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The Life and Work of Virgil

An overview of Virgil's life and a brief assessment of his significance in world literature.

The Roman poet Virgil was born in the city of Mantua, Italy in the year 70 B.C. He was the greatest poet of the Roman era and was responsible for some of the most significant poetry of all time. The most important of Virgil's works is his great classic The Aeneid. This epic poem was written at the request of Caesar Augustus, the first emperor of Rome, and it details the story of the founding of Rome. The {Aeneid} takes place after the epic story of The Iliad by the Greek poet Homer. The Iliad tells of the beginning of the Trojan War and the history of that war until the death of the great Trojan warrior, Hector, at the hands of the Greek warrior, Achilles. The Aeneid begins after the defeat of Troy. From there, Virgil tells of how the survivors of defeated Troy left the destroyed city and made their way to Italy to lay the foundation for the Roman Empire. The hero of the {Aeneid }is Aeneas, (king of the Trojans and son of a mortal Trojan and the goddess Venus), who leads the survivors down to North Africa and over to Italy where Rome would be established. Along the way, they encounter the fierce winds of the god Aeolus, the anger of the goddess Juno and the strength of the warrior Turnus.
The {Aeneid }also tells the love story of Aeneas and Dido. Dido was the Queen of Carthage, a city in North Africa. Cupid (the god of love) causes Dido to fall in love with Aeneas. Aeneas cannot stay with her however, as he has to go to Italy by command of the gods. Dido's suicide after Aeneas leaves is one of the great tragedies in literature. William Shakespeare mentioned this great tragedy in {Hamlet }Act II, Scene II:

[q]"One speech in it I chiefly loved:'twas Aeneas tale to Dido."[/q]

Shakespeare also used elements of The {Aeneid }in other places in {Hamlet}, as well as in {Macbeth} and {The Tempest}.

1. In {Hamlet}, the ghost of Hamlet's father appears to him to tell Hamlet how he died.[1] This is similar to the appearance of Hector's ghost to Aeneas in Book II of The {Aeneid}.[2]
2. In {Macbeth}, Shakespeare has Macbeth see a vision of future kings.[3] While in the Underworld, Aeneas visits his father Anchises, who shows him a vision of the future great leaders of Rome.[4]
3. In {The Tempest}, the play begins with a storm at sea caused by the supernatural powers of Prospero, the main character in the play.[5] The {Aeneid }begins with a storm caused by the gods.[6]
Other famous episodes in The {Aeneid }include the statement of Laocoon (in Latin: Timeo danaos et dona ferentes) ?I fear the Greeks, even though they come bearing gifts.? Laocoon says this in Book II, in reference to the Trojan Horse that he rightly believed to be a trap. Also famous are the words of the Sibyl (a prophetess of Apollo) regarding the journey of Aeneas to the Underworld, the Land of the Dead in Book VI. Entering the Underworld is easy she says and anyone can do it. Returning from the Underworld, however, is a whole lot harder to do. The Sibyl states:

[q]?Easy is the decent to the Underworld? but to retrace one?s steps, to escape once more to the upper air, that is difficult, that is a task.?[/q]

The work of Virgil would go on to influence many others who saw The {Aeneid }as a classic story of great learning and depth. The Italian poet Dante chose Virgil to be his guide in The Divine Comedy and referred to Virgil as ?my sweet master.? Dante and others saw Virgil?s epic as a story of virtue and honor that gave a powerful example of how people should be loyal to their country and their God. Furthermore, it shows how one?s destiny cannot be achieved without hard work and even suffering.
Virgil?s influence can also be seen in that quotes from him are part of our common language today. One such example of Virgil's influence today would be the American one-dollar bill. When it was made, two quotes from Virgil were placed on the back in Latin that remain to this day: Novus Ordo Seclorum- ?A New Order for the Ages" and Annuit Coeptis- "He has ordered our beginnings."

[!1] {Hamlet}, Act I, Scene IV-V.

[!2] {Aeneid}, Book II.

[!3] {MacBeth}, Act IV, Scene I.

[!4] {Aeneid}, Book VI.

[!5] {The Tempest}, Act I, Scene I.

[!6] {Aeneid}, Book I.

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