Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2006.05.42

R. G. M. Nisbet, Niall Rudd, A Commentary on Horace: Odes Book III.   Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2004.  Pp. xxx, 389.  ISBN 0-19-926314-0.  $185.00.  

Reviewed by Lindsay C. Watson, University of Sydney (
Word count: 2758 words

The Nisbet-Hubbard Commentary on Horace Odes 2 appeared in 1978. Now, some twenty-five years later, comes its worthy successor, edited by Robin Nisbet and a new collaborator, Niall Rudd. Anyone who engages seriously with this work will learn much about Horace and Latin poetry more generally, at both a microscopic and a macroscopic level. Style, lexicography, parallels from Greek and Latin literature, historiography, prosopography, textual issues, metre and philosophy are all treated with the comprehensiveness and compendious erudition which marked this volume's two predecessors and virtually nothing of importance is missed.1

The overall format is similar to that adopted in the Commentaries on Odes 1 and 2. A select bibliography is followed by a brief but thought-provoking introduction to the book as a whole, dealing with the following matters: Horace's early life, the date of Odes 1-3, the 'Roman Odes' (first so styled by Plüss 2), Horace and Augustus, Maecenas and other addressees, Horace's 'love-poems', religion in Horace, the meaning of the author, ambiguity, person and persona, genre, style, structure, the arrangement of the book, the text, the ancient commentators, metre. Of especial note are: the remark (hardly new, but important) that it is debatable 'whether the concept of sincerity is relevant to the public utterances of a court poet' (xxi); an insistence on the often underplayed fact that, by becoming an amicus to Maecenas, Horace contracted an obligation to lend artistic support to the Augustan regime (cf. the pugnacious assertion on the dust jacket 'the authors reject ... more recent attempts to find subversion in a court poet'); the relabelling of the confusingly titled Cairnsian 'genres' as 'situation poems' (xxvi). Nisbet-Rudd (hereafter N-R) express in forthright terms impatience with recent methodologies which, in their view, yield more obfuscation than illumination, affect a terminological esotericism aimed at fellow-initiates, and construct elaborate thematic responsions which produce little of interpretative substance (xxiv-v, xxviii). The polemical note, largely absent from the two companion volumes, is in keeping with the claim of studied modesty that the work 'concentrates on individual poems and problems, and aims to elucidate the poet's meaning at the most literal level' (v) and the trenchant attack on the theoretically minded for not applying their insights to the exegesis of individual pieces (xxv).

As with the Nisbet-Hubbard Odes 1 and 2 (N-H), a detailed commentary on each Ode is prefaced by a substantial introductory essay. Here the focus is more on interpretation, and less on literary history, than in N-H 1-2. These mini-essays are one of the many outstanding features of the book: notable instances include the superb pages on Odes 3.1, highlighting the paradox that the introductory poem in a sequence of overtly political compositions is replete with Epicurean elements (3-6), or the cogent demonstration that the Hypermestra Ode (3.11) is not, as Fraenkel believed, a disarticulated construction, but an integral whole (148-52).3 The commentaries proper on the individual Odes exhibit the same virtues as were associated with N-H: full discussion of every difficulty or matter of disputed interpretation; a concomitant refusal--rare among commentators--to duck or gloss over any obstacles to understanding; encyclopaedic knowledge of secondary literature which makes N-R an instant classic among so-called reference commentaries; scrupulous tabulation of differing interpretative viewpoints on contested passages; a focus on lexical register, which is almost invariably examined in a nuanced way that contributes to appreciation of the passage under discussion (e. g. the remarks on the somewhat prosaic vocabulary of Od. 3. 24, p. 273). As was to be expected, there is rich citation of literary parallels, though the treatment here is less full than in N-H, and the line-by-line notes are written in a more compressed style than before, with four or five points being routinely incorporated under a single rubric rather than individually lemmatised. In another deviation from previous practice, there is expanded discussion of textual issues: this reflects the influence of Nisbet, who has professed an ideological commitment to speculative emendation:4 many of his suggestions are recorded, to provoke debate, but only two have been printed in the lemmata (3.1.42, 3.26.6). Irrespective of whether the emendations persuade, the attendant discussions are of great worth, pointing with incisive logic to problems in sequence of thought, although some may feel that the focus on textual issues tips over at times into a cacoethes emendandi. Conversely, there seems to be less examination of poetic imagery than before: I detected nothing comparable to the magisterial discussion of life as a metaphorical river in the Postumus Ode (2.14). Rather more help is given with translation than in the companion volumes, an important concession to undergraduates who struggle with the convolutions and complexities of Horatian syntax. Undoubtedly the most striking departure from N-H 1-2 is the recording of editorial disagreements over the interpretation of various passages. The authors remark 'in the few places where we differed, rather than attempt an unsatisfactory compromise we have used our initials [viz. RN, NR] to indicate our separate positions' (vi). This calls to mind Fordyce's notorious understatement on Catullus 'a few poems which do not lend themselves to comment in English have been omitted [from this edition].'5 I have counted some 33 cases of such disagreement in N-R--not to mention the numerous instances where an opinion is attributed to Nisbet alone. The meiosis is however noted as a piquant curiosity: it is valuable to have the differing opinions of two great Horatians set out side by side in order that readers can weigh the respective arguments.

