Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2004.05.20

K.W. Gransden, Virgil. The Aeneid. Second Edition by S.J. Harrison.   Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2004.  Pp. 111.  ISBN 0-521-53980-3.  $15.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by P.A. Roche, University of Otago (
Word count: 1693 words

Gransden's (hereafter 'G.') introduction to the Aeneid first appeared in 1990, as part of Cambridge's 'Landmarks of World Literature' series.1 Its second edition is now 'by' S. J. Harrison, although the preposition may mislead: those already familiar with the first edition should note from the outset that nothing of substance has changed in the main text. Harrison has attractively re-formatted the book (the discussion now requires eight fewer pages) and has accordingly repaginated cross-references. His most substantial contribution is his revision of the guide to further reading, which is surveyed separately at the end of this review. As was the mandate of the original series, the book provides a concise and lucid introduction to a Latin-less audience and establishes the historical context and many of the interpretive issues appropriate for the consideration of someone coming to the epic for the first time.2 G. is a gentle guide: critical terminology is sparingly used, and even terms such as 'sub-text' and 'self-contained' are either explained, softened by inverted commas, or coupled with phrases such as 'as it were'. Moreover, no prior knowledge of Roman history or Latin literature is assumed, and frequent comparisons from western literature help to illustrate both the immediate issue under consideration and the continuing relevance of many of the themes raised in the Aeneid. I can easily imagine its success as a first step into the secondary literature on the poem taken by a student or general reader. In the classroom G.'s overtly Augustan reading could provide a useful point of departure for deeper consideration of many of the nuances--political and otherwise--that are ignored or ironed out in the book. As a means to orienting and perhaps enticing the novice, I can see the value of playing down the ambiguity that pervades the poem, and certainly any student who properly uses Harrison's guide to further reading will quickly be apprised of many of the contested aspects of the poem's interpretation.

The book comprises four main chapters, themselves sub-divided to treat discrete historical, contextual, and thematic issues pertaining to Vergil's life, works, inheritance, and influence.

'Background' (pp. 1-22) introduces the notion of the culture hero in order to establish the link between Aeneas and Augustus, provides a biographical sketch of Vergil's life, touches upon the basic nature of the Eclogues and Georgics, and concludes with a very basic introduction to the nature of classical poetry and hexameter verse. This last item could have been excised with little lost, given the readership outlined by general editor's statement. The introductions to the Eclogues and Georgics are, by virtue of the nature and focus of the book, overly simple, but something of the basic nature of the poems can be gleaned. Eclogue 4 is allocated disproportionate space and gives rise to some misleading statements regarding the relative power and status of Augustus and Antony in 40 BC, as well as the identity of the child (Christ and Augustus are ruled out, Marcellus is suggested, but no mention is made of the son of Antony and Octavia). In the outline of Vergil's life, inadequate attention is drawn to the tenuous reliability of much of the biographical information regarding the poet; less crucially, one should note that Trajan ruled from 98-117 AD (cf. p. 8).

'Virgil and Homer' (pp. 23-33) provides a concise and generally sound introduction to the basic relationship between the Aeneid and the Homeric poems including the choice of Homer as a model, the notion of Iliadic and Odyssean divisions within the poem, and the legend of Aeneas before Vergil. The only surprise here is the notion that 'a detailed acquaintance with Homer is not essential to an appreciation of Virgil' (p. 28); perhaps the motivation for this statement was to make the approach to the Aeneid less intimidating, but it will seriously disadvantage the newcomer to take this statement as fact.

'Reading the Aeneid' (pp. 34-96) is the longest of the book's chapters and offers a variety of approaches to understanding the epic. For those considering classical literature for the first time, the succinct overview of the general character of textual transmission will be useful. So too the book-by-book summary. Remarks on structure introduce but do not explore the idea of intertextuality. More useful to an audience told they do not need to be acquainted with Homer will be the suggested organising principles of the poem (fatum, Roman history), the notion of ring composition within the narrative, and the idea of cyclical and exemplary history. In the promotion of a cycle of civilising triumphs, illustrated by the sequence Hercules/Cacus, Aeneas/Turnus, Augustus/Antony and Cleopatra (this last is indicative of G.'s overall critical response to the poem), even the newcomer would benefit from some consideration of the implications of Vergil's presentation of violence as a civilising force. 'Expression and Sensibility' does an excellent job of demonstrating for the Latin-less reader some of what is 'Vergilian' about Vergil. It illustrates a generous cross-section of elements within his usage and sensitively compares the relative merits of a variety of English renderings of selected passages (included are Dryden, Mandelbaum, Fitzgerald, and Day-Lewis). The remarks on narrative technique proceed from a discussion of the organisation and movement of 4.129-278 and of book 2 as a whole. The treatment of the underworld disappoints in its omission of Anchises' exhortation to duty at 6.847-53. 'Father-figures' promises more than it delivers; G. mentions by way of introduction the notion that Aeneas' relationship with various paternal figures influences the moral structure of the poem only to concentrate almost exclusively upon Evander in book 8. Observations of dubious value also intrude here, such as the equation in the specific context of Aeneid 8 of Evander and Vergil, and Aeneas and Augustus (p. 81), also the statement 'Aeneas the refugee must become Aeneas the initiate, Aeneas the learner, before he is ready to assume the burden of history' (p. 83). The section on Juno provides much to assist in orienting the tyro. 'War and Heroism' introduces the nature of heroism as well as the aristeia, and culminates with an oversimplified whitewash of the death of Turnus. Fate and free-will warrant their own discussion, although the decision to take Jupiter's declaration of impartiality at 10.104-13 at face value seems especially dated now after the work of Feeney and Harrison.3 G.'s concluding remarks allude to 'the poem's power to generate alternative possibilities' and declare that 'the Aeneid explores its dislocations and dissonances' (p. 94); this despite the book's overall reluctance to inform the reader of these alternate possibilities and dissonances: on the page immediately following these statements we find that 'for Virgil Actium was a glorious victory against barbarism' (p. 95).

