The Life of Vergil
This public domain text of The Life of Virgil by C. Suetonius Tranquillus was originally published in the Loeb Classical Library in 1914. References to notes in the Loeb edition are indicated with parentheses; you will find the notes themselves at the end of the text.
1 Publius Vergilius Maro, a native of Mantua, had parents of humble origin, especially his father, who according to some was a potter, although the general opinion is that he was at first the hired man of a certain Magus, an attendant on the magistrates, later became his son-in-law because of his diligence, and greatly increased his little property by buying up woodlands and raising bees. 2 He was born in the first consulship of Gnaeus Pompeius the Great and Marcus Licinius Crassus, on the Ides of October, in a district called Andes, not far distant from Mantua. 3 While he was in his mother’s womb, she dreamt that she gave birth to a laurel-branch, which on touching the earth took root and grew at once to the size of a full-grown tree, covered with fruits and flowers of various kinds; and on the following day, when she was on the way to a neighbouring part of the country with her husband, she turned aside and gave birth to her child in a ditch beside the road. 4 They say that the infant did not cry at its birth, and had such a gentle expression as even then to give assurance of an unusually happy destiny. 5 There was added another omen; for a poplar branch, which, as was usual in that region on such occasions, was at once planted where the birth occurred, grew so fast in a short time that it equalled in size poplars planted long before. It was called from him “Vergil’s tree” and was besides worshipped with great veneration by pregnant and newly delivered women, who made and paid vows beneath it.
6 Vergil spent his early life at Cremona until he assumed the gown of manhood, upon his fifteenth birthday, in the consulship of the same two men who had been consuls the year he was born; and it chanced that the poet Lucretius died that very same day. 7 Vergil, however, moved from Cremona to Mediolanum, and shortly afterwards from there to Rome. 8 He was tall and of full habit, with a dark complexion and a rustic appearance. His health was variable; for he very often suffered from stomach and throat troubles, as well as with headache; and he also had frequent haemorrhages. 9 He ate and drank but little. He was especially given to passions for boys, and his special favourites were Cebes and Alexander, whom he calls Alexis in the second poem of his “Bucolics.” This boy was given him by Asinius Pollio, and both his favourites had some education, while Cebes was even a poet. It is common report that he also had an intrigue with Plotia Hieria. 10 But Asconius Pedianus declares that she herself used to say afterwards, when she was getting old, that Vergil was invited by Varius to associate with her, but obstinately refused. 11 Certain it is that for the rest of his life he was so modest in speech and thought, that at Naples he was commonly called “Parthenias,”(1) and that whenever he appeared in public in Rome, where he very rarely went, he would take refuge in the nearest house, to avoid those who followed and pointed him out. 12 Moreover, when Augustus offered him the property of a man who had been exiled, he could not make up his mind to accept it. 13 He possessed nearly ten million sesterces from the generous gifts of friends, and he had a house at Rome on the Esquiline, near the gardens of Maecenas, although he usually lived in retirement in Campania and in Sicily.
14 He was already grown up when he lost his parents, of whom his father previously went blind, and two own brothers: Silo, who died in childhood, and Flaccus, who lived to grow up, and whose death he laments under the name of Daphnis. (2)
15 Among other studies he gave attention also to medicine and in particular to mathematics. He pleaded one single case in court too, but no more; 16 for, as Melissus has told us, he spoke very slowly and almost like an uneducated man.
17 He made his first attempt at poetry when he was still a boy, composing the following couplet on a schoolmaster called Ballista, was was stoned to death because of his evil reputation for brigandage:
“Under this mountain of stones Ballista is covered and buried;
Wayfarer, now night and day follow your course without fear.”
