100 Heroes: Virgil

The gay man who became one of history's most famous poets.

100 Heroes: Virgil

Publius Vergilius Maro – known as Virgil – was an ancient Roman poet of the Augustan period.

He wrote three of the most famous poems in Latin literature: the Eclogues (or Bucolics), the Georgics, and the epic Aeneid.

Virgil is traditionally ranked as one of Rome’s greatest poets. His Aeneid has been considered the national epic of ancient Rome since the time of its composition.

Modelled after Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, the Aeneid follows the Trojan refugee Aeneas as he struggles to fulfil his destiny and reach Italy, where his descendants Romulus and Remus were to found the city of Rome.

Virgil’s work has had wide and deep influence on Western literature.

Life and works

Details of Virgil’s life are taken from a number of secondary sources, so there’s a number of inconsistencies and unknowns in Virgil’s story.

It’s believed that Virgil was born in northern Italy around 70BC.

It’s likely that Virgil was from a prosperous, landowning family who could afford to pay for his education.

He appears to have begun writing poetry from a young age.

The Eclogues

Virgil is believed to have begun working on the Eclogues around 42 BC – the collection was published around 39 BC.

The ten Eclogues present traditional pastoral themes with a fresh perspective. Eclogues 1 and 9 address land confiscations and their effects on the Italian countryside. 2 and 3 are pastoral and erotic – exploring same-sex attraction. Eclogue 4 uses the imagery of the golden age in connection with the birth of a child. 5 and 8 describe the myth of Daphnis in a song contest, 6, the cosmic and mythological song of Silenus; 7, a heated poetic contest, and 10 the sufferings of the contemporary elegiac poet Cornelius Gallus.

The Georgics

From around the year 37 BC to 29 BC, Virgil was working on the long poem known as the Georgics.

The ostensible theme of the Georgics is instruction in the methods of running a farm.

The four books of the Georgics focus respectively on raising crops and trees (1 and 2), livestock and horses (3), and beekeeping and the qualities of bees (4).

The Georgics lays the foundations for later didactic poetry.

The Aeneid

The Aeneid is widely considered Virgil’s finest work and one of the most important poems in the history of Western literature.

Believed to have been commissioned by the emperor Augustus, Virgil worked on the Aeneid during the last eleven years of his life (29–19 BC).

The epic poem consists of 12 books that describe the journey of Aeneas, a warrior fleeing the sack of Troy, to Italy, his battle with the Italian prince Turnus, and the foundation of a city from which Rome would emerge.


Virgil reportedly caught a fever while visiting a town near Megara. After crossing to Italy by ship, weakened with disease, Virgil died in Brundisium harbour in the year 19 BC.

Follow Gareth Johnson on Twitter