Virgil

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A 5th century portrait of Virgil from the Vergilius Romanus.

Publius Vergilius Maro (October 15, 70 B.C.E. – 19 B.C.E.), known in English as Virgil or Vergil, is a Latin poet, the author of the Eclogues, the Georgics and the Aeneid, the latter an epic poem of twelve books that became the Roman Empire's national epic. Virgil, along with his predecessor Homer and his successor Dante, would form the three main pillars of epic poetry. His Aeneid is still one of the most widely influential poems ever written. Little is known of Virgil's life or beliefs, but in his poetry he shines as a brilliant master of dactylic hexameter, a verse form first used by the ancient Greeks which would fall almost entirely into disuse with Virgil's death and the gradual decline of the Roman Empire. It is largely thanks to Virgil that, in a time when knowledge of Greek was rapidly eroding, much of Greece's culture was able to find its way into the literature of early modern Europe.

Contents

Early life

Virgil was born in the village of Andes, near Mantua in Cisalpine Gaul (Gaul south of the Alps; present-day northern Italy). Virgil was of non-Roman Italian ancestry. He was educated in Cremona, Milan, and finally Rome, where he came under the tutelage of the Epicurean Siro, whose philosophy would be evident in Virgil's early works, but would later wane as Virgil turned to the sterner philosophy of Stoicism. It was during this time in Rome that Virgil began to compose his first poems in imitation of the ancient Greeks.

Early works

A group of minor poems written during this time, sometimes referred to as the Appendix Vergiliana, have survived, but scholars largely consider the attribution to Virgil spurious. One such work, the Catalepton, consists of fourteen short poems, some of which may be Virgil's and some of which may be the work of later poets; another of the more significant pieces from this early collection is a short narrative poem titled the Culex, or mosquito, which was attributed to Virgil as early as the first century C.E. and may, in fact, be a legitimate Virgil poem.

Maturity

In 42 B.C.E., after the defeat of Julius Caesar's assassins, Brutus and Cassius, the demobilized soldiers of the victors settled on expropriated land and Virgil's estate near Mantua was confiscated. Virgil explores the various emotions surrounding these appropriations and other aspects of rural life in the Eclogues, his earliest major poem, which addresses the wonders (and troubles) of the Roman Empire and spends a particularly great deal of attention to exhorting the ideal of pastoral life. Much of the poem consists of shepherds and farmers wandering a beautiful countryside and describing in awe the wonders of nature. Although it was common in earlier centuries for readers to find pieces of Virgil's own autobiography in the Eclogues, scholars today largely reject the effort to seek to identify him with characters in his poetry.

Virgil soon became part of the circle of Maecenas, Octavian's capable agent d'affaires, who sought to counter sympathy for Mark Antony among the leading families by rallying Roman literary figures to Octavian's side. After the Eclogues were completed, Virgil spent the years 37 B.C.E. – 29 B.C.E. working on the Georgics ("On Farming"), which was written in honor of Maecenas, and is the source of the expression tempus fugit ("time flies").

The Georgics have largely been neglected by modern readers, in favor either of the earlier romanticism of the Eclogues or the epic grandeur of the Aeneid. Yet in ancient times the Georgics were esteemed by some poets and writers to be Virgil's greatest achievement. It is easy to understand the poem's rather unusual place in Virgil's corpus: the Georgics, although a poem, is written as a series of instructions on farming, ploughing, bee-keeping, and other agricultural activities (and, indeed, contains a good deal of useful advice on all these occupations.) However, in the ancient tradition of instructional poetry, the prosaic instructions are metaphors for such universal themes as the sowing, ploughing and tending of the soil of the soul. For reasons of its prosaicness, the Georgics are sometimes acknowledged as Virgil's most subtly charming work, and the poem has seen the occasional resurgence of interest. Thoreau, for instance, cited it as his favorite work of literature, and helped to re-introduce the poem to an American audience.

However, it would not be until 31 B.C.E., after Octavian had defeated Antony at the Battle of Actium and was crowned as the new emperor Augustus after a long period of strife, that Virgil would begin to compose his most famous work. It would be a poem which the new emperor enjoined Virgil to write in praise of his rule and to justify his right to rule the empire, but would become the most enduring work of all Roman literature.

The Aeneid

Virgil responded to this request with the Aeneid epic poem that would forever immortalize his fame. The composition would take up his last ten years. The first six books of the epic tell how the Trojan hero Aeneas escapes from the sacking of Troy and makes his way to Italy. On the voyage, a storm drives him to the coast of Carthage, where the queen, Dido, welcomes him, and under the influence of the gods falls deeply in love with him. Jupiter recalls Aeneas to his duty, however, and he slips away from Carthage, leaving Dido to commit suicide, cursing Aeneas as revenge. 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 duel between Aeneas and Turnus. Aeneas defeats and kills Turnus, spurning his plea for mercy.

