Virgil Reading the Aeneid to Augustus, Octavia, and Livia

The Enigmatic and Elusive Virgil

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Born on October 15th, 70 BC, Publius Virgilius Maro or Virgil, would be regarded as one of Rome’s greatest poets. His works, preserved in the Eclogues, Georgics, and Aeneid, have helped define and shape Western civilization as a whole. Despite this, very little is known of the poet.

Tradition has it that a now lost biography of Virgil was written by his close friend and editor, Varius (74 - 14 BC). It is through later commentaries that we are able to reconstruct the original source. Although, it is evident that these commentaries seem to make assumptions based on Virgil’s poetry and allegorizing, producing their fair shares of problems.

According to this same tradition, Virgil was born in the village Andes, a part of Northern Italy near Mantua, to a humble family. Modern scholars argue the latter solely on the fact that Virgil received an extensive and expensive education; attending schools in Cremona, Mediolanum, Rome, and Naples. Shortly after considering a career in rhetoric and law, a young Virgil would instead turn his talents to poetry.

A portrait of Virgil, Louvre Museum

A portrait of Virgil, Louvre Museum ( Wikimedia Commons )

Unfortunately, Virgil would never relish in his newfound fame as a poet. Commissioned under Augustus, his incomplete and finest work, the Aeneid, would be published and well received, posthumously. On his deathbed, Virgil gave clear instructions to Varius, to destroy all copies of the epic. Obviously, this did not happen. Virgil died on September 21, 19 BC.

What made the Aeneid so special? The Aeneid records the wanderings of Aeneas, alongside his fellow Trojan refugees, from Troy to eventually colonizing Italy and uniting all of Latium. Aeneus would become the legendary forefather of Romulus and Remus and in turn, the Romans. His tale would be heralded as a national epic.

Aeneas' Flight from Troy by Federico Barocci, 1598

Aeneas' Flight from Troy by Federico Barocci, 1598 ( Wikipedia)

The Iliad alludes to Aeneas and his survival from the Trojan War, when the Trojan warrior is pitted in face to face combat with the vengeful Achilles following the loss of his dear and close friend, Patroclus, to Hector. Book 20.300-308 of the Iliad reads:

But come, let us lead him out from death, lest the son of Cronos be angry in some way if Achilles slays him; for it is fated for him to escape so that the race of Dardanus may not perish without seed and be seen no more - Dardanus whom the son of Cronos loved above all the children born to him from mortal women. For now has the son of Cronos come to hate the race of Priam; and now surely will the mighty Aeneas be king among the Trojans, and his sons’ sons who will be born in the days to come.

Traditions of Aeneas and his travels away from the Dardanelles spread throughout the Roman world. The first connection between Aeneas, his travels, and the founding of the Roman civilization can be dated back as early as the writings of 3rd century Latin poet, Naevius. It is generally believed that the works of Naevius greatly inspired Virgil during his composing of the Aeneid. Traditions such as this one among the others circulating at the time would have produced assorted legends in which Virgil wove together into a single and comprehensive narrative; of course, with artistic liberties.

It goes without saying that the Aeneid was also greatly inspired by Homer and his Iliad and Odyssey. For instance, Aeneas' love affair with Dido shows many parallels to that of Odysseus and Calypso in the Odyssey.

Dido and Aeneas by Pompeo Batoni, 1747

Dido and Aeneas by Pompeo Batoni, 1747 ( Wikimedia Commons )

The funeral games of Patroclus in Book 23 of the Iliad mirrors the competitions held by Aeneas on the anniversary of his father’s death. Aeneas’ descent into the Underworld shows many similarities to that of Odysseus and his voyage to the realm of Hades. Coincidentally, the Sybil guiding Aeneas through the Underworld would later inspire Dante Alighieri (1265 - 1321 CE) and his Divine Comedy, in which Virgil guides Dante through both the Inferno and Purgatory. The connections made between the Aeneid and the Trojan War epics do not end there.

While his works have survived the test of time and continue to entertain us, the man who wrote them continues to remain a mystery.

Featured image: Virgil Reading the Aeneid to Augustus, Octavia, and Livia ( Wikipedia)

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