During the civil strife that killed the Roman Republic, when Julius Caesar had been assassinated in 44 BCE, the army led by his assassins Brutus and Cassius met defeat by Caesar's faction, including his chief lieutenant Mark Antony and his newly adopted son Octavian Caesar in 42 BCE in Greece near Philippi. The victors paid off their soldiers with land expropriated from towns in northern Italy, supposedly including an estate near Mantua belonging to Virgil—again an inference from themes in his work and not supported by independent sources. Virgil dramatizes the contrasting feelings caused by the brutality of expropriation but also by the promise attaching to the youthful figure of Caesar's heir in the Bucolics in which he had worked out the mythic framework for lifelong ambition to conquer Greek epic for Rome.
In themes the ten eclogues develop and vary epic song, relating it first to Roman power (ecl. 1), then to love, both homosexual (ecl. 2) and panerotic (ecl. 3), then again to Roman power and Caesar's heir imagined as authorizing Virgil to surpass Greek epic and refound tradition (ecll. 4 and 5), shifting back to love then as a dynamic source considered apart from Rome (ecl. 6). Hence in the remaining eclogues Virgil withdraws from his newly minted Roman mythology and gradually constructs a new myth of his own poetics--he casts the remote Greek region of Arcadia, home of the god Pan, as the place of poetic origin itself. In passing, he again rings changes on erotic themes, such as requited and unrequited homosexual and heterosexual passion, tragic love for elusive women or magical powers of song to retrieve an elusive boy. He concludes by establishing Arcadia as a poetic ideal that still resonates in Western literature and visual arts.
Readers often did and sometimes do identify the poet himself with various characters and their vicissitudes, whether gratitude by an old rustic to a new god (ecl. 1), frustrated love by a rustic singer for a distant boy (his master's pet, ecl. 2), or a master singer's claim to have composed several eclogues (ecl. 5). Modern scholars largely reject such efforts to garner biographical details from fictive texts preferring instead to interpret the diverse characters and themes as representing the poet's own contrastive perceptions of contemporary life and thought.
Biographical reconstruction supposes that Virgil soon became part of the circle of Maecenas, Octavian's capable agent d'affaires who sought to counter sympathy for Mark Antony among the leading families by rallying Roman literary figures to Octavian's side. It also appears that Virgil gained many connections with other leading literary figures of the time, including Horace and Varius Rufus (who later helped finish the Aeneid). After he had completed the Bucolics (so-called in homage to Theocritus, who had been the first to write short epic poems taking herdsmen's life as their apparent theme — bucolic in Greek meaning "on care for cattle"), Virgil spent the ensuing years (perhaps 37–29 BCE) on the longer epic called Georgics (from Greek, "On Working the Earth", because farming is their apparent theme, in the tradition of Greek Hesiod), which he dedicated to Maecenas (source of the expression tempus fugit ["time flies"]). Virgil and Maecenas took turns reading the Georgics to Octavian upon his return from defeating Antony and his consort Cleopatra at the Battle of Actium in 31 BCE. In 27 BCE the Roman Senate conferred on Octavian the more than human title Augustus, well suited to Virgil's ambition to write an epic to challenge Homer, a Roman epic developed from the Caesarist mythology introduced in the Bucolics and incorporating now the Julian Caesars' family legend that traced their line back to a mythical Trojan prince who escaped the fall of Troy.
Virgil worked on the Aeneid during the last ten years of his life. Its first six books tell how the Trojan hero Aeneas escapes from the sacking of Troy and makes his way to Italy. On the voyage, a storm drives him to the coast of Carthage, which historically was Rome's deadliest foe. The queen, Dido, welcomes the ancestor of the Romans, and under the influence of the gods falls deeply in love with him. Jupiter recalls Aeneas to his duty towards Rome, however, and he slips away from Carthage, leaving Dido to commit suicide, cursing Aeneas and calling down revenge in a symbolic anticipation of the fierce wars between Carthage and Rome. On reaching Cumae, in Italy, Aeneas consults the Cumaean Sibyl, who conducts him through the Underworld and where Virgil imagines him meeting his father Anchises who reveals his son's Roman destiny to him.
