in 26 B.C., the poet, according to the story, in obedience to the command of the emperor, substituted for this encomium the beautiful but irrelevant fable of Orpheus and Eurydice, in which he first displayed the narrative skill, the pathos and the magical power of making the mystery of the unseen world present to the imagination which characterize the Aeneid. The cardinal episodes of the poem, as it now stands, are the passages in bk. i. from line 464 to the end, and in bk. ii. from 136 to 176 and from 475 to 542. The first, introduced in connexion with the signs of the weather, recounts the omens which accompanied the death of Julius Caesar, and shows how the misery of Italy and the neglected state of the fields are the punishment for the great sin of the previous generation. In the second of these passages the true keynote of the poem is struck in the invocation to Italy " Salve, magna parens frugum, Saturnia tellus, Magna virum." The thought of the beauties of the land, of the abundance and variety of its products, of its ancient cities and mighty works of man, its brave and hardy races, the great men who had fought for her in old times, and of him, the greatest among her sons, who was then defending Rome against her enemies in the farthest East, inspires the poet, and gives dignity to the trivial details of farm life. But a still higher and more catholic interest is given to the subject in the greatest of the episodes - the most perfect passage in all Latin poetry - that from line 458, " O fortunatos nimium," to the end. The subject is there glorified by its connexion not only with the national well-being but with the highest life and purest happiness of man. The old delight in the labours of the field blends with the new delight in the beauty of nature, and is associated with that purity and happiness of family life which was an Italian ideal, and with the poetry of those religious beliefs and observances which imparted a sense of security, a constantly recurring charm, and a bond of social sympathy to the old rustic life.

The Georgics is not only the most perfect, but the most native of all the works of the ancient Italian genius. Even where he borrows from Greek originals, Virgil makes the Greek mind tributary to his national design. The Georgics, the poem of the land, is as essentially Italian as the Odyssey, the poem of the sea, is essentially Greek. Nature is presented to us as she is revealed in the soft luxuriance of Italian landscape, not in the clearly defined forms of Greek scenery. The poem shows the Italian susceptibility to the beauty of the outward world, the dignity and sobriety of the Italian imagination, the firm and enduring structure of all Roman workmanship, while it is essentially Italian in its religious and ethical feeling.

The work which yet remained for Virgil to accomplish was the addition of a great Roman epic to literature. This had been the earliest effort of the national imagination, when it first departed from the mere imitative reproduction of Greek originals. The work which had given the truest expression to the genius of Rome before the time of Virgil had been the Annales of Ennius. This had been supplemented by various historical poems but had never been superseded. It satisfied the national imagination as an expression of the national life in its vigorous prime, but it could not satisfy the newly developed sense of art; and the expansion of the national life since the days of Ennius, and the changed conditions into which it passed after the battle of Actium, demanded a newer and ampler expression. It had been Virgil's earliest ambition to write an heroic poem on the traditions of Alba Longa; and he had been repeatedly urged by Augustus to celebrate his exploits. The problem before him was to compose a work of art on a large scale, which should represent a great action of the heroic age, and should at the same time embody the most vital ideas and sentiment of the hour - which in substance should glorify Rome and the present ruler of Rome, while in form it should follow closely the great models of epic poetry and reproduce all their sources of interest. It was his ambition to be the Homer, as he had been the Theocritus and Hesiod, of his country.

Various objects had thus to be combined in a work of art on the model of the Greek epic: the revival of interest in the heroic foretime; the satisfaction of national sentiment; the expression of the deeper currents of emotion of the age; the personal celebration of Augustus. A new type of epic poetry had to be created. It was desirable to select a single heroic action which should belong to the cycle of legendary events celebrated in the Homeric poems, and which could be associated with Rome. The only subject which in any way satisfied these conditions was that of the wanderings of Aeneas and of his final settlement in Latium. The story, though not of Roman origin but of a composite growth, had long been familiar to the Romans, and had been recognized by official acts of senate and people. The subject enabled Virgil to tell again of the fall of Troy, and to weave a tale of sea-adventure similar to that of the wanderings of Odysseus. It was also recommended by the claim which the Julii, a patrician family of Alban origin, made to descent from Iulus, the supposed son of Aeneas and founder of Alba Longa.

