Friday, July 5, 2013

Virgil (70-19 BC)

Virgil (Publius Vergilius Maro) was born on October 15, 70 BC, in the village of Andes, near Mantua, in the geocultural province of Alpinia. Although he was shy and frequently ill as a teenager, his father provided him with the education he needed to practice law. He wrote poetry instead.

Virgil published his first poems in 38. He called them eclogues (“selections”). In them rural shepherds talk about love, politics, ambition, and fame. In the last eclogue, Virgil describes rural Arcadia as a place of simplicity, harmony, and bounty and praises living close to nature there. Widespread performances of his eclogues in the theaters of densely populated Rome made Virgil famous.

Over the next ten years Virgil worked on his next long poem, the Georgics (On Farming) and published it in 28. In it he follows Hesiod’s Works and Days by discussing ways of raising plants and animals and creating a successful farm. Virgil wrote this in days when more and more farmers were being driven off the land.

Virgil’s most important work, the epic poem Aeneid, features a prince of Troy mentioned in Homer's Iliad named Aeneas.

The first half of the epic, like the Odyssey, describes a long difficult journey. The story begins with Aeneas fleeing the burning city of Troy carrying his father and leading his son to safety. For a time he lives in Carthage in an intense relationship with its founder and queen Dido. When she discovers he’s unexpectedly sailed away, she curses him and commits suicide. Aeneas finally arrives in Latinia, his new home, to fulfill his destiny as ancestor of the Romans.

The second half of the epic, like the Iliad, describes battle and rage. Once in Latinia, Aeneas becomes engaged to a princess already promised in marriage to a king named Turnus. Battles follow, the history of Rome is prophesied, and the poem ends with Aeneas killing the crippled Turnus in a rage.

Virgil died of a fever on September 21, 19 BC, in the port of Brundisium (today’s Brindisi) returning from a trip to Athens. He had yet to make his final corrections to the Aeneid. His literary executors made as few of these as possible before publishing the poem in 17.

After Virgil’s death, his Aeneid became required reading for generations of Roman children. It served as their shared story as a nation, splendidly linking them to the gods and the legendary Homer, explaining the wars between Rome and Carthage, justifiying the rule of the Caesars, and teaching them good stout virtues like devotion to duty. At the same time it linked growth in power and fulfillment of destiny with the death of others and the loss of one’s humanity. Later poets like Ovid refer to his poems in theirs.

The Aeneid remained the most significant poem in Latin for centuries. In his Divine Comedy, Dante has Virgil guide him through Hell and Purgatory before he follows Beatrice through Heaven.

Copyright © 2013 by Steven Farsaci. All rights reserved.