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For other uses see Virgil (disambiguation).
Publius Vergilius Maro (October 15, 70–19 BCE) known in English as Virgil or Vergil, Latin poet, is the author of the Eclogues, the Georgics, and the Aeneid, this last being an epic poem of twelve books that is deservingly called the Roman Empire's national epic.
Virgil was born in the village of Andes (modern Pietole), near Mantua in Cisalpine Gaul (Gaul "this side", i.e., south of the Alps, present northern Italy). He received his earliest schooling at Cremona and Milan. (It is a little known fact that Virgil was of Celtic ancestry.) He went to Rome to study rhetoric, medicine, and astronomy, which he soon abandoned for philosophy.
In this period, while he was in the school of Siro the Epicurean , Virgil began writing poetry. A group of minor poems attributed to the youthful Virgil survive but most are spurious. One, the Catalepton, consists of fourteen little poems, some of which may be Virgil's, and another, a short narrative poem titled the Culex (the mosquito), was attributed to Virgil as early as the 1st century AD.
Such dubious poems are sometimes referred to as the Appendix Virgiliana.
In 42 BCE, after the defeat of Julius Caesar's assassins, Brutus and Cassius, the demobilized soldiers of the victors were settled on expropriated land and Virgil's estate near Mantua was confiscated. However, the first of the Eclogues, written around 42 BCE, is taken as evidence that Octavian restored the estate, for it tells how "Tityrus" recovered his land through Octavian's intervention and "Tityrus" is usually identified as Virgil himself. Virgil soon became part of the circle of Maecenas, Octavian's capable agent d'affaires who sought to counter sympathy for Marc Antony among the leading families by rallying Roman literary figures to Octavian's side. After the Eclogues were completed, Virgil spent the years 37–29 BCE on the Georgics ("On Farming"), which was written in honor of Maecenas. But Octavian, who had defeated Antony at the Battle of Actium in 31 BCE and two years later had the title "Augustus" given him by the Roman senate, was already pressing Virgil to write an epic in praise of his regime.
Composition of the Aeneid
Virgil responded with the Aeneid, which took up his last ten years. The first six books of the epic tell how the Trojan hero Aeneas escapes from the sack of Troy and makes his way to Italy. On the voyage, a storm drives him on to the coast of Carthage where the queen, Dido, welcomes him and before long Aeneas falls deeply in love. But Jupiter recalls Aeneas to his duty and he slips away from Carthage, leaving Dido to commit suicide but not before swearing vengeance. On reaching Cumae, in Italy, Aeneas consults the Cumaean Sibyl, who conducts him through the Underworld and reveals his destiny to him. Aeneas is reborn as the creator of imperial Rome.
The first 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 travelled with Augustus to Greece, where Virgil caught a fever, which he died of in Brundisium harbor, leaving the Aeneid unfinished, Augustus ordered Virgil's literary executors, Varius and Tucca, to disregard Virgil's own wish that the poem be destroyed and to publish it with as few editorial changes as possible. Incomplete or not, the Aeneid was immediately recognized as a masterpiece. It proclaimed the imperial mission of the Roman Empire but at the same time could pity Rome's victims and feel their grief. Dido and Turnus, who are both casualties of Rome's destiny, are more attractive figures than Aeneas, whose single-minded devotion to his goal may seem almost repellent to the modern reader. However, the virtue that Virgil portrays in Aeneas may be referred to as pietas, roughly translated as piety. It is his duty to the gods, his family and his homeland. Aeneas struggles between doing what he wants to as a man, and doing what he must as a virtuous hero with pietas. Aeneas' inner turmoil, and on many occassions, shortfallings, make him a far more realistic character than the heroes of the older poems such as Odysseus of the Odyssey by Homer.
The text of the Aeneid that we have, is a draft version, and contains faults which Virgil was planning to correct before publication:-
- Verses which are not a complete line of dactylic hexameter.
- Future tenses made by adding -s-, for example faxo for faciam. That form is not valid Latin, but is common in Greek and in Osco-Umbrian; it could be that Virgil could speak Osco-Umbrian, at least, well enough to communicate with his farm workers.
Secret meanings in Virgil
In the medieval period, Virgil was considered a herald of Christianity, for his Eclogue 4 verses () concerning the birth of a boy were re-read to prophesy Christ's nativity. The poem may actually refer to the pregnancy of Octavian's wife Scribonia, who in fact gave birth to a girl.
In the Middle Ages, as Virgil developed into a kind of magus or wizard, manuscripts of the Aeneid were used for divination, the sortes virgilianae, in which a line would be selected at random and interpreted as Old Testament lines were interpreted for arcane meanings, in light of a current situation. (Compare the ancient Chinese I Ching.) This is a kind of bibliomancy.
More recently, professor Jean-Yves Maleuvre has proposed that Virgil wrote the Aeneid using a "double writing" system, in which the first superficial writing was intended for national audience and Augustus' needs, while the second one, deeper and hidden, unnoticed before Maleuvre discovered it, reflected Virgil's true point of view and his true historical reconstruction of the past. Maleuvre believes Augustus had Virgil murdered once the epic was finished. Maleuvre's ideas have not met general acceptance.
There are some indications that Vergil was adept in the magic arts, and may have practised necromancy.
Later views of Virgil
Even as the Roman world collapsed, literate men acknowledged that the Christianized Virgil was a master poet, even when they ceased to read him. Gregory of Tours had read Virgil and some other Latin poets, though he cautions us that "We ought not to relate their lying fables, lest we fall under sentence of eternal death." Dante made Virgil his guide to Hell and Purgatory in The Divine Comedy. Virgil is still considered the greatest of the Latin poets. In recent years, Vergil has become a video game character in Devil May Cry and Devil May Cry 3: Dante's Awakening, which are loosely based on Dante's comedy by the use of allusions.
Virgil's Name in English
In the Middle Ages "Vergilius" was frequently spelled "Virgilius." There are two explanations commonly given for the alteration in the spelling of Virgil's name. One explanation is based on 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 Norman schools (following the French practice) the habit was to anglicize Latin names by dropping their Latin endings, whence "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 Style Manual recommends Vergilius to avoid confusion with the 8th-century Irish grammarian Virgilius Maro .
- Vergilius Augusteus, Vergilius Vaticanus, and Vergilius Romanus, medieval collections of manuscripts containing Virgil's works
- Vergil Sparda, a video game character loosely based on the Roman poet.
List of works
Dates are approximate
- (50BCE) Appendix Virgiliana
- (42BCE) Eclogues (or "Bucolics") -- 10 books
- (29BCE) Georgics (or "On Farming") -- 4 books
- (19BCE) Aeneid -- 12 books
These links above are for sites containing multiple works by Virgil. For sites containing individual Virgil works, see the pages associated with the specific work.
- Suetonius: The Life of Virgil (English Translation)
- Vita Vergiliana (Aelius Donatus' Life of Virgil in the original Latin)
- Virgil.org: Aelius Donatus' Life of Virgil translated into English by David Wilson-Okamura
- Project Gutenberg edition of Vergil--A Biography by Tenney Frank.
- Virgil in Late Antiquity, the Middle Ages, and the Renaissance: an Online Bibliography
- Virgilmurder (Jean-Yves Maleuvre's website setting forth his theory that Virgil was murdered by Augustus)
- The Secret History of Virgil contains a selection of the magical legends and tall tales that circulated about Virgil in the Middle Ages.
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