Virgil, Ancient Roman Master Poet

From Imperial Exile!

Vergilius Romanus - 5th Century Illuminated Manuscript of Aeneid, Georgics, and Some Eclogues.
Vergilius Romanus - 5th Century Illuminated Manuscript of Aeneid, Georgics, and Some Eclogues. Public Domain. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Perhaps the greatest poet of ancient Rome as his work has come down to us was Publius Vergilius Maro, a.k.a. Virgil or Vergil (70 - 19 B.C.)


Based on his actual name, Vergilius, we should call Virgil "Vergil," following the standard English practice of dropping the Latin ending: Vergilius - "ius" ending = Vergil. The spelling of his name as "Virgil" has a long tradition, but "Vergil" is also common.

Virgil was probably born in the Po Valley in northern Italy in 70 B.C., in part of Cisalpine Gaul. Where specifically? That comes from perhaps the earliest account of his life came from Aelius Donatus's Life of Virgil, a fourth-century A.D. commentary on the great poet's life and times. According to Donatus, "Publius Vergilius Maro was a Mantuan of humble parents," and when his mother was pregnant with him, she had auspicious dreams, indicating her baby was going to go on to do big things.

Virgil grew up in Cremona until age fifteen, when he went to Milan.There, he studied everything under the sun. Writes Donatus, "There, although he labored earnestly at literature, Greek as well as Latin, he also gave himself to medicine and mathematics, with all zeal and diligence."

Literary Loves

Eventually, Virgil ended up in Rome - perhaps at about age seventeen - and was so skilled at curing horses that he soon became a pal of the eventual Augustus's stable master.

That's probably apocryphal, as is the story that Augustus asked Virgil to discern whether his real dad was Gaius Octavius or not. According to this tale, Virgil informed the future emperor he was actually the son of a baker - or that he was a kind man who gave lots of people bread. This joke apparently pleased Augustus, leading him to favor Virgil.

During this time, Virgil fell into the circle of Maecenas, a close friend of Octavian/Augustus and a great patron of the arts. We can't be sure how the two met, but it's possible they were neighbors. A clever man and poet like Virgil would have been sure to befriend Maecenas - he even dedicated a major work, the Georgics, to the other man.

Politics and Poetry

So he got into high favor … but what did he write? Virgil is most famous for his epic , which he began 30 B.C. and was still unfinished at his death. It was a nationalistic epic chronicling the foundation of the people of what would become Rome in Italy by Aeneas, a hero and Trojan prince, a survivor of the Trojan War. Virgil did some traveling while writing the Aeneid, heading to Greece and Asia Minor to do his revisions. There, he ran into Augustus, whom he accompanied home to Rome. Fitting, considering the Aeneid is about Augustus's ancestor.

According to Virgil, Aeneas led some Trojans out of Troy and on a long trek to Italy - stopping at Carthage and meeting Dido along the way - to found the kingdom of Alba Longa. That realm yielded the mythical founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus. Thus, by composing a poem about the amazing journey of Rome's great ancestor, Virgil elevated his own country's foundation to a level of mythic proportions.


In the Aeneid, Virgil places great emphasis on Rome's "future," as it was from the P.O.V. of Aeneas and co., and in particular, Julius Caesar and his heir, Emperor Augustus. These were the best leaders-to-be, Aeneas discovers in the underworld. Propaganda? Sure. But the Aeneid isn't 100% pro-Augustus. In fact, it has quite a few shades of gray when it considers the emperor. He created the national epic that framed Rome's justification of conquests … but there is definite ambiguity about the poet's thoughts regarding the direction his city took.

While the Aeneid was Virgil's most famous work before his death in 19 B.C., he also wrote other major poems, the Eclogues (42-37 B.C.), a series of country idylls, and Georgics (37-30 B.C.), which dealt with matters related to the earth and cultivation, as well as additional, smaller poems.

 Interestingly, Virgil wanted the Aeneid burned at his death, so we're lucky to even be reading such a politically significant and beautifully written piece of poetry.

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-Edited by Carly Silver

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Your Citation
Glossary, N.S. Gill's Ancient/Classical History. "Virgil, Ancient Roman Master Poet." ThoughtCo, Aug. 9, 2016, Glossary, N.S. Gill's Ancient/Classical History. (2016, August 9). Virgil, Ancient Roman Master Poet. Retrieved from Glossary, N.S. Gill's Ancient/Classical History. "Virgil, Ancient Roman Master Poet." ThoughtCo. (accessed December 17, 2017).