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Form: Lat. Publius Vergilius Maro; not Virgilius. The spelling Vergilius is attested, not only by the best manuscripts, but by inscriptions.
The famous Roman poet, born 15th October, 70 B.C. at Andes, a village near Mantua, on the Mincius, where his father possessed a small estate. After receiving his early education at Cremona and (after assuming in 55 B.C. the toga of manhood) at Milan, he proceeded in 53 to Rome, where he devoted himself to rhetorical, philosophical, and physical studies. Prevented by weakness of health and bashfulness of manner from looking forward to any success as a pleader or in the service of the State, he returned home, and in the quiet of the country devoted himself to the study of the Greek poets. His meeting with the refined and poetically gifted Asinius Pollio, who in 43 took command of Transpadane Gaul as lieutenant of Antony, appears to have given him his first impetus to poetic composition. His earliest publication, his ten Eclogues, which were written in the years 43-37, were afterwards collected under the title of Bucolica ("Pastoral Poems"). These are imitations of the idyls of Theocritus ; they are, however, less natural, the pictures of country and shepherd life being interspersed throughout with references to contemporary events, to his own fortunes, and to important persons such as Octavianus, Pollio, and Cornelius Gallus, to whom the poet wished either to commend himself or to show his gratitude by his complimentary allusions. He had on several occasions been compelled by the force of circumstances to appeal to the protection and help of influential men. For instance, at the distribution of land to the veterans in 41 B.C. his own estate was appropriated, and it was only the advocacy of Pollio and of Cornelius Gallus which enabled him to recover it. In the following year, when Pollio was obliged to give place to Alfenus Varus, his property was again threatened; but by the influence of Maecenas, to whom Pollio had recommended him, amends were made him by the presentation of another estate. His fame as a poet was established by the Eclogues. Henceforward, by the liberality of noble friends, especially Octavianus and Maecenas, whom he won not merely by his art, but, like all with whom he came into contact, by his modesty and good nature, he was enabled to devote himself to his studies without fear of interruption. He lived in turns in Rome (where he possessed a house), or on his estate at Nola, or in Naples, where he mainly resided, owing to his weak health. Here, in 30 B.C. he completed the didactic poem in four books begun seven years previously, entitled the Georgics (Georgica, on agriculture), which he dedicated to Maecenas. In this, the first Latin poem of this kind, we have a masterpiece of Latin poetry. The author treats of Roman husbandry under its four chief branches, tillage (book i), horticulture (ii), the breeding of cattle (iii), the keeping of bees (iv); and handles a prosaic theme with thorough knowledge and consummate art, together with a loving enthusiasm and a fine sympathy for nature. [The work was founded mainly on the poems of Hesiod and Aratus, but also gives evidence of familiarity with writers on agriculture, as well as of independent agricultural knowledge.] Immediately after finishing the Georgics he began the epic poem of the Aeneid, which he had already promised to Octavianus. Its appearance was looked forward to by all educated Rome with extraordinary anticipation. After eleven years of unremitting labour (for to him composition in general was a laborious task) he was ready with a rough draft of the whole, and determined on a journey to Greece and Asia, intending to spend three years there in polishing his work and afterwards to devote himself entirely to philosophy. At Athens he met Octavianus (who had received in B.C. 27 the title of Augustus). The latter induced him to return home with him. Vergil consented, but fell ill, apparently from a sunstroke, at Megara. On the sea voyage his condition grew worse, and soon after landing he died at Brundisium, 21st September, 19 B.C. His remains were buried at Naples. It was the poet's original intention that, in the event of his dying before his work was completed, the twelve books of the Aeneid should be consigned to the flames. In the end, however, he bequeathed it to his friends and companions in art Varius Rufus and Plotius Tucca, on condition that they should not publish any part of it. But, by the command of Augustus, they gave it to the world, after submitting the work to a careful revision, and only removing what was superfluous, while refraining from all additions of their own. In spite of its incomplete form, the work was enthusiastically welcomed on its first appearance, which had excited the highest anticipations, as a national epic of equal worth with the poems of Homer. This approval was due to its national purpose, the poetic glorification of the origin of the Roman people in the adventures of Aeneas, the founder of the Romans through his descendant Romulus, and in particular the ancestor of the imperial house of the Julii through his son Ascanius, or Iulus. In view of its purpose, little notice was taken of the weak points in the poem, which can only in part be excused by the fact that it lacks the author's finishing touches. We may, indeed, admire the art which the poet has shown in moulding together the vast mass of material collected with so much effort from the poetic and prose writings of Greeks and Romans, the excellences of the language and of the metrical form, and the beauty of many individual portions; but it cannot be denied that in artistic completeness and originality the Aeneid falls far below the Georgics. In particular, the endeavour to pourtray a real hero was beyond the capacity of the gentle, almost womanly, character of the poet; Aeneas is a true hero neither in endurance nor in action. Further, the endeavour to rival Homer is mainly limited to imitation. This is apparent not only in countless single instances, but also in the plot of the whole poem. Vergil obviously wished to unite the excellences of the Odyssey and Iliad in one work by describing in the first six books the wanderings of Aeneas, and in the last six his conflicts for the throne of Latium. In spite of many faults, which were noticed even in ancient times, Vergil has remained the most widely read, the most admired, and the most popular poet of his nation, and no other writer has exercised such an influence on the subsequent development of the Roman literature and language. This remark applies to prose as well as poetry. As was the case with the poems of Homer among the Greeks, Vergil's works, and especially the Aeneid as a national epic, were used down to the latest times for school teaching and as a basis of school grammar. They were imitated by authors, particularly by epic and didactic poets. In later times single verses and parts of verses (see CENTO) were used to compose new poems of the most varying contents; and finally the most famous scholars made them the object of their studies both in verbal and in general interpretation. Some relics of their labours are preserved in the different collections of scholia, especially in that comprehensive commentary on his collected poems which bears the name of Servius Honoratus. Of smaller value are the commentaries of the pseudo-Probus on the Bucolics and Georgics, and of Tiberius Donatus on the Aeneid. The name of Vergil was also borne in ancient times by a number of poems, which passed as the works of his youth, but can hardly any of them have been his compositions: (1) the Catalecta [or more correctly Catalepton], fourteen small poems in ambic and elegiac metre. (2) Culex ("the midge"), supposed to have been written by Vergil in his sixteenth year, a most insipid poem. (3) The Ciris, the story of the transformation of Scylla, the daughter of the Megarian king, into the bird Ciris (see NISUS), obviously composed by an imitator of Vergil and Catullus. (4) The Diroe, two bucolic poems; (a) the Diroe properly so called, imprecations on account of the loss of an estate consequent on the proscription of A.D. 41; and (b) the Lydia, lament for a lost love, both of which have as little claim to be the writings of Vergil as of the grammarian Valerius Cato, to whom also they have been ascribed. (5) The Moretum, so called from the salad which the peasant Simylus prepares in the early morning for the day's repast, a character sketch as diverting and lifelike as (6) a poem deriving its title from the Copa, or hostess, who dances and sings before her inn, inviting the passers by to enter. This last poem is in elegiac metre. [Vergil's life was written by Suetonius from earlier memoirs and memoranda. See Prof. Nettleship's Ancient Lives of Vergil, Clarendon Press, 1879.]
Type: Standard
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