The Age of Virgil


In 3rd year classes the Latin curriculum is based on Virgil works. During this term,  two or three Eclogues and ample excerpts from Georgica and Aeneid are read and studied thoroughly, with particular attention paid to the historical setting in which Virgil composed his poems. The reason of such an approach is evident: without a clear evaluation of the context in which Virgil was active, the inner meaning and intentions of his poetry cannot be fully understood and appreciated.

For this reason, I developed a project focused on Virgil historical milieu, being also confident that the vibrant (to say the least...) society of the late Roman Republic and  Early Principate can be particularly interesting by itself. Rome had become the greatest and richest city in the Mediterranean basin, with a population of hundreds of thousands and the most lively cultural life of that age: when Virgil  arrived in Rome, the golden age of literature had already began. Cicero had already reached the highest point ever achieved by Roman oratory (much to Asinius Pollio's chagrin...) and had  shown the Roman aristocrats how philosophy could suit the needs of the Roman élites.  Catullus, in his elegant neglect for any political activity, had entertained the "jeunesse dorée" with his polished and exquisite nugae, while  Lucretius, ostensibly ignored by the Roman aristocracy (at least in public...)  had celebrated Epicureism. Love had become a literary matter thanks to the elegists (and Catullus, of course), Sallust had made a myth of Catilina and Jugurtha, Caesar had invented ethnography...

Virgil, together with Horace, constituted the highest peak reached by the culture of the age. How did the world he moved in look like? In order to let my students discover it, I divided them into groups (as I often do) and had them writing an essay on the following topics:


1) Roman schools (Virgil was a pupil before being the author most read in Roman schools)

2) book production and circulation in Rome

3) mecenatism

4) social status of intellectuals and authors.


The material at their disposal comprised a set of texts taken from academic secondary literature and a selection of texts from Horace, Martial, Pliny the Younger, Cicero, Persius in Italian translation. Although many of such authors are not perfectly contemporary with Virgil, the information they convey is nonetheless useful for Virgil's age too. See the  following bibliography for details.