As usual, I spent most of the past couple of days being completely stymied as to what to talk about this week, but then I remembered that today (October 15th) is Virgil’s birthday (he’s turning 2,091). So in his honor, I thought we’d talk a little about ancient Rome’s most famous poet. But since Virgil is also famously reticent about discussing himself, we’ll bring his BFF Horace into the fray, who talks about himself and his friends almost incessantly. One, to flesh out Virgil through someone who knew him, and two, to do a deeper dive into this literary friendship.
We believe Virgil was born in 70 BC in Lombardy near Mantua, based on the epitaph on his tomb (“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, country, and leaders”). His village, Andes, is roughly thirty miles from Mantua proper, but there is some scholarly debate about all of this. In part because there is scant evidence of anyone of the gens Vergilii left behind in any of these localities. But this just speaks to Virgil coming from a relatively obscure family, not that they didn’t live where he said they did.
Perhaps because of this dearth of a historical record, the Latin writer Macrobius (ca. 400 AD) claims that the poet came from a “humble” background, as does Suetonius in his Lives of the Poets, claiming to have heard that Virgil’s father was either a potter or a hired man who married into his boss’ family. But most modern historians agree that his family was of at least eques class, aka just below the highest Senatorial class in Roman society. This is inferred in part by knowing that he had a substantial real estate patrimony to lose in Mantua during Octavius’ rural land redistribution in 42 BC, and in part because of the extensive education Virgil received, which speaks of a family possessing some means. Now, as we discussed with Horace’s upbringing, property and a five-star education was within the reach of a wealthy plebeian, or in Horace’s father’s case, a highly-motivated freedman, but it was substantially less likely. Additionally, it seems even less likely that Horace wouldn’t have mentioned that he and one of his dear friends had a similarly low-class socioeconomic background. Instead, Horace always speaks of Virgil deferentially, both as a poet and as someone more exalted socially than he is.
On the subject of Virgil’s education, the later commentators say his childhood education occurred in Cremona (also in Lombardy), but after he attained the age of majority (fifteen), he studied briefly in Milan before moving on to Rome, where he learned rhetoric, medicine, mathematics, and astronomy before focusing on philosophy. This might seem like a smorgasbord of disciplines, but these are largely what made up an original “classical” education for a Roman man of this period and beyond (the famous classical physician Galen would assert that it was a waste of time to study medicine without a thorough background in logic and philosophy). Just as medicine was seen as the handmaiden of philosophy in antiquity, the law was the partner of rhetoric, and as such Suetonius also says that Virgil pled one court case in his life, but was incredibly bad at it (“…he spoke very slowly, and almost like an uneducated man.”), so he gave it up.
Given the glimmers we have into Virgil’s personality, his lack of fitness for the rhetorical stage on which cocky showboaters like Caesar and Cicero thrived is hardly surprising. He is consistently described by all as modest and painfully shy, as evidenced by his schoolboy nickname of “Parthenias”, a Latin gloss of the Greek parthénos (παρθένος), “maiden” or specifically, “virgin girl”, which speaks of the serious introvert who rarely went out and would literally hide in other people’s houses if he was recognized in the streets (Suetonius). Given his fear of notoriety, it isn’t surprising that he vastly preferred the countryside of Campania and Sicily to the house his patron Maecenas gave him in on the fashionable Esquiline Hill in Rome.
As for poetry, there are a few works attributed to him in these early years, including Culex (“The Gnat”), which Suetonius says he wrote as a sixteen year old. But Virgil’s juvenilia is debated, in part because much of it is gathered in the so-called Appendix Vergiliana, a post-4th century collection of poems ascribed to Virgil, as you can see from the title, but is more likely a compendium of early 1st century poets, among which may be some authentic Virgil verse. For example, the Appendix includes two elegiac poems about the death of Maecenas… who dies eleven years after Virgil himself. Even Culex, one of the less suspect attributions, has its own problems, chief of which is that it references the entire known corpus of Virgil’s poetry despite supposedly being written by him long before the Aeneid was even a twinkle in the poet’s eye. Now, perhaps this is another example of why Virgil was considered a pagan prophet by medieval writers, but a less fantastical explanation is that, if Culex is a true Virgilian work, perhaps it was revised at some later point by the poet, or someone else after his death.
