6 Mysteries Surrounding Virgil's Life and Work

Jean-Baptiste Wicar, Virgil Reading "The Aeneid" // Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Jean-Baptiste Wicar, Virgil Reading "The Aeneid" // Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain / Jean-Baptiste Wicar, Virgil Reading "The Aeneid" // Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Born in 70 BC, Virgil (full name: Publius Vergilius Maro) was an ancient Roman poet who wrote the Latin epic poem "The Aeneid." Although Virgil’s writing continues to be highly acclaimed and well-known almost two millennia after he wrote it, we’re still puzzled by mysteries surrounding his life and work.

1. Who was Virgil, really?

Despite his enduring legacy, we don’t actually know much about Virgil’s life. His editor Varius wrote a biography of Virgil, but it doesn’t survive to this day. In the 4th century AD, the writer Servius wrote a commentary about the poet, filling in a few of the blanks in his biography. We know that Virgil was born in Italy in 70 BC and died there in 19 BC, but the rest of the details are fuzzy. Scholars disagree on many things: if his father was from a humble or noble/equestrian family, if he served in the military under Julius Caesar, and what his exact relationship to the Roman emperor Augustus was.

Then there’s the SEO issue: If you google "Virgil," you'll miss out on all the results about "Vergil." We don't really know why his name is spelled differently, with an 'i' or with an 'e,' but scholars have offered ideas. Perhaps people in the Middle Ages connected his name to “virga” (the Latin word for wand) due to his ability to prophesize, or his name was Anglicized.

2. Did he actually write the Appendix Vergiliana?

Besides "The Aeneid," Virgil is most well known for writing the books of poems The Eclogues, The Georgics, and a fourth work, the Appendix Vergiliana, that most scholars now doubt was actually written by Virgil (apart from four poems dedicated to friends of his, which may be authentic). But why did ancient commentators attribute these poems to Virgil? It seems that Virgil may have written some of the poems himself at school when he was young, or his friends may have written them, or people copied Virgil’s style long after his death.

3. What's with those pastoral poems in The Eclogues?

The Eclogues are a collection of 10 pastoral poems—lots of descriptions of shepherds, farmland, and the Roman gods. But the poems are not just pretty words about idyllic greenery—The Eclogues related to military and political issues of the time (the 40s BC). Before Octavian became the emperor Augustus, he forcibly took land from towns in northern Italy to pay the former soldiers in his army. Some scholars assert that Virgil’s family farm was one of those that Octavian seized, so he wrote The Eclogues to try to convince Octavian to give him back his house.

4. Did Virgil prophesize the coming of Jesus Christ?

In the 4th poem in The Eclogues, Virgil writes about a child who will be born as a savior and usher in a golden age of harmony. Although there are many uncanny similarities between Virgil’s description and the birth of Jesus Christ (which happened 40 years after he wrote The Eclogues), most scholars dismiss Virgil’s savior description as a coincidence or an attempt by the later Christian church to buttress the validity and popularity of Christianity. Many theologians (past and present), however, argue that Virgil was a prophet.

In the Middle Ages, Virgil’s work was still read and respected. Because Christian theologians made a direct link between Virgil and the prophecy of Jesus’s birth, Virgil’s legacy attained a mystical, magical aura. Beginning in the 200s AD, people would pose questions, turn to a random page of Virgil’s writings, and use whatever chapter/sentence/word they landed on to answer their question. This practice, called the "Sortes Vergilianae" ("The Lots of Virgil"), continued into the Middle Ages in Europe. Think of it as a precursor to shaking a Magic 8 Ball. Legends and myths about Virgil cropped up, including one that claims that he hid a magical egg in the Castle at Naples—if the egg broke, the city would perish.

5. Were The Georgics censored?

Virgil wrote The Georgics, consisting of four books of poetry about agriculture and animal husbandry, after The Eclogues but before "The Aeneid." As it stands, the end of the fourth Georgic contains a story about a beekeeper named Aristaeus as well as the Orpheus and Eurydice myth. But, some scholars think that the first edition of The Georgics had a totally different ending. The second half of the fourth Georgic may have been changed at Augustus’ urging: the original version could have been a tribute to Virgil’s good friend Cornelius Gallus, a politician who was later accused of conspiracy against Augustus. We know that Gallus committed suicide in 27 or 26 BC, which means that Virgil would have had to write the revised Georgics later, after he had already started writing "The Aeneid."

6. Was "The Aeneid" state-sponsored propaganda?

The Roman emperor Augustus commissioned Virgil to write the epic poem "The Aeneid." "The Aeneid" tells the story of Aeneas, who escapes Troy, travels until he lands in Italy, and wages war to establish himself as the first great Roman hero. Some scholars think that Virgil succumbed to political pressure from Augustus, who was basically his boss and benefactor. Through this lens, "The Aeneid" can be seen as state (and more specifically, Augustus)-sponsored propaganda intended to prop up the new Roman Empire and lend legitimacy to Augustus’ power. Indeed, "The Aeneid" contains prophesies about Rome’s future and Augustus coming to power, and parallels exist between the hero Aeneas and the emperor Augustus. On the other hand, some scholars view Aeneas’ desire for peace as being subtly negative towards Augustus’ desire to expand Rome’s power militarily.