Virgil, Epitome of a Poet

Publii Vergili Maronis Opera, etc. …

Printed in Basel 1584.

From late antiquity to late Middle Ages, every somewhat educated man in Europe knew who was meant by “the” poet. This honorary title was reserved for Virgil alone. Therefore, the works of the Roman poet could be found in every reference library, even in poorly equipped ones. One could do almost without anything, but not without Virgil. Why was particularly this Roman poet so successful?

A Basel print from 1584 was just one of countless editions of his work, which had flooded the market for centuries. However, it also tells us something about its owners…

The Monnus Mosaic from the 3rd century CE (found in Trier) shows Virgil, whose works were part of the literary canon even then. Photo: QuartierLatin1968 / CC BY-SA 3.0

Virgil, the Poet from Mantua

In the ancient Virgil biography by Suetonius (exactly, that one with the entertaining gossip stories about the emperors), we can read Virgil’s epitaph:

Mantua me genuit, Calabri rapuere, tenet nunc / Parthenope; cecini pascua, rura, duces. Or in English: Mantua gave birth to me, the Calabrians took me, now Naples holds me; I sang of pastures, country, leaders.

That is a good summary of what we know with certainty about Virgil’s life: Publius Vergilius Maro was born in Mantua, northern Italy, in 70 BC, he was mainly active in Rome and wrote his works there: a romantic pastoral poem (Eclogues), an agricultural treatise (Georgics) and an heroic epic (Aeneid). He didn’t live to complete the latter work because he fell ill in Brundisium (then considered a “Calabrian” city) when travelling back from Greece to Italy together with his great patron Augustus. He was eventually buried in Naples (Parthenope in ancient times), where he had liked to stay during his lifetime.

To clear up misunderstandings: Virgil’s “Georgics” are just as little an agricultural manual as Orwell’s “Animal Farm”. The work wouldn’t have catapulted him into the highest league of world literature, it would have become at most a best-seller on Amazon. Being the typical example of an Augustan poet, Virgil mastered with virtuosity the keyboard of literary references. Displaying extraordinary sophistication, he alludes to literary predecessors, and his sensitive depictions enchanted the elite of the time. Think of humanistic plays on words and image puzzles, allusions only insiders understand. If you could laugh about them or rather smile dreamily as you understood their meaning, you made it: you were among the truly educated people who – thanks to their comprehensive education – could make sense of the most enigmatic allusions. That’s who Virgil was. And, on top of that, he gave Rome a “national epic” with the Aeneid.

Intellectual tricks, aesthetic contortions that people in the Middle Ages could not understand unless they had a solid knowledge of Greek (which practically nobody had). How, pray tell, could this poet become one of the most read and most influential authors in European cultural history?

Virgil’s success is not only due to his linguistic excellence but also to his supposed prophethood. In the fourth Eclogue (here in a manuscript from late antiquity) a shepherd announces the birth of a saviour to his colleague – according to Christian interpretation, it was Jesus Christ.

Virgil’s Success: a Misunderstanding?

In Virgil’s pastoral poem, a shepherd announces to another shepherd the birth of a child that will save the world. As the work was written in the midst of a bloody civil war, it is most likely that this child alluded to the saviour Augustus. However, everyone knows that an author loses control over his work once it is published and every reader reads their own interpretation into it. You can guess what happened: to Christian readers, it was absolutely clear that Virgil was a prophetic fellow believer avant la lettre. (He died in 19 before Christ’s birth!)

This interpretation is the reason why an incredibly rich amount of manuscripts containing his work has been passed on since ancient times and why he got his prominent role as Dante’s guide through the underworld in the Divine Comedy. Last but not least, in the Middle Ages a series of legends were woven around him: for example that of Virgil the magician who used his magical powers to protect his beloved Naples. These folk tales no longer had anything to do with the historical figure, but reinforced the poet’s prominence in all social classes – especially among those who could not read his works in the first place.

Intellectuals, on the other hand, appreciated his sophisticated style, which was considered the ultimate in Latin. Virgil’s motifs have also inspired people across all epochs: they inspired Petrarch to write his poems, Torquato Tasso to Gerusalemme Liberata, and also outside Italy writers of all time periods made use of his topics.

Our Edition: a Testimony to the Educated Elite

When our edition of 1584 was printed in Basel, folk tales had long faded away and literary reception had become the focus of attention. You will understand that anyone who wanted to pass as somewhat educated needed a Virgil edition, and, in an ideal scenario, they had also read it.

At that time, various smaller works were also attributed to Virgil, which are now considered to be inauthentic. However, philologists haven’t been that clever for a long time and, anyway, readers loved these pieces (on volcanology and such mundane subjects like an annoying mosquito). In addition, we also find ancient vitae and a subject index in this edition. The pocked-sized book can be lovingly tightened with two metal clasps.

If we carefully lift the cover, we can see notes and ex libri quotiations of the owners on the inside in the front and in the back. Even if we do not know anything more about them: the ink still has a smell of erudition. We are welcomed by several lines in Greek and a Latin translation. It is a passage from a speech of Isocrates on exemplary behaviours towards one’s parents. On the back, we find a Horace quote that has always been popular among poets and would-be writers. One should not do anything against Minerva’s (the goddess of poets) will, otherwise one’s work cannot succeed. After all, inspiration is needed for the creation of an actual work of art.

You see, Virgil was read by people who knew Greek and who probably enjoyed his literary allusions.

Especially in Germany, Virgil was replaced by the Greeks in the 19th century, particularly by Homer. But our European literature, above all the works of the emerging Romance languages, would have taken a completely different path without Virgil. This book bears witness to his former importance.


Other Things You Might Be Interested in

Our edition is very rare and, unfortunately, there is no digitalised version of it on the internet, however, here you can find another edition from 1515.

Here you can find an English translation of Virgil’s works.