Publius Vergilius Maro was born in 70 BC, into a world half destroyed by civil wars and then repressed under the statecraft of Julius Caesar and Augustus. His father was dispossessed of his small-holding by returning veterans, but Virgil was able to work quietly under the patronage of Maecenas.

Virgil's three works are all masterpieces: Eclogues, Georgics and Aeneid, and have been frequently translated, the last most famously by Dryden. Not much is known of his life, but Virgil seems to have remained awkward and retiring, unmarried and of indeterminate sexual orientation.

Though asked to write the great Roman epic of the Aeneid by Augustus, and famous in his day, the poet kept out of politics and public life. His death in 19 BC was probably by natural causes, though some have argued for murder.

Virgil was, and continues to be, one of the great influences on western literature, as important for craftsmanship as his reworking of the epic tradition. Virgil brought to perfection the Latin hexameter, the reading of which (and sometimes the writing) was required of all European poets until the twentieth century.

He also took from Alexandrian poets a fuller portrayal of women, and gave his hero greater compassion and psychological complexity, aspects that foreshadowed Christian attitudes. The Aeneid was often allegorized in the Middle Ages, the characters turned to abstract qualities. In the Renaissance, however, together with Seneca and Ovid, Virgil became the greatest influence on extended literary composition and so helped create the models of excellence that have lasted till comparatively recently.

Latin is still read, and the essentials of the language can be learned from books, cassettes, CDs and online. For bibliographies, try A Bibliographic Guide to Virgil's Aeneid, or A Brief Selected Vergil Bibliography. A bilingual translation of the Georgics is available from Ocaso Press in free pdf form.


C. John Holcombe   |  About the Author    | ©     2007 2012 2013 2015.   Material can be freely used for non-commercial purposes if properly referenced.