History records that Publius Vergilius Maro, better known as Vergil (or Virgil), was born in 70 BCE. Scholars argue about his place of birth and his early education, but legend has it that he was born the son of a farmer in Northern Italy, which was then known as Cisalpine Gaul ("Gaul, on this side of the Alps"). Despite a relatively lowly birth, he was well-educated, ending his education in Rome where, after dabbling briefly with other studies, he focused on philosophy.
Vergil lived during one of the most turbulent times in history. He was ten years old when the First Triumvirate (Julius Caesar, Pompey and Crassus) was formed, 17 when it collapsed, and 26 when Caesar was assassinated in 44 BCE. He fled south to Naples during the civil war that followed Caesar's assassination. His writings during that time brought him notoriety, resulting in his sponsorship by Octavian (Augustus Caesar), the eventual emperor of Rome.
He wrote The Aeneid during the last ten years of his 49-year life, in part to legitimize Augustus's reign. Vergil repeatedly foreshadows the reign of Augustus in his epic, tying the creation of Rome to Aeneas. Augustus could trace his lineage back to Aeneas, thus giving him the right to rule.
Political or not, The Aeneid is a remarkable piece of literature. Although Aeneas first appears in Homer's The Iliad, numerous legends about him existed before Homer's time (c. 8th century BCE). Vergil was the first to combine all the tales about Aeneas into one coherent text. It comprises of twelve books split into two sections. The first six books deal with Aeneas's escape from Troy and journey to Italy, and includes his romantic interlude with Dido, Queen of Carthage. The second six books narrate his war against Turnus and the Latins.
There's some debate as to whether or not The Aeneid is a completed work. Several lines appear structurally incomplete, and the story ends abruptly with Aeneas killing his rival for Lavinia's hand. Vergil evidently wasn't happy with it as he ordered it burned on his death. Fortunately for posterity, Augustus intervened.
"The first time I really read the Aeneid was in my seventies, when I got enough Latin into my head at last to read it in Latin. Vergil is truly untranslatable; his poetry is the music of his language, and it gets lost in any other. Reading it at last, hearing that incredible voice, was a tremendous joy. And Lavinia's voice and her story came to me out of that joy. A gift from a great giver." - Ursula Le Guin.
This article was originally published in May 2008, and has been updated for the
April 2009 paperback release.
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