Publius Vergilius Maro, known to the world as Virgil, was born just outside the Roman Republic to a middle-class family of cattle farmers on October 15, 70 BC. He was the eldest of three sons and the only one to survive into adulthood. Virgil’s father, determined that his son would not grow up to be a farmer, sent the young boy to be educated at the finest schools in the world.
Virgil attended school in Cremona and Milan as a youth before traveling to Rome in 54 BC. In Rome, he studied law and rhetoric in the academy of Epidius. It was here that he met a young and ambitious fellow student named Octavian. Octavian, of course, later became Emperor Augustus Caesar. Virgil’s father had high hopes that he would become a lawyer, but after arguing his first case, Virgil found it too stressful for his quiet temperament and instead turned to philosophy.
In 49 BC, Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon with his army, breaking a sacred law and throwing Rome into chaos and uncertainty by claiming absolute power. To escape the unrest, Virgil moved to Naples, where he continued his studies under the philosopher Siro. Some of the poems attributed to Virgil were written during this time, including Culex, Copa, and Catalepton. After Caesar’s assassination, Virgil returned to his hometown of Mantova. There he began to write the collection of poems known as Eclogues, which glorify the simple lives of shepherds in the country. In 41 BC, his family’s farm was confiscated and distributed among war veterans. Although he appealed to Octavian, it is unclear whether it was ever returned to him.
Virgil was a quiet, studious writer who did not participate in politics or the military, preferring to stay out of petty conflicts of his time. He continued to write many pastoral poems celebrating nature, as well as some mournful poems recounting his displacement from his farm. After completing the Eclogues, Virgil became very popular, and word of his accomplishments reached the ears of his old friend, Octavian – now Augustus Caesar. Under Caesar, he became acquainted with Maecenas, a powerful advisor who was also a huge supporter of the arts. Virgil set to work on a second book of poetry, called the Georgics, which took him seven years to complete.
In 3O BC, Augustus Caesar commissioned Virgil, now renowned throughout Rome for his literary accomplishments, to write an epic poem celebrating the Roman Empire. Virgil reluctantly agreed and dedicated the rest of his life to writing what we know today as the Aeneid. He undertook a journey to visit the places described in his work, traveling as far as Athens before becoming ill. He died before completing the work and, embarrassed by its political bias, requested that the manuscript be destroyed. Caesar Augustus, however, published the poem and declared Virgil to be Rome’s finest poet.