Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2014.07.40 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2014.07.40

Richard F. Thomas, Jan M. Ziolkowski (ed.), The Virgil Encyclopedia (3 vols.).   Chichester; Malden, MA:  Wiley-Blackwell, 2013.  Pp. 1,632.  ISBN 9781405154987.  $595.00.  

Reviewed by Sander M. Goldberg, UCLA (

[Update: The editors apologize to Sander Goldberg and to Richard Thomas and Jan Ziolkowski for omitting the information about the online version of the Virgil Encyclopedia (ISBN 9781118351352) Sander Goldberg had included in his review. The online version can be found at http://onlinelibrary.wile]


Some disclosures to start, and not merely for form’s sake. As a potential contributor to this project who pleaded the burden of prior commitments, I find myself on the outside looking in on the work of friends, colleagues, and people I either know or wish I knew. My respect for their achievement is thus personal as well as professional. Second, as editor-in-chief of the fifth and entirely online edition of the Oxford Classical Dictionary now at the organizational stage, I am deeply immersed in a venture that inevitably overlaps this one and has compelled serious attention to the future of reference works in what purports to be a Digital Age. Third, this essay was written in western Oregon, where the nearest public copy of the Enciclopedia Virgiliana sits three hundred miles up the freeway. And doesn’t circulate. In the end, the University of Arizona library kindly loaned me volume one, which has made possible the comparisons to come between that work (hereafter EV) and this one (hereafter VE) but limited them to entries falling between Abante and Dauno.

The present work, surely destined for many more shelves than the EV, offers much to like and to admire. Its creation was a substantial undertaking, and the result is a significant achievement. Over 350 contributors produced some 2,200 entries of varying length but uniformly high quality designed to provide Virgil’s modern readers and prospective readers with, in the editors’ words, ‘background to his poems, but also a foreground to their reception’ (lxv). Both ‘background’ and ‘foreground’ are broadly defined to cover a wide spectrum of contemporary needs and interests: simply running an eye over the entry list offers a valuable lesson in the extent and depth of Virgil’s achievement and his influence in the western tradition. Thus the broad and rich field of reception is explored not only through entries on writers both obvious (e.g. "Eliot, T.S."; "Lewis, C. S."; "Milton, John") and less obvious (e.g. "Heaney, Seamus"; "Wordsworth, William", though not "Walcott, Derek"), but periods (e.g. "World War I", "World War II"), media (e.g. a long string of entries under the general rubric ‘art’), and (coming closer to home) the scholars, commentators, and translators whose names, if not careers, have grown familiar to generations of students and teachers. Entries carry the story of reception up to the present in all but the last category, which for understandable reasons restricts itself to scholars ensconced on the far side of Styx. There are in addition forty-eight pages of illustrations tucked into the third volume that provide not only the more or less expected artistic representations but maps and tables, including a helpful guide to the principal Roman monuments (Map 8) and a remarkably clear précis of the Roman political system in late Republic and Principate (Chart 3). By casting so deliberately wide a net, the VE makes a significant statement not only about the Virgilian corpus and its history of interpretation, but perhaps less intentionally about the state of Virgilian studies in the early twenty- first century.

Though a contemporary encyclopedia aimed at the Anglophone world will necessarily differ significantly from its Italian predecessor, comparisons are inevitable and even useful. Indeed, the editors themselves invite them: the design for their project initially worked from a spreadsheet containing all the headwords from the EV (lxvi). The new emphasis on which they settled is obvious in the treatment of such distinctly Anglophone preoccupations as "Optimism and Pessimism" and "Winners and Losers". "Vietnam War" examines the effect and putative effects of that unhappy episode on American scholarship. The kind of trivia that is always so useful in the Latin classroom is well represented in entries like "dollar bill", "American" and "mottoes and seals of American states", which turn out to be replete with Virgilian echoes, while "schools and schooling" takes readers from the lectures of Caecilius Epirota to the American Advanced Placement Program. A serious effort has also been made to explain mysteries of scholarly form, e.g. "Virgil, spelling of". In addition, the project has been well conceived and well edited for ease of reference: what good is information if readers cannot find it? That task is facilitated here by a generous use of cross-references and blind references, together with a List of Entries set conspicuously at the front, and a General Index at the back.

