12 of History's Most Influential Poets, From Ancient Times Until the 20th Century

Bust of Virgil in Naples. Alchetron


And so, the night being over,
I returned to my companions where they were.
When I got there, I was amazed to see
How many others, women and men, had come,
Wretched survivors of the fall of the city,
To join us in exile and the journey,
A heartbreaking company, come from everywhere
Ready in their hearts and with their fortunes,
To follow me wherever I was going.
            Virgil – excerpt from closing verses of Aeneid II

The Roman world’s most famous poet, Publius Vergilius Maro, commonly known as Virgil (70 – 19 BC), penned Latin literature’s greatest poems and is best known for three works: the Georgics, the Bucolics, and most of all, for ancient Rome’s national epic, the Aeneid. His writings revolutionized Latin poetry and became the standard text from which all schoolchildren learned and with which all educated Romans were familiar.

Born of peasant stock, Virgil’s love of the Italian countryside is reflected in his poetry, particularly the Bucolics. He received an early education in Cremona and Milan, followed by a thorough grounding in rhetoric and philosophy in Rome. He picked up Epicureanism from an instructor, and that tendency is reflected in his early works, but it gradually gave way to a Stoicism that marked his poems for the bulk of his career.

Virgil came of age as the Roman Republic entered its death throes, and at age 20, he experienced the civil war that began with Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon, then the dislocation following Caesar’s assassination, a second round of civil war as Caesar’s nephew and adopted son Octavian, in alliance with Mark Antony, took vengeance on the assassins, followed by another round of civil war when Octavian and Mark Antony fell out, before Augustus emerged as sole ruler of the Roman world and peace descended.

Hatred and fear of civil war is powerfully expressed in Virgil’s verse, and an understanding of the turmoil preceding the Augustan peace is necessary to an understanding Virgil, who enthusiastically embraced Augustus’ ideal Rome, reborn and promising a bright future. In the Aeneid, Virgil set out to pen an ideal past to match.

He consciously modeled the Aeneid after Homer’s epics, and mixed history and myth to weave a tale of Rome’s origins, beginning with the Trojan prince Aeneas as he flees a burning Troy. The epic follows his wanderings, including an interlude in Carthage, whose queen Dido falls in love with Aeneas before cursing him and swearing everlasting enmity – presaging the Punic Wars – when he leaves her to pursue his destiny in Italy, where his descendants Romulus and Remus were to found the city of Rome.

In addition to rollicking adventures, the Aeneid proclaims Rome’s divine mission to conquer and civilize the world. However, it is no mere panegyric, but juxtaposes Rome’s divinely ordained mission with the individual cost and suffering endured along the way in fulfilling it. The Roman ideal of devotion to duty usually prevails, but often at significant cost to innocents.