Publius Vergilius Maro
(70–19 BC)


The Following is adapted from: The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, ed. Cross, Livingstone; (OUP, 1983).

VIRGIL (70–19 BC), Roman poet. Publius Vergilius Maro, the son of a rich citizen of Mantua, was educated at Cremona, Milan, and Rome, with a view to a political career. He soon abandoned rhetoric and politics to study philosophy under the Greek Epicurean Siron, near Naples (?49–45 BC). He intended, after completing the Aeneid, to devote himself to philosophy. He was the author of ten pastorals, Bucolica (?45–37 BC), known as the Eclogues (i.e. occasional poems); the Georgics (36–31 BC), on Italy and its agricultural wealth, the fourth book of which deals with the ordered civil life of the beehive and how it may be restored to life by a magical process of sacrifice, and culminates in the story of Orpheus’ descent into the Underworld to recover his wife Eurydice; and the Aeneid (26–19 BC), an epic in 12 books on the foundation of Rome by the exiled Trojan. This work is a fusion of Homer’s two poems, Iliad and Odyssey, into a prophetic sequel, looking forward to the inauguration of a golden age by Aeneas’ descendant, the Emp. Augustus, under the providential guidance of Jupiter. The Aeneid was quickly recognized as the epic of Rome and by AD 37 had become the staple of literary education in the Roman West.

Virgil’s language and style were widely influential in the next 1,500 years and frequently imitated, with Christians writing Virgilian centos to tell biblical stories. The Emp. Constantine tried to appropriate the Fourth (‘Messianic’) Eclogue as a prophecy of Christ, born of a virgin (1. 6: iam redit et virgo), and Lactantius went some way towards accepting such a view (Inst. 1. 19. 5; 7. 24. 1). This, and the fact that Virgil was nicknamed Parthenias (Gk. παρθένος, ‘virgin’) and lived at Parthenope (Naples), led to the alteration of the spelling of his name. St Jerome protested against the facile Christianization of Virgil, and St Augustine made him his chief target in his De Civitate Dei. During the last period of serious pagan opposition at Rome, and in the struggle over the ‘Altar of Victory’ in the Senate House (AD 384), the pagans came to regard Virgil as a philosophical authority and a source of oracles (Sortes Vergilianae). But in the subsequent period whatever in Virgil resisted Christianization was explained by allegory (e.g. by Fulgentius, John of Salisbury, and Dante).

Later Christian writers accorded Virgil a unique position among pagan authors, partly because of their naïve acceptance of the Sibylline Oracles and the Sibylline Fourth Eclogue, but also because of the poet’s genuine qualities. The pietas of Aeneas (his loyal devotion to his gods, to his father, wife, and son, and to his city and its ‘remnant’, his companions), his responsibility and warmth of emotion, his consideration for Dido, his goodness and wisdom in spite of lapses and errors, and his eventual faith in Providence, evince a moral standard with appeal to Christians. Aeneas’ creator could be taken as anima naturaliter Christiana, separated only by a few years from the faith for which he was ready. In the Divine Comedy Dante makes Virgil his guide through Hell and Purgatory, but excludes him from salvation. Virgil sinks back to Limbo, but only after hearing that he has mediated the light of faith to Statius, and after seeing Beatrice’s cortège in the Earthly Paradise.

The standard edn. of Virgil’s works is that of R. A. B. Mynors (Oxford, 1969). Comm. on individual books of the Aeneid: Book 1 by R. G. Austin (Oxford, 1971), Book 2 by id. (ibid., 1964), Book 3 by R. D. Williams (ibid., 1962), Book 4 by R. G. Austin (ibid., 1955), Book 5 by R. D. Williams (ibid., 1960), Book 6 by E. Norden (Leipzig, 1903; 4th edn., Stuttgart, 1957) and by R. G. Austin (Oxford, 1977), Book 8 by K. W. Gransden (Cambridge, 1976), Book 9 by P. Hardie (ibid., 1994), Book 10 by S. J. Harrison (Oxford, 1991), and Book 11 by K. W. Gransden (Cambridge, 1991); on the Eclogues by W. Clausen (Oxford, 1994); and on the Georgics by R. A. B. Mynors (ibid., 1990). General studies incl. R. Heinze, Virgils epische Technik (1903; 3rd edn., 1915; Eng. tr., Bristol, 1993); W. F. J. Knight, Roman Vergil (London, 1944; rev. edn., Harmondsworth, 1966); V. Pöschl, Die Dichtkunst Virgils (Innsbruck and Vienna [1950]; 3rd edn., Berlin and New York, 1977; Eng. tr., Ann Arbor, Mich. [1962]); G. N. Knauer, Die Aeneis und Homer: Studien zur poetischen Technik Vergils (Hypomnemata, 7 [1964]); B. Otis, Virgil: A Study in Civilized Poetry (Oxford, 1964); C. A. Martindale (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Virgil (1997). Studies more specifically concerned with his religious significance incl. E. Norden, Die Geburt des Kindes (Studien der Bibliothek Warburg, 3; 1924); C. N. Smiley, ‘Vergil—his Philosophic Background and his Relation to Christianity’, Classical Journal, 26 (1930–31), pp. 660–75; C. Bailey, Religion in Virgil (Oxford, 1935); I. S. Ryberg, ‘Vergil’s Golden Age’, Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association, 89 (1958), pp. 112–31; P. Boyancé, La Religion de Virgile (1963); F. A. Sullivan, SJ, ‘Virgil and the mystery of suffering’, American Journal of Philology, 90 (1969), pp. 161–77; G. Luck, ‘Virgil and the mystery religions’, ibid. 94 (1973), pp. 147–66; A. Thornton, The Living Universe: Gods and Men in Virgil’s Aeneid (Mnemosyne, Supplement 46; Leiden, 1976); R. G. M. Nisbet, ‘Virgil’s Fourth Eclogue: Easterners and Westerners’, Bulletin of the Institute of Classical Studies, 25 (1978), pp. 59–78; D. C. Feeney, The Gods in Epic (Oxford, 1991), pp. 129–87; S. MacCormack, The Shadows of Poetry: Vergil in the Mind of Augustine (Berkeley, Calif., etc. [1998]); and A. Hardie, ‘The Georgics, the Mysteries and the Muses at Rome’, Proceedings of the Cambridge Philological Society, 48 (2002), pp. 175–208. D. Comparetti, Virgilio nel medio evo (2 vols., Livorno, 1872; Eng. tr., 1895); V. Zabughin, Vergilio nel Rinascimento italiano de Dante a Torquato Tasso (2 vols., Bologna [1921–3]); J. W. Spargo, Virgil the Necromancer (Harvard Studies in Comparative Literature, 10; Cambridge, Mass., 1934).

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