|Virgil (70-19 B.C.)|
Virgil was the son of a farmer, not a nobleman. He was lucky to receive an education in Latin, Greek, philosophy and rhetoric.
His knowledge of Greek was essential for his writing of his greatest work, the Aeneid (Oxford World Classics) because the character of Aeneas is taken from Homer's Iliad.
Many of Virgil's scenes in the Aeneid (such as his reminiscences about Aeneas' military exploits as told to Dido and his visit to Hades) are informed by the Odyssey.
Virgil moved from Mantua to Rome and his poetry won him powerful friends and admirers. While he was in Rome, a series of civil wars raged (50-31 B.C.). Julius Caesar's civil war with Pompey and the succession wars after his assassination were still recent events. Aeneas is portrayed as a ruler destined to bring civilization, unity and peace to a divided world - which is what Rome was looking for at the time, and what Augustus aspired to be.
Virgil at first wrote poems about farm life. When Rome's civil wars ended, the Roman government asked Virgil to write a poem to get Romans back to their farms - he wrote for them the Georgics, a poetic Farmer's Almanack about how to get honey from bees and how best to grow trees, grain, and animals.
Emperor Augustus liked the job Virgil did, and gave him an annual salary to write about the history of Rome.Virgil's response was to create the Aeneid, about the soldier Aeneas who came home from the Trojan war to found what would become Rome. The opening lines, which many Latin students including myself have been required to memorize, are:
Arma virumque cano, Troiae qui primus ab orisMy favorite phrase is inferretque deos Latio (he brought his household gods with him to Latium) because I grew up in a traveling family. Our Dad started working for the U.N. when I was three and by the time I was 12 we had spent at least a week or two each in eight countries - the USA, Canada, England, Ireland, Holland, France, Spain and Italy.
Italiam, fato profugus, Laviniaque venit
litora, multum ille et terris iactatus et alto
vi superum saevae memorem Iunonis ob iram;
multa quoque et bello passus, dum conderet urbem,
inferretque deos Latio, genus unde Latinum,
Albanique patres, atque altae moenia Romae.
Since our Mom was a convert to Catholicism, we visited churches everywhere we went. In the 1950s that was a good way to be introduced to different cities because after the Depression and World War II religion had a wide following.
Virgil worked on the Aeneid for more than a decade when he took a trip to Greece for some final research. He caught a fever, and died before he could finish his epic poem. He asked for the incomplete poem to be burned, but Augustus refused to deep-six all the work he had financed with hard-earned tax collections. It eventually became the central book in Roman schools. It has to be one of a very few books that have been in print more than two millennia.
Soon after his death, Virgil's style and subject matter was imitated by the younger poet Ovid and others in Rome's Silver Age. Dante, in his own Italian epic poem, the Divine Comedy. makes Virgil his guide through Hell as he proceeds to the gates of Heaven.
Virgil died in Brundisium (now Brindisi), Italy, on September 21, 19 B.C.