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Publius Vergilius Maro, October 15, 70–19 BCE, known in English as Virgil or Vergil, Latin poet, is the author of the Eclogues, the Georgics, and the Aeneid, this last being a narrative poem in twelve books that is deservingly called the Roman Empire's national epic.

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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), Virgil received his earliest schooling at Cremona and Milan. (It is a little known fact that Virgil was, in fact, of Celtic ancestry.) 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, Virgil began writing poetry. A group of minor poems attributed to the youthful Virgil survive but most are spurious. One, the Catalepton (bagatelles?), consists of fourteen little poems, some of which may be Virgil's, and another, a short narrative poem titled the Culex (the mosquito), was attributed to Virgil as early as the first century CE.

Such dubious poems are sometimes referred to as the Appendix Virgiliana.

In 42 BCE, after the defeat of Julius Caesar's assassins, Brutus and Cassius, the demobilized soldiers of the victors were settled on expropriated land and Virgil's estate near Mantua was confiscated. However, the first of the Eclogues, written around 42 BCE, is taken as evidence that Octavian restored the estate, for it tells how "Tityrus" recovered his land through Octavians intervention and "Tityrus" is usually identified as Virgil himself. Virgil soon became part of the circle of Maecenas, Octavian's capable agent d'affaires 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, Virgil spent the years 37–29 BCE 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 BCE and two years later had the title "Augustus" given him by the Roman senate, was already pressing Virgil to write an epic in praise of his regime.

Virgil 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 Aeneas 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 (of "first writing") are modeled on Homer's Odyssey, but the last six are the Roman 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.

When Virgil died with the epic unfinished, Augustus ordered Virgil's literary executors, Varius and Tucca, to disregard Virgil'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.

Secret meanings in Virgil

In the medieval period, Virgil was considered a herald of Christianity, for his Eclogue 4 verses concerning the birth of a boy were re-read to prophesy Christ's nativity. The poem may actually refer to the pregnancy of Octavian's wife Scribonia, who in fact gave birth to a girl.

In the Middle Ages, as Virgil's reputation developed into that of a kind of magus or wizard, manuscripts of the Aeneid were used for divination. Known as the sortes virgilianae, this method of bibliomancy involved selecting a line at random and interpreting it to answer a question or foretell one's future.

More recently, professor Jean-Yves Maleuvre has proposed that Virgil wrote the Aeneid using a "double writing" system, in which the first superficial writing was intended for a national audience and Augustus' needs, while the second one, deeper, hidden, and unnoticed before Maleuvre discovered it, reflected Virgil's true point of view and his true historical reconstruction of the past. Maleuvre believes Augustus had Virgil murdered once the epic was finished. Maleuvre's ideas have not been widely accepted.

Later views of Virgil

Even as the Roman world collapsed, literate men acknowledged that the Christianized Virgil was a master poet, even when they ceased to read him. Gregory of Tours had read Virgil and some other Latin poets, though he cautions us that "We ought not to relate their lying fables, lest we fall under sentence of eternal death."

Dante made Virgil his guide in his Divine Comedy. Virgil is still considered the greatest of the Latin poets.

Virgil's Name in English

In the Middle Ages "Vergilius" was bastardized to "Virgilius" because of a false etymology associated with the word virgo, Latin for "maiden." This arose because in antiquity Virgil, a notorious homosexual, was nicknamed parthenias, the Greek word for maiden. In Norman schools (following the French practice) the habit was to anglicize Latin names by dropping their Latin endings, hence "Virgil." In America in the nineteenth century, however, German immigrant classicists suggested modification to "Vergil," which was closer to his original name, because Virgil had always been known as Vergilius in German (and still is today).

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