About the Author

The greatest Roman poet, called by Tennyson "wielder of the stateliest measure ever moulded by the lips of man." Virgil is known for his epic, the Aeneid (written about 29 B.C.E., unfinished), which had taken its literary model from Homer's epic poems Iliad and Odyssey. The tale depicts Aeneas's homeseeking and his war to found a city. The archetypical character has given much later model to Western heroes familiar from the books of Owen Wister and Louis L'Amour.

"It is easy to go down into Hell; night and day, the gates of dark Death stand wide; but to climb back again, to retrace one's steps to the upper air - there's the rub, the task." (from Aeneid)

Virgil was orn on October 15, 70 B.C.E., in Northern Italy in a small village near Mantua - probably but not certainly the modern Pietole. Virgil was no Roman but a Gaul - the village was situated in what was then called Gallia Cisalpina - Gaul this side of the Alps. Publius Vergilius Maro, or Virgil, grew up to be hailed as the greatest Roman poet. And although his work has influenced Western literature for two millennia, little is know about the man himself. His father was a prosperous landowner, described variously as a "potter" and a "courier", who could afford thorough education to the future poet. Virgil received good education. He attended school at Cremona and Mediolanum (Milan), then went to Rome, where he studied mathematics, medicine and rhetoric, and completed his studies in Naples. He entered literary circles as an "Alexandrian," the name given to a group of poets who sought inspiration in the sophisticated work of third-century Greek poets, also known as Alexandrians. In 49 BC Virgil became a Roman citizen. Lucretius influenced his thought, but his early poems were written in the tradition of Theocritus.

"Fortune assists the bold."

After the battle of Philippi in 42 B.C.E. Virgil his or his father's property in Cisalpine Gaul was confiscated for veterans. According to some sources it was afterwards restored at the command of Octavian (later styled Augustus). In the following years Virgil spent most of his time in Campania and Sicily, but he had also a house at Rome. During the reign of emperor Augustus, Virgil became a member of his court circle and was aided by minister Maecenas, patronage of arts and close friend to poet Horace. Maecenas was twice left in virtual control of Rome when the emperor was away. Maecenas gave Virgil a house near Naples.

Between 42 and 37 B.C.E. Virgil composed pastoral poems known as Bucolic or Eclogues ('rustic poems' and 'selections'), spent years on the Georgics (literally, 'pertaining to agriculture'), a didactic work on agriculture, and the cultivation of the olive and vine, livestock, and beekeeping. The work took its model from Works and Days by the Greek writer Hesiod, who had composed it around 700 BC. Eclogues gained a huge success, and in its famous 'Messianic Eclogue' he prophesied the new Golden Age. "The great cycle of the ages is renewed. Now Justice returns, returns the Golden Age; a new generation now descends from on high." (this was interpreted in the Middle Ages as a prophecy of the birth of Christ. Dante cites the lines in The Divine Comedy) According to some interpretations the death shepherd lad in the poem is propabley Julius Caesar.

In 31 B.C.E. Octavian won the Battle of Actium against his former ally Mark Anthony, who had a liaison with the Egyptian queen Cleopatra, and by 29 the way to power was open for him. In 27 BC he was given the title of Augustus ('venerable'). He pressed his poet to write of the glory of Rome under his rule. "I found Rome brick and I left it marble," he said according to Suetonius. Thus the remaining time of his life, from 30 to 19 B.C., Virgil devoted to The Aeneid, the national epic of Rome, to glory the Empire. Although ambitious, Virgil was never really happy about the task. Moreover, he was a perfectionist, who knew the importance of his work, and did not want to hurry with his lines. A contemporary poet, Propertius, acknowledged - perhaps ironically - this with the lines: "Make way, Greek and Roman writers! Something greater than the Iliad is being born."

Arms, and the man I sing, who, forc'd by fate,
And haughty Juno's unrelenting hate,
Expell'd and exil'd, left the Trojan shore.
Long labors, both by sea and land, he bore,
And in the doubtful war, before he won
The Latian realm, and built the destin'd town;
His banish'd gods restor'd to rites divine,
And settled sure succession in his line,
From whence the race of Alban fathers come,
And the long glories of majestic Rome.

(from Aeneid, trans. by John Dryden)

In the famous lines of Book VI, the spirit of Anchises shows to his son the future of Rome: Romans, these are your arts: to bear dominion over the nations, to impose peace, to spare the conquered and subdue the proud." In 23 Virgil read the second and the fourth books to Augustus personally - the emperor had complained a few years earlier that he has not seen any of the text. When Augustus was returning from Samos after the winter of 20, he met the poet in Athens. Virgil accompanied the emperor to Megara and then to Italy. The journey turned out to be fatal and Virgil died of a fever contracted on his visit to Greece. He had instructed his executor Varius to destroy the manuscript of The Aeneid, but Augustus ordered Varius to ignore this request, and the poem was published. Virgil was buried near Naples but there are doubts that the so-called Tomb of Virgil in the area is authentic. However, it soon became the object of pilgrimage.

Most author biographies courtesy of Author's Calendar. Used with permission.