Biography Virgil


photo of Virgil
  • Time Period70 - 19 BCE
  • PlaceAndes
  • CountryCisalpine Gaul

Poet Biography

Legend has it that Virgil was born in the village of Andes, near Mantua in Cisalpine Gaul. Scholars suggest Etruscan, Umbrian or even Celtic descent by examining the linguistic or ethnic markers of the region. Analysis of his name has led to beliefs that he descended from earlier Roman colonists. Modern speculation ultimately is not supported by narrative evidence either from his own writings or his later biographers. Etymological fancy has noted that his cognomen MARO shares its letters anagrammatically with the twin themes of his epic: AMOR (love) and ROMA (Rome).

Legend also has it that Virgil received his first education when he was 5 years old and that he later went to Rome to study rhetoric, medicine, and astronomy, which he soon abandoned for philosophy; also that in this period, while in the school of Siro the Epicurean, he began to write poetry. A group of small works attributed to the youthful Virgil survive, but are largely considered spurious. One, the Catalepton, consists of fourteen short poems, some of which may be Virgil's, and another, a short narrative poem titled the Culex ("The Gnat"), was attributed to Virgil as early as the 1st century CE. These dubious poems are sometimes referred to as the Appendix Vergiliana.

During the civil strife that killed the Roman Republic, when Julius Caesar had been assassinated in 44 BCE, the army led by his assassins Brutus and Cassius met defeat by Caesar's faction, including his chief lieutenant Mark Antony and his newly adopted son Octavian Caesar in 42 BCE in Greece near Philippi. The victors paid off their soldiers with land expropriated from towns in northern Italy, supposedly including an estate near Mantua belonging to Virgil—again an inference from themes in his work and not supported by independent sources. Virgil dramatizes the contrasting feelings caused by the brutality of expropriation but also by the promise attaching to the youthful figure of Caesar's heir in the Bucolics in which he had worked out the mythic framework for lifelong ambition to conquer Greek epic for Rome.

In themes the ten eclogues develop and vary epic song, relating it first to Roman power (ecl. 1), then to love, both homosexual (ecl. 2) and panerotic (ecl. 3), then again to Roman power and Caesar's heir imagined as authorizing Virgil to surpass Greek epic and refound tradition (ecll. 4 and 5), shifting back to love then as a dynamic source considered apart from Rome (ecl. 6). Hence in the remaining eclogues Virgil withdraws from his newly minted Roman mythology and gradually constructs a new myth of his own poetics--he casts the remote Greek region of Arcadia, home of the god Pan, as the place of poetic origin itself. In passing, he again rings changes on erotic themes, such as requited and unrequited homosexual and heterosexual passion, tragic love for elusive women or magical powers of song to retrieve an elusive boy. He concludes by establishing Arcadia as a poetic ideal that still resonates in Western literature and visual arts.

Readers often did and sometimes do identify the poet himself with various characters and their vicissitudes, whether gratitude by an old rustic to a new god (ecl. 1), frustrated love by a rustic singer for a distant boy (his master's pet, ecl. 2), or a master singer's claim to have composed several eclogues (ecl. 5). Modern scholars largely reject such efforts to garner biographical details from fictive texts preferring instead to interpret the diverse characters and themes as representing the poet's own contrastive perceptions of contemporary life and thought.

Biographical reconstruction supposes that 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. It also appears that Virgil gained many connections with other leading literary figures of the time, including Horace and Varius Rufus (who later helped finish the Aeneid). After he had completed the Bucolics (so-called in homage to Theocritus, who had been the first to write short epic poems taking herdsmen's life as their apparent theme — bucolic in Greek meaning "on care for cattle"), Virgil spent the ensuing years (perhaps 37–29 BCE) on the longer epic called Georgics (from Greek, "On Working the Earth", because farming is their apparent theme, in the tradition of Greek Hesiod), which he dedicated to Maecenas (source of the expression tempus fugit ["time flies"]). Virgil and Maecenas took turns reading the Georgics to Octavian upon his return from defeating Antony and his consort Cleopatra at the Battle of Actium in 31 BCE. In 27 BCE the Roman Senate conferred on Octavian the more than human title Augustus, well suited to Virgil's ambition to write an epic to challenge Homer, a Roman epic developed from the Caesarist mythology introduced in the Bucolics and incorporating now the Julian Caesars' family legend that traced their line back to a mythical Trojan prince who escaped the fall of Troy.