Virgil, the preeminent poet of the Roman Empire, was born Publius Vergilius Maro on October 15, 70 B.C.E., near Mantua, a city in what is now northern Italy. The son of a farmer, Virgil studied in Cremona, then in Milan, and finally in Rome. Around 41 B.C.E., he returned to Mantua to begin work on his Eclogues, which he published in 37 B.C.E. 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.E., and Caesar initiated civil war against Pompey. After defeating Pompey, Caesar reigned alone until the Ides of March in 44 B.C.E., 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.E., only Octavian and Antony remained, and they began warring against each other. At the Battle of Actium in 31 B.C.E., 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 the course of 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 descendants 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.
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.E., 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.