The Aeneid is thus at once the epic of the national life under its new conditions and an epic of human character. The true keynote of the poem is struck in the line with which the proem closes " Tantae molis erat Romanam condere gentem." The idea which underlies the whole action of the poem is that of the great part played by Rome in the history of the world, that part being from of old determined by divine decree, and carried out through the virtue of her sons. The idea of universal empire is thus the dominant idea of the poem. With this idea that of the unbroken continuity of the national life is intimately associated. The reverence for old customs and for the traditions of the past was a large element in the national sentiment, and has a prominent place in the Aeneid. So too has the feeling of local attachment and of the power of local association over the imagination. The poem is also characteristically Roman in the religious belief and observances which it embodies. Behind all the conventional machinery of the old Olympic gods there is the Roman apprehension of a great inscrutable power, manifesting itself by arbitrary signs, exacting jealously certain observances, working out its own secret purposes through the agency of Roman arms and Roman counsels.

The poem is thus a religious as well as a national epic, and this explains the large part played in the development of the action by special revelation, omens, prophecies, ceremonial usages and prayer. But, while the predominant religious idea of the poem is that of a divine purpose carried out regardlessly of human feeling, in other parts of the poem, and especially in that passage of the sixth book in which Virgil tries to formulate his deepest convictions on individual destiny, the agency of fate seems to yield to that of a spiritual dispensation, awarding to men their portions according to their actions.

The idealization of Augustus is no expression of servile adulation. It is through the prominence assigned to him that the poem is truly representative of the critical epoch in human affairs at which it was written. The cardinal fact of that epoch was the substitution of personal rule for the rule of the old commonwealth over the Roman world. Virgil shows the imaginative significance of that fact by revealing the emperor as chosen from of old in the counsels of the supreme ruler of the world to fulfil the national destiny, as the descendant of gods and of heroes of old poetic renown; as one, moreover, who, in the actual work done by him, as victor in a great decisive battle between the forces of the Western and the Eastern world, as the organizer of empire and restorer of peace, order and religion, had rendered better service to mankind than any one of the heroes who in an older time had been raised for their great deeds to the company of the gods.

