Publius Vergilius Maro

70BC - 19BC

Virgil

Virgil was born in 70 BCE. Like Catullus, according to ancient commentators, he came from the North, near Mantua. His was a family of farmers, reasonably prosperous, to judge from his upbringing, but lower in the scale of wealth and social position than Catullus. He had a thorough education, reportedly studying Greek, Epicurean philosophy and rhetoric at Cremona, Milan and Naples.

Virgil

The first of the three works for which he is famous was the Eclogues, written around 40 BCE. These are shortish poems about shepherds and shepherdesses, which follow an established Greek poetic form, but also refer to contemporary events, when land was being confiscated in the area around Mantua to give to soldiers who had fought in the victory over Brutus and Cassius at Philippi in 42 BCE. Commentators tell us that the local Governor, Pollio, to whom Virgil dedicated the Eclogues, had taken an interest in him which resulted in an introduction to Octavian (the future Emperor Augustus), the salvation of Virgil’s family farm from the confiscations, and Virgil’s arrival in the circle of Maecenas, the greatest artistic patron of the age and a senior political aide to Octavian.

Virgil’s reputation was consolidated during the thirties BCE by his composition, at Maecenas’s suggestion, of four books of Georgics, poetry about agriculture, again an established theme from Greek poetry. He then moved on to the Aeneid, his great historical epic poem. The poem tells the story of Aeneas, a Trojan prince who was the son of a mortal father and a divine mother, Venus, the Goddess of love. With her help, Aeneas escapes from the sack of the city at the end of the Trojan War, carrying his aged father on his shoulders. With a group of comrades, he travels the Mediterranean, looking for a new home. As the poem starts, his father has recently died and he has just landed in North Africa near Carthage, newly founded by Queen Dido.

He is kindly received, and tells his story so far in flashback. He and Dido fall in love, and for a time it looks as though he may stay in Carthage. Then the God Mercury arrives, reminds him that an oracle has told him that he will found a new land in the West and tells him to get on with it. He reluctantly does as he is told: deserted, Dido kills herself. After further adventures in Sicily, Aeneas sails to Italy, where a prophetess helps him to pay a visit to the underworld. There he is shown great Romans-to-be, a line culminating in the Emperor Augustus and his imperial house.

After returning from Hades, Aeneas moves on to Latium, the region where Rome will eventually stand. A succession of events involving diplomacy, intrigue, jealousy and betrayal leads to war between the Trojans and the Rutuli, a local people led by their King Turnus, and their respective allies. The epic ends with Aeneas killing Turnus in single combat, leaving the way clear for the future foundation of Rome.

The Aeneid is a mammoth undertaking: an attempt to use poetry to dignify the origins and achievements of Rome, and assert the divine origins, not only of Augustus himself, but also of his political project for a new age. It succeeds. As epic poetry, it adopts the literary form most highly respected in the ancient world, suited for describing the greatest of deeds and the greatest of heroes.

The poem adopts the same metre as that used for the greatest Greek epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey, composed many centuries before, and draws many parallels between their heroes and Aeneas. Virgil is claiming the authority of Homer, the supreme poetic authority of the ancient world, while working in his own new, highly sophisticated, and very Roman, style. No wonder that, in antiquity, Virgil remained the most famous and highly-regarded Roman poet. He died in 19 BCE.

No contemporary copies of these Latin poets’ work survive, so we are lucky to have them. Find out more here.

Poetry by Virgil

  1. Virgil predicts a forthcoming birth and a new golden age
  2. The Aeneid begins
  3. Storm at sea!
  4. Jupiter’s prophecy
  5. Venus’s swans
  6. The Trojans reach Carthage
  7. Aeneas prepares to tell Dido his story
  8. Laocoon warns against the Trojan horse
  9. Laocoon and the snakes
  10. The Trojan Horse enters the city
  11. Hector visits Aeneas in a dream
  12. The death of Priam
  13. Aeneas rescues his Father Anchises
  14. Aeneas saves his son and father, but at a cost
  15. How Aeneas will know the site of his city
  16. The Harpy’s prophecy
  17. Dido falls in love
  18. Dido and Aeneas: royal hunt and royal affair
  19. Rumour
  20. Mercury’s journey to Carthage
  21. Dido and Aeneas: Hell hath no fury …
  22. The Trojans prepare to set sail from Carthage
  23. The death of Dido.
  24. Dido’s release
  25. Fire strikes Aeneas’s fleet
  26. Anchises’s ghost invites Aeneas to visit the underworld
  27. Palinurus the helmsman is lost
  28. The Sibyl’s Prophecy
  29. Aeneas learns the way to the underworld
  30. The journey to Hades begins
  31. Charon, the ferryman
  32. Aeneas finds Dido among the shades
  33. Aeneas comes to the Hell of Tartarus
  34. Souls awaiting punishment in Tartarus, and the crimes that brought them there.
  35. Aeneas reaches the Elysian Fields
  36. Aeneas’s vision of Augustus
  37. Aeneas sees Marcellus, Augustus’s tragic heir
  38. The portals of sleep
  39. Omens for Princess Lavinia
  40. Aeneas arrives in Italy
  41. In King Latinus’s hall
  42. King Latinus grants the Trojans’ request
  43. A Fury rouses Turnus to war
  44. The Fury Allecto blows the alarm
  45. Juno throws open the gates of war
  46. Help for Father Aeneas from Father Tiber
  47. Aeneas tours the site of Rome
  48. Vulcan’s forge
  49. New allies for Aeneas
  50. The shield of Aeneas
  51. Turnus the wolf
  52. Aeneas’s ships are transformed
  53. The death of Euryalus and Nisus
  54. Turnus at bay
  55. Sea-nymphs
  56. Aeneas joins the fray
  57. The death of Pallas
  58. Turnus is lured away from battle
  59. King Mezentius meets his match
  60. Mourning for Pallas
  61. Rites for the allies’ dead
  62. The infant Camilla
  63. Aeneas’s oath
  64. Aeneas is wounded
  65. Juno is reconciled
  66. The death of Turnus
  67. Virgil begins the Georgics
  68. The farmer’s starry calendar
  69. Signs of bad weather
  70. Catastrophe for Rome?
  71. The farmer’s happy lot
  72. More from Virgil’s farming Utopia
  73. Virgil’s poetic temple to Caesar
  74. The natural history of bees
  75. Love is the same for all
  76. Aristaeus’s bees