The poet of the Eclogues, the Georgics and the Aeneid.
The Aeneid, the epic of the empire of Rome and of Roman nationalism, for its poetry and poetic sensibility arguably the most influential poem in any language, is unfinished. Its author asked his friends, just before he died, to burn it. Literary executors, faced with just this problem throughout history, have usually responded with commendable common sense and regard to posterity, as they did in this case.
Painting in the Villa Carlotta, Lake Como, of Virgil reading from the Aeneid to Augustus, Livia, and Augustus’s sister Octavia. (VRoma: Barbara McManus)
Publius Vergilius, or Virgilius, Maro (70 - 19 BC) was born near Mantua in Cisalpine Gaul. He was educated in Cremona and Milan, and went on to higher education. He does not appear ever to have been very fit, which may be one reason why he then returned to the family farm to write, only to be deprived of it in 41 BC in the confiscations after the battle of Philippi. He appealed, and was reinstated on the orders of Octavian, but soon afterwards he left Mantua for good. In 37 BC he published his first major work, a series of bucolic episodes (the Eclogues) loosely based on a similar composition of the Hellenistic pastoral poet Theocritus (c. 310 - c. 250 BC).
First-century AD pastoral frieze with cattle, from the House of Livia, Prima Porta. (VRoma: Museo Massimo, Rome: Ann Raia)
Maecenas gave him the encouragement to complete four books of didactic verse about farming and the country year called the Georgics, on which he spent the next seven years. Though these too show Greek influences, the agricultural activities (corn-growing, vine-culture, cattle-breeding, bee-keeping) are Italian and the message both topical and nationalistic, with its emphasis on traditional agricultural industries, on a return to the old forms of worship, and on co-operative working for a profitable future.
The fine fourth-century AD mosaic pavement, found at Low Ham in Somerset, illustrates incidents from the first and fourth books of the Aeneid. Here, a naked Venus, goddess of love, presides over the meeting between Dido, queen of Carthage, and Aeneas, with Cupid, in the guise of Aeneas’s son Ascanius, between them. (VRoma: Somerset County Museums: Barbara McManus)
By this time Octavian was emperor in all but title and name. He felt that an epic poem about his own achievements was called for, and Maecenas on his behalf approached several writers, who turned down the assignment because epic was not their style. Virgil, however, accepted it, but on his own terms. He knew what he wanted to do and saw this as the means to achieve it. He worked on his epic of the mythological antecedents of Rome until his death eleven years later, by which time he had composed some ten thousand lines. The emperor frequently asked after its progress and, apparently, was not disappointed with either the pace or the product.
Venus stands between cupids with raised and lowered torches, signifying that Aeneas will live and Dido die. (VRoma: Somerset County Museums: Barbara McManus)
In the year 19 BC, Virgil met Augustus in Athens and, instead of going on a tour of Greece and the east as he had intended, accompanied him back to Rome. He caught a fever on the way and died a few days after landing at Brundisium. He was unmarried and, largely thanks to his patrons, a comparatively rich man.
Aeneas and the queen, with Ascanius, go hunting. (VRoma: Somerset County Museums: Barbara McManus)
Virgil always wrote in hexameters. The Aeneid is unfinished in that it awaited final revision and polishing. The story is complete and ends on a dramatic climax. Turnus, king of the Rutuli, stakes everything on single combat with Aeneas. They fight and Turnus is wounded. Aeneas is about to spare him, when he spots on his opponent’s shoulder the belt of his dead ally and friend, Pallas, which Turnus has clearly stripped from the corpse. Aeneas, in terrible anger, kills him.
The story of the Aeneid is a deliberate continuation of Homer’s Iliad, to stress the connection between Rome and the heroes of Troy, with strong echoes of the wanderings of Odysseus which are described in the Odyssey. The gods’ continuous intervention and their periodic bickering over which of their favourite mortals shall triumph are in tune with the traditional notions to which Augustus wanted his people to return.
Sheltering together from the storm engineered by Juno, Aeneas and Dido embrace. (VRoma: Somerset County Museums: Barbara McManus)
The character of Aeneas
To modern readers Aeneas may seem lacking in personality; indeed, the American poet and critic Ezra Pound described him in 1914 as a “stick”. To Virgil and his contemporaries Aeneas embodied the Stoic ideal, accepting all that fate threw at him (including Dido) and impassively pressing on towards his personal destiny.
In ancient mythology, Dido was the daughter of the king of Tyre, on whose death her brother, Pygmalion, succeeded to the crown. Dido then married their uncle, who was killed by Pygmalion to obtain his wealth. Dido was told of the murder by her late husband’s ghost (shades of Hamlet!), and secretly left Tyre with a band of Tyrians who also disapproved of Pygmalion. She arrived on the north African coast via Cyprus, where she negotiated to buy as much land as could be covered by a bull’s hide. When the deal was concluded, she cut the hide into very fine strips which, when put together end to end, enclosed enough land on which to build the fortress of an emergent city.
Virgil and Europe
British poets who have implicitly or openly acknowledged Virgil’s influence include Chaucer, Gavin Douglas, Marlowe, Shakespeare, Milton, Dryden, Pope, Keats, and Tennyson. The American-born poet and critic T. S. Eliot wrote in 1944: “[Aeneas] is the symbol of Rome; and, as Aeneas is to Rome, so is ancient Rome to Europe. Thus Virgil acquires the centrality of the unique classic; he is at the centre of European civilization, in a position which no other poet can share or usurp.”