Virgil's true and yet idealizing interpretation of the imperial idea of Rome is the basis of the greatness of the Aeneid as a representative poem. It is on this representative character and on the excellence of its artistic execution that the claim of the Aeneid to rank as one of the great poems of the world mainly rests. The inferiority of the poem to the Iliad and the Odyssey as a direct representation of human life is so unquestionable that we are in danger of underrating the real though secondary interest which the poem possesses as an imitative epic of human action, manners and character. In the first place it should be remarked that the action is chosen not only as suited to embody the idea of Rome, but as having a peculiar nobleness and dignity of its own. It brings before us the spectacle of the destruction of the city of greatest name in poetry or legend, of the foundation of the imperial city of the western seas, in which Rome had encountered her most powerful antagonist in her long struggle for supremacy, and that of the first rude settlement on the hills of Rome itself. The scenes through which the action is carried are familiar, yet full of great memories and associations - Troy and its neighbourhood, the seas and islands of Greece, the coasts of Epirus, familiar to all travellers between Italy and the East, Sicily, the site of Carthage, Campania, Latium, the Tiber, and all the country within sight of Rome. The personages of the action are prominent in poetry and legend, or by their ethnical names stir the sentiment of national enthusiasm - Aeneas and Anchises, Dido, Acestes, Evander, Turnus. The spheres of activity in which they are engaged are war and sea-adventure. The passion of love is a powerful addition to the older sources of interest. The Aeneid revives, by a conventional compromise between the present and the remote past, some image of the old romance of Greece; it creates the romance of " that Italy for which Camilla the virgin, Euryalus, and Turnus and Nisus died of wounds." It might be said of the manner of life represented in the Aeneid, that it is no more true to any actual condition of human society than that represented in the Eclogues. But may not the same be said of all idealizing restoration of a remote past in an age of advanced civilization? The life represented in the Oedipus Tyrannus or in King Lear is not the life of the Periclean nor of the Elizabethan age, nor is it conceivable as the real life of a prehistoric age. The truth of such a representation is to be judged, not by its relation to any actual state of things ever realized in the world, but by its relation to an ideal of the imagination - the ideal conception of how man, endowed with the gifts and graces of a civilized time, but yet not without the buoyancy of a more primitive age, might play his part under circumstances which would afford scope for the passions and activities of a vigorous personality, and for the refined emotions and subtle reflection of an era of high intellectual and moral cultivation. The verdict of most readers of the Aeneid will be that Virgil does not satisfy this condition as it is satisfied by Sophocles and Shakespeare. Yet there is a courtesy, dignity and consideration for the feelings of others in the manners of his chief personages, such as might be exhibited by the noblest in an age of chivalry and in an age of culture. The charm of primitive simplicity is present in some passages of the Aeneid, the spell of luxurious pomp in others. The delight of voyaging past beautiful islands is enhanced by the suggestion of the adventurous spirit which sent the first explorers abroad. Where Virgil is least real, and most purely imitative, is in the battle-scenes of the later books. They afford scope, however, to his patriotic desire to do justice to the martial energy of the Italian races; and some of them have a peculiar beauty from the pathos with which the deaths of some of the heroes are described.

But the adverse criticisms of the Aeneid are chiefly based on Virgil's supposed failure in the crucial test of the creation of character. And his chief failure is pronounced to be the " pious Aeneas." Is Aeneas a worthy and interesting hero of a great poem of action? Not, certainly, according to the ideals realized in Achilles and Odysseus, nor according to the modern ideal of heroism. Virgil wishes to hold up in Aeneas an ideal of pious obedience and persistent purpose - a religious ideal belonging to the ages of faith combined with the humane and self-sacrificing qualities belonging to an era of moral enlightenment. His own sympathy is with his religious ideal rather than with that of chivalrous romance. Yet that there was in his own imagination a chord responsive to the chivalrous emotion of a later time is seen in the love and pathos which he has thrown into his delineations of Pallas, Lausus and Camilla. But he felt that the deepest need of his time was not military glory, but peace, reconciliation, the restoration of law, order and piety.

