Classics Virgil
by
Elaine Fantham, Emily Fairey
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 June 2012
  • LAST MODIFIED: 14 December 2009
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0068

Introduction

Many regard Virgil (Publius Vergilius Maro, 70–19 BCE; also spelled Vergil in English) as the greatest of the Roman poets. His epic poem, the Aeneid, has been of continuing importance to Western literature. On its own merits, it is a masterpiece of epic poetry and the Latin language. Products of the chaos of the Roman civil war years, Virgil’s works show a longing for a more peaceful ordering of society. His major works, the Eclogues, Georgics, and Aeneid, emphasize different aspects of this desire. Virgil’s importance to world literature is difficult to underestimate. Later poets and writers, including Dante and Milton, have venerated and imitated him.

Life

Born the son of a small landowner on 15 October 70 BCE at Andes, near Mantua in northern Italy, Virgil was educated as a child at Cremona, then moved to Milan and, for advanced rhetorical studies, to Rome itself. He lived from choice on the Bay of Naples, where he studied with the Epicurean Siro and was friendly with the poet Philodemus, who addressed a treatise to him. He was very retiring and only ever pleaded one case. He never married, and our sources report vague tales of his love of boys. He nearly lost his family farm, but it was saved by the intervention of Asinius Pollio, whom he honors in his book of Theocritan Bucolics, commonly known as the Eclogues (“selections”). After he was fully reinstated with the new regime, Virgil grew to know the literary circle of Maecenas, including Horace and other poets of the “Golden Age” of Latin poetry. After he became more established, Augustus presented him a country estate. In this atmosphere he wrote his Georgics, ostensibly a didactic epic on farming in the style of Hesiod’s Works and Days, but full of complex literary allusions, and praise of his patron. He took eleven years over the Aeneid, composed “to praise Augustus in terms of his ancestors” (Servius on Aen. I.1) or “to contain the origins of Rome and Augustus” (VSD 21). Virgil was not satisfied with his efforts and retired to Greece to spend three years correcting his poem, but he contracted a fever in 19 BCE and died on 21 September at Brundisium. Virgil had left instructions for the Aeneid (or all his poetry) to be burned, but this request was overridden by his friend Varius on Augustus’s instructions (Pliny NH 7.114, Gellius 17.10.7). The chief authority for Virgil’s life is the Vita attributed to Donatus (abbreviated VSD) but believed to be Suetonius’s composition from De poetis virtually unchanged; with other later ancient lives, it is published in the Oxford Classical Text volume Vitae Vergilianae antiquae (Hardie 1966). Naumann and Brugnoli 1984 has a good entry, but the best discussion is by Horsfall 1995.

  • Hardie, Colin, ed. 1966. Vitae Vergilianae antiquae: Vita Donati, Vita Servii, Vita Probiana, Vita Focae, S. Hieronymi excerpta. Oxford Classical Texts. London: Oxford Univ. Press.

    E-mail Citation »

    Included in this book is the Life of Virgil believed to be excerpted from Suetonius’s De poetis, although it is attribulted to Donatus.

  • Horsfall, Nicholas. 1995. A companion to the study of Virgil. Mnemosyne Supplement 151. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill.

    E-mail Citation »

    Chapter 1 of this Companion: “Virgil: His life and times,” pp. 1–25, supplies the best discussion of the life of Virgil. The Companion is more manageable in size than Horsfall’s other commentaries.

  • Naumann, W., and G. Brugnoli. 1984. Vitae Vergilianae. In Enciclopedia Virgiliana vol. 5. Edited by Mario Geymonat, 573–588. Rome: Istituto della enciclopedia italiana.

    E-mail Citation »

    This encyclopedia, as well as giving valuable reference material on many diverse aspects of Virgilian studies, also gives a short account of the life of Virgil.

  • Virgil (Publius Vergilius Maro). 1953. Appendix Virgiliana. Edited by Colin Hardie; text and commentary by R. Giomini. Florence, Italy: La Nuova Italia.

    E-mail Citation »

    Virgil’s alleged juvenilia are collected here.

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