Today is the birthday of the poet Virgil (books by this author), born Publius Vergilius Maro near Mantua, Italy (70 BC). His father was a peasant farmworker who raised his own social status by marrying his boss’s daughter. Virgil was sent to Milan, Rome, and Naples for his education in philosophy and rhetoric. He planned to become a lawyer, but he was too shy to speak in public. He also found that he missed the rural Italian countryside, so he returned to the family farm and wrote poetry.
He lived at a time of political instability and civil wars, and he was horrified in 41 BC when his land was confiscated by the government and given to retiring Roman soldiers. He wrote his first collection of poems, known as the Ecologues (published between 42 and 37 BC), about the local farmers and shepherds and the rural landscape. His work became extremely popular because it reminded everyone of a simple time before a series of civil wars.
One of the effects of all the civil wars was that many of the Roman farmers had been forced into the military and their farms had fallen into neglect. By the time the wars were over, few people still lived in rural Italy, and many had forgotten the art of farming. Because of his popularity as a poet, the government asked Virgil to write a poem that would persuade Romans who had left the countryside to return home and work the land again. The result was four volumes of poems known as The Georgics, which offer instruction in grain production, the cultivation of trees, animal husbandry, and beekeeping. The poems were intended to instruct farmers; they were also entertaining and full of beautiful descriptions of nature.
Virgil’s work so impressed the emperor Augustus that Virgil was given two villas to live in and a generous stipend to live on for the rest of his days. With the civil wars over, Rome had entered one of its first periods of stability and peace, and Virgil set out to write an epic poem about the country that could give all Romans national pride. He called his poem The Aeneid. It tells the story of Aeneas, one of the soldiers in the Trojan War, traveling home from Troy to found a new city that would become Rome.
Virgil wrote The Aeneid first in prose and then painstakingly transformed it into metered poetry. He found the work extremely difficult. At one point, Augustus inquired about the progress of the poem, and Virgil responded that he must have been mad to attempt the task. After working on it for 11 years, Virgil took a trip to Greece so that he could add specific details to one of the sections of the poem. On the voyage, he caught a fever. He returned to Italy, but it was too late. He died before making the final revisions to his poem.
His final request before his death was that his poem should be burned, since it was imperfect, but the emperor Augustus ordered that the poem be preserved and published — to great acclaim. The work became the basis of standard curriculum in Roman schools, which ensured the preservation of more of his poems than any other classical poet. The Aeneid is now considered the greatest work of literature produced by the Roman civilization.