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What's in a Name?

As this website expands and more pages concerning topics such as Dante’s Comedy and Roman history are added, you may notice the usage of “Vergil” alongside the usage of “Virgil.” While I may use both spellings simultaneously, it is important to note that I do not use them interchangeably. To understand this, we must first understand where each of the two spellings comes from.

The case for “Vergil” is simple: The Mantuan poet of the Augustan period, famed as the author of the Aeneid, spelled his own name “Vergilius.” In the Latin text of his Georgics, we can see him refer to himself as “Vergilium” (Georg. 4.559). Why, then, do so many people call him “Virgil,” more than two thousand years after his death?

Some would argue that his contemporary nickname of Parthenias indicates that the spelling “Virgilius” dates back to his own lifetime. I would disagree. “Virgilius” seems to come less from the poet’s alleged virginal demeanor in antiquity and more from his reputation in the Middle Ages. There are two primary etymologies for the spelling “Virgil.” The first is from the Latin “virgō,” meaning “virgin.” Since the time of Constantine, Vergil’s Fourth Eclogue has been read by Christian scholars as a messianic prophecy, understanding it not as Vergil foretelling the birth of a son to his friend and patron Pollio, but rather as Vergil foretelling the birth of Christ. In this reading, the “Virgō” mentioned (Ecl. 4.6) is not the virgin Roman goddess of justice Astraea, but the Virgin Mary herself. Thus, Christian scholars turned Vergil from a virtuous pagan into a Christian before Christ, calling him “Virgil” to emphasize his supposed reference to Mary. The second is from the Latin “virga,” a term for a magician’s rod. Over the years, Vergil was given a reputation of being a magician, illustrated in the story of “Virgil in the basket.” According to this story, the poet fell in love with the emperor’s daughter. His affections were unreturned, but the daughter decided to feign falling in love with him, seeking to punish him for his overfamiliarity. She suggested that she pull him up into her room in the palace’s tower using a basket, a plan the poet readily agreed to. Once in the basket, however, he was lifted halfway up the wall and left hanging. The daughter and the townspeople mocked him, and after using magic to escape his predicament, he used it in retribution, snuffing out all the lights in Rome and humiliating the daughter. While I am unsure where exactly this idea of Vergil as a magician comes from, it certainly seems prevalent enough for people to spell his name “Virgil.”

Now that we understand the origin of each spelling, before discussing my usage of each of these spellings, it must next be understood that Virgil as he appears in Dante’s Comedy is not simply meant to stand in for “rationality” or “human reason” or any other number of allegorical meanings assigned to him. Virgil is, as he describes himself in his introduction (Inf. I 67-75), a man whose parents were from Mantua in Lombardy, a man born in the lifetime of Caesar and ruled by Augustus, a man who wrote of Aeneas’ flight from Troy. He is to be understood, first and foremost, as the historical figure, not an abstract concept. If this topic interests you, I recommend Robert Hollander’s lecture on the topic. However, while Dante’s Virgil is certainly intended to represent the historical figure, he is still a character in Dante’s poem, and at times this character contradicts what the historical Vergil wrote in his own works. One of the most remarkable instances of this can be seen in Inf. XX, where Dante’s Virgil relates a story of the founding of Mantua inconsistent with the account the historical Vergil included in his Aeneid. While the historical Vergil describes Mantua as being founded by Ocnus and named for his mother (Aen. X. 198-203), Dante’s Virgil explains how Manto herself founded the city. Early in this digression, Virgil asks, “for just a moment hear me out on this” (Inf. XX 57). When the story comes to a close, Virgil asks that Dante believe this version and this version only, commanding him to “allow no lie to falsify the truth” (Inf. XX 99). Beyond simply being a fictional portrayal of a historical figure, Dante’s Virgil disagrees with his actual antecedent, referring to his account as a lie.

This sort of contradiction between the literary and the historical figures is what leads me to distinguish them with their names. When I use the spelling “Vergil,” I speak of the factual, historical man, the author of the Aeneid. When I use the spelling “Virgil,” I speak of the literary figure, Dante’s guide in his Comedy, as “Virgil” is the spelling Dante used (Italianized as “Virgilio”). With this in mind, any potential confusion while browsing this site can be avoided.

Last edited July 6th, 2023.