Virgil: A Guide to Selected Sources

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Nora Goldschmidt

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Publius Vergilius Maro (‘Virgil’) was perhaps the most famous poet of the Augustan age, known principally for three major works: the Eclogues (a collection of pastoral poems), the Georgics (a didactic poem ostensibly concerned with farming), and the Aeneid (an epic on the mythical origins of Rome).

In T. S. Eliot’s words, Virgil very quickly became ‘the classic of all Europe’, and the biographical tradition surrounding him ― from the factual to the pseudo-factual to the fabulous ― is both one of the most extensive and one of the most imaginative of any poet in the history of western literature. The story begins in the poet’s own work: Virgil Verg. Ecl. 6.1-12 G. 3.3-48 G. 4.559-66 Aen. 7.37-45 was highly aware of his own literary career, and in a series of self-conscious passages written in the first person fashioned his rise through the genres from humble pastoral to martial epic (Farrell 2002; Hardie and Moore 2010). These passages, together with more implicit clues embedded in the text provided a breeding ground for later biographical traditions by writers eager to tell Virgil’s story (Farrell 2002: 24−6; Korenjak 2003; Laird 2009).

At the same time, Virgil’s life was also being partially written by his contemporaries and close successors. The poet Propertius famously declared of the Aeneid that ‘something bigger than the Iliad is being born’ (2.34.65-6), and various hints and allusions to Virgil’s life and work, particularly the poet’s Mantuan origins, appear in several authors (Putnam and Ziolkowski 2008). The overall sense of a biographical presence behind Virgil’s original poems, moreover, was reinforced by a number of fakes believed to be by Virgil himself: the Appendix Vergiliana, a collection of works either ascribed to or claiming to be by the young Virgil, contain fragments of autobiographical fiction (Peirano 2012), while a second proem to the Aeneid written in the poet’s voice announcing ‘I am he’ (ille ego...) VSD 42, Vita Servii, was known in antiquity and believed to be genuine (cf. Laird 2009). Even the poet’s tomb, which became a site of literary tourism initially cultivated by the poet Silius Italicus (Pliny 3.7.8; Martial 11.48; 50), was inscribed with a famous epitaph thought in antiquity to have been composed by Virgil with his dying breath, which sums up the poet’s life as a movement from Mantua to Naples, and from pastoral to epic:

Mantua me genuit, Calabri rapuere, tenet nunc
Parthenope; cecini pascua rura duces.

Mantua gave birth to me, the Calabrians snatched me away,
Parthenope now holds me; I sang of pastures, ploughlands, and leaders. VSD 36, Vita Servii, Jer. Chron. ad Ol 190.3

Partly influenced by this material is an extensive series of ancient narrative prose Lives (Brugnoli and Stok 1997; Putnam and Ziolkowsi 2008). The oldest was put together around the middle of the fourth century AD by the grammarian Aelius Donatus, who included it as a preface to his commentary on the poet’s works. Donatus, in turn, seems to have based his account on an earlier biography by Suetonius, and the life is therefore commonly known as the Vita Suetonii vulgo Donatiana, abbreviated as VSD VSD. An influential 15th-century version of this, often referred to as Donatus auctus Donatus auctus (‘augmented Donatus’), supplements Donatus’ life with other material, some paralleled in other ancient vitae and some clearly late antique or medieval, and was the version frequently re-printed up until the mid-19th-century (Putnam and Ziolkowski 2008: 345; Wilson-Okamura 2010: 54-5; Ziolkowski 1993: 29). From the Chronicle of Jerome Jer. Chron. 177.3-4, 180.2, 186.2, 187.1, 189.2, 190.3, 190.4; Quaest. hebr. in Gen. praef.; Ad Galat. preaf.; In Zach. praef.; Ep. 85.3, a pupil of Aelius Donatus, too, we have a number of extracts which likewise go back to Suetonius and were again influential for later readers (Putnam and Ziolkowski 2008: 199-202). Important biographies from late antiquity include the work of the late fourth-/early fifth-century AD grammarian Servius Vita Servii, author of a popular commentary on Virgil which includes a life of the poet, and an account in verse ascribed to the grammarian Focas Vita Focae, which notably adds to the omens at Virgil’s birth and early childhood found in VSD with the story ― also told of Lucan ― of bees swarming around the poet’s lips as a prophecy of the honeyed eloquence to come (lines 52-6), and the anecdote of a poplar tree that grew in the barren sand (lines 59-62).

Most of these biographies follow Virgil himself in structuring his life-story as essentially a poetic career ascending through the genres from pastoral to epic. Partly taking up the invitation implicit in the poet’s works for readers to interpret them biographically, they often extrapolate their ‘facts’ from the poems themselves. We learn from both Donatus and Servius, for instance, that Virgil’s land was confiscated and returned to him (a story paralleled in the Eclogues), or from Donatus that his father kept bees, a tradition which presumably arose to explain the poet’s later fascination with apiculture in Book 4 of the Georgics. The lives, too, are particularly concerned with the poet’s relationship with Augustus ― a concern echoed in the commentaries on the poems which they often preface ― and with Virgil’s careful and anxious composition methods. We see Virgil licking his poems into shape like a she-bear her cubs (echoing his own imagery in Aeneid 8.634) and commanding that his epic be burned after his death, a legend partly responsible for engendering the myth of the incomplete and uncompletable Aeneid.