In Dido Roman poetry has added to the great gallery of men and women, created by the imaginative art of different times and peoples, the ideal of a true queen and a true woman. On the episode of which she is the heroine the most passionate human interest is concentrated. It has been objected that Virgil does not really sympathize with his own creation, that he gives his approval to the cold desertion of her by Aeneas. But if he does not condemn his hero, he sees in the desertion and death of Dido a great tragic issue in which a noble and generous nature is sacrificed to the larger purpose of the gods. But that Virgil really sympathized with the creation of his imagination appears, not only in the sympathy which she still inspires, but in the part which he assigns to her in that shadowy realm " Conjunx ubi pristinus illi Respondet curls, aequatque Sychaeus amorem." Even those who have been insensible to the representative and to the human interest of the Aeneid have generally recognized the artistic excellence of the poem. This is conspicuous both in the conception of the action and the arrangement of its successive stages and in the workmanship of details. Each of the first eight books has a large and distinct sphere of interest, and they each contribute to the impression of the work as a whole. In the first book we have the storm, the prophecy of Jove and the building of Carthage; in the second the destruction of Troy; in the third the voyage among the islands and coasts of the Mediterranean; in the fourth the tragedy of Dido; in the fifth the rest in the Sicilian bay, at the foot of Mount Eryx; in the sixth the revelation of the spiritual world of Virgil's imagination, and of the souls of those who built up the greatness of Rome in their pre-existent state; in the seventh the arrival of the Trojans at the mouth of the Tiber and the gathering of the Italian clans; in the eighth the first sight of the hills of Rome, and the prophetic representation of the great crises in Roman history, leading up to the greatest of them all, the crowning victory of Actium. Among these books we may infer that Virgil assigned the palm to the second, the fourth and the sixth, as he selected them to read to Augustus and the imperial family. The interest is generally thought to flag in the last four books; nor is it possible to feel that culminating sympathy with the final combat between Turnus and Aeneas that we feel with the combat between Hector and Achilles. Yet a personal interest is awakened in the adventures and fate of Pallas, Lausus and Camilla. Virgil may himself have become weary of the succession of battle-scenes - ` ` eadem horrida bella " - which the requirements of epic poetry called upon him to portray. There is not only a less varied interest, there is greater inequality of workmanship in the later books, owing to the fact that they had not received their author's final revisal. Yet in them there are many lines and passages of great power, pathos and beauty. Virgil brought the two great instruments of varied and continuous harmony and of a rich, chastened and noble style to the highest perfection of which the Latin tongue was capable. The rhythm and style of the Aeneid is more unequal than the rhythm and style of the Georgics, but is a larger and more varied instrument. The note of his supremacy among all the poetic artists of his country is that subtle fusion of the music and the meaning of language which touches the deepest and most secret springs of emotion. He touches especially the emotions of reverence and of yearning for a higher spiritual life, and the sense of nobleness in human affairs, in great institutions, and great natures; the sense of the sanctity of human affections, of the imaginative spell exercised by the past, of the mystery of the unseen world. This is the secret of the power which his words have had over some of the deepest and greatest natures in all ages. (W. Y. S.; T. R. G.) Bibliography Appendix Vergiliana. - Under this collective name there are current several poems of some little length and some groups of shorter pieces, all attributed to Virgil in antiquity. Virgil wrote a Culex, but not the Culex now extant, though it passed for his half a century after his death. The Aetna, the Ciris and the Copa are clearly not Virgil's. The Moretum is said to have been translated by him from a Greek poem by his teacher Parthenius; it is an exquisite piece of work, familiar perhaps to English readers in Cowper's translation. The case of the Catalepton (Kara Xeirros) is peculiar. Two of these little poems (Ite hint indnes and Villula quae Sironis) are generally accepted as Virgil's; opinion varies as to the rest, with very little to go upon, but generally rejecting them. The whole are printed in the larger editions of Virgil. For English readers the most obvious edition is that of Robinson Ellis (1907), who has also edited the Aetna separately.

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Gellius (Noctes Atticae, ix. 14, 7) tells us of people who had inspected idiographum librum Vergilii, but this has of course in all probability long since perished. There are, however, seven very ancient MSS. of Virgil. (I) The Mediceus at Florence, with a note purporting to be by a man, who was consul in 494, to say he had read it. (2) The Palatinus Vaticanus of the 4th or 5th century. (3) The Vaticanus of the same period. (4) The " Schedae Vaticanae." (5) The " Schedae Berolinenses," perhaps of the 4th century. (6) The " Schedae Sangallenses." (7) The " Schedae rescriptae Veronenses " - the last three of insignificant extent. For a full account of the MSS., see Henry, Aeneidea, i., and Ribbeck, Prolegomena ad Verg. Ancient Commentators. - Commentaries on Virgil began to be written at a very early date. Suetonius, V. Verg. 44, mentions an Aeneidomastix of Carvilius Pictor and other works on Virgil's " thefts " and " faults," besides eight " volumina " of Q. Octavius Avitus, setting out in parallel passages the " likenesses " (6 momornres was the name of the work) between Virgil and more ancient authors. M. Valerius Probus (latter part of 1st century A.D.) wrote a commentary, but it is doubtful for how much of what passes under his name he is responsible, if for any of it. At the end of the 4th century come the commentaries of Tiberius Claudius Donatus and of Servius, the former writing as a teacher of rhetoric, the latter of style and grammar. The work of Servius was afterwards expanded by another scholar, whose additions greatly added to its worth, as they are drawn from older commentators and give us very valuable information on the old Roman religion and constitution, Greek and Latin legends, old Latin and linguistic usages. In this enlarged form the commentary of Servius and the Saturnalia of Macrobius (also of the end of the 4th century) are both of great interest to the student of Virgil. There are, further, sets of Scholia in MSS. at Verona and Bern, which draw their material from ancient commentaries. See H. Nettleship, Essays in Latin Literature, xi., and Comparetti, Vergil in the Middle Ages, ch. 5.


