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Epic Poet Virgil: Greatest of Roman Poets

by Charles F. (Charles Francis) Horne

Next to Homer on the roll of the world's epic poets stands the name of Virgil. Acknowledged by all as the greatest of Roman poets, he entered, as no other Roman writer did, into Christian history and mediæval legend. Constantine, the first Christian emperor, professed to have been converted by the perusal of one of Virgil's "Eclogues," and Dante owned him as his master and model, and his guide through all the circles of the other world, while Italian tradition still regards him a great necromancer, a prophet, and a worker of miracles. From the date of his death till to-day, in every country, his works have been among the commonest of school-books, and editions, commentaries and translations are countless.

Publius Vergilius Maro—for the manuscripts and inscriptions of antiquity spell his name Vergilius, not Virgilius, as is customary—was born near the present city of Mantua, in Upper Italy, in the year 70 B.C., at a little village called Andes, which has been identified with the modern Italian hamlet of Pietola. At the time of his birth this region was not included in the term "Italy," but was a part of Cisalpine Gaul, where the inhabitants did not obtain Roman citizenship till the year B.C. 49. Thus the writer whose greatest work is devoted to immortalizing the glories of Rome and the deeds of its founder, was not a Roman by birth, and was over twenty before he became a citizen.

His father seems to have been in possession of a small property at Andes which he cultivated himself, and where the poet acquired his love for nature, and the intimate practical acquaintance with farm labors and farm management, which he used so effectively in his most carefully polished work, his "Georgics." His first education was received at the town of Cremona, and the larger city of Milan, and he was at the former place in his sixteenth year on the day when the poet Lucretius died.

Greek in those days was not only the language of poetry and philosophy, but the language of polite society and commercial usage. It was the common medium of communication throughout the Roman world, and a knowledge of it was indispensable. Hence, after studying his native language in Northern Italy, Virgil was sent to Naples, a city founded by Greeks, and possessing a large Greek population. Here he studied under Parthenius for some time, and then proceeded to Rome, where he had as his instructor, Syron, a member of the Epicurean school, of whose doctrines Virgil's poems bear some traces.

Rome, however, offered no career to a youth who was not yet a citizen, and Virgil seems to have returned to his paternal farm, and there probably he composed some of his smaller pieces, which bear marks of juvenile taste. Among those that have been assigned to this early part of his life, is one of considerable interest to Americans, for in it occurs our national motto, "E pluribus unum." The short poem—it consists of only one hundred and twenty-three lines—describes how a negro serving-woman makes a dish calledMoretum, a kind of salad, in which various herbs are blended with oil and vinegar, till "out of many one united whole" is produced. To the same period critics have assigned his poem on a "Mosquito," and some epigrams in various metres. The home in the country had, however, soon to experience, like thousands of others, a sad change. The battle of Philippi took place, and Marc Antony and Octavius Cæsar, the future emperor, known to later ages as Augustus, were masters of the world. We have no hints that Virgil had been, like Horace, engaged in the civil war in a military or any other capacity, or that his father had taken any part in the struggle, but the country in which his property lay was marked out for confiscation. The city of Cremona had strongly sympathized with the cause of Brutus and the republic, and in consequence, the doctrine that "to the victors belong the spoils," having a very practical application in those days, its territory was seized and divided among the victorious soldiers, and with it was taken part of the territory of its neighbor, Mantua, including Virgil's little farm. According to report the new occupier was an old soldier, named Claudius, and it was added that by the advice of Asinius Pollio, the governor of the province, Virgil applied to the young Octavius for restitution of the property. The request was granted, and Virgil, in gratitude, wrote his first "Eclogue," to commemorate the generosity of the emperor. These facts, if at all true, indicate that the young poet had already become favorably known to men of high position and great influence. Pollio was eminent not only as a soldier and statesman who played an important part in politics, but as an orator, a poet, and an historian, and above all as an encourager of literature. It was a fortunate day when a governor of such power to aid, and such taste to recognize talent, discovered the young poet of Andes, and saved him from a life of struggling poverty. Virgil's health was always feeble, and his temper seems to have been rather melancholy; he had had little experience of life except in his remote country town, and would, we may plausibly conjecture, have succumbed in a contest from which the more worldly-wise Horace emerged in triumph.

Pollio remained a steadfast friend, and Augustus and Mæcenas took him under their protection. He was on terms of close intimacy with the latter, and introduced Horace to that great minister and patron of letters. The two poets were close friends, and Horace mentions Virgil as being in the party which accompanied Mæcenas from Rome to Brundisium about the year 41 B.C. Between 41 B.C. and 37 B.C., he composed, as already stated, his "Eclogues" or "Bucolics." In these idylls we find many simple and natural touches, great beauty of metre and language, and numerous allusions to the persons and circumstances of the time. The fourth of these ten short poems is dedicated to Pollio, and is to be noted as the one quoted by Constantine as leading to his conversion to Christianity. "It is bucolic only in name, it is allegorical," writes George Long, "mystical, half historical, and prophetical, enigmatical, anything in fact but bucolic." The best-known imitation of his idyll is Pope's "Messiah." Pleasing as all these poems are, they do not represent rural life in Italy, they are in most part but echoes of Theocritus.

