From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Virgilius (October 15, 70 BC – September 21, 19 BC), known in English as Virgil or Vergil, was a classical Roman poet, the author of the Eclogues, the Georgics and the substantially completed Aeneid, the last being an epic poem of twelve books that became the Roman Empire's national epic. A fictional depiction of Virgil was Dante Alighieri's guide through hell and purgatory in Dante's epic poem The Divine Comedy.
Later views of Virgil and reception
The works of Virgil almost from the moment of their publication revolutionized Latin poetry. The Eclogues, Georgics, and above all the Aeneid became standard texts in school curricula with which all educated Romans were familiar. Poets, following Virgil often refer intertextually to his works to generate meaning in their own poetry. The Augustan poet Ovid parodies the opening lines of the Aeneid in Am. 1.1.1-2, and his summary of the Aeneas story in Book 14 of the Metamorphoses, the so-called "mini-Aeneid", has been viewed as a particularly important example of post-Virgilian response to the epic genre. Lucan's epic, the Bellum Civile has been considered an anti-Virgilian epic, disposing with the divine mechanism, treating historical events, and diverging drastically from Virgilian epic practice. The Flavian poet Statius in his 12 book epic Thebaid engages closely with the poetry of Virgil; in his epilogue he advises his poem not to "rival the divine Aeneid, but follow afar and ever venerate its footsteps." In Silius Italicus, Virgil finds one of his most ardent admirers. With almost every line of his epic Punica Silius references Virgil. Indeed, Silius is known to have bought Virgil's tomb and worshipped the poet. Partially as a result of his so-called "Messianic" Fourth Eclogue—widely interpreted at the time to have predicted the birth of Jesus Christ -- Virgil was in later antiquity imputed to have the magical abilities of a seer; the sortes Virgilianae, the process of using Virgil's poetry as a tool of divination, is found in the time of Hadrian, and continued into the Middle Ages. In a similar vein Macrobius in the Saturnalia credits the work of Virgil as the embodiment of human knowledge and experience, mirroring the Greek conception of Homer. Virgil also found commentators in antiquity. Servius, a commentator of the 4th century AD based his work on the commentary of Donatus. Servius' commentary provides us with a great deal of information about Virgil's life, sources, and references, however many modern scholars find the variable quality of his work and the often simplistic interpretations frustrating.
Late antiquity and Middle Ages
Even as the Western Roman empire collapsed, literate men acknowledged that the Christianized Virgil was a master poet. Gregory of Tours read Virgil, whom he quotes in several places, along with some other Latin poets, though he cautions that "we ought not to relate their lying fables, lest we fall under sentence of eternal death."
The Aeneid remained the central Latin literary text of the Middle Ages and retained its status as the grand epic of the Latin peoples, and of those who considered themselves to be of Roman provenance, such as the English. It also held religious importance as it describes the founding of the Holy City.
Virgil's fourth Eclogue was often seen as a prophecy of the coming of the Christ. It has been argued that this originated in a need on the part of medieval scholars to reconcile Virgil's non-Christian background with the high regard in which they held his works, who thus made him a prophet of sorts. This view is defended by a few scholars today, notably Richard Thomas (see below, under links). Cicero and other classical writers too were declared Christian due to similarities in moral thinking to Christianity.
Dante made Virgil his guide in Hell and the greater part of Purgatory in The Divine Comedy. Dante also mentions Virgil in De vulgari eloquentia, along with Ovid, Lucan and Statius, as one of the four regulati poetae (ii, vi, 7).
Mysticism and hidden meanings
Also during the Middle Ages, as Virgil was developed into a kind of magus, manuscripts of the Aeneid were used for divinatory bibliomancy, the Sortes Virgilianae (Virgilian lottery), in which a line would be selected at random and interpreted in the context of a current situation (Compare the ancient Chinese I Ching). The Old Testament was sometimes used for similar arcane purposes.
In some legends, such as Virgilius the Sorcerer, the powers attributed to Virgil were far more extensive.
The structure known as "Virgil's tomb" is found at the entrance of an ancient Roman tunnel (also known as "grotta vecchia") in the Parco di Virgilio in Piedigrotta, a district two miles from old Naples, near the Mergellina harbor, on the road heading north along the coast to Pozzuoli. (The site called Parco Virgiliano is some distance further west along the coast.) While Virgil was already the object of literary admiration and veneration before his death, in the following centuries his name became associated with miraculous powers, his tomb the destination of pilgrimages and veneration. The poet himself was said to have created the cave with the fierce power of his intense gaze.
It is said that the Chiesa della Santa Maria di Piedigrotta was erected by Church authorities to neutralize this adoration and "Christianize" the site. The tomb, however, is a tourist attraction, and still sports a tripod burner originally dedicated to Apollo, although the tripod is not original to the site.
Personality and physical appearance
Virgil was tall, olive-skinned, of sturdy build and of rustic appearance. He had a weak constitution: he suffered from stomach pains, sore throat, and headache, and it was not uncommon to see him spit out blood. Moderate in drinking and eating, he had inclinations toward boys, among whom he loved in particular Cebetes and Alexander, two learned Greek slaves. This inclination is both attested in the Eclogues (II) and in an epigram of the Catalepton (VII) addressed to Varus where the poet says:
Without deception clearly say,
I'm hanged if 'tis untruly put,
That lad has ruined me.
Howe'er, if thy commands forbid
Me speaking out of what he did,
Of course, I won't declare it, but--
That boy has ruined me. (Translation by Joseph J. Mooney)
He was unable to hate or hurt anyone and was so shy that he fled from his admirers by taking shelter in the nearest house he could find. In talking in public he often stumbled over his words giving the impression of being rough and uneducated. According to Varus he wrote very few verses per day. He loved glory, only inasmuch as it was a poet's duty; he was not vain, and did not show off. He avoided the company of aristocrats and high-ranked people, and dressed in a simple manner, like common people.
Virgil's name in English
In the Late Empire and Middle Ages Vergilius was spelled Virgilius. Two explanations are commonly given for this alteration. One deduces a false etymology associated with the word virgo ("maiden" in Latin) due to Virgil's excessive, "maiden"-like (parthenías or παρθενίας in Greek), modesty. Alternatively, some argue that Vergilius was altered to Virgilius by analogy with the Latin virga ("wand") due to the magical or prophetic powers attributed to Virgil in the Middle Ages (this explanation is found in only a handful of manuscripts, however, and was probably not widespread). In Norman schools (following the French practice), the habit was to anglicize Latin names by dropping their Latin endings, hence Virgil. In the 19th century, some German-trained classicists in the United States suggested modification to Vergil, as it is closer to his original name, and is also the traditional German spelling. Modern usage permits both, though the Oxford guide to style recommends Vergilius to avoid confusion with the 8th-century grammarian Virgilius Maro Grammaticus. Some post-Renaissance writers liked to affect the sobriquet "The Swan of Mantua".
Famous quotations from Virgil
"Omnia vincit amor " "Love conquers all" (Ecl.10.69)
"Arma virumque cano " "I sing of arms and a man" (Aen.1.1)
"Urbs antiqua fuit" "There was an ancient city" (Aen.1.12)
"Timeo Danaos et dona ferentis" "I fear the Greeks, even when bearing gifts" (Aen.2.49)
"Facilis descensus Averni" "Easy is the descent to Hell" (Aen.6.126)
"Audentes fortuna iuvat" "Fortune favors the bold" (Aen.10.284)