Then he wrote the “Catalepton,” “Priapea,” “Epigrams” and the “Dirae,” as well as the “Ciris” and the “Culex” when he was sixteen years old. 18 The story of the Culex is this. When a shepherd, exhausted by the heat, had fallen asleep under a tree, and a snake was creeping upon him, a gnat flew from a marsh and stung the shepherd between his two temples; he at once crushed the gnat and killed the snake; then he made a tomb for the insect, inscribed with this couplet:
“Thee, tiny gnat, well deserving, the flock’s grateful keeper now offers
For the gift of his life due funeral rites in requital.” (3)
19 He also wrote the “Aetna,” though its authorship is disputed. Presently he began to write of Roman story, but thinking himself unequal to the subject, turned to the “Bucolics,” especially in order to sing the praises of Asinius Pollio, Alfenus Varus, and Cornelius Gallus, because at the time of the assignment of the lands beyond the Po, which were divided among the veterans by order of the triumvirs after the victory at Philippi, these men had saved him from ruin. 20 Then he wrote the “Georgics” in honour of Maecenas, because he had rendered him aid, when the poet was still but little known, against the violence of one of the veterans, from whom Vergil narrowly escaped death in a quarrel about his farm. 21 Last of all he began the “Aeneid,” a varied and complicated theme, and as it were a mirror of both the poems of Homer; moreover it treated Greek and Latin personages and affairs in common, and contained at the same time an account of the origin of the city of Rome and of Augustus, which was the poet’s special aim. 22 When he was writing the “Georgics,” it is said to have been his custom to dictate each day a large number of verses which he had composed in the morning, and then to spend the rest of the day in reducing them to a very small number, wittily remarking that he fashioned his poem after the manner of a she-bear, and gradually licked it into shape. 23 In the case of the “Aeneid,” after writing a first draft in prose and dividing it into twelve books, he proceeded to turn into verse one part after another, taking them up just as he fancied, in no particular order. 24 And that he might not check the flow of his thought, he left some things unfinished, and, so to speak, bolstered others up with very slight words, which, as he jocosely used to say, were put in like props, to support the structure until the solid columns should arrive.
25 The “Bucolics” he finished in three years, the “Georgics” in seven, the “Aeneid” in twelve. 26 The success of the “Bucolics” on their first appearance was such, that they were even frequently rendered by singers on the stage. 27 When Augustus was returning after his victory at Actium and lingered at Atella to treat his throat, Vergil read the “Georgics” to him for four days in succession, Maecenas taking his turn at the reading whenever the poet was interrupted by the failure of his voice. 28 His own delivery, however, was sweet and wonderfully effective. 29 In fact, Seneca has said that the poet Julius Montanus used to declare that he could also have purloined some of Vergil’s work, if he could also have stolen his voice, expression, and dramatic power; for the same verses sounded well when Vergil read them, which on another’s lips were flat and toneless. 30 Hardly was the “Aeneid” begun, when its repute became so great that Sextus Propertius (4) did not hesitate to declare:
“Yield, ye Roman writers; yield, ye Greeks;
A greater than the Iliad is born.”
31 Augustus indeed (for it chanced that he was away on his Cantabrian campaign) demanded in entreating and even jocosely threatening letters that Vergil send him “something from the ‘Aeneid’ “; to use his own words, “either the first draft of the poem or any section of it that he pleased.” 32 But it was not until long afterwards, when the material was at last in shape, that Vergil read to him three books in all, the second, fourth, and sixth. The last of these produced a remarkable effect on Octavia, who was present at the reading; for it is said that when he reached the verses about her son, “Thou shalt be Marcellus,” (5) she fainted and was with difficulty revived. 33 He gave readings also to various others, but never before a large company, selecting for the most part passages about which he was in doubt, in order to get the benefit of criticism. 34 They say that Eros, his amanuensis and freedman, used to report, when he was an old man, that Vergil once completed two half-verses off-hand in the course of a reading. For having before him merely the words “Misenum Aeoliden,” he added “quo non praestantior alter,” (6) and again to “aere ciere vivos” he joined “Martemque accendere cantu,” (7) thrown off with like inspiration, and he immediately ordered Eros to add both half-lines to his manuscript.
35 In the fifty-second year of his age, wishing to give the final touch to the “Aeneid,” he determined to go away to Greece and Asia, and after devoting three entire years to the sole work of improving the poem, to give up the rest of his life wholly to philosophy. But having begun his journey, and at Athens meeting Augustus, who was on his way back to Rome from the Orient, he resolved not to part from the emperor and even to return with him; but in the course of a visit to the neighbouring town of Megara in a very hot sun, he was taken with a fever, and added to his disorder by continuing his journey; hence on his arrival at Brundisium he was considerably worse, and died there on the eleventh day before the Kalends of October, in the consulship of Gnaeus Sentius and Quintus Lucretius. 36 His ashes were taken to Naples and laid to rest on the via Puteolana less than two miles from the city, in a tomb for which he himself composed this couplet:
“Mantua gave me the light, Calabria slew me; now holds me
Parthenope. I have sung shepherds, the country, and wars.
