Virgil was born on the ides of October, during the first consulship of Gnaeus Pompeius the Great and Marcus Licinius Crassus, in a region called Andes, not far from Mantua. While his mother was pregnant with him, she dreamed that she gave birth to a laurel branch, which struck root when it touched the earth and sprang up on the spot, so that it looked like a full-grown tree, stuffed with diverse fruits and flowers. And the following day, while she was making for the neighboring fields with her husband, she turned aside from the path, threw herself into a ditch, and isburdened herself by delivering the child.
In this manner they say that the child was born, and did not cry, so mild was his countenance; that even then, he gave men no small reason to hope that his birth would prove to be auspicious. Another presage was added to this, when the poplar sprout that is immediately planted in the same place by women who have given birth actually grew up so fast that it stood level with the poplars sown long before. It is called on that account the “tree of Virgil,” and prayers for childbirth and safe delivery are still offered with the greatest everence there by pregnant women and new mothers.
He spent the first years of his life at Cremona, until the toga of a man, which he received fifteen years after his birth, at which time those same two men were consuls; as it happened, the poet Lucretius passed away that same day. But then, a short time afterward, Virgil made his way from Cremona to the city of Milan. Virgil was large in person and stature, with a swarthy complexion, a peasant’s brow, and uneven health, for he commonly suffered from pain in his stomach, throat, and head; indeed, he often spat up blood. He was sparing of food and wine. With regard to pleasure, he was partial to boys.
He loved Cebes and Alexandrus most of all. Alexandrus was a gift to him from Asinius Pollio; the second poem of his Bucolics refers to him as “Alexis. ” Nor was the other one unlearned; in fact, Cebes was a poet as well. It is also circulated that he lived together with Plotia Hieria. But Asconius Pedianus maintains that she herself made a habit out of telling stories about the older man; indeed, that although Varius invited him to be his companion, he refused obstinately.
For the rest, all are thoroughly agreed that his life was upright, both in word and thought, with the result that he was commonly known as the “Virgin of Naples. And if perchance someone should spot him in public at Rome he would seek refuge in the nearest house, cut off from those who were pointing him out. He did not, however, disdain to accept the property of a certain exile, when Augustus offered it to him. Thanks to the generosity of his friends, he had almost 100,000 sesterces, and he owned a house in Rome on the Esquiline, next to the gardens of Maecenas. Virgil lost his family when he was full-grown, among them his father and two full brothers: Silo, a boy; and Flaccus, an adult at the time, whose passing he lamented under the name of Daphnis.
Among other studies, he bestowed his labor on medicine and especially on mathematics. To be sure, he also argued a case before the judges… once, and once only. For it has been handed down by Melissus that Virgil was very slow in speaking, almost like someone who had not gone to school. It was at this time that the promising lad made this distich on Ballista the ladiator-master, who was buried under rocks for his infamous highway robberies: Covered under this mountain of stones, Ballista is buried; Night and day, traveller, tread this road in safety.
After this–though he was only 26–he composed the Catalecton, as well as pieces about Priapus, as well as epigrams, as well as curses, along with poems about the ciris and the gnat. The argument of this last runs as follows: just as a shepherd, wearied by the heat, had fallen asleep under a tree and a serpent from the marsh was rushing up to him, a gnat flew out and stung the hepherd between the temples. At once the shepherd crushed the gnat and slew the serpent, erecting also a tomb for the gnat and making this distich: Little gnat, the guardian of the herds repays you with The favor of a funeral, as befits one who gave his life.
Virgil also wrote a poem about Aetna, the argument of which is still a matter of debate. Soon afterwards he made a start on Roman subjects; vexed by his material, however, he switched to the Bucolics, primarily in order to honor Asinius Pollio, Alfenus Varus and Cornelius Gallus, ecause they kept him from being penalized in the distribution of lands after the victory at Philippi, when the lands on the other side of the Po were being divided amongst the veterans by order of the triumvirate.
After that, he published the Georgics in honor of Maecenas, who lent him aid (though he was but little known to him) against the violence of a certain veteran, who nearly killed him in an argument over some disputed land. Soon after, he commenced work on the Aeneid: a complex theme of diverse moods, the quivalent, as it were, of both Homeric poems; well-acquainted, moreover, with names and objects Greek, as well as Latin; and (in this he took the greatest pains) which would encompass the origin of the city of Rome and of Augustus.
It is handed down that, while he was composing the Georgics, he usually dictated a great number of verses which he had thought out in the morning, and would, in revising them throughout the day, reduce them to a very small number, saying that he brought his poem into being in a fashion not unlike the bear’s, that in fact he fashioned it by licking.
As for the Aeneid, he first drafted it in prose and divided it into twelve books, deciding to construct it bit by bit, so that he could do each part as it siezed his fancy, taking up nothing in orderlest anything should impede his momentum, he would let certain things pass unfinished; others he propped up, as it were, with lightweight verses, joking that they were placed there as struts, to hold up the edifice until the solid columns arrived. The success of the Bucolics was such when he published it, that the cantores recited them frequently, even on stage.
On the other hand, Virgil read the Georgics to Augustus for four days straight, who was resting his throat in Atella after the victory at Actium; Maecenas took his place reading whenever his voice failed. Nonetheless, his recitation was sweet and strangely seductive. But then Seneca relates what the poet Iulius Montanus was wont to say, that there were certain things he would steal from Virgil, if he might also have his voice and his mouth and his mimicry: for when Virgil read the lines, they indeed sang out; without him, they were lifeless and changed.
Even when scarcely begun, the reputation of the Aeneid was such that Sextus Propertius did not hesitate to prophesy thus: Give way, Roman authors; give way, Greeks: Something greater than the Iliad is born, I know not what. In his fifty-second year, Virgil decided to retire to Greece and Asia [Minor], in order to put the finishing touches on the Aeneid. He meant to do nothing but revise for three straight years, so that the remainder of his life would be free for philosophy. But while he was making his way to Athens, he met up with Augustus, who was returning to Rome from the East.
He decided not to retire, and to turn back immediately. While he was getting to know the nearby town of Megara, he took sick under the blazing sun. His journey was suspended, but to no avail, so that when he put ashore at Brindisi somewhat later, his condition was more serious. He passed away there, after a few days, on 21 September [19 BC], during the consulship of Gnaeus Sentius and Quintus Lucretius. His bones were transported to Naples, and buried under a mound, which is on the road to Pozzuoli, less than two miles out from the city.