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I, Virgil - Background to the Book

Virgil - the ‘I ’ of the title wasn’t my idea - was my first published book (I’ve got six unpublished ones in the drawer, fantasy/timeslip, not Roman, which will probably stay there until hell freezes). It had its origins in an essay when I was a student at Edinburgh in the early 1970s; basically, what puzzled me was why (as I saw things, anyway) Virgil had chosen to end his Aeneid, which in effect was a major piece of propaganda for the emperor Augustus, by returning its Augustan hero Aeneas to his original, pre-Augustan moral state and virtually undoing the work of the whole twelve books. Twenty years later, when I started to write fiction, I thought of using this in a fictional context: the premise being that Virgil had done this intentionally for reasons of his own, that Augustus had found out and had had him killed.

So I started doing the research with the intention of building up a case; a purely circumstantial one, of course, because I was writing fiction, but sticking to the historical/literary facts even although the interpretation of them was my own. The results were fascinating. Being a classicist, not a historian, I knew my Aeneid fairly well but had only a superficial knowledge of late-1st-century BC history, so I concentrated on that side of things. It soon became clear (at least in my admittedly-biased conspiracy-theory-writer’s view, because I was actively looking for them) that there were very strong and unambiguous echoes of the history in the poem. Eventually, I constructed a table with the former running down the left hand column and their Aeneid tie-ins down the right. The table stretched to three closely-written A4 pages.

Also interesting - in my conspiracy-writer’s view - were the historical facts of Virgil’s death. He had taken the manuscript of the Aeneid - which Augustus had never seen as a whole - to Greece, intending a 3-year revision. When he arrived at Piraeus he was met on the docks by Augustus himself, who had sailed there from Pergamum. Augustus persuaded Virgil to return with him to Italy immediately. Before the ship sailed Virgil caught a chill on the stomach from drinking cold spring-water; the chill turned to a fever on the voyage and by the time the ship reached Brindisi Virgil was dead.

I didn’t know that story before I decided to write the book. The memory of first coming across it still sends a shiver down my spine.

Very little of all this background research found its way into the book - Virgil is a story, after all, not a treatise - but it’s all in my original files, and I’m convinced that, if my explanation isn’t the correct one, at least it constitutes a viable theory.

I enjoyed writing Virgil. If you’ve read any of the Corvinus books, you’ll find that he’s a totally different person from Corvinus: introspective, rather precious, desperate to explain himself and tocommunicate; a thinker, not a doer. He thinks in pictures and metaphors, where Corvinus wouldn’t recognise a metaphor if it bit him, and he’s more than a little prudish: he only swears once in the book, very mildly, and with complete justification, when he realises that his slave has let Maecenas see the complete manuscript and this is his death warrant. That single ‘You bloody fool!’ was quite intentionally out of character.

If you haven’t read ‘I, Virgil’ and would like to, I hope you enjoy it. Don’t expect a murder mystery, though, let alone a Corvinus book: I’ve always wondered whether, if I could rewrite it, I’d change the format from a historical to a whodunnit, but perhaps it’s better, with all its flaws, as it stands.

Best wishes

David Wishart

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