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Poet and Son of a Farmer


05 November 2023

The Roman poet Virgil was born in 70 BC near Mantua in Northern Italy, and was a successful poet in his own lifetime. His most famous book, the Aeneid, was commissioned by Emperor Augustus, who was the adopted son of Julius Caesar. Virgil still remains a widely studied author across the world today.

Virgil was an academic all-rounder, and had experience through his formal studies with a range of subjects including public speaking, medicine and astronomy. He had a short career as a lawyer, but discovered that he was more suited to reciting poetry, rather than speaking out formally in a court situation. His reserved nature and shy personality eventually led him to pursue a more quiet life as a philosophical poet.

The son of a hard-working farmer and of the Italian soil at heart, Virgil was greatly influenced by the destructive civil wars that plagued the Roman Empire before the rule of Augustus. The civil wars saw much of his father’s farmland turned into allotments for veteran soldiers, and the surrounding district destroyed in battle. Virgil was so moved by this event that he sought the advice of his local governor, Marcus Asinius Pollio, in 42BC. From this time, Pollio took Virgil under his wing as a mentor, and gave him the opportunity to meet with Octavian (who was later named Emperor Augustus). This meeting evidently made such a good impression on Octavian that he later personally commissioned Virgil to write the great poem of Rome, the Aeneid.

Roman Republican portrait

Roman Republican portrait bust from the mid 1st Century BC. Acc# 170.84, James Logie Memorial Collection.

Virgil never fully left behind the ways of the countryside. His poems show a great respect for living beings, as even the smallest creatures like ants and bees are consistently praised throughout all his works, the Eclogues, the Georgics, and the Aeneid. It is clear in his poetry that Virgil regarded the natural tranquility and order of the countryside as something that should be transferred to busy city life.

Virgil formally studied Epicureanism and Stoicism, the major philosophical systems of his time. His rigorous study of these philosophies gives him the status of a conscious philosopher-poet, an intellectual in both heart and training. The Aeneid in particular is studied today because it emphasizes the importance of family and religion in ancient Roman social life. It is this philosophical view of the world, and the respect for all within in it, that characterises Virgil’s writing. Virgil wrote honestly about what he believed true Roman virtue should be. As a result his poetry provides us with a valuable insight into the morals of this fascinating time in history.

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