Vergil (Publius Vergilius Maro)

Publius Vergilius Maro was an ancient Roman poet of the Augustan period. He is known for three major works of Latin literature, the Eclogues (or Bucolics), the Georgics, and the epic Aeneid. A number of minor poems, collected in the Appendix Vergiliana, are sometimes attributed to him.

Virgil is traditionally ranked as one of Rome's greatest poets. His Aeneid has been considered the national epic of ancient Rome from the time of its composition to the present day. Modeled after Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, the Aeneid follows the Trojan refugee Aeneas as he struggles to fulfill his destiny and arrive on the shores of Italy—in Roman mythology the founding act of Rome. Virgil's work has had wide and deep influence on Western literature, most notably Dante's Divine Comedy, in which Virgil appears as Dante's guide through hell and purgatory.

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.




The tradition holds that Virgil was born in the village of Andes, near Mantua in Cisalpine Gaul. 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. 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. He attended schools in Cremona, Mediolanum, Rome and Naples. After considering briefly a career in rhetoric and law, the young Virgil turned his talents to poetry.

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. 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, 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 AD.

The Eclogues

The biographical tradition asserts that Virgil began the hexameter Eclogues (or Bucolics) in 42 BC and it is thought that the collection was published around 39–38 BC, although this is controversial. 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 BC, 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. Eclogues 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). Eclogue 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.



Page from the Eclogues in the 5th-century Vergilius Romanus
Page from the Eclogues in the 5th-century Vergilius Romanus


The Georgics

Sometime after the publication of the Eclogues (probably before 37 BC), 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, and Varius Rufus, who later helped finish the Aeneid.

At Maecenas' insistence (according to the tradition) Virgil spent the ensuing years (perhaps 37–29 BC) on the longer didactic hexameter poem called the Georgics (from Greek, "On Working the Earth") which he dedicated to Maecenas. The ostensible 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's Works and Days and several works of 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, such as Servius, 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 BC. Augustus is supposed to have ordered the section to be replaced.


Late-17th-century illustration of a passage from the Georgics by Jerzy Siemiginowski-Eleuter
Late-17th-century illustration of a passage from the Georgics by Jerzy Siemiginowski-Eleuter


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. 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 BC.

The Aeneid

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 eleven years of his life (29–19 BC), commissioned, according to Propertius, by Augustus. The epic poem consists of 12 books in dactylic hexameter verse which describe the journey of Aeneas, a warrior fleeing the sack of Troy, to Italy, his battle with the Italian prince Turnus, and the foundation of a city from which 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; 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 to which he alludes. 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.

A 1st-century terracotta expressing the pietas of Aeneas, who carries his aged father and leads his young son
A 1st-century terracotta expressing the pietas of Aeneas, who carries his aged father and leads his young son


Book 1 (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 Carthaginians, 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 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, Book 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. The final book ends with the image of Turnus' soul lamenting as it flees to the underworld.

Reception of the Aeneid

Critics of the Aeneid focus on a variety of issues. 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 against Mark Antony and Cleopatra VII in 31 BC. A further focus of study is the character of Aeneas. As the protagonist of the poem, Aeneas seems to waver constantly 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.


Virgil Reading the Aeneid to Augustus, Octavia, and Livia by Jean-Baptiste Wicar, Art Institute of Chicago
Virgil Reading the Aeneid to Augustus, Octavia, and Livia by Jean-Baptiste Wicar, Art Institute of Chicago


The Aeneid appears to have been a great success. Virgil is said to have recited Books 2, 4, and 6 to Augustus; and Book 6 apparently caused Augustus' sister Octavia to faint. Although the truth of this claim is subject to scholarly scepticism, it has served as a basis for later art, such as Jean-Baptiste Wicar's Virgil Reading the Aeneid.

Unfortunately, some lines of the poem were left unfinished, and the whole was unedited, at Virgil's death in 19 BC.

Virgil's death and editing of the Aeneid

According to the tradition, Virgil traveled to Greece around 19 BC 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 harbor on September 21, 19 BC. 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.

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 Amores 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." 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. Partially as a result of his so-called "Messianic" Fourth Eclogue—widely interpreted later to have predicted the birth of Jesus Christ—Virgil was in later antiquity imputed to have the magical abilities of a seer; the Sortes Vergilianae, the process of using Virgil's poetry as a tool of divination, is found in the time of Hadrian, and continued into the Middle Ages. 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. Virgil also found commentators in antiquity. Servius, a commentator of the 4th century AD, 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.


A 3rd-century Tunisian mosaic of Virgil seated between Clio and Melpomene (from Hadrumetum [Sousse])
A 3rd-century Tunisian mosaic of Virgil seated between Clio and Melpomene (from Hadrumetum [Sousse])


Late antiquity and Middle Ages

Even as the Western Roman empire collapsed, literate men acknowledged that 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 a "Holy City".

Virgil's fourth Eclogue was often seen as a prophecy of the coming of Jesus Christ. It has been argued that this originated in a need on the part of medieval scholars to reconcile Virgil's non-Christian background with the high regard in which they held his works, who were thus forced to make him a prophet of sorts. This view is defended by a few scholars today, notably Richard Thomas (see below, under links). Cicero and other classical writers too were declared Christian due to similarities in moral thinking to Christianity.

Dante made Virgil his guide in 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).

The best-known surviving manuscripts of Virgil's works include the Vergilius Augusteus, the Vergilius Vaticanus and the Vergilius Romanus.


In the Middle Ages, Virgil's reputation was such that it inspired legends associating him with magic and prophecy. From at least the 3rd century, Christian thinkers interpreted Eclogues 4, which describes the birth of a boy ushering in a golden age, as a prediction of Jesus' birth. As such, Virgil came to be seen on a similar level as the Hebrew prophets of the Bible as one who had heralded Christianity.

Possibly as early as the second century AD, Virgil's works were seen as having magical properties and were used for divination. In what became known as the Sortes Vergilianae (Virgilian Lots), passages would be selected at random and interpreted to answer questions. In the 12th century, starting around Naples but eventually spreading widely throughout Europe, a tradition developed in which Virgil was regarded as a great magician. Legends about Virgil and his magical powers remained popular for over two hundred years, arguably becoming as prominent as his writings themselves. Virgil's legacy in medieval Wales was such that the Welsh version of his name, Fferyllt or Pheryllt, became a generic term for magic-worker, and survives in the modern Welsh word for pharmacist, fferyllydd.

Virgil's tomb

The structure 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 west 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, although the tripod is not original to the site.

Name in English

In the Late Empire and Middle Ages Vergilius was spelled Virgilius. Two explanations are 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 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 (this explanation is found in only a handful of manuscripts, however, and was probably not widespread). 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".

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