P. Vergilius Maro
(where this write-up belongs...but who am I to clutter the database with excessive nodes?) was born in 70 B.C. in the northern Italian
town of Andes, near Mantua
. Not much is known about his family; they seem to have been of modest means, but wealthy enough to send the young Vergil away for his education
Tradition holds that Octavius, after the Perusine War, his campaign to punish Brutus and Cassius for their murder of Julius Caesar, confiscated much land as rewards for his veterans, among which was Vergil's own farm. A few years later, somewhere between 39-38 B.C., Vergil published his Eclogues, a series of short (usually around 100 lines) poems in dactylic hexameter on the pastoral life. Many scholars still try to read a biographical longing for his lost lands and the beginnings of his relationship with Octavius.
Some time shortly thereafter, he entered into the patronage and poetic circle of Maecenas, a friend and supporter of Octavius. His Eclogues seem to imply a friendship with Cornelius Gallus probably begun during this time, while he is mentioned rather frequently in Horace's odes.
Vergil's next great work, the Georgics, a nominally didactic poem about the wonders of agriculture, was published around 29 B.C., shortly after the battle of Actium. Many still read it as a firm rejection of the ideals of the bloody civil wars of the later 30's; certainly its portrayal of an idyllic farmer's life and the creation of a golden age through hard work and sweat make for nice escapist literature.
It is assumed that he began work shortly thereafter on the Aeneid; tradition has him dictating every day some 10-20 lines, and slowly editing them down to a single line by the end of the day. Shortly before he died, apparently frustrated with the whole thing, he sailed off for a tour of Greece and Asia Minor. On the way, he ran into Augustus, who convinced him to return. While in the town of Megara, he caught fever, which became progressively worse as they neared Italy. Vergil died on September 20, 19 B.C., near Naples. It is said that he composed his own epitaph:
Mantua me genuit, Calabri rapuere, tenet nunc,
Parthenope; cecini pascua, rura duces
Mantua bore me, Calabri snatched me away, and now Parthenope
holds me; I sang of pastures, fields, and kings.
He left the Aeneid unfinished; noticeable chunks are still rather rough, and many lines only half-finished. It is said that on his deathbed, he ordered the work burned, but Augustus saved it, and gave it to two men, Varius Rufus and Plotius Tucca, to edit and publish.
The details of Vergil's life are rather uncertain, coming mostly from a few biographies (notably those of Servius and Donatus) and biographical readings of his poetry. Almost nothing is known about his youth; the medieval tradition ascribes to him a collection of incunabula, the so-called Appendix Vergiliana, though almost none of these are authentically Vergilian. He is thought to have been personally dry and chaste, with a little-indulged taste for young boys; the first pun on his name was the title virgo, or "the Virgin".
His literary fame soon earned him a reputation as something of a seer or prophet. References in the Eclogues (Eclogues 4) to an infant and a dawning golden age were later thought to prophecy the birth of Jesus Christ, while the above-mentioned Sortes Virgilianae were practiced already in the 5th century. Thus the future spelling Virgil, mostly abandoned today by trendy post-modernists like the present author, from the word virga, "branch" or "divining rod". Later, medieval theory built a sort of ideal poetic model around his triad; pastoral, georgic, and epic were used to define styles through which a developing poet was expected to progress.
If anybody really wants something to do, there are a few details of his career of which we're disturbingly ignorant. The first is the problem of his early life and career; if we accept only the three great works as genuinely his, we have a man who made his poetic debut at the unlikely age of 31. In addition, his seems to be a very self-contained corpus; most of his works are strangely self-referential, and form an almost too neat poetic set. Thirdly, as I mentioned, his life is based on rather shady ancient biographies, based again on his writings, from which we judge the biographies, on which we base our evidence; what degree this closed circle has really affected our understanding is still up for grabs.