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The Core Curriculum

Virgil

70 BCE – 19 BCE

A portrait of Virgil from the Vergilius Romanus, 5th-century illustrated manuscript of the poet’s works. (Wikimedia Commons)A portrait of Virgil from the Vergilius Romanus, 5th-century illustrated manuscript of the poet’s works. (Wikimedia Commons) Publius Vergilius Maro (or Vergil) is the greatest of the ancient Latin poets, and the author of Rome’s national epic, the Aeneid. His name can also be spelled ‘Virgil’ in English, a corruption of the Latin name invented in the Middle Ages to suit beliefs about the magical properties of his texts (virga means a magical wand in Latin). The ancient tradition about Vergil elaborated a large number of myths about his life that symbolically reflect the tenor and themes of his works; scholars must therefore proceed very carefully in order to establish firm biographical information. We hear, for example, that he was sickly, shy, and had a sexual preference for men rather than women, details that can be sourced back partly to his representation of homosexual love between languid shepherds in his Eclogues. We also hear that he worked at an extremely slow pace, licking each line into shape like a she-bear does her cubs – a picturesque story that seeks to account for the learnedness, density and polish of his Latin style.

As well as some juvenilia of doubtful attribution (including curse poetry, a parody of the love poet Catullus, and poems about the phallic god Priapus), all three of Vergil’s major works survive. The first is the Eclogues (c. 39 or 38 BCE), a book of pastoral poetry, depicting the lives of shepherds in highly artificial and romanticized manner, but combined innovatively with elements of colloquial language, literary polemic, and political commentary. The second is the Georgics (c. 29 BCE), a four-book ‘didactic’ (or ‘educational’) poem about agriculture, which combines an evocation of the dignity and hardship of Italian farming life with elements of myth, most notably in the emotional retelling of the Orpheus and Eurydice story in Book 4.  Finally, with his third major work, the Aeneid (unfinished at his death in 19 BCE), Vergil intended to create a national epic, a ‘mirror of both poems of Homer’ as his biographer Suetonius expressed it (Life of Vergil 20). He accomplished this by merging the minor Homeric character of Aeneas with traditional native Italian myths and stories about Rome’s origins. Even before its publication, it was hailed by contemporaries as a work surpassing all rivals: ‘surrender, Roman writers, surrender Greeks!’, wrote the love poet Propertius. ‘Something greater than the Iliad is being born’ (Elegies 2.34.65-6).

 

Written by: James Uden, Classics, Columbia University

 

Works Consulted & Further Reading

N. Horsfall, A Companion to the Study of Virgil (2nd ed), Leiden: Brill, 2001, p.1-26 (a thorough scholarly account of the sources for Vergil’s life)

C. Martindale, Redeeming the Text: Latin Poetry and the Hermeneutics of Reception, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993: 40-3 (a brief but nuanced account of 20th-century shifts in interpretation of the Aeneid in light of broader thinking about colonialism and empire)

The Life of Vergil by Suetonius (early 2nd Century, A.D) is available online in Latin and English. http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Suetonius/de_Poetis/Vergil*.html