Naples: Life, Death & Miracles  © 2002-2017       contact:     Jeff Matthews  
home & index 1     -->  2
eyes of

link to a Google search page HERE

main index   © Jeff Matthews  entry Aug. 2003

Virgil in Naples  (1)    also see:  (2)  (3) (4)

One of Gastave Dore's illustrations for the Divine Comedy shows Vergil guiding Dante into the Inferno at Lake Averno.

                        illustrationPublius Vergilius Maro (70-19 bc), one of the great names in Western literature, is still connected in some slightly bizarre ways to modern-day Naples. For example, if you drive past the Castel dell'Ovo—the Egg Castle off of Santa Lucia and ask yourself why it's called the "egg" castle, the answer is that about a thousand years ago the rumor started that  Virgil, a thousand years earlier, had placed an egg in a small container on the premises. If the egg was ever broken, disaster would befall the city. Indeed, egg shells on the castle grounds were enough to cause small-scale disorder among the population of Naples in the Middle Ages!

Another one: if you drive through the Mergellina tunnel on your way to Fuorigrotta, you pass within a stone's throw of a Roman tunnel. It was one of a few such tunnels—all major feats of engineering at the time—that the Romans built to get in and out of Naples. Legend has it that Virgil conjured this one tunnel into existence by his powers of sorcery. The Mergellina entrance to the tunnel is now on the premises of an historical site called "Virgil's Tomb". And, three, if you wander down to the seaside near Cape Posillipo, you can see the paltry remains of what, over the centuries, has been called, The Sorcerer's House—meaning Virgil.

below: ancient bust of Virgil on the premises
of "Virgil's Tomb" in Naples.

Sorcerer, you say? Isn't this the person who wrote The Aeneid? The Bucolics? The Georgics? Indeed, it is, and he would probably be amused at his putative powers of legerdemain—all due, by the way, to the medieval Italian love of attributing magical ability to the Greats of Antiquity. But when Virgil was alive, he wasn't yet Antiquity; he was just great. No magic in great writing—just hard work. 

Virgil was born near Mantua. His father was a prosperous farmer who sent his son off to Rome to study. Virgil returned home to study Greek philosophy and poetry on his own and began to write poetry that came to the notice of Gaius Cilnius Maecenus, a friend and advisor to the young Octavius (later to become "Augustus Caesar"). Maecenas' name has come down to us as a metaphor of "patron of the arts". That reputation has largely to do with his support of Virgil and the other great poet of the age of Augustus, Horace. 

Under the patronage of Maecenas, Virgil published a collection of eclogues, idyllic poetry, called Bucolica —"The Bucolics," in English. As the title implies, they were filled with a spirit of nostalgia, a longing for a simpler time. This was understandable when you consider that Virgil was a young man when Julius Caesar was assassinated, an event that almost tore Italy apart. That episode, itself, came on the heels of great unrest during the previous 50 years in Italy. Rome was not yet the Roman Empire, and events seemed to be coursing out of control. Perhaps, indeed, a sensitive young poet might have thought—in different words, perhaps, than it occurred to Yeats 2,000 years later—that "the center cannot hold". 

There are ten pastoral poems in the Bucolica, one of which contains the secret as to why Virgil was held in such high, magical esteem by Italians in the Middle Ages. It is Eclogue number four, the so-called Messianic Eclogue, in which Virgil predicts a new age of peace for the world, ushered in by the birth of a child: 

Come soon, dear child of the gods, Jupiter's great viceroy!
Come soonthe time is nearto begin your life illustrious!

Medieval Christian scholars saw this as a prediction of the birth of Christ and, thus, held the poet to have been a "pagan Christian", if you will—one in a position of privilege regarding the divine course of things. No doubt, this is the reason Dante chose Virgil to be his guide through Hell and Purgatory in la Divina Commedia—and no doubt why, among all pagan authors, Virgil did not share their fate of centuries of benign and even malign neglect by Christian scholars. 

In any event, Octavius prevailed, the empire geared up, and Virgil moved to the Campania, to Nola, near Naples. Here Virgil wrote the Georgics — a hymn of praise to the farmer, another bit of nostalgia about a simpler, happier time, full of hope that the new emperor, Augustus, would be the beginning of a great reign of peace. The Georgics are marked by an extraordinary upbeat ending, one of regeneration and resurrection, told in the form of an optimistic allegory of new swarms of honey-bees issuing forth from the carcasses of sacrificed cattle. Here, at the end of the last Georgic, is where Virgil makes a famous reference to Naples: 

This was the time when I, Virgil, nurtured in sweetest
Parthenope, did follow unknown to fame the pursuits
of peace...

Parthenope was the siren in Greek mythology who gave her name to the first Greek settlement in the Bay of Naples-to-be. Indeed, Neapolitans commonly refer to themselves, even today, as "Parthenopeans".

Virgil then set about  immortalizing Augustus. Drawing on the form of the Greek epic, he sang of Aeneas:

...his fate had made him fugitive; he was the first
to journey from the coasts of Troy as far as Italy...
...until he brought a city into being...
from this have come the Latin race, the lords
of Alba, and the ramparts of high Rome...

For Romans of the day, the Aeneid was the epic summing up of their history and a statement of their aspirations—this was to be The Roman Empire. As with the Bucolica and the Georgics, Virgil chose an earlier Greek model for his work: the Homeric epic form. Here, it is interesting to note that all later epic poetry in the Middle Ages, and even something as late as Paradise Lost (1667), owes more to Virgil than to Homer. Until our own Renaissance had rediscovered the Greeks, knowledge of the works of Homer was sketchy and anecdotal. No one in Italy could even read classical Greek in, say, 1400, even if they had had a Greek copy of The Odyssey, which they didn't.

