The Legend of Virgil’s Bones:
About the image: This is a photo of Virgil’s Tomb and the Crypta Neapolitana in Mergellina. Virgil’s Tomb is a small structure located at the top of the park. Such a small monument seems unfitting, considering Virgil is considered one of ancient Rome’s greatest poets. Right below the tomb is one entrance to the Crypta Neapolitana: a tunnel built during the reign of Augustus to connect ancient Naples to Pozzuoli and over 700 meters in length.
When Virgil died in 19 BC, he asked that his ashes be taken back to his villa in Naples. There, a shrine was erected for him and sacred rites were said there every year on his birthday. He was given a Hero’s rites, and his tomb became a pilgrimage site for many centuries, attracting such distinguished men as Petrarch and Boccaccio. Eventually, Virgil’s tomb fell into ruin, and its exact location was forgotten. Legend has it that the English scholar Ludowicus, acting secretly for his king with ambitions to conquer Naples, came searching for Virgil’s bones and a book of magic. The people of Naples did not allow him to take the bones because they protected their city; he was allowed to take the book, however – the Ars Notoria, an alchemical and magical text. Virgil’s bones were then placed in a small vial in the Castel dell’Ovo to guard the city. Heroes’ relics, including Aristotle’s bones at Palermo, protected many other cities of the time.
Virgil’s bones protected Naples for many years, and legend says attackers usually suffered from plagues of flies. In 1194, Henry VI of Germany, a well-schooled classicist, discovered that there was a tiny crack in the vial holding Virgil’s bones and managed to conquer Naples. This was the first time Naples had fallen by force of arms in a thousand years.
- Virgil’s name in English:
Virgil’s original Latin name, “Vergilius” was changed to “Virgilus” during the Middle Ages because of a misunderstanding associated with the word “virgo,” Latin for maiden. During Virgil’s life, it was well known he was a homosexual, and thus was nicknamed “Parthenias,” the Greek word for maiden. In order to Anglicize Virgil’s Latin name, its Latin ending was dropped, resulting in “Virgil.” During the Middle Ages the name Virgil was thought to refer to his magical powers (as in virga magic wand). In nineteenth century America, however, it was recommended by German classicists that the name be restored to “Vergil” as he had always been known as “Vergilius” in German.
image © Official U.S. Navy Photo
by PH2 Heather Warick