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The Core Curriculum

Virgil

70 BCE – 19 BCE

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 Dept, Columbia University)

The text of the Life of Vergil by Suetonius (early second century A.D) can be found here, in Latin and English: http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Suetonius/de_Poetis/Vergil*.html.

A thorough scholarly account of the sources for Vergil’s life is offered by N. Horsfall, A Companion to the Study of Virgil (2nd ed), Leiden: Brill, 2001, p.1-26. C. Martindale offers a brief but nuanced account of twentieth-century shifts in interpretation of the Aeneid in light of broader thinking about colonialism and empire: Redeeming the Text: Latin Poetry and the Hermeneutics of Reception, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993: 40-3.

Historical Contexts

The Aeneid

HISTORICAL BACKGROUND:

On the 2nd September 31 BCE, Octavian (later Augustus) defeated Mark Antony in the Battle of Actium, thereby establishing himself as sole ruler of Rome, making him the first emperor of Ancient Rome, and laying the Roman Republic forever to rest. This was the culmination of constant civil strife that had plagued Rome for the previous half-century, and contemporaries who had suffered from land confiscations, the loss of relatives, and the threat of official governmental hit-lists, looked anxiously towards Augustus to deliver much-needed stability to the state. Augustus’ cultural advisor, the flamboyant Maecenas, fostered a circle of poets, including Vergil, Propertius and Horace, who would celebrate the new peace, and what is now known as the Golden Age of Roman poetry was the result. Vergil’s Aeneid is a powerful part of the Augustan political program. It does not merely celebrate Rome’s past, but creates a ‘destiny’ that leads inexorably to the Augustan present, encouraging readers to identify the pious leader Aeneas with his future descendent, the pious and civic-minded Augustus.

Yet scholars throughout the twentieth century have come to emphasize the intellectual independence of the poets patronized by Maecenas. No longer seen as mere propagandists, their endlessly subtle and multi-vocal literary texts raise searching and difficult questions about the nature of Augustan rule. Influenced by reactions towards the Vietnam War, scholars of the so-called ‘Harvard School’ of Vergilian interpretation in the 1970s began to stress the dark tone of the Aeneid, the ways in which the epic consistently emphasizes the emotional cost of Aeneas’ actions on his crew and himself, the innocent victims seemingly discarded to advance the imperial mission (such as Dido), and the moments of troubling violence (including, most importantly, the ambiguous final lines), when ‘pious Aeneas’ does not seem so pious after all. Today’s Vergilian scholars seek to find a balance between the ‘pro-’  and ‘anti-Augustan’ readings of the Aeneid, since the subtlety of the text resists easy generalizations. Vergil is not interested in either politics or its human costs, but both; his is simultaneously a public, and an intensely private, mode of verse.

Written by: James Uden (Classics Dept, Columbia University)

The text of the Life of Vergil by Suetonius (early second century A.D) can be found here, in Latin and English: http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Suetonius/de_Poetis/Vergil*.html.

A thorough scholarly account of the sources for Vergil’s life is offered by N. Horsfall, A Companion to the Study of Virgil (2nd ed), Leiden: Brill, 2001, p.1-26. C. Martindale offers a brief but nuanced account of twentieth-century shifts in interpretation of the Aeneid in light of broader thinking about colonialism and empire: Redeeming the Text: Latin Poetry and the Hermeneutics of Reception, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993: 40-3.