Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2004.10.07

Richard S. Caldwell, Vergil, The Aeneid.   Newburyport, MA:  Focus Publishing, 2004.  Pp. xxii, 261.  ISBN 1-58510-077-3.  $12.95.  

Reviewed by Betty Rose Nagle, Indiana University (
Word count: 2025 words

In this Focus Classical Library translation of the Roman national epic, Richard Caldwell has produced a prose version in clear, idiomatic, and readable English, appropriate for anyone who "wants to read the Aeneid but doesn't know Latin" (p.xxii). It assumes no special background on the reader's part and therefore supplies a great deal of information in its Introduction and notes, making it suitable for both high school and college students, as well as the general reader.

In contrast to John Dryden, who endeavored in his translation of the Aeneid "to make Virgil speak such English as he would himself have spoken, if he had been born in England, and in this present age,"1 Caldwell claims that he has tried to make the Mantuan speak such English as a Roman contemporary of his would have used to translate the work into prose (p.232). I have a difficult time imagining this ideal, to say nothing of evaluating Caldwell's success in attaining it. Fortunately, his "Translator's Note" makes the straightforward claim that he "almost always ... [chose] the simpler and more direct rendering rather than the elegant or 'poetic'" (p.xxii). By this standard Caldwell has succeeded, but he does himself a disservice by describing it as "a very literal translation" (p.xxii). His version would not be as good as it is, if it were as literal as he claims. It is not, in fact, a word for word version which preserves Latin syntax and sentence length.

Caldwell's ear for English idiom only rarely fails him. When the Sibyl exhorts Aeneas to "boldly go where Fortune leads" (p.98; audentior ito / qua tua te Fortuna sinet, 6.96-97), the Star Trek echo is apt, but when Aeneas mentions earlier heroes who went to the Underworld and then asks "why can't I?" (p.99; supplied to the Latin at 6.123), he sounds too much like Dorothy in Kansas singing "Over the Rainbow" for my taste. Jupiter seals Turnus' doom by sending a Dira down "from the high sky" (p.227; ab aethere summo, 12.853). Montana may be "Big Sky Country," but the phrase "high sky" just sounds wrong. Occasionally Caldwell misinterprets Latin diction. Of the spear-cast that ends the truce in Book 12, "No one knew what hand shot it, what storm drove it" (p.216). The Latin phrase quo turbine adacta (320), refers not to a whirlwind (OLD 2a), but to the whirling motion of a missile in flight (OLD 4a, where this passage is cited as an illustration). A few lines later, when Turnus drives his chariot through the battle, he is not "shouting insults at the dead" (p.216; hostibus insultans, 339, OLD 3), but he (or rather, his horses) are trampling them (OLD 3a, where this passage is cited). Such slips are rare, and are far outweighed by the countless aptly idiomatic turns of phrase.

Not only is this version clear and idiomatic, its succinct simplicity lends its English some of the vigor inherent in Latin. As a prose translation, its obvious competitor is David West's Penguin (London, 1990). Like Caldwell, West aspired to "readable English," but a readable English "which does honour to the richness and sublimity of Virgil's language" (p.xii). West aims at the poetic and rhetorical effects which Caldwell eschews, and uses diction from a higher register, but his version is far wordier than Caldwell's. A few comparisons will illustrate the differences between the two. Caldwell's Aeneid begins "Arms and the man. That is my song, about an exile driven by fate from the shores of Troy." West's begins "I sing of arms and of the man, fated to be an exile, who long since left the land of Troy." Caldwell's Aeneas sees some of the blessed in Elysium "picknicking ... and singing songs of joy in the laurel-scented grove" (p.110; 6.656-58), whereas in West, these are "feasting on the grass ... singing in a joyful choir their paean to Apollo all through a grove of fragrant laurels" (p.153). And again, Caldwell's Juturna asks her doomed brother "'Turnus, what can your sister do now to help you, what remains of my determination? How can I prolong the light for you?'" (p.227; 12.872-73). West's asks "'What can your sister do to help you now, Turnus? Much have I endured but nothing now remains for me, and I have no art that could prolong your life." (p.330).

I myself would not assign either of these prose versions (or any other, for that matter) in my college classes, nor would I recommend one of them to an interested general reader. I assign my students either Fitzgerald or Mandelbaum; they are also what I would suggest to a friend. A general reader literate enough to want to read the Aeneid will want to read it in verse. Admittedly, long narrative poems have not been in fashion for some time; John Gardner's Jason and Medeia was an anomaly even in 1973. The medium for serious fiction has been prose for so long that it is understandable when students refer to the classical epics, even in verse translation, as "novels." A version of the Aeneid for the new millennium perhaps should take the form of a novel, maybe even a graphic novel, if it were the quality of Neil Gaiman's Sandman series. It is, as D.S. Carne-Ross said in 1961 about translating Homer, a matter of finding "a living form for a dead genre."2 Not even Carne-Ross considered the possibility of prose. But decades earlier W.H.D. Rouse had translated both of Homer's epics into prose which reads like a novel.3 My own first experience with Homer was reading the Mentor paperback edition of Rouse's Odyssey in my high school freshman English class.

A prose version, however, runs the risk of losing the grandeur and magnificence of epic in general and of the Aeneid in particular. Caldwell describes that epic as "a magnificent story, for readers of all ages." Magnificence, however, is a casualty of Caldwell's intentional avoidance of the "elegant or 'poetic.'" West, by contrast, aspired to conveying Virgil's "richness and sublimity" in his prose. In the early twenty-first century epic grandeur seems possible chiefly in fantasy genres both verbal and visual; witness the successful translation of The Lord of the Rings to the screen. The Iliad, however, was not so well served by Wolfgang Peterson's Troy; Eric Shanower is doing a far better job in his Age of Bronze, a treatment of the whole Trojan Cycle in a serialized comics format.4 Discussion with students leads me to think that Homer -- and possibly Virgil as well -- would fare better in animation, perhaps Japanese anime: the Greco-Roman pantheon can be depicted effectively nowadays only in animation, I believe; live actors, at least the current crop of live Hollywood actors, lack the stature and depth to depict divinities. Even Shanower abandons the Olympians, to focus on the human characters.

