Publius Vergilius Maro was born of peasant stock in 70 BCE, but managed to rise into the upper echelon of Roman society by the time of his death in 19 BCE. He is best known for his epic poem The Aeneid, which was unfinished at the time of his death. It was this epic commissioned by Augustus Caesar outlined the founding of Rome by a Trojan refugee and gave Rome its sense of destiny and history, which the young empire lacked compared to the older civilizations of the age.
Virgil was twenty when the civil wars began between members of the First Triumvirate- Julius Caesar, Pompey and Crassus- and then descended into wars between the Second Triumvirate- Octavian, Marc Antony and Lepidus. His work is colored by fear of civil war, which was influenced by witnessing eleven years of it tearing through Rome. Although Virgil was not directly involved in the fighting being devoted to his studies, as with all other Romans and Provincials of the day, it affected his life.
Most of his early work are pastoral poems, which echo his rustic beginnings and long for a more simple peaceful time. When the veterans were settled after the battle of Philippi, Virgil lost his family farm. Much of his work at this time becomes unsurprisingly melancholy. In fact, a theme attributed to Virgil is the “sorrow of the dispossessed”.
After Octavian’s victory over Marc Antony at Actium in 31 BCE, he returned to Rome and promised an era of peace. Eventually taking the name of Augustus Caesar, he was the first emperor of Rome and established the Pax Romana. Virgil’s patron was Gaius Maecenas, one of Augustus’ closest friends. It was through Maecenas that Virgil began moving in court circles. Rome was relatively new compared to all the territories it had been conquering or was eyeing up like Greece and Parthia. They needed a unifying myth. According to Propertius, Augustus tapped on Virgil to supply that history. What resulted was The Aeneid, which was arguably one of the best pieces of propaganda produced.
It took Roman mythology and tied it closely with the older Greek myths, telling the story of Aeneas the son of Anchises and the goddess Venus. He escaped from the sack of Troy swimming with his father on his back and eventually came to found Rome. The links to Venus tied back to Julius’ and Augustus’ claims of descent from Venus as well as gave the Romans a civilization older than the Greeks. Aeneas carrying his father on his back emphasized Roman values of family, and his failed love affair with Dido of Carthage gave a more romantic reason than commerce for the Punic Wars.
In the Aeneid, he openly prophesied the Golden Age to come to Rome under the care of his patron Augustus:
Behold, at last, that man, who was foretold…
Augustus Caesar, kindred unto Jove.
who brings with him a golden age…
His sway shall extend into India and Africa,
and he shall stretch the dominion of the Romans
beyond the sun and stars
(Virgil, 1995, Bk. VI- ll. 788-796)
That is only one of the many references to Augustus in the Aeneid and in Virgil’s other works.
Virgil died in 19 BCE with his epic work unfinished, but it still left its mark on literary history. He influenced poets from Ovid to John Milton. Dante even had Virgil as his guide through Hell in The Inferno. His work lost favor during the Romantic period, but was rediscovered by the Victorians and readers today.