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The great Roman poet Virgil (also spelled Vergil) was born on Oct. 15, 70 BC, in Andes, a village near Mantua in northern Italy. Virgil spent his childhood on his father's farm and was educated at Cremona, Milan, and then Rome, where he studied rhetoric. There he met poets and statesmen who were to play an important part in his life. When civil war broke out in 49 BC, he retired to Naples where he studied philosophy with the Epicurean Siro.
Beginning in 45 BC, encouraged by the statesman Pollio, Virgil spent eight or ten years composing the Eclogues, which were greatly admired in literary circles. They were adapted to the stage as mimes, and thus made him a popular, if elusive, figure. After the publication of the Eclogues, Virgil joined the literary circle of Gaius Maecenas, which would later include the poets Horace and Propertius. Over a period of seven years he wrote the Georgics, a didactic poem on farming, described by the poet John Dryden as "the best Poem of the best Poet." The last years of Virgil's life were devoted to writing his epic poem, the Aeneid. He died in Brundisium on Sept. 21, 19 BC, after catching a fever on a trip to Greece and Asia, during which he had intended to complete the Aeneid. Before setting out on the voyage, Virgil had asked that the Aeneid be destroyed if anything should happen to him before the poem was complete, but the emperor Augustus overturned the request and had it published. (Also attributed to Virgil in his youth is a collection of poems known as the Appendix Virgiliana. The authenticity of most of these poems is now disputed or rejected.)
The ten Eclogues, or Bucolics, are pastoral poems modeled on the Idylls of Alexandrian poet Theocritus. Virgil preserved the pastoral style of his predecessor, such as the good-natured banter of the shepherds and their love songs, dirges, and singing matches, but he gave the Eclogues an original and more national character by introducing real persons and events into the poems and by referring through allegory to other persons and events. The famous fourth Eclogue celebrates the birth of a child who is destined to usher in a new Golden Age of peace and prosperity. This tale may have been Virgil's allusion to an expected child of Mark Antony and Octavia, the sister of Augustus, or the child in the poem may simply have been a symbol for the dawning age. During the later Roman Empire (3rd century AD to 5th century AD) and Middle Ages (5th century to 15th century AD), the poem was regarded as a prophecy of the coming of Jesus Christ.
The Georgics, or Art of Husbandry, written from 36 to 29 BC, is a didactic poem in four books purporting to teach farming. The poem's overall plan is summed up in the opening lines: what to plant and when, the cultivation of trees, especially the vine, and of livestock, and the art of beekeeping. The influence of Hesiod, Aratus, Callimachus, Varro, and Lucretius, as well as other poets in lesser degree, is evident in the poem. Virgil weaves together his diverse materials into a stunning creation that has been compared by many to a musical composition. Masterfully balancing the somber and the joyous, he evokes a love of the land that has seldom, if ever, been matched. Italy emerges as the "Saturnian land," fertile and varied in its produce, the beautiful land over which Saturnus ruled during the golden age. The horror of disease, embodied in the ravages of a plague, is relieved by the picture of the light and joyous bees, whose cultivation is said to have resulted from the tragedy of Orpheus and Eurydice. (Virgil's poem is the classic formulation of the details of this myth.) It ends with Aristaeus appeasing the offended deities and in the process discovering the art of beekeeping. The poem exhibits the highest artistic perfection to be found in Latin poetry, and its publication confirmed Virgil's position as the foremost poet of the age.
Virgil devoted his last ten years to the composition of the Aeneid, a mythological epic in 12 books describing the seven-year wanderings of the hero Aeneas from the fall of Troy to his military victory in Italy. Aeneas escaped from Troy carrying his aged father on his shoulders and leading his young son Ascanius by the hand. He assembled a fleet and sailed the eastern Mediterranean Sea with the surviving Trojans to Thrace, Crete, Epirus, and Sicily before being shipwrecked on the coast of Africa. Here Dido, queen of Carthage, fell in love with Aeneas and was driven to suicide on his subsequent departure. After landing at the mouth of the Tiber River in Italy, Aeneas killed Turnus, king of the Rutulians, in a war for the hand of Lavinia, princess of Latium. According to Virgil, the Romans were directly descended from Ascanius, the founder of Alba Longa, mother city of Rome.
The Aeneid's style and treatment are derived from the ancient Greek epics attributed to Homer, the Iliad and the Odyssey. Virgil also was influenced in part by the epic poem Argonautica by Greek poet Apollonius of Rhodes and by the Annales of Roman poet Quintus Ennius, who was the first to introduce dactylic hexameter into Latin epic verse. In the Aeneid, Virgil developed both the music and the technical precision of this meter, or rhythmic pattern, so subtly that his verse has been considered a model of literary perfection ever since.
The Aeneid is usually considered the first great literary epic, in contrast to the Iliad, which is constructed with literary artistry but remains in essence a work of oral poetry. The Aeneid, unlike the Iliad or the Bible, is not an inherited part of a national consciousness but rather a deliberate attempt by Virgil, at the request of Augustus, to glorify Rome by celebrating the supposed Trojan origin of its people and, particularly, the achievements and ideals of Rome under its new ruler. The historical and Augustan elements are especially prominent in books five through eight, the central portion of the poem. Because of its ambitious designs, the smooth beauty of its style, and its deep humanity, however, the Aeneid achieves universal scope.
The Aeneid became a classic in its own day. During the Middle Ages, philosophical meanings were read into it, and Virgil was thought to be a seer, or prophet, and a magician. Italian poet Dante Alighieri took Virgil as his guide through the first part of the Divine Comedy (completed 1321), and English poet Geoffrey Chaucer told part of the story of the Aeneid in his House of Fame (1386?) In the 16th century, English poet Edmund Spenser in The Faerie Queene (1589) was indebted to Virgil for his conception of the epic as a national poem. Virgil's style and technique of versification influenced English poets John Milton, in the 17th century, and Alfred, Lord Tennyson, in the 19th century, who called Virgil's work, his art of cumulative imagery, his use of language, and the music of his hexameters "the stateliest measure ever moulded by the lips of man."
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