Ancient Roman bust (so-called "Bust of Ve...
Ancient Roman bust (so-called “Bust of Vergil”) from the Tomb of Vergil in Naples, Italy. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Vergil (or Virgil, properly, Publius Vergilius Maro, 70-19 BCE) was a Roman poet who studied philosophy in Rome before gaining status as a court poet.

His unfinished Aeneid was commissioned by the emperor Augustus to honor Rome’s origins.

Vergil’s grave was treated as a sacred site for centuries. And from the Middle Ages to recent times his Latin works were standard fare for educational institutions throughout Europe.

The poet Dante called Vergil il nostro maggior poeta (“our greatest poet”).¹ In his Divine Comedy, Dante characterized Vergil as a guide, leading him through several layers of Hell and, then, up to Purgatory.

J. B. Trapp notes

In the third canto of Purgatorio, Dante’s great mentor reproaches him for his faint trust:

Non credi tu me teco e ch’io ti guidi?²

Profile of Dante Alighieri, one of the most re...
Profile of Dante Alighieri, one of the most renowned Italian poets, painted by his contemporary Giotto di Bondone (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

After seeing purgatory, Beatrice replaces Vergil as Dante’s guide. She then leads Dante through the gates at the entrance of Paradise. From Dante’s perspective, Vergil could not continue upward because of his unconverted pagan roots.

According to legend the apostle Paul wept over Vergil’s grave because the poet was so close to gaining the opportunity of becoming a Christian.

In pop culture, the names Vergil, Dante and Beatrice appear in video games, rock bands, novels—the list goes on.

¹M. C. Howatson, ed. The Oxford Companion to Classical Literature, Second Edition, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989, p. 595.

² Google Translate: Dost thou not think me with thee, and that I guide thee? Source: J. B. Trapp, “The Grave of Vergil,” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, Vol. 47, (1984: 1-31), p. 1.

Related Posts » Aeneas, Blessed Isles, Furies, Sibyl


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