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LIFE AND WRITINGS OF VERGIL.
PUBLIUS VERGILIUS MARO was born at Andes, a village near Mantua, in the consulship of Pompey and Crassus, B. c. 70. Vergil's father possessed a farm at Andes sufficiently valuable to place his family in easy circumstances, and to afford him the means of educating his son under the most eminent teachers then living in Italy. The education of Vergil appears to have been commenced at Cremona, from whence, on assuming the manly gown, in his sixteenth year, he was transferred to the charge of new teachers at Milan.
After pursuing his studies, probably for several years, at Milan, he placed himself under the instruction of the Greek poet and grammarian, Parthenius, who was then flourishing at Naples. At the age of twenty-three he left Naples for Rome, where he finished his education under Syro the Epicurean, an accomplished teacher of philosophy, mathematics, and physics.
Vergil's love of literary pursuits, as well as the delicacy of his physical constitution, led him to choose a life of retirement rather than that public career which was more generally deemed proper for a Roman citizen. Hence, at the age when aspiring young Romans usually entered upon the stirring scenes of political and military life, he withdrew from Rome to his native Andes, with the intention of devoting himself to agriculture, science, and letters. The Sicilian Greek, Theocritus, was at this time his favorite author, and it was from him that the general plan, though not the individual character, of the Bucolics was derived.
The minor poems, such as the Culex, Ciris, etc., which have been appended to the works of Vergil, and which are sometimes
reckoned among his earlier productions, are ascribed to him on very insufficient grounds. The Eclogues were begun aboût B. C. 42, at the request of C. Asinius Pollio, who was then acting as the lieutenant of Antony in Gaul. Pollio was himself distinguished as a poet, and not less as a scholar, orator, and historian. Under his patronage the secon third, and fifth Eclogues had already been written, when the literary labors and the peaceful life of the poet were suddenly interrupted. The veteran legions of Octavian, on returning from Philippi, and demanding the allotments of land which had been promised them as a reward for their services in the civil war, were authorized to take possession of eighteen Italian cities, with the district of country pertaining to each. The cities thus treated were those which had espoused the side of Brutus. For this the unhappy occupants of the adjacent country were forced to give up their hereditary estates to the rapacious soldiery. As the lands of Cremona, which was one of the condemned cities, were not sufficient to satisfy the legionaries to whom they had been assigned, they took violent possession also of a part of the country belonging to the neighboring city of Mantua. Vergil, whose farm was in this district and was thus endangered, had recourse at first to Pollio, and for a time was secure under his protection. But when that commander, in B. C. 41, marched with his troops to the aid of L. Antonius in the Perusian war, Vergil was compelled to seek relief from Octavian in person, and for this purpose visited Rome. It was the kind reception given him by the emperor on this occasion which inspired the grateful and glowing eulogy contained in the first Eclogue, written in the summer of B. c. 41.
After the close of the Perusian war, the Mantuan country was again disturbed by the demands of the veterans, and our poet in vain, though at the risk of his life, attempted to maintain his rights against the centurion Arrius. Fleeing again for succor to Octavian, he was reinstated, though not without long and anxious delay, in the possession of his farm. During this period of delay and depressing uncertainty, in the autumn of B. c. 41, he wrote the ninth Eclogue, in which he bewails his unhappy lot. But on obtaining at length the object of his petition, his joy and grati
tude found utterance in the beautiful hymn called the fourth Eclogue, in which he hails the auspicious times just dawning on the world, and initiated by the consulship of his friend and patron Pollio in B. c. 40. The sixth Eclogue was composed in the following year, B. c. 39, in fulfillment of a promise made to Varus.* The eighth was written in the autumn of the same year in honor of Pollio, who had gained a brilliant victory over the Parthini, a people of Dalmatia. The two remaining Eclogues, the seventh and tenth, were probably composed in the two following years.
Though the material of the Bucolics is taken largely from Theocritus, and to some extent from other Greek poets, yet Vergil has given to most of them something of a national character by associating this foreign material with circumstances and personages pertaining to his own time and country. In the first and ninth Eclogues, for example, he describes with deep feeling, in the dialogues of the shepherds, the social miseries attending the wars of the triumvirate, and in the fourth he dwells with delight on the anticipated return of peace and blessedness under the reign of Octavian. In the first, again, he finds, or rather makes for himself, the opportunity of expressing his grateful love and admiration of the youthful emperor, while in the fifth he commemorates, under the name of Daphnis, the greatness and the untimely death of the deified Caesar. Finally, in the sixth and tenth, in the midst of myths and fancies derived from his Grecian masters, he has immortalized the name of his friend Cornelius Gallus.
