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THE life of a close student is chequered by few events,in most instances by none worthy of mention after his death; but, in the case of Virgil,1 we find civil disturbance in his native place, the insalubrity of its air, and the repute of his juvenile writings, combine to lead him away from rural privacy into the highest circles of Roman society, there to be the leading poet of an ambitious age, and yet preserve unchanged the blameless morals and simple manners of early life. His parents were of the middle rank, respectable though obscure. It appears that his father was either manager or tenant of an estate at Andes, near Mantua, belonging to a person named Maius, whose daughter Maia he married; and that eventually, by inheritance, his son became proprietor of the land he cultivated.
That son, the future scholar and author, was born on the 15th October, 70 B. C. At the age of seven, he was sent to Cremona, and afterwards to Milan; at the schools of which he imbibed with avidity the elements of Latin and Greek literature and of geometry, devoting his attention also to the study of medicine; since his parents intended that he should be educated for the medical profession.
At the age of sixteen, he removed to Naples for tuition in Greek, under Parthenius, a native of Bithynia, and
1 Among the old grammarians there was a controversy whether the name should be written Virgilius or Vergilius; but the question is of no importance, since e and i were convertible letters. Accordingly, inscriptions and codices have it both ways. Some of the Greeks wrote it Οὐεργίλιος, others Οὐιργίλιος, others Βιργίλιος. Some MSS. add to the name Parthenias (from aptivos, virgo), i. e., the girlish man,—a sobriquet he owed to the pleasure-seekers at Naples and Baiæ.
thence to Rome, to receive instructions from Syro in the philosophy of Epicurus; but which he soon renounced for the more elevating system of Plato. Before his return to Mantua, it is most probable that he obtained access to acquaintanceship with Julius Cæsar, the youth Octavius, afterwards Emperor, and other distinguished persons; for he had amused his leisure hours by the practice of an art more popularising than all his other acquisitions,— that of giving a versified expression to his feelings regarding passing events. Poetry seems to have been the only species of composition much perused in those martial times; "for," as Mr Walsh remarks, "not only the young nobility, but Octavius and Pollio, Cicero in his old age, Julius Cæsar, and the stoical Brutus, would needs be tampering with the Muses." It is said that Virgil's first production was the following epitaph on Balista, a robber, who was stoned to death:
Monte sub hoc lapidum tegitur Balista sepultus:
Nocte, die, tutum carpe, viator, iter.
His poetical pictures were drawn from rural life; but besides the charm of simplicity in treatment and a pure style of latinity, they usually had in them a political significance, which, at an era when party spirit ran so high, secured for them a general perusal. It cannot be doubted that the fastidiousness of his taste, as he grew in years, led him to commit to the flames the greater part of his juvenile pieces; and that some of them now extant owed their preservation to the safe-keeping of friends. We have on record the titles of eight of these productions; and mention is also made of a tragedy, of which he allowed his schoolfellow Varus to claim the authorship.
While he thus employed himself at home, the world was startled by the assassination of Cæsar, the wrath of the populace and the legions, the withdrawal of Brutus and Cassius, the landing of Octavius, now Cæsar Octavianus, and the struggles that this heir of Cæsar had to
encounter with Antony. On the reconciliation of these last two chiefs of parties, Asinius Pollio, himself a poet, being appointed governor of the Cisalpine province, induced Virgil to revise his Pastorals, and collect into one volume such of them as he desired to preserve. He spent in his native retreat three peaceful years, suffering, however, from asthma, spitting of blood, and severe headache, maladies to which he was always subject in a greater or less degree.
On their return from the battle of Philippi, the veterans clamoured loudly for their arrears of pay, which they obtained in the shape of grants of land in Cisalpine Gaul; since that province had favoured the interests of Brutus and Cassius. In this dilemma, Pollio, unable otherwise to serve the poet, recommended him to Mæcenas, the confidential adviser of Octavianus, who forthwith gave him a warrant for the restoration of his property; and with which Virgil, proud of his success, retraced his steps to Mantua. But Arrius, a centurion, who was in possession of the house, wounded and would have killed the poet, had he not plunged into and swam across the Mincio. In this wretched plight, he had no choice but to make a second journey to Rome, where sure means were taken to extrude the "barbarus miles."
His own estate being thus saved, he espoused with boldness, but with little success, the cause of his Mantuan neighbours; and induced partly by their reverse of fortune, but mainly by the extreme humidity of his native air, and by the kind urgency of Mæcenas, he resolved to pass the remainder of his life in a more genial clime.
He inhabited a house on the Esquiline Hill at Rome, provided for him by Mæcenas, contiguous to his own gardens; and in that retreat, or varying the scene by residence in Campania or Sicily, he produced, at the suggestion of his patron, in the space of about seven years, the most finished of his poems, the Georgics. Of that
work the object was to elevate the pursuit of rural improvement to the place it held of old in the estimation of Romans; and its circulation had the credit of contributing to the desired result, not less than the extinction of the civil wars, to the great delight of Augustus,' by whom this national change was commemorated in the public inscription-REDIT CULTUS AGRIS.
The Emperor now surrounded himself with the most eminent persons of all parties, some of his ministers being themselves of no inconsiderable repute as poets, orators, or historians. His own example-since he too made. attempts in verse-but especially the liberal spirit with which he fostered literature, called forth the energies of such minds as those of Virgil, Horace, Varius, Ovid, Propertius, &c. He consulted Virgil on important state affairs, and, when at home, engaged Horace to write his letters. This course of policy made the government and its chief so popular, that during his progresses through the distant provinces, which were almost incessant," no conspiracy ever occurred to disturb the peace of the city.
At the age of forty-one, Virgil commenced the composition of a work for which he had long been collecting materials, an epic poem that in its story should commemorate the rise, and in its details trace the history of the Roman empire. In executing this design, he spent his last ten years, living much in Campania, but often in Sicily, and sometimes in Greece. In an historical and antiquarian point of view, it has been esteemed one of the most learned works in any language. His acknowledged prototype was Homer, who found the agencies he used in the history, traditions, and religious belief of his own times. There can be no doubt that Virgil was
1 After the victory at Actium, Octavianus bore the name of Imperator, assumed by and conceded to Julius Cæsar; and the senate conferred on him the additional title of Augustus, Græcè, sßarròs, i. e. Sanctus. 2 Nec verò Alcides tantum telluris obivit.-Æn. 6, 801.