Publius Vergilius Maro was born in 70 B.C. at Mantua in Cisalpine Gaul
(i.e. the plains of the River Po, which were at that time not regarded as
part of Italy). He was the son of a farmer wealthy enough to send him
later for education in Cremona, Milan and Rome.
A view of Mantua in 1575 and of part of the city
centre as it apears today.
Although Rome was now mistress of the Mediterranean world, the
previous sixty years had seen bitter internal conflict and the year before
Virgil was born, a slave revolt led by Spartacus had been put down with
great difficulty.
During Virgil’s infancy, the political scene was dominated by
Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus (`Pompey the Great’), who was
consul for the first time in the year of his birth.
In 67 B.C. Pompey was given extraordinary power to put down pirates
then plaguing the Mediterranean and in 65 he gained final victory over
Rome’s old enemy, King Mithridates of Pontus in Asia Minor (modern
In 63 B.C., when Virgil was 7 years old, Cataline,a bankrupt young
aristocrat, attempted to seize control of the government but his plans
were detected in advanced and thwarted by the consul Cicero, depicted
here denouncing him whilst he is shunned by his fellow senators.
Julius Caesar was an ally of Pompey in the early 50s, when Caesar began the conquest
of Gaul (modern France), but growing tensions between them led in 49 B.C. to civil war,
won by Caesar, who became dictator perpetus (`dictator for life’) only to be
assassinated in 44 B.C.
Brutus and Cassius, leaders of the conspiracy against Caesar, were themselves
defeated in the Battle of Philippi in 41 B.C. The victors, Marcus Antonius (`Mark
Anthony’) and Caesar’s great-nephew and heir, Octavian (Augustus) confiscated
land in Cisalpine Gaul to reward their demobilised troops. Virgil himself may have
lost his estate in the process but recovered it afterwards.
Virgil’s first major work, completed around 38 B.C., was the Eclogues, modelled
on Greek poetry about shepherds and their music-making amidst an idealised
countryside, but also including references to the confiscation of farms by
Octavian (Augustus) and Anthony after their victory at Philippi. (Illustration from
At around this time, Virgil came to the notice of Augustus’s friend
Maecenas, who was a generous patron of writers and eager to enlist
them in the service of the new regime. Virgil is depicted here standing
on the left, with Macenas on the right and two other writers, Horatius
(`Horace’) and Varus between them.
Despite cooperating successfully to defeat Brutus and Cassius, Octavian and
Mark Antony soon fell out. Anthony, like Julius Caesar before him, had become
the lover and political ally of Cleopatra, the Greek queen of Egypt. Claiming to
be defending Roman values against the decadent East, Octavian declared war
on her and defeated Cleopatra and Anthony’s fleet at Actium in 31 B.C.
Virgil’s Georgics, a poem on agriculture, probably appeared
in 29 B.C. This was two years after Octavian had defeated
Anthony and Cleopatra at the Battle of Actium. Although
containing much technical information (and therefore hard
work to read!), the poem was intended primarily to praise
the virtue of a simply country life, which fitted Octavian’s
agenda of restoring traditional virtues.
Praise of Augustus in the Georgics
Dī patriī Indigetēs et Rōmule Vestaque māter,
quae Tuscum Tiberim et Romāna Palātia servās,
hunc saltem ēversō iuvenem succurrere saeclō
nē prohibēte. satis iam prīdem sanguine nostrō
Lāomedontēae luimus periūria Troiae;
iam prīdem nōbīs caelī tē rēgia, Caesar,
Gods of our fathers, local gods, Romulus and mother Vesta,
Who guard Tuscan Tiber and the Roman Palatine,
At least do not prevent this young man from saving a world
Turned upside down. For quite long enough now have we paid
The price of Trojan Laomedon’s perjury;
For quite long enough, Caesar, has heaven
Begrudged you to us.
(Georgics I, 498-504)
Also in 29 B.C. Octavian (Augustus) began the construction of a full-scale Roman
colony – Colonia Iulia Concordia Carthago - on the site of the ancient city, a project
which Julius Caesar had envisaged earlier. This dramatic move may have
influenced Virgil’s decision to place the relationship between Rome and Carthage at
the heart of the national epic he probably began working on the same year.
The Aeneid consists of 9,895 lines of hexameter verse, divided into 12 books. The
first six, modelled on Homer’s Odyssey, describe Aeneas’ journey from Troy to Italy,
where he is fated to found a new city, and his descendants later to found Rome
itself. The second six, roughly corresponding to Homer’s Iliad, describe the war the
Trojans had to fight to establish themselves in Latium.
Arma virumque canō, Trōiae quī prīmus ab ōrīs
Arms man-also sing-I Troy’s who first from shores
Ītaliam, fātō
profugus, Lāvīniaque
by-fate refugee Lavinian-also came-he
lītora, multum ille et terrīs
iactātus et altō
coasts much he both on-land troubled and at-sea
superum saevae memorem Iūnōnis ob īram;
by-force of-gods of-cruel memorable Juno’s because-of anger
multa quoque et bellō passus, dum conderet
much also and in-war suffered until found-could-he city
deōs Latiō,
genus unde
carry-could-he-also gods to-Latium race from-whom Latin
Albānīque patrēs, atque altae moenia Rōmae.
Alban-also fathers and high walls
Virgil begins by setting out his theme and particularly the hostility to
Aeneas and the Trojans of Juno, queen of the gods and patroness of
Carthage, the city which will become Rome’s most dangerous enemy.
The narrative then starts with Aeneas’s fleet leaving Sicily to sail to Italy but caught in a
storm arranged by Juno and swept to the coast of North Africa where they are kindly
received by Queen Dido, in newly-founded Carthage. Books 2 and 3 present earlier
events as told by Aeneas himself to Dido.
Aeneas describes how Sinon, pretending to be a fugitive
from his own Greek people, tricked the Trojans into
bringing the Wooden Horse within their city.
The priest Laocoon suspected the Horse was a trick but, after he struck it with his
spear, great serpents appeared from the sea and killed both him and his sons,
convincing the Trojans that it was the gods’ will that they accept the horse.
After the Greeks emerged from the Horse and began to kill and burn,
Aeneas tried to resist them but finally obeyed the warnings of the ghost
of Hector and of his own mother, the goddess Venus, to flee, taking
with him the sacred images that embodied the city. He escaped with his
father and son but his wife was lost in the chaos.