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About this poet

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.

Before his death, Virgil reportedly commanded his literary executors to destroy the unfinished manuscript of his masterwork, but Augustus used his power to ensure the epic's safety, and the Aeneid went on to become a popular textbook in Roman and later medieval schools.

After the collapse of the Roman empire, scholars continued to see the value of Virgil's talents, and the Aeneid lasted as the central Latin literary text. He also found an increasing audience of Christian readers drawn both to his depiction of the founding of the Holy City and to a passage in the fourth Eclogue which was interpreted to be a prophecy of Christ. Much later, Virgil's epic was one of the bases for Dante Alighieri's own masterwork, The Divine Comedy, documenting a journey through hell, during which the character of Virgil acts as a guide.

In addition to his poetry, the sequence of Virgil's career also influenced countless poets who progressed from pastorals to more ambitious epics. This pattern is prominent in the careers of Spenser and Pope and traceable in others, such as Milton and Wordsworth.

Selected Bibliography


The Aeneid, Book I, [A grove stood in the city]

A grove stood in the city, rich in shade,
Where storm-tost Tyrians, past the perilous brine,
Dug from the ground, by royal Juno's aid,
A war-steed's head, to far-off days a sign
That wealth and prowess should adorn the line.
Here, by the goddess and her gifts renowned,
Sidonian Dido built a stately shrine.
All brazen rose the threshold; brass was round
The door-posts; brazen doors on grating hinges sound.

Here a new sight Aeneas' hopes upraised,
And fear was softened, and his heart was mann'd.
For while, the queen awaiting, round he gazed,
And marvelled at the happy town, and scanned
The rival labours of each craftsman's hand,
Behold, Troy's battles on the walls appear,
The war, since noised through many a distant land,
There Priam and th' Atridae twain, and here
Achilles, fierce to both, still ruthless and severe.

Pensive he stood, and with a rising tear,
"What lands, Achates, on the earth, but know
Our labours? See our Priam! Even here
Worth wins her due, and there are tears to flow,
And human hearts to feel for human woe.
Fear not," he cries, "Troy's glory yet shall gain
Some safety." Thus upon the empty show
He feeds his soul, while ever and again
Deeply he sighs, and tears run down his cheeks like rain.

He sees, how, fighting round the Trojan wall,
Here fled the Greeks, the Trojan youth pursue,
Here fled the Phrygians, and, with helmet tall,
Achilles in his chariot stormed and slew.
Not far, with tears, the snowy tents he knew
Of Rhesus, where Tydides, bathed in blood,
Broke in at midnight with his murderous crew,
And drove the hot steeds campward, ere the food
Of Trojan plains they browsed, or drank the Xanthian flood.

There, reft of arms, poor Troilus, rash to dare
Achilles, by his horses dragged amain,
Hangs from his empty chariot. Neck and hair
Trail on the ground; his hand still grasps the rein;
The spear inverted scores the dusty plain.
Meanwhile, with beaten breasts and streaming hair,
The Trojan dames, a sad and suppliant train,
The veil to partial Pallas' temple bear.
Stern, with averted eyes the Goddess spurns their prayer.

Thrice had Achilles round the Trojan wall
Dragged Hector; there the slayer sells the slain.
Sighing he sees him, chariot, arms and all,
And Priam, spreading helpless hands in vain.
Himself he knows among the Greeks again,
Black Memnon's arms, and all his Eastern clan,
Penthesilea's Amazonian train
With moony shields. Bare-breasted, in the van,
Girt with a golden zone, the maiden fights with man.

From Book One of The Aeneid by Virgil, translated by Edward Fairfax Taylor. First published by J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd., London, 1907.

From Book One of The Aeneid by Virgil, translated by Edward Fairfax Taylor. First published by J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd., London, 1907.



On October 15, 70 B.C.E. Publius Vergilius Maro, known in English as Virgil or Vergil, in the farming village of Andes, near Mantua, in northern Italy

by this poet

"So, you traitor, you really believed you'd keep
this a secret, this great outrage? Steal away
in silence from my shores? Can nothing hold you back?
Not our love? Not the pledge once sealed with our right hands?
Not even the thought of Dido doomed to a cruel death?
Why labor to rig your fleet when the winter's
When spring begins and the ice-locked streams begin
To flow down from the snowy hills above
And the clods begin to crumble in the breeze,
The time has come for my groaning ox to drag
My heavy plow across the fields, so that 
The plow blade shines as the furrow rubs against it.
Not till the earth has been twice
Arms and the man I sing, who, forced by fate
And haughty Juno's unrelenting hate,
Expelled and exiled, left the Trojan shore.
Long labors, both by sea and land, he bore;
And in the doubtful war, before he won
The Latin realm and built the destined town,
His banished gods restored to rights divine,
And settled