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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 ( October 15, 70 BCE – September 21, 19 BCE), later called Virgilius, and known in English as Virgil or Vergil, was a classical Roman poet. He was the author of epics in three modes: the Bucolics (or Eclogues), the Georgics and the substantially completed Aeneid, the last being an epic poem in the heroic mode, which comprised twelve books (as opposed to 24 in each of the epic poems by Homer) and became the Roman Empire's national epic.


Legend has it that Virgil was born in the village of Andes, near Mantua in Cisalpine Gaul . Scholars suggest Etruscan or Umbrian 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).

Composition of the Aeneid and death

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

Virgil worked on the Aeneid during the last ten years of his life. Its first six books tell how the Trojan hero Aeneas escapes from the sacking of Troy and makes his way to Italy. On the voyage, a storm drives him 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. Jupiter recalls Aeneas to his duty towards Rome, however, 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. On reaching Cumae, in Italy, Aeneas consults the Cumaean Sibyl, who conducts him through the Underworld and where Virgil imagines him meeting his father Anchises who reveals his son's Roman destiny to him.

The six books (of "first writing") are modeled on Homer's Odyssey, but the last six are the Roman answer to the Iliad. Aeneas is betrothed to Lavinia, daughter of King Latinus, but Lavinia had already been promised to Turnus, the king of the Rutulians, who is roused to war by the Fury Allecto. The Aeneid ends with a single combat between Aeneas and Turnus, whom Aeneas defeats and kills, spurning his plea for mercy.

Virgil traveled with Augustus to Greece. En route, Virgil caught a fever, from which he died in Brundisium harbour, leaving the Aeneid unfinished. 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.

Incomplete or not, the Aeneid was immediately recognized as a masterpiece. It proclaimed the Imperial mission of the Roman Empire, while at the same time pitying Rome's victims and feeling their grief. Aeneas was considered to exemplify virtue and pietas (roughly translated as "piety", though the word is far more complex and has a sense of being duty-bound and respectful of divine will, family and homeland). Nevertheless, Aeneas struggles between doing what he wants as a man, and doing what he must as a virtuous hero. In the view of some modern critics, Aeneas' inner turmoil and shortcomings make him a more realistic character than the heroes of Homeric poetry, such as Odysseus.

Later views of Virgil

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.
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, 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. Even in the Welsh myth of Taliesin, the goddess Cerridwen is reading from the "Book of Pheryllt"—that is, Virgil.

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 compoesd 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 inscription at Virgil's tomb describes the circumstances of his death and includes the famous verses allegedly compoesd 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 harbour, 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 Middle Ages Vergilius was frequently spelled Virgilius. There are two explanations commonly given for this alteration. One educes a false etymology associated with the word virgo ("maiden" in Latin) due to Virgil's excessively "maiden"-like (parthenias or παρθηνιας 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 Irish grammarian Virgilius Maro Grammaticus.

Some post-Renaissance writers liked to affect the sobriquet "The Swan of Mantua".

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