'The After-Life of the Aeneid' (pp. 97-103) offers some comments on the Nachleben of the poem, but omits its influence on Latin literature to focus on Dante, renaissance epic, and romanticism. One appendix (pp. 104-6) provides a role-call of the 'principal characters' in the narrative (minus the Sibyl).

Owing to its presentation of a broad range of approaches to the poem, the accessible format of the book, and above all the author's considerate and un-intimidating presentation of his material, G.'s introduction will serve the first time reader of the Aeneid well and will initiate its audience into a variety of possible ways of thinking about the epic.

'Guide to Further Reading' (pp. 107-11)

Harrison provides updated details on editions and commentaries. For example, Goold's revision of Fairclough's Loeb (Cambridge, Mass. 2000); Page's edition is excised; a fuller list of English language commentaries from Oxford, Cambridge, and Leiden is supplied up to Horsfall on book 11 (Leiden 2003). On translations, various reprints of Dryden are mentioned (except the most recent edition, edited by Keener, Harmondsworth 1997); other translations recommended are Day Lewis (Oxford 1952), Mandelbaum (Berkeley 1970), and West (Harmondsworth 1990). G.'s own anthology of English translations is now included (Harmondsworth 1996).

Introduction to the vast range of secondary scholarship is offered by way of the collections of articles edited by Commager (Englewood Cliffs 1966), Harrison (Oxford 1990), and Hardie (London 1999), although this last item is far too advanced for G.'s readership. Orientation is also offered by way of Hardie's Greece and Rome survey (Oxford 1998), and the companions edited by Martindale (Cambridge 1997) and Horsfall (Leiden 1995). I missed Zanker's seminal study (Ann Arbor 1988) in 'Background', although Wallace-Hadrill (Bristol 1993) and Galinsky are included (Princeton 1996). Syme (Oxford 1939) is now supplemented by Raaflaub and Toher (Berkeley 1990) and the second edition of The Cambridge Ancient History Volume X (Cambridge 1996). Background on early Italy and religion is completely revised: recommended are Cornell (London 1995); Beard, North, and Price (Cambridge 1998); and Bremmer and Horsfall (London 1987). On the Homeric background to the poem, Knauer in Harrison (Oxford 1990) is suggested, so too G.'s own Virgil's Iliad (Cambridge 1984); worthy of mention also for G.'s readership would have been Anderson's 'Vergil's Second Iliad' also reprinted in Harrison (Oxford 1990). Apollonius' influence is represented in Nelis (Leeds 2001). 'Current Interpretations' surveys a number of influential readings of the Aeneid, and special care is made to offer representatives of 'pessimistic' and 'optimistic' interpretations: new in the second edition are Lyne (Oxford 1987), Quint (Princeton 1993), Thomas' Virgil and the Augustan Reception (Cambridge 2001); new representatives of Augustan readings are Cairns (Cambridge 1989) and selections from Stahl (London 1998). On aspects of the divine, Williams (New Haven 1983), O'Hara (Princeton 1990), and Feeney (Oxford 1991) are suggested; for critical theory, Conte (Princeton 1986), Martindale (Cambridge 1997), and Hardie (1998).

The final section of the guide treats reception: Martindale (Cambridge 1997) is now recommended as the best introduction, with further reading on specific periods: Hardie (Cambridge 1993) on imperial epic; Desmond (Minneapolis 1994) and Quint (Princeton 1993) on the Renaissance; Williams in Dudley (London 1969) on the eighteenth century and the romantic period; Turner (Cambridge 1993) and Vance (London 1997) on Victorian England; Thomas (Cambridge 2001) on Vergil's reception since antiquity; and Ziolkowski (Princeton 1993) on the twentieth century.

In sum, a very useful and reliable guide with more than enough direction offered to prolong the book's use to readers beginning to consider more advanced criticism of the poem.


1.   The first edition was reviewed by Calder, Vergilius 36 (1990) 134-5; Jenkyns, TLS (1990) 1268; Lesueur, REL 68 (1990) 209; Hardie, CR 41 (1991) 482; Putnam, CW 84 (1990-91) 477-8; and Fowler, G & R 38 (1991) 89-90. I have considered the views of these scholars, and my comments will at times reflect concerns previously expressed by my predecessors. I have attempted to distinguish my own review by taking advantage of the extended scale afforded by BMCR to give a more detailed account of the book's structure and by focussing more upon the book's value as a student's introduction rather than as a contribution to criticism in its own right.
2.   These aims are taken from the J. P. Stern's statement as general editor on the back cover of the first edition of the book.
3.   See D. Feeney The Gods in Epic: Poets and Critics of the Classical Tradition (Oxford 1991) 144-5; S. J. Harrison (ed.), Vergil, Aeneid 10 (Oxford 1991) 90.

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