Virgil Reading the Aeneid to Augustus, Octavia, and Livia by Jean-Baptiste Wicar, Art Institute of Chicago

On this day in History: Virgil was born

History of Italy News

On 15th October 70 BC, in the village of Andes near Mantua, the world witnessed the birth of a literary luminary known as Virgil. Originally named Publius Vergilius Maro, he would later be celebrated as the pre-eminent Roman poet.

Virgil received a comprehensive education in Cremona, Milan, and Rome, acquiring profound knowledge of Greek and Roman literature, while also honing his skills in rhetoric and philosophy.

At the age of 20, Virgil witnessed the onset of the tumultuous civil wars initiated by Julius Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon. These wars, which only ceased with Augustus’s victory at Actium in 31 BC, left a profound mark on him. His works resonate with the deep-seated aversion and trepidation these conflicts inspired in the Roman populace. Indeed, he dedicated his entire life to articulating these sentiments through his poetry.

Virgil’s claim to fame rests largely on his magnum opus, “The Aeneid.” This epic work chronicles the origin of Rome through the tale of Aeneas, a Trojan prince on a divine mission to civilise the world. It is universally recognised as a cornerstone of Western literature, its significance transcending time.

Virgil’s poetry is esteemed not only for its lyrical beauty and eloquence but also for its grand architectural design, offering valuable insights into the life and culture of ancient Rome. Born into modest beginnings, his deep affection for the Italian countryside and its hardworking denizens permeates his verses.

Friend of influential Romans

Bust of Virgil at his crypt
Bust of Virgil at his crypt

While Virgil’s physical health was never robust, his literary prowess propelled him to prominence, earning him the friendship of influential Romans. His earliest surviving work, the “Eclogues,” comprises ten pastoral poems written between 42 and 37 BC. They depict an idyllic world where shepherds extol the simple joys of existence under the sun.

Yet, woven within these verses are allegorical references to the real world, thereby reshaping the pastoral genre. Notably, the fifth eclogue, which mourns the demise of the shepherd king, is believed to bear some connection to the recent assassination of Julius Caesar.

The Aeneid

Mosaic of Virgil with two of the muses. Bardo Museum, Tunis
Mosaic of Virgil with two of the muses

In his magnum opus, “The Aeneid,” Virgil embarked on a quest to encapsulate his vision of an idealised Rome. Through the saga of Aeneas, an exiled Trojan prince who founded the first Italian settlement from which Rome would spring, he portrayed the embodiment of Roman virtues. Virgil’s description of the images on Aeneas’s shield foretells genuine events in Roman history.

Virgil’s enthusiasm for the renewed Rome promised by Augustus permeates the poem, exemplified by lines such as, “Then shall the harsh generations be softened and wars shall be laid aside.” He propagated the belief that Rome had a divine mandate: first to conquer the world through warfare and subsequently to disseminate civilisation and the rule of law.

For eleven years, Virgil toiled on “The Aeneid,” never completing its final revisions before his passing in 19 BC. On his way to Greece for further research, he fell ill during the voyage and returned to Italy. He passed away shortly after arriving in Brundisium, modern-day Brindisi in Puglia, southern Italy.

Legend has it that Virgil’s dying wish was for his epic poem to be consigned to the flames. However, this was overruled by Augustus, to whom Virgil had previously recited excerpts. As a result, “The Aeneid” survived, continuing to commemorate Rome’s accomplishments and ideals in the Augustan era, while preserving the poignant voice of the poet himself.

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