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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