PUBLIUS VERGILIUS MARO


In light of the libraries of information and criticism which have been devoted to Vergil over the ages, one pauses at the start of any brief survey, in the knowledge that there will always be more to say concerning this remarkable artist. This brief mention will recount, after the bare facts of his history, only those things which are generally left unsaid, since full accounts can be found in any reference work on Latin literature.

Born in 70 BC near Mantua to the far north of Rome, Publius Vergilius Maro was the son of a potter, or as another tradition has it, a forester and dealer in lumber. His mother was named Magia Polla, and he had a grandfather named Magus, with whom his family was not always on easy terms. (The bloody death of one Magus in the Aeneid, who did not take proper care of his family responsibilities, would seem to involve personal history in some dimension.) Educated at Cremona and Milan, Vergil soon went to Rome and became a follower of Epicurean philosophy under a teacher named Siron. By 43 BC he was back on the farm at Mantua, land confiscations drove him off by 41 BC, litigation and pleas followed, and he ended up at Rome with Siron, often frequenting Naples where he had a home by favor of Octavian, whom he knew through his patron the prime-minister Maecenas. Friendly with the rulers, companionable with Horace and other literary men, he put together the country idylls, the Eclogues, in relative peace, completed the Georgics, a poetic but realistic work on farming and the rustic life by 30 BC, and thereafter worked at the construction of the Aeneid, which he left not quite finished when he died in 19 BC at the age of fifty. So much for the facts of his life.

The early fame of the Aeneid, which was quickly incorporated into the Roman educational system as an instructional sine qua non, established Vergil as a poet of grand vision and high technical virtuosity. His literary fame has always been so great that some of the details of his personality, which Donatus recorded in the time of the Later Empire from what appear to have been authentic sources, are often passed by as insignificant. Much of this Donatan information is of an intimate personal nature, while some pertains to his work and writing habits.

The land in the Mantuan region probably has a great deal to do with Vergil's feeling about the Italian countryside. The Georgics are poetic in spirit, but they have a firm basis in the realities of farming. Their lack of bookishness may point to early experience, possibly through his father's rural employment. Since Mantua at that time was partly populated by Gauls, some have felt that Vergil may have inherited to some degree a Celtic temperament, but little can be made of this argument nowadays. Perhaps some foreign characteristic can be elicited from the un-Roman names of his mother and maternal grandfather Magus, but this is also unclear.

Vergil celebrated the birthday of his official manhood on the very day that Lucretius died, he was an avid peruser of Lucretius' work, and had planned after completion of the Aeneid to devote the rest of his life to the study of philosophy. This, coupled with his early introduction to Epicurean thought through his teacher Siron, leaves no doubt about his philosophical affiliations, which were clearly with the Epicureans. There is a widespread belief that Vergil was essentially a Stoic, but this is based on nothing more than his literary endorsement of the formal and self-sacrificing Aeneas, in preference to the loose-living and impressionable Dido. According to this view, Aeneas the hero, who was "stoical", must have been portrayed by a Stoic, while the hedonistic Dido, whom the poet treats with less sympathy, is portrayed as an Epicurean. But Stoic and Epicurean in the sense of "stoical" and "hedonistic" are not proper terms for Vergil's age, which was more concerned with the philosophical difference between these rival schools of thought. It seems wrongheaded to ignore Vergil's historically attested fascination with Epicureanism, and reassign him to the Stoic camp, solely on the basis of a literary alignment stemming from his poetry! Suffice it to mark this widespread view as deceptive and quite unnecessary.

In person Vergil was (according to Donatus who has sources of some antiquity and authority) rather dark skinned, and countrified both in appearance and in speech, so that he would have been identified as rustic and uneducated. This seems surprising, in view of the fact that at a later period Vergil's reading of his work at the court was noted as powerful in voice, moving and so carefully articulated that when afflicted with a sore throat, he still could not let Maecenas continue to read some passages for him. It seems possible that this rusticity of speech was owing not so much to a countrified pronunciation and voice timbre, as to his mode of talking and choice of words. This coincides with a very curious comment made by M. Vipsanius Agrippa, the prominent statesman and military advisor, who blamed Vergil for introducing into poetry a "new tastelessness", which came from mixing common words of daily speech in with his poetic diction. Agrippa was probably more able as a general than as a literary critic, but this comment must be based on things which he, as a contemporary observer, heard. Centuries of praise and acceptance have raised every locution of this prince of poets to such a high poetical level, that we can now find little of a popular or lower-class parlance in his work, t this may also be owing to our lack of information about slang and popular speech of the time.