Of Virgil’s known output, we have three major works: The Eclogues, The Georgics, and of course, The Aeneid. We think The Eclogues were written around 42 BC, because of the belief that they were written in response to the aforementioned Octavian land confiscations of the same time. The Ecloguesare a collection of ten hexameter poems composed in the bucolic/pastoral style of the Greek poet Theocritus (c. 300-post 260s). Like the pastoral poems before it, and the vast Western literary tradition it would in turn inspire, The Eclogues are a paean to country life and the Roman natural world. However, they are in some ways also a cautionary tale in reading too much autobiographical content into the writings of Rome’s least autobiographical poet. The Eclogues are used to conclusively prove Virgil was writing a subversive anti-Octavian political document vis à vis the confiscation of his patrimony, that he was homosexual based on the Alexis poems of the collection, that he was heterosexual based on other poems in the group, that he foretold the coming of Christ in another, and so on. The answer on all of this is probably one that veers away from black and white, or too much reliance on finding the “real” Virgil in the weeds of his poetry. The Eclogues may not have been a thinly-veiled petition to get his childhood home back, but they were probably a response to the reality that a part of his past was as lost to him in the physical world as it was to the passage of time. Virgil’s Arcadia, the name of which would become a millennium-spanning cultural shorthand for a place of untouchable natural beauty, isn’t entirely peaceful, because love and its entanglements, as well as the less bucolic world are never really that far away, but it does seem to exist in a place out of time the way nostalgia seems to. Its rose-tinted melancholy comes from the knowledge that it doesn’t take an aloof shepherd boy or an adopted Julii brat’s whims to know you can’t really ever truly go home again.
Nothing illustrates this principle, and the idea that most of what we know about Virgil comes from Horace’s poems or conjecture from his own writing, more than Virgil’s sexuality. Suetonius, as usual, is quick to call out the poet’s “passion for boys”, including a boy named Alexander who is supposedly the Alexis of The Eclogues, but also mentions a possible intrigue with a woman, Plotia Hieria, though she herself would later claim little came of it. But outside of assuming he’s speaking in his own voice in the relevant characters in The Eclogues, or taking Suetonius as gospel (always risky), we frankly don’t know. Personally, I think the only thing we can probably rule out is that Virgil was completely straight, but holding him up as purely gay based on a part of The Eclogues (or something Suetonius heard somewhere) is like assuming Caesar was only interested in men based on Catullus’ epigrams (when I think we can all agree that Caesar’s orientation was “Up For Anything”). Particularly since The Eclogues are specifically aping Greek verse and a culture much more open about homosexuality than Rome generally was. Rome’s relationship with homosexuality was often as complicated as our modern relationship with it is (depending on where you live and your cultural background); it wasn’t illegal, but it was never encouraged. Being openly gay certainly interfered with Octavius’ Lex Iulia laws hellbent on raising the birth rate and promoting the traditional family, but there were plenty of Roman men living on some version of the DL, perhaps most notably Maecenas, who was married, but spent most of his time with various male actors while his wife was Octavius’ mistress for a while. Many Roman men would have probably qualified as bisexual, and in the interest of acknowledging that he writes of both homosexual and heterosexual love with equal skill, that’s how I write Virgil in my books, but I could very well be wrong. For the historical Virgil, I could even make an argument for this intensely private person who never married and has no concrete sexual partners we know of as being just as easily on the asexual spectrum as anything else. The favorite boys he’s said to have passions for were also ones whom he took care to see educated and established in the world, which neither proves or disproves a sexual component of their relationship in a culture built on an endless web of client/patron social obligation. Orientation has always been fluid, and not always something laid out for posterity.
Moving forward, we think The Georgics were written sometime between 42 BC and 27 BC, sometime after Virgil had been introduced to Maecenas’ artistic circle, and by extension, to Octavius. If The Eclogues are a Latin callback to Theocritus’ pastoral poems, The Georgics are Virgil’s send-up to Hesiod’s (c. 750s-650s BC) Works and Days, a didactic Greek poem that reads like a farmer’s almanac of the agricultural arts. The Georgics are invested in man’s struggle against nature, acknowledging that country life isn’t always as idyllic as perhaps The Eclogues made it seem, but it remains a work deeply in love with the land and with Italy. And this love of place in turn feeds into verse in praise of Octavius, as the man Virgil hopes will be able to protect their home soil and bring peace rather than war that upsets the natural balance. This makes The Georgics sound very boring, but there is a great deal of beauty in it as well. Perhaps most famously, it concludes in Book IV with a lengthy discussion of bees and beekeeping that winnows into our oldest extent version of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. Orpheus’ descent into Hades for his wife is a known story before this, but Virgil’s version is the one with the elements with which we’re most familiar, including the tragic failed reunion that would largely be considered the crux of the story as a modern audience would see it.