Now for some points of detail:

1. 36-7: 'by trailing the proprietor after the contractor and his workmen H. seems to suggest that the man is demeaning himself.' For word order used with comparable effect, cf. Mart. 12. 32. 4ff. 2. 1. N-R helpfully note after Syndikus that 'angustam amice pauperiem pati' 'reverses the usual topic that a frugal upbringing produces good soldiers.'

2. 6-8: 'matrona' is rightly explained as 'wife', rather than 'mother' as West has,6 one of a number of occasions where N-R tacitly corrects West.

2. 9-11: for the idea that 'eheu' represents the feelings of the girl engaged in teichoskopia, Epod. 15.23f. is compared. But 'eheu' there rather represents an ironic expression of sympathy with the poet's rival.

2. 25-7. The mysteries of Ceres which must not be divulged are persuasively interpreted as an analogy for state secrets.

3, intro. Pages 36-8 contain a full and helpful discussion of the background to Juno's puzzling stipulation (lines 40ff.) that the Roman should not rebuild Troy in the Troad.

3. 33-6. Ingesting the drink of the gods made one immortal (Kenney on Apul. Met. 6. 23. 5); there is therefore a stronger case for printing 'ducere' than the editors, who opt for the better attested 'discere', allow.

4. 10. A clear and comprehensive account of the textual difficulties posed by 'limen Apuliae'.

4. 39-40. The military connotations of 'labores', in the context signifying primarily 'the hardships of campaigning' could have been more explicitly brought out.

4. 64 'Delius et Patareus Apollo'. The remark 'though naturally it is not mentioned in the poem, it is worth recalling that in 42 BC Brutus destroyed Xanthus and looted the treasures "both public and private" from the neighbouring Patara' typifies the kind of less than familiar detail which is constantly adduced to deepen the resonances of an individual passage. Not all will agree, however, with the conclusion which N-R extrapolate from this particular instance: 'H was not as friendly to the memory of Brutus as is generally supposed.'

5. 18-21: 'uidi' is helpfully explained as 'used of horrors which one had lived to see.'

5. 37-8. Rudd's argument, which leads him to retain the contested 'hic' in 37, that 'ille' in 32 belongs to a generalisation applicable to all wars is hard to accept in view of 34 'et <ille> Marte Poenos proteret altero.'

6, intro. Badian's view that Propertius 2.7 refers, not to an early and failed attempt by Augustus at marital legislation, but to an old tax on bachelors, is rightly and firmly rejected.7

6. 1: 'immeritus', N-R note, is not only problematic given the apparent contradiction with the closing stanza, but difficult in its own right, since the current generation too must have neglected the temples.

6. 19-20. N-R objects to 'matura', 'of marriageable age', on the grounds that one expects an allusion to the girl's immaturity (which would increase her immorality). But does not 'matura' underline the point that she should be focussing on her upcoming marital duties instead of illicit liaisons?

7. 9: as N-R note, given the allusions to the legends of Bellerophon and Peleus the 'hospita' must be the host's wife, not, as some have thought, the landlady of an inn.

7. 18 'Magnessam Hippolyten dum fugit abstinens.' It is acutely noted that Magnesia gave its name to magnets, that magnets were used an analogically of erotic attraction and that they could also repel.

8. 18: the illustration of the brevity of military communiqués from the lapidary terseness which characterises the mottoes of board games is one of the very few occasions where the editors succumb to the temptation of citing material of questionable relevance.

9, intro. An illuminating discussion of the amoeboean [Theocritus] 27 and Catullus 45 by way of contrast and comparison with the Ode.