Those Greek originals (or, at least, copies of copies) would not be available for another century and, thus, Latin translations of Homer were not completed until the mid-1500s; so, the "epic" tradition, as originally Greek as it might have been, passed into and through our Middle Ages and into modern times as "Virgilian" rather than "Homeric". When Dante sat around with his friends in 1300 talking about Homer—as he must have done—he knew about Homer and mythical Troy only through references in Roman writers, primarily Virgil, and through the veil of mythology, one much more impenetrable to him than it is to us today. Homer and Classical Greece must have seemed to Dante as, perhaps, tales of Atlantis do to us, today. But Virgil? The entire Middle Ages knew Virgil—he was on the bookshelf. They quoted his language; indeed, they still wrote in Virgil's language, Latin, though, ironically, it would be Dante, himself, to desert that language for the vernacular form later to become known as "Italian". 

Important sections of the Aeneid play out in the area around Naples. It is no problem at all, today, to walk up to the height of Posillipo where Virgil must have stood. It was called Posillipo even then, so named by Greeks centuries earlier—Pavsillipon, the "place where unhappiness ends". From there you can look west across the Bay of Pozzuoli, as Virgil must have done as he struggled to put into poetry the mythology and events that were ancient even to him. You see a point of land that closes the bay at the other end. This is where Aeneas' comrade, Misenus, master of the sea-horn—the conch-shell—made "the waves ring" with his music and challenged the sea-god Triton to musical battle. For his troubles, he was dashed into the sea and killed by "jealous Triton". (See image, above, right: Looking out over the Flegrean Fields to the bay of Pozzuoli and Cape Miseno. Click here for a much larger image and links to further text.)


...Pious Aeneas
sets up a mighty tomb above Misenus
bearing his arms, a trumpet, and an oar;
it stands beneath a lofty promontory,
now known as Cape Misenus after him:
it keeps a name that lasts through all the ages.

"All the ages" is a long time, but at least 2,000 years later, it is still Cape Miseno. (image, above)

Right past Miseno and the end of the bay, Aeneas and his men "glide to the Euboean coast of Cuma"—"Euboean" from the Greek isle of "Evvoia", purported home of those who had founded the city. Here 

... you reach the town of Cumae
 the sacred lakes, the loud wood of Avernus,
 there you will see the frenzied prophetess
deep in her cave of rocks she charts the fates
... She will unfold for you... 
the wars that are to come and in what way 
you are to face or flee each crisis...

This, of course, is where Aeneas has come to get the answer he seeks—where and whether the wandering Trojans will be able to rest. Here is the cave (photo, right) of the prophetess, the Sibyl of Cuma

The giant flank of that Euboean crag
has been dug out into a cave; a hundred
broad ways lead to that place, a hundred gates;
as many voices rush from these...

Then, Aeneas is off to the lake of Avernus to descend into the underworld to seek his father. At the lake still called Lago Averno, 

There was a wide-mouthed cavern, deep and vast
and rugged, sheltered by a shadowed lake
and darkened groves; such vapor poured from those
black jaws to heaven's vault, no bird could fly
above unharmed (for which the Greeks have called
the place "Aornos" or "The birdless")...

Here, then, is Virgil's repetition of the popular etymology that has Averno as the source of “infernal,” and even the word “inferior” in the sense of "the bottom part of"—i.e. the underworld, Hell.

Aeneas finds his father Anchises, who tells him 

...that famous Rome will make her boundaries
as broad as earth itself, will make her spirit
the equal of Olympus, and enclose
her seven hills within a single wall,
rejoicing in her race on men...

Those lines are the epic justification for what Rome was to become. They were undoubtedly lines that Octavius—Caesar Augustus—wanted to hear, and once Virgil had given him those lines, there was no way that Augustus was going to give them back. That is to say, Virgil left Naples on a trip to Greece. He took ill and returned, dying in Brindisi in 19 bc at the age of 51. He had not finished the Aeneid, and he left instructions for the work to be destroyed. The emperor made sure that did not happen. Augustus entrusted the unfinished work to two of Virgil's friend for editing, and that is the version that passed through the centuries to Dante and to us. 

Virgil's remains were returned to Naples and entombed. Whether they are in the exact spot of Virgil's Tomb in Mergellina is irrelevant. As George Sarton says: "...his main creations were the fruits of his life in Campania. What a country to live in for a poet, a country full of natural beauty and glorious remembrances... If one wants to visualize Virgil, it is there that one must seek for him, not in  the land of his birth, but in the one that was the nursery of his genius." 

And as Virgil, himself, said: he was "nurtured in sweetest Parthenope".

[Passages cited from the Aeneid, are from The Aeneid of Virgil, a verse translation by Allen Mandelbaum, A Bantam Classic Edition, 1981. Translation © 1971 by Allen Mandelbaum. Passages from The Eclogues or The Georgics are from Virgil, The Eclogues, The Georgics. The World's Classics, Oxford University Press, 1983, translation by C. Day Lewis © 1983.] The Sarton quote at the end is from his A History of Science, Vol. 2: Hellenistic Science and Culture in the Last Three Centuries B.C. 1959. Harvard Univ. Press, Cambridge.]

to literature portal    to history portal       to Ancient World portal

to main index