It is to the suggestion of Mæcenas that we owe Virgil's most perfect poem, his "Georgics," which he commenced after the publication of the "Bucolics." To suppose these four books of verses on soils, fruit-trees, horses and cattle, and finally on bees, as a practical treatise to guide and instruct the farmer, is absurd. Few farmers have time or inclination to read so elaborate a work. It is probable that Mæcenas, while recognizing the talent of the "Bucolics," saw likewise the unreality of their pictures of life, and gave him the subject of the "Georgics" as being in the same line as that the poet seemed to have chosen for himself, and yet as less liable to lead to imitations and pilferings from Greek originals. In fact there was no work that he could follow. In this work we find great improvement in both taste and versification, and the rather uninviting subject is treated and embellished in a way that makes his fame rest in great part on the poem. The fourth book, especially, with its episode of Orpheus and Eurydice will live forever for its plaintive tenderness. The work was completed at Naples, after the battle of Actium, 31 B.C., while Augustus was in the East.

In B.C. 27 the emperor was in Spain, and thence he addressed a request to let him have some monument of his poetical talent, to celebrate the emperor's name as he had done that of Mæcenas. Virgil replied in a brief letter, saying, "As regards my 'Æneas,' if it were worth your listening to, I would willingly send it. But so vast is the undertaking that I almost appear to myself to have commenced it from some defect in understanding; especially since, as you know, other and far more important studies are needed for such a work." In the year B.C. 24, we learn from the poet Propertius, that Virgil was then busy at the task, and in all probability the former may have heard it read by its author. The old Latin commentators preserve several striking notices of Virgil's habit of reading or reciting his poems, both while he was composing them and after they were completed, and especially of the remarkable beauty and charm of the poet's rendering of his own words and its powerful effect upon his hearers. "He read," says Suetonius, "at once with sweetness and with a wonderful fascination;" and Seneca had a story of the poet Julius Montanus saying that he himself would attempt to steal something from Virgil if he could first borrow his voice, his elocution, and his dramatic power in reading; for the very same lines, said he, which when the author himself read them sounded well, without him were empty and dumb. He read to Augustus the whole of his "Georgics," and on another occasion three books of the "Æneid," the second, the fourth, and the sixth, the last with an effect upon Octavia not to be forgotten, for she was present at the reading, and at those great lines about her own son and his premature death, which begin "Tu Marcellus cris," it is said that she fainted away and was with difficulty recovered. She rewarded the poet munificently for this tribute to her son's memory. For three years longer he worked steadily on the poem, and in B.C. 19 he resolved to go to Greece and devote three entire years to polishing and finishing the work. He got as far as Athens, where he met Augustus returning from the East, and determined to go back to Italy in his company. He fell ill, however, during a visit to Megara, the voyage between Greece and Italy did not improve his health and he died a few days after landing at Brundisium, in the year B.C. 19. His body was transferred to Naples, and he was buried near the city at Puteoli. By his will he left some property to his friends Varius and Nicca, with the injunction that they should burn the unfinished epic. The injunction was never carried out, by the express command of the emperor, who directed Varius to publish the poem without any additions of any kind. An order carefully executed, for as the "Æneid" stands there are numerous imperfect lines.

This epic poem on the foundation of Rome by a colony from Troy is based on an old Latin tradition, and is modelled on the form of the poems of Homer. The first six books remind the student of the adventures of Ulysses in the "Odyssey," while the last six books, recounting the contest of the Trojan settlers under Æneas with the native inhabitants under their King Latinus, follow the style of the battle-pieces of the "Iliad." The most striking and original part of the plan of the poem is the introduction of Carthage and the Carthaginian queen, on whose coasts Æneas, in defiance of all chronology, is described as suffering shipwreck. The historic conflict between Rome and Carthage, when Hannibal and his cavalry rode from one end of Italy to another, and encamped under the walls of Rome itself, left an indelible impression on the imagination of the Romans. The war with Carthage was to them all that the Arab invasion was to Spain, or the Saracen hordes to Eastern Europe. It was the first great struggle for empire in times of which history holds record, between the East and the West, between the Semitic and Aryan races, and Virgil, with consummate skill, took the opportunity of predicting the future rivalry between Rome and Carthage, and the ultimate triumph of the former power. All through the poem there are allusions to the history of Rome, and to the descent of the Julian house from the great Trojan hero. The hero Æneas, himself, is rather an insipid character, but, on the other hand, Dido is painted with great force, truth, and tenderness. The visit to Carthage gives occasion for the narrative of the fall of Troy in the second and third books, while the sixth book, describing the landing in Italy and the hero's descent to the infernal regions, has been regarded as containing the esoteric teaching of the ancient mysteries, and has influenced deeply the belief of the Christian world. Virgil lived, it may be said, at the parting of the ways. The old gods, who were goodly and glad, had become discredited; the world was no longer young, no longer fresh and fair and hopeful; it had passed through ages of war and misery, it was harassed by doubt, the general feeling was what we would now call pessimistic, and a resigned melancholy, a keen sense of there being something wrong in the universe, can be felt in every line of Virgil, and there are tears in his voice.

In person Virgil was tall, his complexion dark, and his appearance that of a rustic. He was modest, retiring, loyal to his friends. The liberality of Mæcenas and Augustus had enriched him, and he left a considerable property and a house on the Esquiline Hill. He had troops of friends, all the accomplished men of the day; he was quite free from jealousy and envy, and of amiable temper. No one speaks of him except in terms of affection and esteem. He used his wealth liberally, supporting his parents generously, and his father, who became blind in his old age, lived long enough to hear of his son's fame and feel the effects of his prosperity.

Book: Reflection on the Important Things