Virgil, whose real name was Publius Vergilius Maro, was born on 15 October 70 BC. Although he is known as a Roman writer, he was actually of Celtic origin. His family was from the Lombardy plain on the northern banks of the Po river―part of what was known then as Cisalpine Gaul. This was under Roman rule and so they were Roman citizens.
Virgil's father, a poor cobbler to start with, married well and then improved his own financial position by saving up and buying land for a farm. He had higher ambitions for his intelligent son. When Virgil was twelve, his father sent him to be educated first at Cremona, then Milan, and finally Rome.
Virgil studied science and astronomy for two years each at Cremona and Milan, and then switched to philosophy under the Epicureans in Rome. The details of this period of his life are not known. It is most likely his education was interrupted, or was affected to a certain degree, by the civil wars in Rome before and after the assassination of Julius Caesar.
Around 42 BC, he had established a reputation for himself as a rising literary figure for poetry. He had also befriended Asinius Pollio, the Roman Governor of the area north of the Po, who greatly admired his poetic talent.
After the battle of Philippi, fought between Octavian Augustus and the Republican forces, many farms and lands were seized by the victorious Octavian and redistributed to his soldiers. Virgil's father's farm was among one of these properties. On the advice of Asinius Pollio and other influential friends, Virgil proceeded to Rome to petition to Octavian for the farm.
It was a successful mission―his father's farm was duly returned―and he also met and created a very positive impression on both Octavian and Octavian's close friend and capable right hand man, Mǽcenas, who became his patron. It was also on this visit that he became acquainted with the other leading poet of the day, Horace.
The Romans had a great passion for literature, and many slaves were kept busy copying books for the public. The rich Romans maintained private libraries, while the poor people used the public ones, and everyone gathered to hear public readings and check out the bulletins on the latest releases.
Poets and writers were treated like celebrities, and Virgil went on to achieve great fame and fortune. He was dogged by crowds whenever he went out. Such attention seemed to have exacerbated his reclusive tendencies and he preferred to live on the country estate he bought in Nola.
Virgil's poetic career had begun when still a student, but his early poems did not gain any special merit. His reputation was established by the 'Ecologues' or pastoral poems. He started them before he left for Rome, and were completed and published in 37 BC. The poems were immediately successful.
At the suggestion of Mǽcenas, he began another notable work, the 'Georgics'. This was completed in 29 BC and again received with great enthusiasm.
After this, he began his most famous work, the Ǽneid. He finished the first draft in 19 BC and planned on revising it before publication. In the meantime though, worn out with the work, he decided to take some time off and set off to travel through Greece and Asia.
He got as far as Athens and then, on Octavian's request, started to turn home to finish a new masterpiece. He fell ill before he left, and the rough sea journey to Brindisi worsened matters. He died shortly after docking and was buried at Naples.
He had never married―he was a homosexual―and left no immediate family. According to his will, he asked for all his incomplete work to be destroyed. This would have been the fate of the Ǽneid if Octavian hadn't intervened. He ordered the poem to be published as it was. Virgil was one of the earliest Latin poets, and his works continue to be studied as part of the Latin curriculum in schools and universities.
The Ecologues: The Ecologues are romantic pastoral poems, extolling the natural beauty of the world and calling for universal peace and happiness. These were just the right sentiments to appeal to the Romans after years of civil strife.
The Georgics: In the Georgics, he returned to the glories of rural life. The work was actually a subtle propaganda piece for Octavian. When Virgil wrote about a farmer working on his land, the idea was to give a much needed boost to the Roman agricultural industry, which had been ravaged by the civil wars.
The Ǽneid: The Ǽneid chronicles the adventures of the Trojan hero and founder of the Romans, Ǽneas. A subtle propaganda was at play. His heroics were intended to cast a favorable light on those of Octavian and laud the greatness of the Roman Empire.