The editions of Virgil are innumerable; Heyne (1767-1800), Forbiger (1872-75) and Ribbeck (1859-66) in Germany, Benoist (1876) in France, and Conington (completed by Nettleship, and edited by Haverfield) in England, are perhaps the most important. Good school editions in English have been produced by Page, Sidgwick and Papillon. Conington's work, however, is without question the best in English.


Famous English translations have been made by Dryden and by a host of others since his day. Since the middle of the 19th century the most important are Conington (Aeneid in verse, whole works in prose); J. W. Mackail (Aeneid and Georgics in prose); William Morris (Aeneid in verse); Lord Justice Bowen (Eclogues and Aeneid, i.-vi. in verse); Canon Thornhill (verse); C. J. Billson (verse, 1906); J. Rhoades (verse, new ed., 1907). For essays on translating Virgil, see Conington, Miscellaneous Works, vol. i.; R. Y. Tyrrell, Latin Poetry (appendix).


- For full bibliographies of Virgil consult Schanz, Gesch. der Romischen Litteratur (1899) (in Iwan von Min'er's series, Handbuch der Klassischen Altertums-Wissenschaft), and Teuffel, History of Roman Literature, edited by L. Schwabe and tr. by G.

C. W. Warr (1900). On the life of Virgil: Nettleship's Ancient Lives of Vergil (1879) discusses the authorities, printing one of the lives, which he shows to be by Suetonius. On the Eclogues: Glaser, V. als Naturdichter u. Theist (1880); Cattault, E tude sur les Bucoliques de V. (1897). On the Georgics: Morsch, De Graecis in Georgicis a V. expressis (1878); Norden, " V.-studien " (in Hermes, vol. 28, 1893) (Norden has little patience with " aesthetic criticism "). On the Aeneid: Schwegler, Rom. Gesch. vol. i. (1853); Cauer, De fabulis Graecis ad Romam conditam pertinentibus; Hild, La Legende d'Enee avant V. (1883); Forstemann, Zur Gesch. des Aeneasm'vthus; H. de la Ville de Mirmont, Apollonios de Rhodes et Virgile (1894) (rather too long); Pliiss, V. u. die epische Kunst (1884); Georgii, Die polilische Tendenz der Aen. (1880); Boissier, Nouvelles promenades archiologiques (1886) (trans. under title The Country of Horace and Virgil, by D. Havelock Fisher, 1895); Gibbon, Critical Observations on the Sixth Book of the Aeneid (1770); Boissier, La Religion romaine d'Auguste aux Antonins (1884) (with section on sixth Aeneid); Ettig, Acheruntica (Leipziger Studien, 1891); Norden, " V.-studien (in Hermes, vol. 28, 1893), on sixth Aeneid, and papers in Neue Jahrbiicher fur kl. Altertum (1901); Dieterich, Nekyia (1893) (on Apocalypse of Peter and ancient teaching on the other life - a valuable book); Henry, Aeneidea (1873-79) (a book of very great learning, wit, sense and literary judgment; the author, an Irish physician, gave twenty years to it, examining MSS., exploring Virgil's country, and reading every author whom Virgil could have used and nearly every ancient writer who used Virgil).

