"Mantua gave birth to me" - Virgil's Birthday

15 October 70 BCE, Publius Vergilius Maro, better known as Virgil, was born near Mantua.
“Mantua me genuit, Calabri rapuere, tenet nunc Parthenope; cecini pascua, rura, duces.“ ("Mantua gave birth to me, the Calabrians took me, now Naples holds me; I sang of pastures [the Eclogues], country [the Georgics] and leaders [the Aeneid]“ – epitaph on Virgil’s tomb near Naples)

A mosaic showing Virgil sitting between the muses Clio and Melpomene
(3rd century CE, Bardo Museum, Tunis)

Augustus made a city of marble out of Rome’s bricks, based on the foundations of the late Republic. And if poets like Horace, Propertius, Tibullus and Virgil from Maecenas’ and Mesallas’s circles are counted among the beacons of flourishing Augustan literature, the same would be true, since all of them began their careers before the Triumvirate was formed and the Republic of bricks was still in existence. Especially Maecenas made his mark in mentoring and promoting an auspicious artist up to a point that his name is to this day synonymous with being a patron of his arts. The age, in the mirror of its poets, saw itself as an Apollonian era, shaped by light and art and wisdom and the Emperor himself commissioned not only temples for the god, one, significantly, at Actium and the other in his estate on Palatine Hill, but even tried his hand at epic poetry himself. Finally, he had to acknowledge that his talents lay elsewhere, his “Ajax”, he said, met with a sponge. Virgil, though, gave Rome something of a national epic with his Aeneid.

The gods of the Aeneid, from a late Roman book illustration

What we know about Virgil is handed down by and large by the empire’s equivalent to the yellow press, Sueton, garnished by jibes from Ovid, passing remarks from Horace and literary critics writing more than 150 years after his death. They all draw a rather unappealing picture of Virgil, the son of a potter whose rhetoric was so miserable that it left the impression of a completely uneducated man, paired with his rustic appearance, open boots, unpressed toga and a peasant’s haircut. Nonetheless, his Eclogues, Rustics and, above all, the Aeneid became books read in school pretty soon. Especially the latter, the epic story of the Trojan hero Aeneas, son of Venus, who escaped the fall of his city and became forefather of the Romans, gave Virgil’s contemporaries after decades of bloody civil war a common denominator and an attempt of endowing the conflict with a meaning as a necessity for the establishment of the Augustan Peace. An image only a bit tarnished through few critic passages and the fact that Virgil probably died before he could finish his most prominent work.

Jean-Baptiste Wicar: "Virgil Reading the Aeneid" (1793)

After his death from a fever in 19 CE at the age of 50, and a comprehensible honouring as a Roman national poet, Virgil’s works are preserved in two richly illustrated manuscripts from late antiquity, his veneration sometimes materialised in rather weird forms. The Aeneid was already used in as a kind of Roman I Ching in Hadrian’s days by picking lines at random and elaborating a divination, a tradition perpetuated in the Middle Ages. Medieval Christianity saw the fourth eclogue with an allusion to the pregnancy of Augustus’ wife Scribonia as a prophecy of the birth of Christ, verifying the pagan poet as a prophet and holding him in the same high regard as Aristotle – up to the point that various Virgil-legends emerged where the poet appears as a mighty magician – or as the psychopomp of Dante in the Underworld in his Divine Comedy.

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