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.
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.