Virgil-literature: Sainte-Beuve, E tude sur Virgile (one of the great books on Virgil); Comparetti, Virgilio nel medio Evo (1872) - Eng. tr., Vergil in the Middle Ages, by E. F. M. Benecke (1895) (a book of very great and varied interest); Heinze, Virgil's epische Technik (1902); W. Y. Sellar, Roman Poets of the Augustan Age: Virgil (2nd ed. 1883); Glover, Studies in Virgil (1904). Essays in the following: F. W. H. Myers, Essays [Classical] (1883), the most famous English essay on Virgil; J. R. Green, Stray Studies (1876) (an excellent study of Aeneas); W. Warde Fowler, A Year with the Birds (on Virgil's bird-lore); Nettleship, Essays in Latin Literature (1884); Tyrrell, Latin Poetry (1898); Patin, Essais sur la poesie Latine (4th ed. 1900) (one of the finest critics of Latin literature); Goumy, Les Latins (1892) (a volume of very bright essays); J. W. Mackail, Latin Literature (3rd ed. 1899). (T. R. G.) The Virgil Legend. Virgil's great popularity in the middle ages is to be partly explained by the fact that he was to a certain extent recognized by the Church. He was supposed to have prophesied the coming of Christ in the fourth Eclogue, and by some divines the Aeneid was held to be an allegory of sacred things. This position was sufficiently emphasized by Dante when he chose him from among all the sages of antiquity to be his guide in the Divina Commedia. Ancient poets and philosophers were commonly transformed by medieval writers into necromancers; and Virgil and Aristotle became popularly famous, not for poetry and science, but for their supposed knowledge of the black art. Naples appears to have been the home of the popular legend of Virgil, which represented him as the special protector of the city, but was probably never quite independent of learned tradition.

One of the earliest references to the magical skill of Virgil' occurs in a letter of the imperial chancellor Conrad of Querfurt (1194), ' The Irish apostle to Carinthia, St Virgilius, bishop of Salzburg (d. 784), who held original views on the subject of antipodes, may have been the real eponym of the legend.

reproduced by Arnold of Lubeck in the continuation of the Chronica Slavorum of Helmold. John of Salisbury alludes to the brazen fly fabricated by Virgil; Helinand (d. 1227) speaks of similar marvels in a work from which Vincent of Beauvais has borrowed; and Gervase of Tilbury, in his Otia Imperialia (1212), and Alexander of Neckam (d. 1217), in De Naturis Rerum, have reproduced these traditions, with additions. German and French poets did not overlook this accessory to their repertory. The Roman de Cleomades of Adenes li rois (12th century) and the Image du Monde of Gauthier de Metz (1245)_ contain numerous references to the prodigies of the enchanter. Reynard the Fox informs King Lion that he had from the wise Virgil a quantity of valuable receipts. He also plays a considerable part in the popular folk-tale The Seven Wise Masters, and appears in the Gesta Romanorum and that curious guidebook for pilgrims, the Mirabilia Romae. He is to be found in John Gower's Confessio Amantis and in John Lydgate's Bochas. A Spanish romance, Vergilios, is included by E. de Ochoa in his Tesoro (Paris, 1838), and Juan Ruiz, archpriest of Hita (d. c. 1360), also wrote a poem on the subject. Many of the tales of magic throughout Europe were referred to Virgil, and gradually developed into a completely new life, strangely different from that of the real hero. They were collected in French under the title of Les Faitz Merveilleux de Virgille (c. 1 499), a quarto chapbook of ten pages, which became extremely popular, and was printed, with more or less additional matter, in other languages. The English version, beginning "This is resonable to wryght the mervelus dedes done by Virgilius," was printed about 1520. We are told how Virgil beguiled the devil at a very early age, in the same fashion as the fisherman persuaded the jinnee in the Arabian Nights to re-enter Solomon's casket. Another reproduction of a widely spread tale was that of the lady who kept Virgil suspended in a basket. To revenge the affront the magician extinguished all the fires in the city, and no one could rekindle them without subjecting the lady to an ordeal highly offensive to her modesty. Virgil made for the emperor a castle in which he could see and hear everything done or said in Rome, an ever-blooming orchard, statues of the tributary princes which gave warning of treason or rebellion, and a lamp to supply light to the city. He abducted the soldan's daughter, and built for her the city of Naples upon a secure foundation of eggs. At last, having performed many extraordinary things, he knew that his time was come. In order to escape the common lot he placed all his treasures in a castle defended by images unceasingly wielding iron flails, and directed his confidential servant to hew him in pieces, which he was to salt and place in a barrel in the cellar, under which a lamp was to be kept burning. The servant was assured that after seven days his master would revive, a young man. The directions were carried out; but the emperor, missing his medicine-man, forced the servant to divulge the secret and to quiet the whirling flails. The emperor and his retinue entered the castle and at last found the mangled corpse. In his wrath he slew the servant, whereupon a little naked child ran thrice round the barrel, crying, " Cursed be the hour that ye ever came here," and vanished.