Agrippa's negative judgment about use of mixed styles may not have been particularly cogent, but his note about Vergil's use of ordinary words probably contained some truth.. We may discover an artistic technique of which we are not aware if we watch for a conscious opposition of ordinary as against high-flown words in Vergil, but this is made the more difficult by our virtual ignorance of daily speech in the Augustan period. What Agrippa thought of as tasteless, was possibly an experimental technique which Vergil was developing, and if this were so, it would be important for our understanding of what Vergil was experimenting with..

Vergil was described as terribly shy, even to the point of ducking into a doorway if recognized in Naples. He was certainly gay, his nearest contact were his two friend-slaves with whom he was on intimate terms, and the only account of his being approached by a woman, admittedly under strange circumstances, ended in angry revulsion. An easy bisexual vacillation was common throughout antiquity, the kind of thing which Catullus may have toyed with on occasion; but Vergil apparently was a committed homosexual. Despite the mass of information which we have largely from the satirists, on homosexual relations, there is little that we can say with certainty about the personal and social ramifications of homosexuality in Augustan Rome. But the fact that Vergil, who frequented Naples, was called there "The Virgin" (parthenos) of Naples, is interesting since it may involve traits of carriage and personal bearing. But then again, Parthenope was the name of an ancient colony on the site of the later Naples, or "New Town", so some sort of a double pun (with meaning unbeknownst to us!) may be involved.

Vergil is said to have written out the whole of the Aeneid in prose first, he busied himself with versification later. This doesn't sound right for a poet of his stature, but then he may have been merely working from a set of notes. In any case, he worked on sections at a time, developing them and then shifting to others as the spirit moved him. He was quoted as saying that he propped up parts of the structure with timbers to hold things together until the finished sections arrived. Since Vitruvius' architectural manual was published in 28 BC, and Agrippa's Pantheon was constructed in the city of Rome in 27 BC, it does not seem farfetched to suspect that Vergil was interested in architectonic and architectural design, and probably witnessed the construction of the dome shaped Pantheon, which would have required extensive propping and bracing to support the forms for a one-piece, rim-supported concrete structure of that size. Curiously the Latin for architectural "props" is tibicines "flute players".

Vergil continually borrows names, scenes and phrases from Homer, which we understand as a part of the grand Classical tradition which runs through the centuries. But if Vergil poses himself at times in the shadow of Homer, it is always with a consistent reorientation of stance. As Poeschl pointed out long ago, whereas Homer is explicit, clear and decisive, Vergil enjoys being implicit, interior, and mysterious. But when this is done in Homer's obvious shadow, it makes the process even more mysterious. And it is a special development of Vergil's art to somehow be able to say one thing, yet by the tone and form of the words, imply the opposite, and thus write the realer meaning somewhere amongst the words and in-between the lines. Yet this is all takes place in a world which is styled after Homer's epic conventions, but strangely shows the stamp of Vergil's personal signature.

Even stranger is the criticism which Donatus notes, that various compilations were made of the lines "lifted" from Homer, and it was held against Vergil that he was stealing lines outright. Apparently the Romans resented what we easily accept as "". To this criticism Vergil is quoted as answering humorously, but with probably more than a grain of truth: "Taking a line from Homer is like stealing Heracles' club in difficulty..... you should try it some time".

Of course every age sees the past in a different light. By the Middle Ages, Vergil was somehow pictured as a magician and necromancer. Equally curious is Dante's use of Vergil as his pre-Christian guide through his artistic and intellectual world, probably based on a wrong reading of the famous Messianic Eclogue. If Vergil reigned supreme for centuries after the Renaissance, he was finally challenged and partially eclipsed by a long neglected Homer, who rose like Phoenix out of the relics and ashes of the new craze of the 18th c. for Ballad Poetry, to enrapture scholars and readers alike with the vision of authentic primitiveness. For in Homer people thought they saw a Hellenic Beowulf in Viking uniform, true to the nature of a pure, heroic Mankind. How strange that Homer and Chaucer escalated at the same time out of centuries of neglect, to become permanent fixtures in the halls of World Literature, while Vergil, who had been the single supreme Poet for a millennium and a half, descended to the not insignificant role of a major artist. Read prophetically for centuries as a Western I Ching, Vergil can at last be taken for what he was, a great poet..

But there was nothing primitive about either Chaucer or Homer, that was the wishful thinking of the Romantic craze. And just so, Vergil, for all the world's praise for his polish and finished perfection, is not all finish and polish. Reading Vergil from our easy armchair, we are possibly missing much of what the shy, dark, mysterious "Virgin of Naples" was interested in. Part of the unending fascination which surrounds the name of Vergil, is that we still can not be sure of the meaning of many of the scenes he portrayed, and may be much less sure of much of what he really meant in the private corner of his very complicated mind.

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William Harris
Prof. Em. Middlebury College
www.middlebury.edu/~harris