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THE AUTHOR AND HIS TIMES
Virgil (Publius Virgilius Maro) was born in Mantua, a rural town north of Rome near the Alps. Even though Virgil's birth in 70 B.C. came in the middle of a century of political turmoil and civil war in Rome, life in Mantua was relatively peaceful, and Virgil's father, who was a prosperous Roman citizen, could afford to give his son a good education in the basics, especially Greek and Roman literature. When Virgil was about 17, his father decided that he should be a politician, or possibly a businessman, and sent him to Rome to study rhetoric (the art of public speaking).
But Virgil was shy and hated having to make long, flowery speeches about things that didn't interest him at all. Instead he wrote poetry on the sly. His first and last attempt to argue a case in court was an embarrassing failure, and Virgil decided he didn't have a future in politics. He left Rome and went to live by the beautiful Bay of Naples where he studied philosophy.
This was probably a good idea because Roman politics could be dangerous, even fatal. The Roman Republic's government was collapsing in civil war and mobs often rioted in the streets. Rival generals brought their troops home from foreign wars and used them against each other, each one trying to rule Rome his own way. Then in 44 B.C. Julius Caesar, the great Roman dictator, was assassinated and Rome was plunged into its worst political crisis-one that lasted more than a decade.
Virgil was 26 years old at that time. Ever since his birth in 70 B.C. there had been nothing but this frightening chaos. He, and many other young men of his generation, were totally fed up with Roman politics. Virgil stayed in Naples and spent these years studying philosophy and writing poetry about the joys of country living. These poems, called the Eclogues, became an instant hit in Rome and were read aloud at fashionable dinner parties. By the age of 33, Virgil was rich and famous. Virgil followed up the Eclogues with the Georgics, a book of poems about farming.
Then in 31 B.C., something happened that completely changed Virgil's feelings about Rome and about what he wanted to write. The Emperor Augustus finally managed to end the civil wars that had plagued the city for so long and restored order and peace. For the first time in his life, Virgil had hope for the future of his country, and he felt deep gratitude and admiration for Augustus, the man who had made it all possible. Virgil was inspired to write his great epic poem, the Aeneid, to celebrate Rome and Augustus' achievement. He had come a long way from his early days writing about nature and hating politics.
Virgil was clever. He didn't just write a story about Augustus. He wanted to make Romans proud of their history and their vast empire. He also wanted to show how Augustus was the most recent in a long line of great Roman leaders-strong, dedicated to their city, and willing to make great sacrifices for it. So the very beginning of Virgil's poem tells how Aeneas and a small band of exiles traveled for years and fought bravely to build the city that would become Rome, the capital of the greatest empire in the world. As you read, you'll see that there are many parallels between what Aeneas does and what Augustus did. For example, Aeneas fights a civil war in Italy and finally puts an end to the killing and chaos there, just as Augustus did in Rome. You'll also see Aeneas fall in love with a beautiful African queen who resembles Cleopatra, the great Queen of Egypt, who married Marc Antony (one of Augustus' rivals), and who also tried to seduce Augustus.
But the Aeneid is more than just a political poem about Rome. Like all great works of literature, it has a universal meaning. In many ways Aeneas is a man in search of himself and a new identity. In the beginning of the poem, he wishes that he could just stay home and keep out of trouble but, by the end, he is willing to do everything possible for the future of his people. You might see a parallel here comparable to Virgil's own wish, as a young man, to stay out of the political uproar of Rome and his emergence as Rome's national poet.
As you read the Aeneid you'll also learn a lot about Roman mythology, and about what Virgil believed was the role of fate and the gods in men's lives. You'll see that Virgil wasn't just out to praise Rome's achievements. He believed that Rome and Augustus were destined to rule the world. However, he also worried about the people who got in the way of that destiny, often through no fault of their own. Some of the characters you might like best are those, like Dido and Turnus, who are hurt by Aeneas' triumphs. Virgil's own experience of the horrors of civil war made him understand that there are always good and bad on both sides of any conflict.
You're going to see that Virgil was a great writer and a superb storyteller. You'll read about terrifying dangers, great battles, and even a passionate romance. (For a short time, when Virgil was young, he was a soldier. His vivid descriptions of war prove that he had had firsthand experience.) You'll also see Virgil's early love of nature in his beautiful descriptions of the sea and the countryside.
Virgil worked on the Aeneid for eleven years. This epic poem reflects his great skill and care in writing, and his tremendous knowledge of Greek literature, which he had studied ever since he was a boy. The Emperor Augustus knew about the project and asked to read some of it while it was in progress. Of course he loved it! When Virgil was 51 years old, in 19 B.C., he took a trip to Greece to visit some of the places Aeneas had visited. He got very sick, and Augustus brought him back to Italy where he died. Virgil told his friends to burn the Aeneid because there were still parts he wanted to rewrite. Fortunately, Augustus intervened and the Aeneid was saved. It became Rome's national epic almost immediately and is now considered one of the greatest works of Western literature.