37 He named as his heirs Valerius Proculus, his half-brother, to one-half of his estate, Augustus to one-fourth, Maecenas to one-twelfth; the rest he left to Lucius Varius and Plotius Tucca, who revised the “Aeneid” after his death by order of Augustus. 38 With regard to this matter we have the following verses of Sulpicius of Carthage:
“Vergil had bidden these songs by swift flame be turned into ashes,
Songs which sang of thy fates, Phrygia’s leader renowned.
Varius and Tucca forbade, and thou, too, greatest of Caesars,
Adding your veto to theirs, Latium’s story preserved.
All but twice in the flames unhappy Pergamum perished,
Troy on a second pyre narrowly failed of her doom.”
39 He had arranged with Varius, before leaving Italy, that if anything befell him (8) his friend should burn the “Aeneid”; but Varius had emphatically declared that he would do no such thing. Therefore in his mortal illness Vergil constantly called for his book-boxes, intending to burn the poem himself; but when no one brought them to him, he made no special request about the matter, 40 but left his writings jointly to the above mentioned Varius and to Tucca, with the stipulation that they should publish nothing which he himself would not have given to the world. 41 However, Varius published the “Aeneid” at Augustus’ request, making only a few slight corruptions, and even leaving the incomplete lines just as they were. These last many afterwards tried to finish, but failed owing to the difficulty that nearly all the half-lines in Vergil are complete in sense and meaning, the sole exception being “Quem tibi iam Troia.” (9) 42 The grammarian Nisus used to say that he had heard from older men that Varius changed the order of two of the books and made what was then the second book the third; also that he emended the beginning of the first book by striking out the lines:
“I who on slender reed once rustic numbers did render,
Parting them from the groves, commanded the neighbouring fallows
Tribute to pay to their lords, however much they exacted,
Task hailed with joy by the hind; but now dread deeds of the war-god,
Arms and the hero I sing.”
43 Vergil never lacked detractors, which is not strange; for neither did Homer. When the “Bucolics” appeared, a certain Numitorius wrote “Anti-bucolics,” consisting of but two poems, which were a very insipid parody. The first began as follows:
“Tityrus, if a warm toga you have, why then a beech mantle?”
The second: —
“Tell me, Damoetas, I pray, is ‘cuium pecus’ really good Latin?
Nay, but our Aegon’s way, and thus men talk in the country.”
Another man, when Vergil recited from his “Georgics,” “nudus ara, sere nudus,” (10) added “habebis frigore febrem.” (11) 44 There is also a book in criticism of the “Aeneid” by Carvilius Pictor, called “Aeneomastix.” (12) Marcus Vipsanius called Vergil a supposititious child of Maecenas, that inventor of a new kind of affected language, (13) neither bombastic nor of studied simplicity, but in ordinary words and hence less obvious. Herennius made selections confined to his defects, and Perellius Fausta to his pilferings. 45 More than that, the eight volumes of Quintus Octavius Avitus, entitled “Resemblances,” contain the verses which he borrowed, with their sources. 46 Asconius Pedianus, in a book which he wrote “Against the Detractors of Vergil,” sets forth a very few of the charges against him, and those for the most part dealing with history and with the accusation that he borrowed a great deal from Homer; but he says that Vergil used to meet this latter accusation with these words [word in the Loeb edition] : “Why don’t my critics also attempt the same thefts? If they do, they will realize that it is easier to filch his club from Hercules than a line from Homer.” Yet Asconius says that Vergil had intended to go into retirement, in order to prune down everything to the satisfaction of carping critics.
The Loeb Editor’s Notes:
(1) “The Maiden.”
(2) Ecl. 5.20.
(3) Culex, 413 f.
(4) 2.34.65 f.
(5) Aen. 6.884 f.
(6) Aen. 6.164.
(7) Aen. 6.165.
(8) Cf. Aug. ci.3.
(9) Aen. 3.340. This is no real exception, for we probably have the line as Vergil intended to leave it. Andromache purposely avoids naming the amissae parentis (341).
(10) “Plough naked, naked sow.”
(11) “A chill will give you the fever.”
(12) The scourge of Aeneas.
(13) See Aug. lxxxvi.2.
This public domain text of the Virgil biography comes to us from Bill Thayer’s excellent website, which contains links to the original Latin text as well as Thayer’s own notes.
Many thanks to Bill Thayer for his enthusiasm for history, dedication to accuracy, and all the work he has done to make these classic texts available to a new generation.