On October 15, 70 B.C.E. Publius Vergilius Maro, known in English as Virgil or Vergil, was born in the farming village of Andes, near Mantua, in northern Italy. Not considered citizens of Rome until 49 B.C.E., when Julius Caesar expanded citizenship to include men living north of the Po River, Virgil and his father were nearly displaced from their land after Caesar’s assassination in 44 B.C.E., when Octavian, Caesar’s adopted son and sole heir, confiscated much of the land in the territory in order to reward army veterans.
Influenced by the greek poet Theocritus, Virgil composed his first major work, the Eclogues (also called the Bucolics), using Homeric hexameter lines to explore pastoral rather than epic themes. The poem reflected the sorrows of the times, and exhibited rhythmic control and elegance superior to that of Virgil’s successors. Published in 39 to 38 B.C.E., the Eclogues were an immediate success, and received the attention of Asinius Pollio, who introduced the poet to Octavian and secured for him an education in Milan, Rome, and Naples.
Continuing in the pastoral tradition, Virgil spent seven years writing his next great work, the Georgics—a poem John Dryden called “the best Poem by the best Poet.” More than two thousand lines long, and divided into four books, the Georgics were modeled after Hesiod’s Works and Days, and praise the experiences of farm life. The poem was written at the request of Maecenas, another patron of the arts, and was first read to Octavian in 29 B.C.E., less than a year after the suicides of Antony and Cleopatra which left Octavian the sole ruler of the Roman world.
In the third book of the Georgics, Virgil foreshadows his next and greatest work, the Aeneid: “Yet soon I will gird myself to celebrate / The fiery fights of Caesar, make his name / Live in the future . . .” Virgil spent the next several years working on what became the national epic of the Roman Empire, borrowing both characters and narrative elements from the Homeric epics in his telling of how the Trojan hero Aeneas became the ancestor of the Romans.
Before the work was finished, however, Virgil decided to travel to Greece in 19 B.C.E. During his travels, he met with Octavian (who had since been given the title Augustus) who convinced Virgil to return with him to Italy. On their way from Athens to Corinth, Virgil caught a fever which grew increasingly severe during their voyage. Virgil died on September 21 and was buried near Naples.
As he spoke we could hear, ever more loudly, the noise
Of the burning fires; the flood of flames was coming
Nearer and nearer. “My father, let me take you
Upon my shoulders and carry you with me.
The burden will be easy. Whatever happens,
You and I will experience it together,
Peril or safety, whichever it will be.
Little Iülus will come along beside me.
My wife will follow behind us. And you, my servants,
Listen to what I say: just as you leave
The limits of the city there is a mound,
And the vestiges of a deserted temple of Ceres,
And a cypress tree that has been preserved alive
For many years by the piety of our fathers.
We will all meet there, though perhaps by different ways
And, Father, you must carry in your arms
The holy images of our household gods;
I, coming so late from the fighting and the carnage
Cannot presume to touch them until I have washed
Myself in running water.” Thus I spoke.
Muses of Sicily, let me sing a little more grandly.
Orchards and humble tamarisks don’t please everyone:
if I sing of the woods, let the woods be fit for a Consul.
Now the last age of the Cumaean prophecy begins:
the great roll-call of the centuries is born anew:
now Virgin Justice returns, and Saturn’s reign:
now a new race descends from the heavens above.
Only favour the child who’s born, pure Lucina, under whom
the first race of iron shall end, and a golden race
rise up throughout the world: now your Apollo reigns.
For, Pollio, in your consulship, this noble age begins,
and the noble months begin their advance:
any traces of our evils that remain will be cancelled,
while you lead, and leave the earth free from perpetual fear.
He will take on divine life, and he will see gods
mingled with heroes, and be seen by them,
and rule a peaceful world with his father’s powers.
And for you, boy, the uncultivated earth will pour out
her first little gifts, straggling ivy and cyclamen everywhere
and the bean flower with the smiling acanthus.
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