Caldwell's clear, readable prose is complemented with an introduction and notes filled with useful material. He is particularly good on Virgil's adaptation of the Homeric epics, as one would expect given his scholarly expertise. In fact, his main qualification for this assignment seems to be his translation of Hesiod's Theogony, which inaugurated the Focus Classical Library series in 1987. A glossary of proper names is supplemented by an appendix ("Gods, People, and Places") that puts the commonest sixty-two of these in a brief plot summary; it is here, rather than at their first appearance in the poem, that the names are put in block letters (contrary to what the Introduction says, p.xxii). Proper names are also glossed at their first appearance in each Book, a useful feature for those who read only selections, as class assignments for example. Similarly, information in the Introduction is cross-referenced in the notes, something even those readers who actually do begin with the Introduction will appreciate.

The format of Caldwell's translation resembles that of a school commentary edition of a Latin or Greek text. Each page contains a paragraph or more of text; the line numbers of the original appear in brackets at the end of each paragraph, a feature which makes it relatively easy to refer to the Latin text. At the bottom of almost every page are extensive notes, keyed paragraph by paragraph to the line numbers. Caldwell has a good sense of what needs to be explained, both in notes and introduction. Here it is probably to his advantage that he had not, as he discloses in the introduction, looked at the poem in nearly fifty years; someone expert in the poem and immersed in the secondary literature might well have not seen the poetic forest for the scholarly and theoretical trees and have included much detail extraneous to a first reading.

Caldwell's intended audience of Latinless would-be readers of the Aeneid, especially those reading chiefly for content, will be well-served by the clear, readable prose of this version. The extensive commentary, however, might very well discourage a prospective reader, by implying that "this is hard stuff -- you won't get it without lots of help." At the very least it presents the Aeneid more as a text to be studied, than as a work to be enjoyed. In this respect West's Penguin is superior: except for marginal numbers every ten lines, the page layout could be that of a novel. A solitary reader might appreciate Caldwell's detailed commentary, but it seems excessive for students in a class with an instructor to supply such information as needed. Also, I am dismayed that Caldwell gives away the death of Turnus as part of the book-by-book summary in his Introduction. Many, if not most, of Caldwell's readers will be reading the Aeneid for the first time; for them, the end of the epic, so familiar to classicists, will come as the shock that it is.

Finally, let me comment on this book as a physical object. The cover and the beginning of each of the Books are strikingly illustrated by Merle Mianelli Poulton. These drawings honor the poem as a verbal masterpiece, by using words as pictorial elements, with stylized quotations taking the place of shading, cross-hatching, and so on. For example, the ship's mast on the cover consists of the phrase arma virumque repeated, and the waves of the sea are repetitions of the phrase "you are the one the gods await." As for the text itself, the typeface is attractive, but the large, infrequently paragraphed blocks of text crowd the page. Larger margins would be appropriate for what will be used primarily as a textbook. There was not enough room for the comments I made in preparing this review, or for the sort of comments that I like to put in a teaching copy and that engaged readers might want to put in their copies.

In this translation Caldwell certainly meets his stated objectives, but in justifying those objectives he need not have dismissed the possibility of a poetic translation of the Aeneid in such absolute terms:

A poetic translation may convey the idea that the Aeneid is a poem, but the translation itself would be another poem with another author (this may work with Lattimore's translations of the Iliad and the Odyssey or other early Greek epic, but it doesn't work at all with Vergil). (p.xxii)

As an expression of personal taste, the assessment "it doesn't work at all with Vergil" may stand. As part of a translator's credo, however, this cryptic comment needs elucidation. Perhaps Caldwell is alluding to the notion that ancient Greek literature, including Homeric epic, is immediately accessible, while Roman literature, including the Aeneid, must be mediated for today's readers, even in translation, by an extensive apparatus to provide the political, historical, and cultural context without which it is largely incomprehensible. As a Latinist I admit the truth of that, albeit reluctantly, and yet I still find myself in sympathy with Brooks Otis' conclusion to his Introduction of Frank Copley's translation of the Aeneid:

I do not think that Vergil requires a great deal of historical explanation or introduction .... [T]he poem is after all the thing, and it is, as always, better to read it than to read about it.5


1.   "Dedication of the Aeneis," Essays, edited by W.P. Ker (Oxford: Clarendon 1900).
2.   "Translation and Transposition," in The Craft and Context of Translation, edited by William Arrowsmith and Roger Shattuck (Austin: The University of Texas Press, 1961) p.14.
3.   The Odyssey (London: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1937); The Iliad (London: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1938).
4.   Two volumes of a projected seven (each of which collects nine issues) have appeared so far: Age of Bronze: A Thousand Ships (Orange, CA: Image Comics, 2001) and Age of Bronze: Sacrifice (Orange, CA: Image Comics, 2004). For Karl Petruso's review of the first volume see BMCR 2001.09.43. An extended version of the interview with Shanower appeared in Archaeology 57.3 (May/June 2004).
5.   (Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc., 1965) p.xxi. Copley's translation line-for-line in blank verse, which Caldwell rightly commends as "admirable" (p.xxii), is the only translation he referred to and the only one listed in "Appendix B: Further Readings" (p.232).

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