Page images
PDF
EPUB

THE LIFE OF VIRGIL.

By general consent, the name of VIRGIL stands first in rank among Roman poets. Others may have excelled him in single respects, - in original vigor of thought, in elegance of diction, in ease of versification, in pure poetry of temperament; but of what is best in the moral and intellectual life of Rome, refined and shaped by what is finest in the culture derived from Greece, combined in one, the poems of Virgil are the recognized and the noblest type. What is peculiar to these poems as literary compositions, their place in the history of literature, and especially their relation to that body of Greek poetry which furnished their model even to minute details, has been treated in the special introductions that accompany the text, and in the notes. A few additional words will suffice to tell what needs to be told of the poet's life.

PUBLIUS VERGILIUS MARO was born B.C. 70, in Andes, in the municipality of Mantua, in North Italy. * Here his boyhood and youth were sheltered through the stormy times of the later republic. According to some accounts, he was educated at Cremona, Milan, and Rome; and the earlier doubtful poems, Ciris, Culex, &c., are said to have been written during this time. For poetry and philosophy he showed great aptness ;, shy, slow, and awkward, he made no progress in the arts of oratory. When a little under thirty (in the year B.C. 41), he first came to the notice of the great men of Rome. The neighboring city of Cremona, forty miles distant, had taken the part of Brutus and Cassius; and, after the defeat of the republican party,

* Five years before Horace, and seven before Augustus; and on the same day, it is said, that Lucretius died (October 15).

its territory, with a part of that of Mantua, was confiscated to bestow on the victorious soldiery of the triumvirs. Virgil's little farm was seized among the rest. But Asinius Pollio, military governor north of the Po, had already taken a warm interest in the young poet. By his advice Virgil went to Rome, where Octavianus himself assured him of the peaceable possession of his estate (see Ecl. i.).

But new troubles followed, and a new division of lands. Pollio had taken part with Antony, and was displaced. Disputes of boundary — a lawsuit, perhaps - exposed Virgil to the rage of the rude claimant, who chased him, sword in hand; he was even forced, it is said, to swim across the Mincius to save his life (see Ecl. ix.). Happily an old fellow-student, Alfenus Varus, who had succeeded Pollio, showed him still more effectual kindness. Another estate - perhaps the charming one at Nola, in Campania – appears to have been given him in exchange for his scanty and rudely-disputed native lands. And soon after, partly for the sake of his health, which was delicate, and partly on account of his growing reputation, he removed to the milder climate of Rome.

Here he became a favorite in the highest literary and court society. The young Cæsar, not yet emperor or Augustus, was easily accessible to the flattery of genius. According to the well-known anecdote, it was during his celebration of certain splendid games — a bright holiday following a stormy night - that Virgil posted, anonymously, the extravagant compliment of the following verses:

“Nocte pluit tota; redeunt spectacula mane:

Divisum imperium cum Jove Cæsar habet.”

The verses were claimed by an inferior poet, Bathyllus, who received a handsome reward. This vexed Virgil, who posted the same couplet again, with the following half-linea below :

“ Hos ego versiculos

Sic vos non vobis"

the latter four times repeated. Bathyllus owned himself unable to fill them out; and Virgil proved himself the author by completing them as follows:

“ Hos ego versiculos feci, tulit alter honores :

Sic vos non vobis nidificatis aves;
Sic vos non vobis vellera fertis oves;
Sic vos non vobis mellificatis apes;
Sic vos non vobis fertis aratra boves.”

So Bathyllus was made a laughing-stock. Virgil then became one of the most honored and popular men in Rome. But, with constitutional shyness, it is said he would shrink into the nearest shop or alley to avoid the public gaze.

His favorite residence, after the year 1.c. 37 (æt. 33), was in the neighborhood of Naples, where he lived a retired and busy life at his estate in Nola, enjoying the charms of the climate and the refined society of the Campanian capital. The next few years were spent in the composition of the Georgics, - four books on husbandry, - considered to be the most finished, elaborate, and complete of all his poems: composed, it is said, at the request of Mæcenas, who desired by all means to restore the old Roman virtues of thrift, industry, and fondness for rustic life.

It was after the events of Actium and the firm settlement of the empire under the single rule of Augustus (B.C. 30) that Virgil began his chief literary task, the composition of the Æneid. Reports and great expectations soon began to be spread as to the coming work, as testified in the celebrated couplet of Propertius (ii. 34: 65, 66), –

“Cedite, Romani scriptores; cedite, Grai:

Nescio quid majus nascitur Iliade.” A few years later, at the request of Augustus, Virgil consented to read to him portions of the poem in the presence of his sister Octavia, who had lately lost her son, the young Marcellus. In compliment to her, he inserted the beautiful lines (vi. 868-886) in allusion to her loss. As he recited these lines with great power and pathos, — for among his

accomplishments he was a most effective reader, - Octavia swooned away; and when she recovered, it is said, ordered 10,000 sesterces (about $500) to be paid to the poet for each of the memorial lines.

When the Æneid was brought to a close, - many parts being still left unfinished in detail, - Virgil set out on a journey to Greece, that he might give the leisure of a few years to its careful revision, and then devote the remainder of his life to philosophy. It was this voyage to which Horace wished prosperity in the celebrated ode,

“Sic te diva potens Cypri” (i. 3). But Augustus, soon after arriving at Athens from the East, prevailed on Virgil to accompany him to Italy. The journey proved fatal to him. He was tall, spare, swarthy, and of consumptive temperament. "His delicate lungs hardly bore the harsh air of the coast, while his frame was racked with sea-sickness, and worn with the fatigue of a visit to Megara on the homeward voyage. He barely lived to reach Italy, dying at Brundisium, September 22, B.C. 19, aged not quite 51. Unwilling to leave the Æneid in its unfinished state, he is said to have ordered it to be burned, and to have hardly yielded to the request of Augustus, that it might be left to the judgment and revision of his friends, Tucca and Varius. He was buried, by his own desire, near Naples; where, at the crest of the rock that overhangs the grotto of Posilipo, * beneath a low ivy-grown roof of stone, the traveller may still read his modest epitaph :

MANTVA ME GENVIT: CALABRI RAPVERE: TENET NVNC

PARTHENOPE : CECINI PASCVA RVRA DVCES.

* “Through a series of gates, stairways, winding paths, and tangled shrubbery, and so down upon the tomb. This is a little sheltered hollow, uplifted on the hillside, roofed with stone, and in one corner a grave-stone (which looked rather business-like), inscribed, ' IN MEMORIAM P. VIRGILII Maronis,' in ordinary fashion.”

« PreviousContinue »