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Civ. v. 64), which preceded the peace of Brundusium B.C. 40, or to the events recorded by Appian (Bell. Civ. v. 78), which belong to the year B.C. 38. But it is not easy to decide to which of these two years, B.C. 40 or B.C. 38, the journey of Horace refers. It can hardly refer to the events mentioned in Appian (Bell. Civ. v. 93, &c.), which belong to the year B.C. 37, though even this opinion has been maintained.
The most finished work of Virgil, his Georgica, an agricultural poem, was undertaken at the suggestion of Maecenas (Georg. iii. 41), and it was probably not commenced earlier than B.c. 37. The supposition that it was written to revive the languishing condition of agriculture in Italy after the civil war, and to point out the best method, may take its place with other exploded notions. The idea of reviving the industry of a country by an elaborate poem, which few farmers would read and still fewer would understand, requires no refutation. Agriculture is not quickened by a book, still less by a poem. It requires security of property, light taxation, and freedom of commerce. Maecenas may have wished Virgil to try his strength on something better than his Eclogues; and though the subject does not appear inviting, the poet has contrived to give it such embellishment that his fame rests in a great degree on this work. The concluding lines of the Georgica were written at Naples (Georg. iv. 559); but we can hardly infer that the whole poem was written there, though this is the literal meaning of the words,
"Haec super arvorum cultu pecorumque canebam.”
We may however conclude that it was completed after the battle of Actium, B.c. 31, while Caesar was in the East. (Compare Georg. iv. 560, and ii. 171, and the remarks of the critics.) His Eclogues had all been completed, and probably before the Georgica were begun (Georg. iv. 565).
The epic poem of Virgil, the Aeneid, was probably long contemplated by the poet. While Augustus was in Spain, B.C. 27, he wrote to Virgil to express his wish to have some monument of his poetical talent; perhaps he desired that the poet should dedicate his labours to his glory, as he had done to that of Maecenas. A short reply of Virgil is preserved (Macrob. Sat. i. 24), in which he says, "with respect to my Aeneas, if it were in a fit shape for your reading, I would gladly send the poem ; but the thing is only just begun; and indeed it seems something like folly to have undertaken so great a work, especially when, as you know, I am applying to it other studies, and those of much greater importance." The inference that may be derived from a passage of Propertius (Eleg. ii. 34. 61), in which he speaks of the Aeneid as begun and in progress, and from the recent death of Gallus, also mentioned in the same elegy, is that Virgil was engaged on his work in B.C. 24 (Clinton, a 2
Fast. B.C. 24). An allusion to the victory of Actium in the same elegy, compared with the passage in Virgil (Aeneid viii. 675 and 704), seems to show that Propertius was acquainted with the poem of Virgil in its progress; and he may have heard parts of it read. In B.C. 23 died Marcellus, the son of Octavia, Caesar's sister, by her first husband; and as Virgil lost no opportunity of gratifying his patron, he introduced into his sixth book of the Aeneid (v. 883) the well-known allusion to the virtues of this youth, who was cut off by a premature death.
"Heu miserande puer ! si qua fata aspera rumpas,
Tu Marcellus eris."
Octavia is said to have been present when the poet was reciting this allusion to her son, and to have fainted from her emotions. She rewarded the poet munificently for his excusable flattery. As Marcellus did not die till B.C. 23, these lines were of course written after his death, but that does not prove that the whole of the sixth book was written so late. Indeed the attempts which modern critics make to settle many points in ancient literary history are not always managed with due regard to the nature of the evidence. This passage in the sixth book was certainly written after the death of Marcellus, but Virgil may have sketched his whole poem, and even finished in a way many parts in the later books, before he elaborated the whole of his sixth book. A passage in the seventh book (v. 606),
Auroramque sequi Parthosque reposcere signa,”
appears to allude to Augustus receiving back the standards taken by the Parthians from M. Licinius Crassus, B.c. 53. This event belongs to B.C. 20 (Dion Cass. liv. 8); and if the passage of Virgil refers to it, the poet must have been working at his seventh book in B.C. 20.
When Augustus was returning from Samos, where he had spent the winter of B.C. 20, he met Virgil at Athens. The poet, it is said, had intended to make a tour of Greece, but he accompanied the emperor to Megara and thence to Italy. His health, which had been long declining, was now completely broken, and he died soon after his arrival at Brundusium, on the 22nd of September, B.C. 19, not having quite completed his fifty-first year. His remains were transferred to Naples, which had been his favourite residence, and placed on the road (Via Puteolana) from Naples to Puteoli (Pozzuoli), between the first and second milestone from Naples. The monument, now called the tomb of Virgil, is not on the road which passes through the tunnel of Posilipo; but if the Via Puteolana ascended the hill of Posilipo, as it may have done, the situation of the monument would agree very well with the description of Donatus.
The inscription said to have been placed on the tomb,
"Mantua me genuit, Calabri rapuere, tenet nunc
Parthenope. Cecini pascua, rura, duces,"
we cannot suppose to have been written by the poet, though Donatus says that it was.
Virgil named as heredes in his testament, his half-brother Valerius Proculus, to whom he left one half of his property, and also Augustus, Maecenas, L. Varius, and Plotius Tucca. It is said that in his last illness he wished to burn the Aeneid, to which he had not given the finishing touches, but his friends would not allow him. Whatever he may have wished to be done with the Aeneid, it was preserved and published by his friends Varius and Tucca. It seems from different extant testimonies, that he did express a wish that the unfinished poem should be destroyed.
The poet had been enriched by the liberality of his patrons, and he left behind him a considerable property, and a house on the Esquiline Hill near the gardens of Maecenas. He used his wealth liberally; and his library, which was doubtless a good one, was easy of access. used to send his parents money every year. His father, who became blind, did not die before his son had attained a mature age. Two brothers of Virgil also died before him. Poetry was not the only study of Virgil; he applied to medicine and to agriculture, as the Georgica show; and also to what Donatus calls Mathematica, perhaps a jumble of astrology and astronomy. His stature was tall, his complexion dark, and his appearance that of a rustic. He was modest and retiring, and his character is free from reproach, if we except one scandalous passage in Donatus, which may not tell the truth.
In his fortunes and his friends Virgil was a happy man. patronage gave him ample means of enjoyment and of leisure; and he had the friendship of all the most accomplished men of the day, among whom Horace entertained a strong affection for him. He was an amiable, good-tempered man, free from the mean passions of envy and jealousy; and in all but health he was prosperous. His fame, which was established in his lifetime, was cherished after his death, as an inheritance in which every Roman had a share; and his works became school-books even before the death of Augustus, and continued such for centuries after. The learned poems of Virgil soon gave employment to commentators and critics. Aulus Gellius has numerous remarks on Virgil, and Macrobius, in his Saturnalia, has filled four books (iii.-vi.) with his critical remarks on Virgil's poems.