It is during this time in Virgil’s life that he meets Horace, who is four or five years younger and very much on the outside looking in socially in Rome. On paper, the two poets are an almost comical study in opposites. Suetonius describes Virgil as tall and proportionate, while Horace is short and heavy; Virgil is very much a homebody while Horace always seems to be out and about. But they do have some shared interests (poetry, a love of the country, a certain level of persistent hypochondria), and they become friends, and it is Virgil who introduces Horace to Maecenas, who will allow the son of an ex-slave give up his clerical day job to write full time. Something Horace never forgets to be grateful to either of them for. The excerpt below is from Horace’s first book of satires, where he describes these fateful friendships:
Horace is a part of Maecenas’ entourage by the time he travels to Brundisium to hammer out an ultimately futile truce with Mark Antony on Octavius’ behalf in 37 BC, the last-ditch effort to bridge the divide between the remains of the Second Triumvirate. Horace doesn’t have much of a reputation for subtlety, but in the satire he writes of this mock-adventure, he cleverly hides the ball on what his patron is actually doing. His poem mentions plenty of place names as it goes along, but leaves out the most important one, which is only obvious if one knows that this satire is modeled on a (at the time) very famous poem by the Roman writer Gaius Lucilius (c. mid 100s-103 BC), considered the father of Latin satire. In that poem, Lucilius describes a journey to an estate in Tarentum, and that in turn tips off a canny reader that Horace was with Maecenas when he was negotiating the Tarentum accords with Antony. But Horace is very apolitical at this early point in his career and spends most of his satire poking fun at how amusing and useless he is in this venture. But I bring this poem up because Virgil is on this trip, too, and Horace does a wonderful job of illustrating the kind of loving, sympathetic friendship the poets have with one another; the description of which becomes one of the highlights of the whole affair for Horace:
Horace’s ailments center on his eyes, which he bewails as “weak” and to which earlier in the satire he is applying some sort of “black ointment” (line 30) to, while Virgil’s notoriously fussy health is all-encompassing. Suetonius mentions stomach and throat issues, as well as headaches and unspecified hemorrhages, which agrees with Horace’s above catch-all of “feeble constitution”, and which the Loeb translation renders as “dyspeptic”, a common ancient term specifically for persistent stomach problems (think Pepto-Bismol). Virgil’s queasy tummy is also attested to by Suetonius’ assessment of his eating habits, which are described as sparing. While there is likely some truth to both poets’ complaints (they’ll both die in their fifties), this satire’s tone also leaves one with the distinct impression of two artistes dramatically retiring to their fainting couches when faced with the travails of travel.
And in that vein, I’d like to wrap up with one of Horace’s odes that deals precisely with that topic. The poet’s Odes were written later in his career than the Satires, and while generally unappreciated in his own time (something he spends a lot of ink grousing about in the concurrently-written Epistles), they are arguably the mature legacy of his artistic output much in the way The Metamorphoses are for Ovid. Like Ovid, that generally makes the Odes less “fun” than the Satires, but they are of higher artistic quality. Like Virgil, Horace turned to Greece for inspiration and the Odes are meant to be Latin versions of the Greek lyric poetry of Sappho and Pindar (c. 518-438 BC), which might also explain why a Roman audience wasn’t necessarily primed for this art form which was newish to the Latin language. But in Book I, Ode III, Horace finds Greece to be both his form and substance as he writes a poem to Virgil as the latter is leaving for Athens, where he intends to go on a sabbatical so he can finish The Aeneid:
The poem is actually addressed to Virgil’s ship, admonishing the vessel to be careful in its transport of Horace’s dear friend, whom he calls “the other half of my soul.” The ode continues by describing the daring of the first mortals to ever launch a ship into the unknown and then recognizing that, in the end, that sort of reckless bravery is the hallmark of mankind, which is always striving to outdo even the might of the gods in the face of our inevitable deaths. It might sound rather grandiose, and perhaps more in line with the sarcastic Satires, to link this sort of inexhaustible courage back to the timid and ailing Virgil, but this poem’s place in the Odes implies that Horace is being sincere and a closer reading reveals why.
Virgil leaves Rome for Athens sometime between 23-19 BC, the last five years of his life during which he is almost continually ill and desperately trying to finish The Aeneid. The poem that is the culmination of his career: the work destined to make him so famous he will become the poet by which every other Latin poet will be measured until the Empire collapses and beyond. Horace’s ode speaks of humanity’s endless, audacious bids to rage against the dying of the light, and ultimately, that is what Virgil is doing with his poem and I think his friend knows it. The insular, occasionally malingering Virgil suddenly agrees to travel across the Mediterranean for the sake of his last poem because this is his Herculean labor, his Icarian flight into the sun. It is a quest that will ultimately kill him and sever the bond between him and Horace, whom he will never see again. Some part of Horace senses this, but he doesn’t try to hold his friend back; confining his entreaties for caution to Virgil’s ship, not the poet himself. Because only another artist nearly as gifted as Virgil could understand the greater purpose of such a voyage.