The six books (of "first writing") are modeled on Homer's Odyssey, but the last six are the Roman answer to the Iliad. Aeneas is betrothed to Lavinia, daughter of King Latinus, but Lavinia had already been promised to Turnus, the king of the Rutulians, who is roused to war by the Fury Allecto. The Aeneid ends with a single combat between Aeneas and Turnus, whom Aeneas defeats and kills, spurning his plea for mercy.
Virgil traveled with Augustus to Greece. En route, Virgil caught a fever, from which he died in Brundisium harbor, leaving the Aeneid unfinished. Augustus ordered Virgil's literary executors, Lucius Varius Rufus and Plotius Tucca, to disregard Virgil's own wish that the poem be burned, instead ordering it published with as few editorial changes as possible. As a result, the text of the Aeneid that exists may contain faults which Virgil was planning to correct before publication. However, the only obvious imperfections are a few lines of verse that are metrically unfinished (i.e., not a complete line of dactylic hexameter). Other alleged "imperfections" are subject to scholarly debate.
Incomplete or not, the Aeneid was immediately recognized as a masterpiece. It proclaimed the Imperial mission of the Roman Empire, while at the same time pitying Rome's victims and feeling their grief. Aeneas was considered to exemplify virtue and pietas (roughly translated as "piety", though the word is far more complex and has a sense of being duty-bound and respectful of divine will, family and homeland). Nevertheless, Aeneas struggles between doing what he wants as a man, and doing what he must as a virtuous hero. In the view of some modern critics, Aeneas' inner turmoil and shortcomings make him a more realistic character than the heroes of Homeric poetry, such as Odysseus.
Dante made Virgil his guide to Hell and the greater part of Purgatory in The Divine Comedy. Dante also mentions Virgil in De vulgari eloquentia, along with Ovid, Lucan and Statius, as one of the four regulati poetae (ii, vi, 7).
Virgil continues to be considered one of the greatest Latin poets.
Also during the Middle Ages, as Virgil was developed into a kind of magus, manuscripts of the Aeneid were used for divinatory bibliomancy, the Sortes Virgilianae, in which a line would be selected at random and interpreted in the context of a current situation (Compare the ancient Chinese I Ching). The Old Testament was sometimes used for similar arcane purposes. Even in the Welsh myth of Taliesin, the goddess Cerridwen is reading from the "Book of Pheryllt"—that is, Virgil.
In some legends, such as Virgilius the Sorcerer, the powers attributed to Virgil were far more extensive.
The tomb known as "Virgil's tomb" is found at the entrance of an ancient Roman tunnel (also known as "grotta vecchia") in the Parco di Virgilio in Piedigrotta, a district two miles from old Naples, near the Mergellina harbor, on the road heading north along the coast to Pozzuoli. The site called Parco Virgiliano is some distance further north along the coast. While Virgil was already the object of literary admiration and veneration before his death, in the following centuries his name became associated with miraculous powers, his tomb the destination of pilgrimages and veneration. The poet himself was said to have created the cave with the fierce power of his intense gaze.
It is said that the Chiesa della Santa Maria di Piedigrotta was erected by Church authorities to neutralize this adoration and "Christianize" the site. The tomb, however, is a tourist attraction, and still sports a tripod burner originally dedicated to Apollo, bearing witness to the beliefs held by Virgil.
In the 19th century, some German-trained classicists in the United States suggested modification to Vergil, as it is closer to his original name, and is also the traditional German spelling. Modern usage permits both, though the Oxford guide to style recommends Vergilius to avoid confusion with the 8th-century Irish grammarian Virgilius Maro Grammaticus.