The medieval and Renaissance periods took the writing ― and inventing ― of the story of Virgil’s life to new imaginative levels. The era was gripped by what has been called ‘Vergiliomania’ (Comparetti 1997: vii). From stories of the poet’s prophetic powers echoed in the so-called sortes Vergilianae (‘Virgilian lots’), the practice of opening a volume of Virgil at random to predict the future (Comparetti 1997: 47-8; Putnam and Ziolkowski 2008: 829-30), to legends of Virgil as a magician, whose deeds include transforming himself into a horse to please a lady and visiting a magnetic mountain on a boat drawn by griffins (Putnam and Ziolkowski 2008: 885; 988-90), Virgil’s biography grows and morphs to wildly imaginative proportions. One of the most curious of the many tales that accrue to the poet is the episode of ‘Virgil in the basket’. The story goes that Virgil fell in love with the emperor’s daughter; pretending to agree to an assignation, she promised to hoist him up, Rapunzel-like, to her bed-chamber in a basket, but instead of letting him in, she left the poet hanging half way up the tower to be ridiculed by passers by. This is often accompanied by a sequel, ‘Virgil’s revenge’, in which the poet uses his magic powers to extinguish all the fires in Rome in such a way that they can only be rekindled by holding a torch or candle to the woman’s private parts (Spargo 1934: 136-97; 198-206; Putnam and Ziolkowski 2008: 874-89). Versions of the story appear in a number of texts, from extracts cautioning against the seductive powers of women to full-blown Romances on the life of Virgil, even making its way into visual culture, including a carved capital in St Pierre, Caen, and a 14th-century marriage casket (Spargo 1934; Putnam and Ziolkowski 2008: 456-9).

From the 16th-century Dutch Virgilius Romance (Spargo 1934: 237)

The figure of Virgil haunted poets of the late Medieval and Renaissance periods, too. Virgil famously became a character in the landscape of Dante’s imagination, guiding Dante through Hell and Purgatory in the Divine Comedy, while Petrarch wrote a verse letter to Virgil, whom he imagines dwelling in the underworld (Putnam and Ziolkowski 2008: 133-6; cf. Comparetti 1997; Wilson-Okamura 2010). More recently, the twentieth century produced a plethora of ideologically charged lives, from the Italian proto-Fascist biography of Paolo Fabbri, explicitly written ‘to improve and aggrandize our patria’ (Virgilio. Poeta sociale e politico, 1929), to the strong proto-Christian leanings of the Ecuadorian Jesuit Aurelio Espinosa Pólit’s Virgilio. El poeta y su misión providencial (1932), on which see Ziolkowski 1993: 30–56. The poet’s life and especially his death have been the subject of, among other things, a neo-Latin poem, Anacleto Trazzi’s Vergilius Redux (1930), the radio play, Vergil Dying by Gabriel Josipovici (1979), and a major modernist novel, Hermann Broch’s Der Tod des Vergil (1945). On all these see further Ziolkowski 1993.


For an exhaustive compendium of translated sources covering both the ancient biographies and their extensive successors from the first fifteen hundred years of Virgil reception, see further M. C. J. Putnam and T. Ziolkowski 2008: 179-468, section II ‘Biography: Images of Virgil’.

  • Brugnoli, G. and Stok, F. (eds.) 1997. Vitae Vergilianae Antiquae. Rome.
  • Comparetti, D. 1997. Virgil in the Middle Ages. Trans. E. F. M. Benecke, with a new introduction by J. Ziolkowski. Princeton.
  • Farrell, J. 2002. ‘Greek Lives and Roman Careers in the Classical Vita Tradition.’ In P. Cheney and F. A. de Armas (eds.), European Literary Careers: The Author from Antiquity to the Renaissance. Toronto: 24-45.
  • Hardie, P. R. and Moore, H. (eds.) 2010. Classical Literary Careers and their Reception. Cambridge.
  • Horsfall, N. M. 1995. A Companion to the Study of Virgil. Leiden.
  • Korenjak, M. 2003. ‘Tityri sub persona: Der antike Biographismus und die bukolische Tradition.’ A&A 49: 58-79.
  • Laird, A. 2009. ‘Virgil: Reception and the Myth of Biography.’ CentoPagine III: 1-9.
  • Peirano, I. 2012. The Rhetoric of the Roman Fake. Cambridge.
  • Putnam, M. C. J. and Ziolkowski, J. 2008. The Virgilian Tradition: The First Fifteen Hundred Years. New Haven.
  • Spargo, J. W. 1934. Virgil the Necromancer: Studies in the Virgilian Legends. Cambridge, Mass.
  • Stok, F. 2010. ‘The Life of Virgil Before Donatus.’ In J. Farrell and M. C. J. Putnam (eds.), Blackwell’s Companion to Virgil’s Aeneid and its Traditions. London: 107-20.
  • Wilson-Okamura, D. 2010. Virgil in the Renaissance. Cambridge.
  • Ziolkowski, T. 1993. Virgil and the Moderns. Princeton: 27─56.