Virgil (90–19 BC)


Virgil reads some lines from the Eclogues at Maecenas.

The emperor Augustus, contrary to the wish of Virgil, forbids the burning of the manuscript of the Aeneid

The emperor Augustus, contrary to the wish of Virgil, forbids the burning of the manuscript of the Aeneid.

Virgil, a famous Roman poet, once wrote a poem addressed to his friend Asinius Pollio, in which he foretold the birth of a child who would introduce a new age of peace and prosperity into the world. As this was written some 40 years before the birth of Christ, Virgil came to be regarded by early Christians as a prophet who had foretold the birth of Christ. This reputation was helped by the fact that his mother's name was Magia (magus in Latin means a magician). Today nobody thinks of Virgil as a magician, but his fame as one of the greatest of Latin poets has grown. Dante, who considered Virgil as the last of the great pagan poets, chose him for his guide in Hell and Purgatory when he made his imaginary tour of the next world (since Virgil was not baptized, he could not enter Paradise).


His life

Publius Vergilius Maro was born in the 15 October in the year 70 BC at Andes, a small village near Mantua in the Po valley in the north of Italy. His father was a small farmer, and Virgil lived in the country until he was twelve. He was very fond of the country, and later much of his poetry was about the beauties of the countryside.


At thirteen Virgil began his education at Cremona, and at sixteen he was sent to Milan. After a year there he went to Rome. Where he attended a school of rhetoric and also studied astronomy and medicine. He then tried to become a barrister, but this profession did not suit his shy and awkward character; in fact he only appeared in court once, and he seems to have lost his case. So he changed his plans and returned home.


Because of his delicate health, Virgil took no part in public life, either as a politician or as a soldier. But now the civil war between Augustus and Brutus, which followed the murder of Caesar, brought disaster upon him. To reward his faithful soldiers Augustus had confiscated and distributed to them land around Cremona and Mantua. Virgil's farm was one of those confiscated and he was evicted. So he took to the road to Rome once more, and this time he was more fortunate.


Maecenas, a Roman noble, was a famous patron of poets and artists, among whom was Horace, Maecenas and Augustus now became the patrons of Virgil. From this time on, Virgil divided his time between Rome and Naples, and became the poet of the new order which Augustus was establishing.


His works

Virgil drew his inspiration mainly from the countryside. His first works, the Eclogues and the Georgics, describe the peaceful life of the country and the various kinds of agriculture. They were written, at Augustus' suggestion, to arouse a love of the countryside in the hearts of the Romans, now that they had become rich, despised hard work on the land. Virgil took seven years writing and perfecting these two works. He composed very slowly, writing a few verses early in the morning, and spending the rest of the day polishing and correcting them.


The last ten years of his life were spent on the composition of his most famous work, the Aeneid, in which he celebrated the history and the greatness of Romans through the legend of Aeneas, the Trojan leader, who is supposed to have founded the Roman people. The Aeneid came to be the source of all knowledge to the Romans, and it was even thought of as a book of prophecies. The Romans believed that the verses found by chance when opening the book contained prophecy and advice.


His death at Brindisi

During a long journey in the East, in the course of which he intended to complete the Aeneid, Virgil fell ill. During the return voyage his health grew worse, and by the time the poet reached Brindisi, still the main Italian port for Greece, he was at the end of his strength. He had with him the manuscript of the Aeneid, which had still to be revised, corrected, and polished. Rather than allow a work of his to be published in what he considered an incomplete state, he gave orders that it should by burnt on his death. He died on 20th of September 19 BC and was buried near Naples, on a road which today has been covered by the sea. Augustus forbade the burning of the Aeneid, and so preserved for us one of the greatest poems of all times.


On Virgil's tomb verses, supposed to be by the poet himself, were inscribed, giving a short account of his life and work.


Mantua me genuit, Calabri rapuere, tenet nunc
Partenope; cecini Pascua, rura, duces.


(I was born at Mantua, and died in Calabria, now Naples holds me; I sang of shepherds [the Eclogues], the countryside [Georgics], heroes [Aeneid].)