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Vergil

Vergil or Virgil (Publius Vergilius Maro)both: vûr´jil [key], 70 BC–19 BC, Roman poet, b. Andes dist., near Mantua, in Cisalpine Gaul; the spelling Virgil is not found earlier than the 5th cent. AD Vergil's father, a farmer, took his son to Cremona for his education. Thereafter Vergil continued his studies in Milan, Naples, and Rome. The poet's boyhood experience of life on the farm was an essential part of his education. After his studies in Rome, Vergil is believed to have lived with his father for about 10 years, engaged in farm work, study, and writing poetry. In 41 BC the farm was confiscated to provide land for soldiers. Vergil went to Rome, where he became a part of the literary circle patronized by Maecenas and Augustus and where his Eclogues, or Bucolics, were completed in 37 BC In these poems he idealizes rural life in the manner of his Greek predecessor Theocritus. From the Eclogues, Vergil turned to rural poetry of a contrasting kind, realistic and didactic. In his Georgics, completed in 30 BC, he seeks, as had the Greek Hesiod before him, to interpret the charm of real life and work on the farm. His perfect poetic expression gives him the first place among pastoral poets.

For the rest of his life Vergil worked on the Aeneid, a national epic honoring Rome and foretelling prosperity to come. The adventures of Aeneas are unquestionably one of the greatest long poems in world literature. Vergil made Aeneas the paragon of the most revered Roman virtues—devotion to family, loyalty to the state, and piety. In 12 books, Vergil tells how the Trojan prince Aeneas, son of Venus, escaped from Troy to Carthage with his father, son, and a band of followers, where he became Dido's lover and related his adventures to her. At Jupiter's command, he left Carthage (to Dido's suicidal distress), went to Sicily, visited his father's shade in Hades, and landed in Italy. In Italy Aeneas established the beginnings of the Roman state and waged successful war against the natives. The work ends with the death of Turnus at the hands of Aeneas. The verse, in dactylic hexameters, is strikingly regular, though Vergil's death left the epic incomplete and some of the lines unfinished. The sonority of the words and the nobility of purpose make the Aeneid a masterpiece.

Vergil is the dominant figure in all Latin literature, and was considered as such even during his own lifetime. His influence was unabated through the Middle Ages, when he was thought of not only as a great poet but as a kind of wizard as well. Many poets since Dante have acknowledged their great debt to him, and his cultural influence has lasted into the modern era. The conflict embodied in the story of Dido and Aeneas, between private desire and public necessity, became one of the great themes of European drama and literature. Minor poems ascribed to Vergil are of doubtful authorship. For translations of the Aeneid see A. Mandelbaum (1981), R. Fitzgerald (1983, 1985), R. Fagles (2006), and S. Heaney (Book VI, 2016).

See biographies by F. J. H. Letters (1946), T. Frank (1922, repr. 1965), and B. Otis (1966); W. F. J. Knight, Vergil, Epic and Anthropology (1967); F. Cairns, Virgil's Augustan Epic (1989); K. W. Grandsen, Virgil (1990).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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