10. 11-12 'non te Penelopen difficilem procis/ Tyrrhenus genuit parens'. The alleged licentiousness of Etruscans prompts the attractive observation that Horace is cynically reversing the commonplace that fine parents produce fine children.

11. 15-16. One could add that 'blandior' used of the lyre's effect on Cerberus attributes to the instrument an activity more commonly associated with dogs.

11. 17-20. Convincing arguments are offered for retention.

11. 18-19: to replace the unsatisfactory 'eius atque', 'aestuetque' is preferred over Bentley's 'exeatque', partly on the grounds that 'aestuetque' stands alone and is not combined with 'ore trilingui'. But there seems no conspicuous advantage in making the verb in 18 be independent of 'ore trilingui' and 'exeatque spiritus taeter....ore trilingui' reinforces the dominant idea of the stanza, the venomousness of Cerberus.

11. 25-6: 'uirginum' is explained as 'virgins' (not a mandatory translation of the word), on the grounds that allusion to the alternative version of the legend, in which the Danaids were forced to have intercourse, would be counter-productive, increasing Lyde's suspicion of men. But 49-50 'i pedes quo te rapiunt et aurae,/ dum fauet nox et Venus' could suggest that Hypermestra's bridegroom should make good his escape while the remaining sons of Aegyptus were distracted by sexual activity.

12. 1-2: for the archaic prohibition on consumption of wine by females, see L. Minieri, Labeo 28 (1982), 150-63.

13 The introduction contains inter alia a helpful account of the possible whereabouts of Bandusia and an attack on various critics, whose names are suppressed as undeserving of notice, for over-readings of 3. 13.

14. 1-2: convincingly notes that the rumours ('dictus') relate to 'morte uenalem' rather than 'petiisse laurum'.

14. 11-12: RN conjectures 'labis expertes' for 'iam uirum expertae', but does this capture with sufficient precision the idea that the young officiants should be amphithaleis?

15. The treatment underplays the multiple ironies of the poem. On 5, 'inter ludere uirgines', the editors comment 'we doubt whether [the word order] is meant to reflect the woman's position in the ring of dancers.' Perhaps however a sarcastic mirroring of the uxor's obtruding herself where she does not belong (N-R are sceptical about such notions, p. 267)? On 7, N-R note that Chloris is not beautiful: there is surely therefore some irony in her making herself so accessible erotically. On 8, they decry any 'ironical suggestion of youthfulness' in the name Chloris, but 'Chloris' suggests that she behaves like a girl when she plainly is not. 'Rectius' 9 likewise seems ironic: it may be 'more appropriate' for the younger woman to storm houses, but such sexual aggressiveness on the part of females was thought inapposite.

15. 3 famosisque laboribus. Surprisingly, there is no mention of sex as 'work' (RE 8. 1339-40).

16. 6-7. A reference to the fact that the divine smile signified possession of knowledge foreclosed to mortals, and a cross-reference to the n. on 3. 27. 66-8 would have been helpful here.

16. 30: RN notes the oddity of 'segetis certa fides', since crop yields were notoriously unreliable. But it is not clear that 'curta fides' is the solution: the pejorative qualifier strikes a false note after the two preceding laudanda.

17, intro.: splendid on the Roman obsession with genealogies.

17. pp. 214-15: in this antiquarian context, with its focus on ktisis, the parenthesis, however analysed, may be a Callimachean touch.8

19. 4. Following a long-productive line of analysis, N-R speculate that 'et pugnata sacro bella sub Ilio' contains an esoteric allusion which is significant for the poem's addressee Murena, the role putatively played by his great grandfather L. Licinius Murena in Sulla's rescue of Ilium after its sack by Fimbria in 85 BC.9

19. 10-11, 14-15: it is unclear in what sense three and its multiples can be meaningfully regarded as 'magical' numbers.

20, intro. It is imprecise to treat male homosexuality and pederasty as synonyms.

21, intro: an illuminating prosopographical account of Messalla adds a whole new dimension to the appreciation of 'O nata mecum'.

21. 11-12: a cogent suggestion that 'prisci Catonis' contains a secondary allusion to the younger Cato.

23, passim: Here, as elsewhere in the volume, generous and productive attention is paid to the details of religious ritual.

23. 7-8. Robert Sallares, Malaria and Rome (Oxford, 2002) presumably appeared too late to be consulted.

