Publius Vergilius Maro was born in the village of Andes, near Mantua in Cisalpine Gaul (now northern Italy), on 15 October 70 BCE. His parents’ names have been lost to the ages, though his father’s family name may have been Vergilia, and his mother’s name Magia. Most modern scholars believe they were an equestrian, landowning family.
Virgil’s parents had enough money to give him a good education. He attended schools in Cremona, Naples, Rome, and Mediolanum (now Milan), starting at age five, and studied astronomy, medicine, and rhetoric. Because of his shyness and aloofness, his classmates nicknamed him Parthenias (maiden).
Virgil thought about pursuing a career in law and rhetoric, but ultimately decided to become a poet. According to legend, he began writing while at school in Naples. However, modern scholars believe the juvenile works attributed to him in Appendix Vergiliana were penned by many different authors, most of them not Virgil.
Virgil’s first major work was The Eclogues (also known as The Bucolics), a collection of ten eclogues (as the title suggests). An eclogue is a classical poem with a pastoral subject. This book established Virgil as a great Roman poet and a celebrity in his own time.
First page of The Eclogues, 1632 edition
Next he wrote The Georgics, which also takes an agricultural theme. Unlike The Eclogues, though, The Georgics is far from an example of peaceful pastoral poetry. Its four books drip with tension.
First page of Book Four of The Georgics, 1632 edition
Then came Virgil’s great masterwork, The Aeneid, which he wrote during the final eleven years of his life. Like his other books, The Aeneid too is written in dactylic hexameter, a style most commonly found in classic epic poetry. It doesn’t work very well in English. The modern language it’s most successful in is German.
The Aeneid, divided into twelve books (really parts), tells the story of Aeneas, son of Prince Anchises of Troy and the goddess Aphrodite. He escapes his burning city at the end of the Trojan War, with his little boy Iulus and a band of friends. They sail around for a long time trying to find a new home, having many adventures along the way, until finally they reach Rome. There’s a huge war between Aeneas’s followers and the Rutuli during the second half.
It doesn’t take a genius to see many obvious parallels between The Aeneid and Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey!
Aeneas Meets Andromache, drawn by Václav (Wenceslaus) Hollar in the 17th century
According to tradition, Virgil sailed to Greece around 19 BCE to revise The Aeneid, met Augustus Caesar in Athens, and decided to head home. While in a town near Megara, Greece, he caught a fever. A weakened Virgil passed away upon his arrival in Brindisium’s harbour on 21 September.
Augustus wisely ignored Virgil’s orders to burn The Aeneid, and instead told his literary executors to publish it with as little editing as possible.
Virgil reading the Aeneid to Augustus and Octavia, Angelica Kaufmann, 1788
During the Late Roman Empire and Middle Ages, Virgil’s birth name Vergilius morphed into Virgilius, either because of a false etymology with the Latin word virgo (virgin) and Virgil’s excessive modesty, or an analogy between the Latin word virga (wand) and the prophetic, magical powers attributed to Virgil during the Middle Ages.
Virgil, Dante’s idol, is his guide through Hell and most of Purgatory. Dante is very frightened to see this shadowy figure, but ecstatic once he realizes who it is. Virgil comforts him and promises to guide him on the amazing otherworldly journey he’s about to undertake.
Gustave Doré etching
Virgil is a constant source of moral support, encouragement, and protection when Dante is afraid. During the poem’s dramatic midway point, Canto XVI of Purgatorio, Virgil guides Dante through a thick, blinding cloud of smoke as Dante clings to him and covers his eyes.
Virgil’s final words to Dante, at the end of Canto XXVII of Purgatorio, are “I crown and miter you lord of yourself!” He’s taken Dante as far as he can, and now it’s time for Beatrice to take him the rest of the way towards his final goal.
Such a loving mentor and guide has Virgil been, like a father, Dante bursts into tears when he realises Virgil has left in Canto XXX of Purgatorio.