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Publius Vergilius Maro, more commonly referred to as Vergil or Virgil, was born on October 15, 70 B.C., in Andes, a region of northern Italy near Mantua. The name "Virgil" stems from the Latin virga, or "wand"; poets were often thought to be gifted with mystical abilities and supernatural powers. Legend has it that when Virgil was in the womb, his mother dreamed that she gave birth to a laurel branch that, once planted, sprung immediately from the earth, and within moments became a tree heavily laden with fruit and flowers. The very next day, Virgil's mother was walking along a dirt path when she suddenly flung herself into a ditch and then delivered such an extraordinarily mild-mannered child that all who encountered him remarked that he was surely destined for greatness.
Virgil was the eldest of three brothers; his brother Silo died during birth, and his brother Flaccus lived only into young adulthood. Virgil was an agreeable man, if not a healthy one, and was somewhat ascetic in his personal habits, notoriously picky about food and wine. Many historians believe that Virgil was homosexual, and he had an especially close relationship with a man named Alexander, whom he wrote about in the guise of "Alexis".
Virgil's parents were relatively well-to-do farm owners with a considerable amount of property to their name, and they provided their son with an education befitting his thirst for knowledge. Virgil studied in Cremona, Milan and Rome, and showed a particular interest in mathematics and medicine. In 54 B.C., he attended the Academy of Epidius, in Rome, where he studied law and rhetoric. One of his classmates, Octavian, would eventually become the Emperor Augustus and Virgil's greatest patron. When he finished at the Academy of Epidius, Virgil argued his first law case, but soon gave up the study of law and turned to philosophy.
The civil disturbances created when Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon River in 49 B.C. forced Virgil to flee the city. He escaped to Naples, where he studied with the Epicurean philosopher Siro and began his career as a poet.
Although his influence in the canon of poetry is uncontestable and he enjoyed the benefits of Emperor Augustus's patronage, Virgil was not a prolific writer. His body of work consists of the ten Eclogues (or Bucolics), which took him approximately five years to write, the four Georgics, which took seven years, and the Aeneid, which he worked on for eleven years and still considered unfinished at the time of his death. The Eclogues generally focus on the daily lives of shepherds and shepherdesses, and they take place in idyllic country settings. The Bucolics center on agricultural life and the beauty of living in the company of nature.
Virgil's renown as a writer was so great that even when he had only just begun working on the Aeneid, rumors of the text prompted Sextus Propertius to prophesy that "Something greater than the Iliad is born." Virgil intended the Aeneid to be a counterpart to Homer's Odyssey and Iliad - he hoped to immortalize the story of the Romans much as Homer had done for the Greeks.
Virgil died in 19 B.C. and very nearly took the Aeneid with him to the grave. Apparently unsatisfied with the manuscript, he dictated in his will that it be destroyed, but Augustus, to the immense benefit of subsequent generations of scholars and literary enthusiasts, turned it over to Virgil's friends Tucca and Varius. The two men gave the manuscript a light polish, adding nothing to the text and adjusting only obvious errors. The Aeneid, Virgil's masterpiece and one of the most influential epic poems in history, accorded him postmortem fame even more considerable than that which he had enjoyed during his lifetime. Indeed, in the years following his death Virgil acquired a mystical, almost godlike persona; Dante even selected him as the guide through the Underworld in the Inferno.
On his deathbed, Virgil composed the following epitaph, which was inscribed on his tombstone in Naples: Mantua me genuit; Calabri rapuere; tenet nunc Parthenope; cecini pascua, rura, duces ("Mantua gave me birth; Calabria took me away; and now Naples holds me; I sang of pastures, farms, leaders"). These words refer to Virgil's remarkable works: in his poems, he serves as the voice of Romans past and present, immortalizing the men, both powerful and pedestrian, who created one of the greatest empires of all time.