23. 13-4. N-R argues cogently for Peerlkamp's 'certare' over the transmitted 'temptare'.

24. 52-4: convincing arguments for Bentley's 'formandae' over 'firmandae'.

24. 54-5. To reject 'rudis' sc. 'equitandi' for 'rudi' seems hypercritical. 'Rudis' helps to explain 'nescit equo/...haerere', and in a world where, under paternal influence, the tralatician pursuits of Roman youth have been abandoned in favour of corrupt new ways (54-60), it is unsurprising that an ingenuus puer should lack this traditional skill.

25, intro. A useful synthesis of the current state of scholarly opinion on the relationship between life and art in regard to Maenadism.

25. 9: in a poem replete, as the editors expansively show, with symbolic connections between Dionysiac and poetic inspiration, it may tell in favour of 'exsomnis', objected to by Bentley, that it could advert obliquely to the 'carmen uigilatum' (3. 25 blends Callimachean with un-Callimachean modalities).

25. 13-14: a strong case is made for 'rupis' over the 'ripas' of the MSS.

26, intro. A notably heterodox interpretation. Horace's 'renuntiatio amoris' is not, as is usually supposed on the basis of the final stanza, a sham. By striking Chloe with her 'flagellum', Venus will inspire her with unreciprocated love for another, as a punishment for her arrogance: but the argument in support of this reading (p. 311) seems rather circular. Consonant with the just mentioned approach, lines 5-6 are intriguingly explained as a reference, not to the temple of Venus, but to the structure which this flanked, the 'aedes' of 'Mens Bona'.

27. 18-19: N-R suggests 'ego quo ('to what purpose') sit ater/ Hadriae noui sinus', but 'quid sit', 'what the black gulf of the Adriatic is capable of' seems unexceptionable in the tendentious 'paraenesis'.

27. 34-5: for 'Aeolus' read 'Neptunus'.

27. 58-60: the 'ornus', manna ash, although not one of the more obvious candidates (cf. Sen. Thy. 652ff.), is identified as an 'arbor infelix' and thus as suitable for Europa's histrionically mooted autothanasia.

29 passim: illuminating on the philosophical and ethical background to the poem.

29. 1: the foregrounding of Maecenas' Etruscan lineage suggests contextually appropriate thoughts of hedonism?

30, p. 365: richly informative on metapoetic images from building.

30. 2: N-R are uncharacteristically indecisive on the meaning of 'situ'.

I have noted a few typographical errors. On p. 18. 4: read 'Romans on' (cf. p. 64); p. 20. 12: read 'appellatum'; p. 44. 20: read ἥ; p. 120. 10 read 'monebant'; p. 188. 10 read 'calcatamque'; p. 250. 2: open spacing; p. 281. 30: read '3. 11. 10'; p. 324. 30: read 'potiatur'.

The above comments are offered in a spirit of collegiality rather than criticism. N-R is a magnificent volume, which very few scholars living nowadays would have been capable of writing, and which will instantly eclipse all its rivals. Those who, like the present writer, have tended in lecturing on Horace to concentrate on Odes 1 and 2 because of the availability of Nisbet-Hubbard can now quite safely extend their repertoire into Odes 3. For Odes 4 we must look to Richard Thomas and Philip Hills.


1.   Nisbet, R. G. M. and Hubbard, Margaret A Commentary on Horace: Odes Book I (Oxford, 1970); A Commentary on Horace: Odes Book II (Oxford, 1978).
2.   Plüss, H. T. Horazstudien (Leipzig, 1882).
3.   Fraenkel, Eduard Horace (Oxford, 1957), 190.
4.   Nisbet, R. G. M. 'How Textual Conjectures are Made' MD 26 (1991), 65-91 = id. Collected Papers on Latin Literature ed. S. J. Harrison (Oxford, 1995), 338-61.
5.   Fordyce, C. J. Catullus. A Commentary (Oxford, 1961), v.
6.   West, David Horace Odes III. Dulce Periculum (Oxford, 2002).
7.   Badian, Ernst 'A Phantom Marriage Law' Philologus 129 (1985), 82-98.
8.   Kerckhecker, Arnd Callimachus' Book of Iambi (Oxford, 1999), index s. v. 'parenthesis.'
9.   Nisbet, R. G. M. 'Notes on Horace, Epistles I' CQ 9 (1956), 73-6 = Collected Papers 1-5.

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