Publius Vergilius Maro is usually called "Vergil" or "Virgil". He was born in 70 BCE., as the country was recovering from the slave uprising led by Spartacus, that had lasted from 73-71 BCE.
In Vergil's childhood, Rome was ruled by the first "triumvirate" (or "rule of three men"), when in 60 BCE Pompey, Crassus, and Julius Caesar divided up Rome between them. Julius Caesar was later assassinated in 44 BCE, and Pompey was assassinated in 48 BCE. Vergil's description of the death of King Priam in the Aeneid is modeled on Pompey's brutal execution.
By the time Vergil came to Rome in 41 BCE, all the members of the first triumvirate were dead, and Rome was being ruled by a new triumvirate: Antony, Lepidus, and Octavian (who was a close relation of Julius Caesar). It was Octavian who would emerge as the first ruler of imperial Rome. In 29 BCE Octavian was named imperator (emperor), in 28 BCE he was given the title of princeps (prince), and in 27 BCE he was given the title augustus (majestic). As Ceasar Augustus, this ruler of Rome wanted an epic poem that would do justice to his empire. Augustus became Vergil's patron.
Vergil, meanwhile, had published his collection of poetry - the "Bucolics" (or "Cowherd Poems") - in 37 BCE. In these poems, Vergil was closely imitating the bucolic poetry made famous by the Greek poet Theocritus. His next poem was called the "Georgics" (or "Farmer's Work"), which describes farm life with great fondness. Vergil had grown up in the Italian countryside and even though he was living and working Rome, his poetry was located far from the city.
Then, for the rest of his life, Vergil labored over the Aeneid, or "Adventures of Aeneas", an epic poem about the founding of Rome by the legendary Trojan hero Aeneas. The poem was mostly finished when Vergil died in 19 BCE, although he was dissatisfied with the final product and had left instructions that the epic should be burned if he died - but his request was not honored.
Vergil imitated Homer in this work, combining elements of both of the Homeric epics, the Odyssey and the Iliad. In the same way that Odyssey described the wanderings of the Greek hero Odysseus on his way home from the Trojan War, Vergil describes the wanderings of the Trojan hero Aeneas, a refugee from Troy who is destined to found a new city in Italy. Then, just as the Iliad is about the military struggle around the city of Troy, the second half of Vergil's Aeneid describes the battles that Aeneas had to fight in Italy in order to found his new city. Aeneas's rival is an Italian named Turnus, and at the end of the Aeneid, Aeneas and Turnus engage in an epic confrontation of single combat that recalls the combat between Achilles and Hector in Homer's Iliad.
Vergil assumed that his readers were closely familiar with Homer's poems, and with the legendary history of ancient Rome. In order to appreciate the stories that Aeneas is about to tell, you should get to know these characters:
Languages / Anthropology 3043: Folklore & Mythology.
Laura Gibbs, Ph.D.
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