For the legends connected with Virgil see especially D. Cornparetti, Virgilio nel medio evo (2nd ed., Florence, 1896; English trans., E. F. M. Benecke, 1895). The chief original source for the Neapolitan legends is the 14th-century Cronica di Partenope. See further W. J. Thoms, Early Eng. Prose Romances (1858); G. Brunet, Les Faitz merveilleux de Virgile (Geneva, 1867); E. Dumeril, " Virgile enchanteur " (Mélanges archeologiques, 1850); Gervase of Tilbury, Otia Imper. (ed. Liebrecht, 1856); P. Schwubbe, Virgilius per mediam aetatem (Paderborn, 1852); Siebenhaar, De fabulis quae media aetate de Virgilio circumf. (Berlin, 1837); J. G. T. Graesse, Beitreige zur Litt. u. Sage des Mittelalters (1850); Bartsch, " Gedicht auf. d. Zaub. Virgil " (Pfeiffer's Germania, iv. 1859); F. Liebrecht, " Der Zauberer Virgilius " (ibid. x. 1865); K. L. Roth, " Ober d. Zaub. Virgilius " (ibid. iv. 18 59); W. Victor, " Der Ursprung der Virgilsage " (Zeit. f. rom. Phil. i. 18 77); A. Graf, Roma nella memoria e nelle imaginazioni del medio evo (Turin, 1882); F. W. Genthe, Leben and Fortleben des Publius Virgilius Mare als Dichter and Zauberer (2nd ed., Magdeburg, 1857).

(M. BR.)

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Latin Virgilius, from the Roman clan name Vergilius, of unknown meaning.

Proper noun




  1. Pūblius Vergilius Marō (70-19 B.C.), Roman epic writer from the Augustan period, best known for writing the Aeneid.
  2. A male given name, of mostly American usage.


Simple English

[[File:|thumbnail|Virgil]] Publius Vergilius Maro, also called Virgil or Vergil by English-speaking people, (October 15, 70 BC - September 21, 19 BC) was a writer of poems in the Latin language. Virgil's most famous epic poem is called the Aeneid. His poems are about gods and myths (called mythology).


Stories say that Virgil was born in the village of Andes, near Mantua[1] in Cisalpine Gaul [2]. Scholars looking at the way he used words think that he may have Etruscan, Umbrian or even a Celtic background. Study of his name has led to beliefs that his family may have been earlier Roman settlers. These modern beliefs are not supported by evidence from his own writings or from writers of his biographies. Some scholars have noted that his cognomen, or nickname, MARO, is an anagram of the two main themes in the Aeneid: AMOR (love) and ROMA (Rome).


  1. The epitaph on his tomb in Posilipo near Naples was Mantua me genuit; Calabri rapuere; tenet nunc Parthenope. Cecini pascua, rura, duces ("Mantua gave birth to me, the Calabrians took me, now Naples holds me; I sang of pastures [the Eclogues], country [the Georgics] and leaders [the Aeneid]").
  2. Map of Cisalpine Gaul


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