October 15, 70 B.C.E. - 19 B.C.E. Publius Vergilius Maro, commonly known as "Vergil" or "Virgil", Latin poet, is the author of the Eclogues, the Georgics, and the Aeneid, a narrative poem in twelve books that deserves to be called the Roman Empire's national epic. Born in the village of Andes (modern Pietole?), near Mantua in Cisalpine Gaul (Gaul "this side," i.e., south of the Alps, present northern Italy), Vergil received his earliest schooling at Cremona and Milan. He then went to Rome to study rhetoric, medicine, and astronomy, which he soon abandoned for philosophy. In this period, while he was in the school of Siro the Epicurean, Vergil began writing poetry. A group of minor poems attributed to the youthful Vergil survive but most are spurious. One, the Catalepton (bagatelles?), consists of fourteen little poems, some of which may be Vergil's, and another, a short narrative poem titled the Culex (the mosquito), was attributed to Vergil as early as the first century C.E.
In 42 B.C.E., after the defeat of Julius Caesar's assassins, Brutus and Cassius, the demobilized soldiers of the victors were settled on expropriated land and Vergil's estate near Mantua was confiscated. However, the first of the Eclogues, written around 42 B.C.E., is taken as evidence that Octavian restored the estate, for it tells how "Tityrus" recovered his land through Octavian’s intervention and "Tityrus" is usually identified as Vergil himself. Vergil soon became part of the circle of Maecenas, Octavian's capable agent of affairs who sought to counter sympathy for Marc Antony among the leading families by rallying Roman literary figures to Octavian's side. After the Eclogues were completed, Vergil spent the years 37 - 29 B.C.E. on the Georgics ("On Farming"), which was written in honor of Maecenas. But Octavian, who had defeated Antony at the Battle of Actium in 31 B.C.E. and two years later had the title "Augustus" given him by the Roman senate, was already pressing Vergil to write an epic in praise of his regime.
Vergil responded with the Aeneid, which took up his last ten years. The first six books of the epic tell how the Trojan hero Aeneas escapes from the sack of Troy and makes his way to Italy. On the voyage, a storm drives him on to the coast of Carthage where the queen, Dido, welcomes him and before long falls deeply in love. But Jupiter recalls Aeneas to his duty and he slips away from Carthage, leaving Dido to commit suicide but not before swearing vengeance. On reaching Cumae, in Italy, Aeneas consults the Cumaean Sibyl, who conducts him through the Underworld and reveals his destiny to him. Aeneas is reborn as the creator of imperial Rome.
The first six books are modeled on Homer's Odyssey, but the last six are the Latin answer to the Iliad. Aeneas is betrothed to Lavinia, daughter of king Latinus, but Lavinia had already been promised to Turnus, the king of the Rutulians who is roused to war by the Fury, Allecto. The Aeneid ends with a single combat between Aeneas and Turnus, whom Aeneas defeats and kills, spurning his plea for mercy.
Vergil died with the epic unfinished. Augustus ordered Vergil's literary executors, Varius and Tucca, to disregard Vergil's own wish that the poem be destroyed and to publish it with as few editorial changes as possible. Incomplete or not, the Aeneid was immediately recognized as a masterpiece. It proclaimed the imperial mission of the Roman Empire but at the same time could pity Rome's victims and feel their grief. Dido and Turnus, who are both casualties of Rome's destiny, are more attractive figures than Aeneas, whose single-minded devotion to his goal may seem almost repellent to the modern reader.
In the medieval period, Vergil was considered a wizard and, at the same time, a herald of Christianity, for his Eclogue 4 prophesied the birth of a boy in terms reminiscent of Christ's nativity. The poem may refer to the pregnancy of Octavian’s wife Scribonia, who in fact gave birth to a girl. Dante made Vergil his guide in his Divine Comedy. He is still considered the greatest of the Latin poets.