The scenery of the Eclogues, as well as the manners and customs of the husbandmen who make up their personnel, are quite as much Sicilian as Italian. It is unfortunate, too, that Vergil has given these poems a still more foreign air by the use of Greek instead of Italian names. But this was the taste of the times. He labors, also, under another disadvantage, as compared with Theocritus, in the want of a Latin dialect suitable for shepherds and herdsmen, or, at least, in not employing one. While the Sicilian Greek pastoral generally uses a form of speech approximating closely to the nature of its rustic characters, the language of Vergil's shepherds is too much like that of cultivated society.
* Ribbeck assigns the sixth Eclogue to the year B. c. 41.
But though liable to such criticisms, the Eclogues are among the most graceful and beautiful of all idyllic poems, and they possess a charm which fascinates the reader more and more with every perusal.
The Eclogues established the reputation of the poet, and gained him at once ardent friends and admirers among the most powerful and the most cultivated of the Romans. Among these, besides his early and fast friend Pollio, were Octavian, Maecenas, Varius, Horace, and Propertius. These and all other educated Romans of the day regarded Vergil as already superior in many respects to any poet who had yet appeared. It was most of all in the exquisite finish and harmony of his hexameters that he excelled all who had preceded him. The hexameter verse had been first introduced into the Latin language, at the close of the second Punic war, by the soldier and poet Ennius. But though distinguished by originality, strength, and vigor, the poetry of Ennius was harsh and rugged to a degree which rendered it to the more cultivated tastes of later generations almost intolerable. Nor by the poets who succeeded Ennius had any such improvement been made in the composition of Latin verse as to admit of any comparison between them and their Grecian models. It was reserved for two great poets of Rome, two congenial spirits, filled with the most lively admiration of each other, laboring side by side, both striving earnestly for the same object-it was reserved for Vergil and Horace to elevate the national poetry to a character worthy of Rome, to develop all the resources of their noble language, and to make it flow both in heroic and lyric verse with all the grace and dignity that had hitherto been characteristic of the Greek alone.
After the publication of the Eclogues, Vergil appears to have passed the remainder of his life chiefly at Naples. His feeble health was probably the occasion of this.
It was here that he composed the Georgics, a didactic poem in four books, in which he endeavors to recall the Italians to their primitive but long-neglected pursuit of agriculture. In point of versification this is the most finished of the works of our poet, and, indeed, as Addison remarks, it may be regarded as in this
respect the most perfect of all poems. In the first book he treats of the management of fields, in the second of trees, in the third of horses and cattle, and in the fourth of bees. He has gathered into this poem all the experience of the ancient Italians on these subjects, and he has contrived to make them attractive by associating them with wonderful beauty of diction and imagery, and with charming variety of illustration.
Having devoted seven years, from в. c. 37 to the writing of this work, and conscious that his poetic labors must be ended by an early death, he now entered upon the long-cherished plan of composing an Epic in the Homeric style, which should at once commemorate the glory of Rome and of Augustus, and win back the Romans, if possible, to the religious virtues of their progenitors. He chose for his theme the fortunes of Aeneas, the fabled founder of the Julian family; and, hence, called his epic the Aeneid, which he divided into twelve books. He had already been employed eleven years upon this great work, and had not yet put to it the finishing hand, when he was overtaken by his last sickness. Having made a voyage to Greece, with the intention of visiting Attica and Asia, on arriving at Athens he met Augustus, who happened to be at that time returning from Asia Minor to Italy. Vergil was easily persuaded by his friend and patron to return with him immediately to Rome, which, however, he was not destined again to see. His malady had continually increased during the voyage, and a few days after landing at Brundisium he expired. His death occurred in B. c. 19. His remains were conveyed from Brundisium to Naples, and buried on the hill of Posilippo, in the tomb still preserved and revered as the "tomb of Vergil."
It is said that Vergil, a short time before his death, desired to burn up his Aeneid, in consequence of the imperfect state in which it would necessarily be left. But being dissuaded from this purpose by his friends Tucca and Varius, he directed them in his will to strike out all the verses that were incomplete, but to add nothing. It does not appear, however, that anything was erased by them, unless we admit the account of some of the grammarians who alleged that Tucca and Varius rejected the four