Reader's Encyclopedia

Vergil (full Latin name Publius Vergilius Maro, 70-19 bc)

Roman poet. He was born in Andes, a small village near Mantua. After a preliminary education at Cremona, his father, a fairly prosperous farmer, sent him to Rome to study rhetoric and the physical sciences. The seventeen - year - old farm boy was, however, too shy and frail to stand up well in the competitive city. After several years, he gave up the ambition of becoming an advocate and, retiring to his father 's farm, spent his time studying Greek philosophy and poetry.

Vergil was twenty - five in 44 bc when Julius Caesar was assassinated. All of the Roman world, even the small village of Andes in quiet, rustic Transpadane Gaul, was plunged into political chaos. Like all periods of political revolution in Roman Italy, the period from 44 to 40 bc was marked by large - scale confiscations and bloody reprisals -- what the Romans termed proscriptions. In one of these mass confiscations (41 bc ), all the land in the neighborhood of Mantua and Cremona was confiscated, the owners were given notice to vacate, and their farms were resettled by veterans of Antony's army. Fortunately, however, through the influence of the gifted administrator and man of letters Asinius Pollio, Vergil was not dispossessed. Instead, his poetry was taken by Pollio to Maecenas, who was already what would be known today as the minister of culture. Maecenas was enthusiastic over these short pastoral compositions, then known generically as eclogae (see eclogue ), and urged the poet to organize them into publishable form. After several years of painstaking polishing, during which Vergil added two or three more poems and fitted them into the arrangement of ten idyls, he published the work under the title Bucolica (37). The Bucolics, apparently only artful variations on a theme by Theocritus, are, however, imbued with the spirit of postrepublican Rome, a spirit which looked back longingly to simpler times and forward with desperate hope to a new era of peace.

His fame now well established by the Bucolics, Vergil accepted the invitation of Maecenas to come and live on his estate in Naples and there begin work on a much more ambitious project, which Vergil had already outlined. The poet worked for seven years (37 - 30) on what was to be the great didactic poem of Rome: the Georgica, or "poems of farm life," also known as the Georgics. While Octavius Caesar (see Augustus) was busy with the reconstruction of Rome 's moral and political life, Vergil was occupied with the portrait of that archetypal builder and civilizer, the farmer. Like his Bucolics, Vergil's Georgics are superficially based on a Greek classic, Hesiod's Works and Days, but, again like his first work, they are filled with an intense historical sense of the past and present and with the hope that Rome, under Octavius, would enter an era of peace.

After finishing the Georgics, Vergil immediately began work in the most exalted genre of classical literature, the epic. He gave consideration to several possible legends before he finally decided on the story of Aeneas, the Trojan prince whose descendants were supposed to have founded Rome and whom the Julian family, of which Octavius was a member, claimed as their great ancestor. Again he made use of an ancient model, this time the Iliad and the Odyssey of Homer, and again created a work that was, in every sense, Roman. In this great twelve - book myth, his countrymen were to see not only a symbolic summation of their history but a statement of their noblest aspirations for the future. The epic was never wholly completed. The poet died on September 21, 19 bc, after returning from a voyage to Athens. His unfinished Aeneid was not destroyed, as he had wished, but was edited by his friends Varius and Tucca and, at last, published. Despite its minor imperfections -- several obscure passages, a number of unfinished lines, and two or three inconsistencies in narrative -- the Aeneid was at once accepted as the supreme epic of the Roman world.

Vergil was popular during the Middle Ages, partly because of his acceptance by the early Christians as an inspired poet and partly because of the medieval habit of making magicians out of the poets and sages of antiquity. Dante, in his Divine Comedy, has Vergil lead him through the infernal and purgatorial regions, considering him the wisest and most closely Christian of the ancient pagan poets