“It is a fair bet that there has not been a single day since 19BCE when someone somewhere has not been reading Virgil’s Aeneid, and it is hard to think of many other books, apart from the Hebrew Bible, of which one could say that.” Thus Mary Beard in her Guardian survey of Roman history.

Publius Vergilius Maro seems to have started having his name misspelled, if that’s what it was, early on. J. W. Mackail points out that the relatively common family name Vergillius was also spelled Virgillius in different times and places; the different spelling probably reflecting different pronunciations. In The Classical Tradition Gilbert Highet suggests that the vowel shift from e to i may have begun because of Vergil’s nickname Parthenias, apparently bestowed on him during his lifetime by the Neapolitans, which makes reference to the poet’s alleged sexual restraint. Get it? Vergil’s a virgin, I guess.

I wanted to make Vergil/Virgil into one of those Oxford/Cambridge arguments, like civilisation/civilization or medieaval/medieval, but even these examples appear to be of questionable validity. Probably we in Cambridge used just to brush off alternate spellings by sniffing that that was how they did things in the other place. (I certainly played a similar game after arriving in America. I became a much better speller as soon as I could claim that that was how a word was spelled over there.)

Amazon’s not messing around: search for Vergil, and they’ll deliver results for Virgil, knowing you made a typo. The Germans seem to go for Vergil. They attribute the spelling with i to late antiquity and early medieval periods. The French are in the i camp; Virgile is their man. They apparently (at least on Wikipedia) don’t acknowledge that e was ever an option. Ditto the Italians and Spanish where Virgilio reigns alone.

I guess it doesn’t matter how we spell his name, as long as we read him. Professor Beard’s claim must rely a whole lot on school children. I’m not sure at what age I was assigned my first book of the Aeneid, but I did two or three of them. Serious Latin students got to browse Georgics too, but I was never in that group. One of my retirement projects is to read the Aeneid in Latin. I’m a bit bogged down near the end of Book 1 in my Loeb Classical Library edition, dealing with Dido: I always found her a bit trying. Aeneid was forever being extracted and reworked, and the Dido and Aeneas story was one of the favorites. On to Book 2 and the Trojan war!

Even a hesitant Latin reader like me can appreciate the efficiency of Latin as a language for verse. Because the words conjugate and decline you can put almost any word anywhere in the sentence without risk of misunderstanding, and thus the poet can make dramatic juxtapositions and focus on the melody in the words, almost allowing the sense to take care of itself because of the agreement of word endings. Consider the famous line 462 of Book 1, “sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt.” It consists of two phrases made up of verb, subject, qualifying noun, and then object, subject, verb. “Are — tears — of things. Mind — mortal-things — touch.” The Loeb translation does as well with this as any I’ve found “here, too, are tears for misfortune and human sorrows pierce the heart”. Tough for a non-inflected language to match the concision and also the slight ambiguity as to whether the “rerum” are themselves weeping or being wept over.

I wonder if there’s any way to count how many copies of Vergil’s various books have been printed. While the print runs, except perhaps for things like a school edition of Aeneid Book VI, were probably always fairly small, they were constant. I’m sure best-seller Vergil could boast that his works have never been out of print. Amazon offers at least 15 different translations into English. In my post on tie-ins and fan fics I expressed surprise that fan fiction.net showed 14 fan fics based on the Aeneid. In the two and a half years since then the number has gone up to 30.