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  • 10/17/2004


(October 15, 70 B.C._ September 21, 19 B.C.)

Publius Vergilius Maro, known as Vergil or Virgil, was bornOctober 15, 70 B.C., in the northern Italian town ofAndes, just outside the city now known asMantua. His father was a potter and a cattle farmer, though his ambition motivated him to take on many jobs. After he married his landlord's daughter, Virgil's father became a beekeeper, and then became very prosperous through his investments in the lumber business. Eventually, Virgil's parents had three sons--Virgil, Silo, and Flaccus. However, both Silo and Flaccus died at very young ages, making Virgil an only child. Although Virgil was a shy and sickly boy, his parents deemed him capable of living up to their plan of making their family an aristocratic one.

To set him on the path to a glorious law career, Virgil's parents sent him to schools inCremona and Milan. Although the schools were difficult, Virgil had a quick mind, and he did well. In 54 B.C., he went toRome to attend theacademy of Epidius, where he studied law and rhetoric. One of his classmates was a man named Octavian. This young man would eventually become the emperor Augustus and Virgil's greatest patron.

When he finished at theacademy of Epidius, Virgil argued his first law case. However, shortly after that, he gave up the study of law and turned to philosophy. He was given an opportunity to study in 49 B.C., when Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon River in his successful attempt to seize power inRome. The civil disturbances caused by Caesar's arrival forced Virgil to flee the city. He escaped toNaples, where he was able to study with the Epicurean philosopher Siro. Scholars speculate that he may have begun writing poetry during this time as well.

After Julius Caesar's assassination in 44 B.C., Virgil returned to his native region of Mantova. A year later, he began writing his first major work of poetry, the Eclogues (ìSelectionsî), also known as the Bucolics (ìPastoralsî). These ten poems relate the daily lives of shepherds and shepherdesses in idyllic country settings. In 42 B.C., his composition was interrupted by the confiscation of his father's estate for war heroes. Virgil appealed to Octavian, and he was repaid with other estates inRome and Naples. However, this did not deter his writing, and the Eclogues were published in 37 B.C.

The Eclogues were a great success, and Virgil became very popular. He strengthened his friendship with Octavian, and made a new friend in Maecenas. Maecenas' home was a place for poets and philosophers to gather, and Virgil visited often. The time he spent with Maecenas inspired him to write another large work, the Georgics (ìOn Farmingî). This long poem was written while Virgil lived inNaples, his favorite city. The Georgics discusses agriculture and the beauty of living in and with nature. The Georgics was published in 30 B.C. after seven years of work, and it too was a great success.

In 30 B.C., Virgil began his greatest work, the Aeneid. Octavian had suggested to his old friend that he write an epic about theRoman Empire, and Virgil agreed. When Octavian became the emperor Augustus in 27 B.C., Virgil gained his patronage, and was able to live in comfort and wealth as he researched and wrote the epic. The Aeneid was such a highly anticipated work that the whole ofRome eagerly waited for news of the epic's progress.

Virgil took eleven years to write the rough draft of the Aeneid. By that point, it was basically finished, but Virgil wanted to refine it. He planned a three-year trip toGreece and Asia, hoping to revise the work as he visited the sites he mentioned. In Athens, he met Augustus, who persuaded the poet to return to Italy with him. Unfortunately, during the trip Virgil became severely ill. He died in Brundisium on September 21, 19 B.C. and was buried in Naples, though his tomb is now lost. Shortly before he died, Virgil requested that the rough draft of the Aeneid be destroyed. Augustus refused to destroy such a great work. Instead, he ordered two of Virgil's friends to edit the work for publication. Shortly afterward, the Aeneid was published.

Since that time, the Aeneid and Virgil himself have been universally praised. Many scholars of the Middle Ages preferred the spelling of Vergil's name as ìVirgil.î This spelling uses the Latin root virga, meaning ìwand,î to imply that Virgil was a magician who conjured great spirits with his poetry. Virgil's poetry has lasted because each following generation has admired his ability to inspire our spirits with his magical, timeless expression.

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