Virgil, the preeminent poet of the Roman Empire, was born Publius Vergilius Maro on October 15, 70 B.C., near Mantua, a city in northern Italy. The son of a farmer, Virgil studied in Cremona, then in Milan, and finally in Rome. Around 41 B.C., he returned to Mantua to begin work on his Eclogues, which he published in 37 b.c. Soon afterward, civil war forced him to flee south to Naples, where seven years later he finished his second work, the Georgics, a long poem on farming. Virgil’s writing gained him the recognition of the public, wealth from patrons, and the favor of the emperor.
Virgil lived at the height of the first age of the Roman Empire, during the reign of the emperor Octavian, later known as Augustus. Before Augustus became emperor, though, internal strife plagued the Roman government. During Virgil’s youth, the First Triumvirate—Julius Caesar, Pompey, and Crassus—governed the Roman Republic. Crassus was killed around 53 B.C., and Caesar initiated civil war against Pompey. After defeating Pompey, Caesar reigned alone until the Ides of March in 44 B.C., when Brutus and Cassius, two senators, assassinated him. Civil war erupted between the assassins and the Second Triumvirate—Octavian, Antony, and Lepidus. By 36 B.C. only Octavian and Antony remained, and they began warring against each other. At the Battle of Actium in 31 B.C., Octavian defeated Antony and his ally Cleopatra of Egypt, finally consolidating power in himself alone. Four years later, he assumed the title Augustus. Virgil witnessed all this turmoil, and the warring often disrupted his life.
Immediately after finishing the Georgics, Virgil began his masterwork, the Aeneid. He was fortunate enough to enter the good graces of Augustus, and, in part, the Aeneid serves to legitimize Augustus’s reign. The Aeneid tells the story of the Trojan hero Aeneas’s perilous flight from Troy to Italy following the Trojan War. In Italy, Aeneas’s descendents would go on to found Rome. In the epic, Virgil repeatedly foreshadows the coming of Augustus, perhaps to silence critics who claimed that he achieved power through violence and treachery. (Whether or not Virgil truly believed all the praise he heaped upon Augustus is a matter of debate.) When Rome was at its height, the easiest way to justify the recent brutal events was to claim that the civil wars and the changes in leadership had been decreed by fate to usher in the reign of the great Augustus. Yet the Aeneid is by no means a purely political work; like other epic poems, its subject stands on its own as a story for all time.
Virgil did not invent the story that Rome descended from Troy; he crafted the events narrated in the Aeneid from an existing tradition surrounding Aeneas that extended from the ancient Greek poet Homer through the contemporary Roman historian Livy. In Book XX of the Iliad, Aeneas faces off with Achilles, and we learn about Aeneas’s lineage and his reputation for bravery. However, in that scene, he is no match for Achilles, who has been outfitted in armor forged by the divine smith Hephaestus. Poseidon rescues Aeneas from certain doom and praises the Trojan for his piety. Poseidon also prophesies that Aeneas will survive the Trojan War and assume leadership over the Trojan people.
Ancient accounts of Aeneas’s postwar wanderings vary. Greek art from the sixth century B.C. portrays Aeneas carrying his father, Anchises, out from the burning ruins of Troy. Archaeological evidence suggests that the myth of Aeneas was often depicted in art on the Italian mainland as early as the sixth century B.C. The settlement of Aeneas and the Trojans in Italy and their connection with the foundation of Rome entered the written tradition centuries after Homer, at the end of the third century B.C. Earlier poets, including the Roman Varro, had connected Dido and Aeneas, but Virgil was the first to tie all the elements of Aeneas’s story together in epic form.
After eleven years of composition, the meticulous Virgil did not consider the Aeneid fit for publication. He planned to spend three years editing it, but fell ill returning from a trip to Greece. Just before his death on September 21, 19 B.C., he ordered the manuscript of the Aeneid to be burned, because he still considered it unfinished. Augustus intervened, however, arranging for the poem to be published against Virgil’s wishes.
Virgil’s masterful and meticulously crafted poetry earned him a legacy as the greatest poet in the Latin language. Throughout the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance, his fame only grew. Before the invention of the printing press, when classical texts, transmitted by the hands of scribes, were scarce, Virgil’s poetry was available to the literate classes, among whom he was regarded as the most significant writer of antiquity. He inspired poets across languages, including Dante in Italian, Milton in English, and an anonymous French poet who reworked the Aeneid into the medieval romance Le Roman d’Eneas. In what became a Christian culture, Virgil was viewed as a pagan prophet because several lines in his works were interpreted as predictions of the coming of Christ. Among writers of the Renaissance, Virgil was appreciated for the fluidity of his rigorously structured poetry and his vivid portrayals of human emotion.
Modern critics, on the other hand, have been less kind. Virgil’s poetry is often judged in relation to that of his Greek predecessors, especially the Iliad and the Odyssey, epics attributed to Homer that also portray the Trojan War and its aftermath. Most contemporary scholars hold that Virgil’s poetry pales in comparison to Homer’s. Virgil himself often viewed his poetry in light of Homer’s; he invoked such comparisons within the Aeneid and wished to surpass the Greek poet, while still borrowing from him heavily. Virgil’s poetry does not possess the same originality of expression as Homeric epic poetry. The Aeneid shares with the Iliad and the Odyssey a tone of ironic tragedy, as characters act against their own wishes, submit their lives to fate, and often meet dark ends. Most scholars agree that Virgil distinguished himself within the epic tradition of antiquity by representing the broad spectrum of human emotion in his characters as they are subsumed in the historical tides of dislocation and war.