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5 Things You Didn’t Know About Vergil

1. Vergil or Virgil?

Vergil’s proper Roman name was Publius Vergilius Maro. However, many texts refer to the author of The Aeneid as Vergil while others refer to him as Virgil. Vergil is now understood to be the correct spelling of the poet’s name.

Why the mistake? There are different theories. Gilbert Highet, in The Classical Tradition, says that Virgilius may hint at the poet’s sexuality. “Although passionate by nature, he had a singular refinement in sexual matters – which was recognized in the medieval misspelling of his name, Virgilius the virgin.”

Another school of thought links the misspelling to Vergil’s status in medieval folklore: it was believed that he magically eliminated leeches, that his bones could end storms, and that the baths he visited could cure diseases. Some believed Virgilius derived from the Latin word for wand, virga.

2. Farm Tales

The man who would write the defining warrior’s epic of the world’s most militant empire was, at heart, a farmboy. He grew up on a farm in Mantua, in the northern part of Italy. The beauty of the agricultural life would become a major theme in Vergil’s works, especially in the Eclogues and the Georgics.

Peaceful pastures weren’t always so peaceful, thanks to stormy Roman politics. After the death of Julius Caesar, the empire was ruled by a group of three uneasy allies: Marc Anthony, Lepidus, and Octavian, who would later become Augustus Caesar. The triumvirate had won an important battle at Philippi and needed to reward their soldiers. As the only triumvir in Rome, Octavian had to hand out parcels of land to his veterans. Unfortunately, Vergil’s farm was one of the perks.

The as-yet unknown poet faced a case of eminent domain and didn’t like being victimized. In the end, his powerful friends had to sweep in and save him from a brush with the law. Suetonius describes the scene in his Life of Vergil:

“At the time of the assignment of the lands beyond the Po, which were divided among the veterans by order of the triumvirs after the victory at Philippi, these men had saved [Virgil] from ruin. Then he wrote the Georgics in honour of Maecenas, because he had rendered him aid, when the poet was still but little known, against the violence of one of the veterans, from whom Vergil narrowly escaped death in a quarrel about his farm.”

In another version of the Life, Vergil challenged the dastardly centurion in question (named Arrius). Arrius pulled out his sword; Vergil, being sharper with words than steel, jumped into the river and swam across to the other side.

It is not clear whether Vergil walked out of that encounter with his farm or just his life. Either way, Octavian’s decision did not leave a permanently poor impression upon the poet. Augustus Caesar would become a major patron of Vergil’s work.

3. Troy: The Sequel

While Vergil’s work The Aeneid was a deliberate sequel to Homer’s Iliad, The Aeneid received a sequel of its own. Medieval British historians linked the history of Britain with the legend of Aeneas, creating a link of empires through a few sub-characters.

Geoffrey of Monmouth chronicled the Brutus legend in his History of the Kings of Britain. He began his tale after Aeneas died and his son Ascanius took over Italy. Geoffrey wrote that Ascanius had a son named Brutus, who accidentally killed Ascanius and got kicked out of Italy. The ever-optimistic Brutus organized a group of Trojans to defeat a Greek king and then set off to find a permanent home. Acting as real estate agent, the goddess Diana appeared to Brutus in a vision. She told him about his dream country:

“For your descendants it will be a second Troy. A race of kings will be born here from your stock and the round circle of the whole earth will be subject to them.”

Liking Diana’s description, Brutus made a quick pit stop in France before landing on the island of Albion. Albion was a beautiful and fertile place, except for the few remaining giants, which did not worry Brutus too much.

“Brutus then called the island Britain from his own name, and his companions he called Britons. His intention was that his memory should be perpetuated by the derivation of the name.”

Geoffrey completed the connection to Troy with a linguistic sidenote, saying that the language British had “up to then been known as Trojan or Crooked Greek.”

4. Not Just “R.I.P.”

Vergil is said to have written his own epitaph. The poet was working on his epic poem when he traveled through Greece with Augustus Caesar. Vergil caught a fever, languished for days in Brundisium, and then died in 19 BCE. He was buried in Naples.

According to Suetonius, the epitaph that decorated Vergil’s grave was composed by the man himself. The epitaph read thus:

“Mantua gave the light, Calabria slew me; now holds me Parthenope.

I have sung shepherds, the country, and wars.”

The epitaph recollects the major events and accomplishments of the poet’s life. He included his birthplace (Mantua), place of death (Calabria), and place of final rest (Parthenope was the mythical founder of Naples). It also references his three major works, the Eclogues, the Georgics, and The Aeneid.

5. Burn, Baby, Burn

Apart from composing his epitaph and choosing his burial place, Vergil had another final request: he wanted The Aeneid to be burned. Clearly a perfectionist, Vergil was distraught over the incomplete status of his epic. He had even made plans prior to his Greek trip for the poem to be destroyed. Suetonius wrote, “Therefore in his mortal illness Vergil constantly called for his book-boxes, intending to burn the poem himself.” Nobody would let him burn the masterpiece.

When this failed, Vergil begged his friends not to publish the work if it did not meet Vergilian standards. Augustus Caesar had a finger in this pie as well, and influenced the process of publication. The Aeneid was published with few edits, with several lines incomplete. It would be used as a textbook during Roman times, and its popularity would only grow with age.

The world has been grateful to Augustus and Vergil’s stubborn friends ever since.


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