While still working on the poem, Virgil traveled with Augustus to Greece. There, Virgil caught a fever and died in Brundisium harbor, leaving the Aeneid unfinished. Augustus ordered Virgil's literary executors, Lucius Varius Rufus and Plotius Tucca, to disregard Virgil's own wish that the poem be burned, instead ordering it published with as few editorial changes as possible. As a result, the text of the Aeneid that exists may contain faults that Virgil was planning to correct before publication. However, the only obvious imperfections are a few lines of verse that are metrically unfinished (i.e., not a complete line of dactylic hexameter). Other alleged "imperfections" are subject to scholarly debate.

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 depicted the casualties and grief of Rome's expansion into a continent-straddling empire. 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, at the time Aeneas was considered to exemplify virtue and pietas, a term related to the English "piety" which conveys a complex sense of being duty-bound and respectful of one's gods, one's family and one's homeland. Despite his pietas Aeneas struggles between doing what he wants to do as a man, and doing what he must as a virtuous hero. Aeneas' inner turmoil and shortcomings make him a more realistic character than the heroes of older poems, such as Odysseus, and in this sense Virgil paved the way for later Roman poets like Seneca who would establish the groundwork of classical realism.

Later views of Virgil

Even as the Roman world collapsed, literate men acknowledged Virgil as a master poet, although they ceased to read him. Gregory of Tours who read Virgil and some other Latin poets, nevertheless cautioned, "We ought not to relate their lying fables, lest we fall under sentence of eternal death." Surviving medieval collections of manuscripts containing Virgil's works include the Vergilius Augusteus, the Vergilius Vaticanus and the Vergilius Romanus.

Dante respected Virgil so much that he assigned him the role of his guide to Hell and Purgatory in The Divine Comedy.

Virgil is still considered one of the greatest of the Latin poets, and the Aeneid is an integral part of the canon for classical studies programs.

Mysticism and hidden meanings

In the Middle Ages, Virgil was considered a herald of Christianity for his Eclogue 4 verses (Template:Perseus) concerning the birth of a boy, which were re-read to prophesy Jesus' nativity. The poem may actually refer to the pregnancy of Octavian's wife Scribonia, who in fact gave birth to a girl.

Also during the Middle Ages, as Virgil developed into a kind of magus or wizard, manuscripts of the Aeneid were used for divinatory bibliomancy, called the Sortes Virgilianae, in which a line would be selected at random and interpreted in the context of a current situation (Compare the ancient Chinese I Ching). The Old Testament was sometimes used for similar arcane purposes. Even in the Welsh mythof Taliesin, the goddess Cerridwen is reading from the "Book of Pheryllt"—that is, Virgil.

Dante mentioned him twice

  • in De vulgari eloquentia , along with Ovid, Lucan and Statius as one of the four regulati poetae (ii, vi, 7)
  • in Inferno ranks him side by side with Homer, Horace, Ovid and Lucan (Inferno IV, 88).

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 prior to Maleuvre's discovery, reflected Virgil's true point of view and his true historical reconstruction of the past. Maleuvre also believes that Augustus had Virgil murdered. Maleuvre's ideas have not met with general acceptance.

Virgil's tomb

The tomb known as "Virgil's tomb" is found at the entrance of an ancient Roman tunnel (also known as "grotta vecchia") in the Parco di Virgilio in Piedigrotta, a district two miles from old Naples, near the Mergellina harbor, on the road heading north along the coast to Pozzuoli. The site called Parco Virgiliano is some distance further north along the coast. While Virgil was already the object of literary admiration and veneration before his death, in the following centuries his name became associated with miraculous powers, his tomb the destination of pilgrimages and pagan veneration. The poet himself was said to have created the cave with the fierce power of his intense gaze.

It is said that the Chiesa della Santa Maria di Piedigrotta was erected by Church authorities to neutralize this pagan adoration and "Christianize" the site. The tomb, however, is a tourist attraction, and still sports a tripod burner originally dedicated to Apollo, bearing witness to the pagan beliefs held by Virgil.

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 an attempt to reconcile his pagan background with the high regard in which his Medieval scholars held him, it was posited that some of his works metaphorically foretold the coming of Christ, hence making him a prophet of sorts. Some scholars defend this view today, such as Richard F. Thomas.

In Norman schools (following the French practice), the habit was to anglicize Latin names by dropping their Latin endings, hence "Virgil."

In the nineteenth 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 eighth-century Irish grammarian Virgilius Maro Grammaticus.

Some post-Renaissance writers liked to affect the sobriquet "The Swan of Mantua."

List of works

Dates are approximate.

  • (50 B.C.E.) Appendix Vergiliana
  • (37 B.C.E.) Eclogues (or "Bucolics"), 10 books
  • (29 B.C.E.) Georgics (or "On Farming"), 4 books
  • (19 B.C.E.) Aeneid, 12 books

Bibliography

Credits

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