With some notable exceptions (e.g. "commentaries"; "critical theory"; "Rome, topography and architecture of"; "Shakespeare, William"; "Virgil, portraits of") articles tend toward the succinct. Where EV dedicated twenty-four of its generous columns to aqua, "water" gets barely three much smaller ones in VE. Monuments (e.g. "Ara pacis", "Apollo Palatinus, temple of") are treated primarily as ideological symbols, not material objects. Stylistic features receiving significant attention in EV (e.g. five columns on allitterazione, four on amplificazione) are relegated to an appendix of ‘Stylistic Terms,’ though a few merit entries of their own (e.g. two columns for "archaism" to EV’s eight). This truncation is understandable, perhaps even welcome, but behind it lie choices and priorities that raise an important question, since the editors claim to ‘have set as our ambit everything of importance that enters into Virgil, that is in Virgil, and that comes from Virgil…’ (lxv). What, we may then ask, is not of importance? Or more to the point, what is not as important as it used to be?

Latin is one such thing, and not only when it comes to ‘stylistic terms’. The VE is not interested in lexical nuance: ‘we refer interested readers to many dictionaries and online resources’ (lxvi). Those anxious to distinguish among acer, acerbus, and acidus or aer, aether, and aethra must either identify the required dictionaries and online resources for themselves or find a copy of the EV, where the former set merits five columns and the latter six. An encyclopedia, or at least a print encyclopedia, must of course draw the line between inclusion and exclusion somewhere, but was this one drawn in just the right place? Nuances of Latin vocabulary are not as easily grasped as what even a Google search will quickly supply regarding "Accius" and "Alcuin", while a philological question that goes unanswered is all too likely in time to become a question that goes unasked. Other technical matters are not so fully ignored, but can be significantly compressed: details may then be difficult to locate and extract. Where EV foregrounded such matters as ablativo assoluto, accusativi plurali in –is, eīs ed es, and accusativo alla greca, VE relegates them to entries on "syntax" and "morphology", with other, briefer treatments in "Grecism" and "Hellenism, linguistic". These are, I hasten to add, very good and useful entries, but the compressed attention to linguistic form and structure is again indicative of a shift away from the tools of close reading and the basic philological information that modern readers increasingly require to read Virgil in Latin with a depth of understanding that the editors may too readily be taking for granted in their audience.

Bibliography is another matter often kept in the background. The representation of scholarship is erratic and inconsistent. This is again the consequence, perhaps unintended, of an editorial decision: ‘we have not encouraged contributors to produce comprehensive bibliographies. Rather we have encouraged them to focus on providing the best means of access’ (lxix). Many entries do this quite well, either by focusing a potentially enormous field on the specifically Virgilian context (e.g. "Bacchus"; "Bacchylides"), by guiding readers into largely unfamiliar terrain (e.g. "badges", "Caribbean colonial"; "ballad, Virgil in"), or simply by shrewdness and good sense ("critical theory"), but others are oddly inadequate. How does the solitary reference to an RE article provide Anglophone readers with ‘the best means of access’ to "Callimachus"? It will certainly do no such thing for readers curious about "Terence", who will find in the RE only the preoccupations of early twentieth-century scholars and Gunther Jachmann’s faint damns of praise.

All such complaints are subject to one common rejoinder: there is not enough space for everything. Hard choices have to be made. Since Time’s advance only adds to our store of information, the accommodation of new findings and new interests must inevitably come at the expense of old ones. That is an unanswerable argument. The problem is not with the editors who must work within those restrictions, but with a publisher that insists on serving the needs of twenty-first century readers with eighteenth-century technology. An inevitable result of its failure to invest in the future is nicely produced volumes like these, that will cost your obliging library some $92 per pound (or €153 per kilo) to put on a reference shelf, where readers diligent enough to come in and find them will have the opportunity to flip pages and juggle volumes in pursuit of its riches. They will be well rewarded for that effort, but the number of readers able and willing to do so is not growing. Students in particular have already found an inviting and increasingly popular alternative, though the VE’s editors are not kind to it: ‘a printed encyclopedia of this sort is also a world apart from the web. It offers material that does not have to be unearthed by sorting through a dung-heap in which pearls of truth are buried amid mistakes, exaggerations, and misunderstandings. The volumes have been vetted and edited for accuracy and clarity’ (lxx). I share their dedication to vetting and editing. Virgil may have had to search for pearls in a dung-heap, but his modern readers should certainly be spared that experience. Yet the editors invoke what is, or ought to be, a false dichotomy: an encyclopedia of this sort is a world apart from the web largely because no effort has been made to unite the accuracy and clarity of the former with the flexibility and accessibility of the latter. It is clearly not (or not yet) in Wiley- Blackwell’s interest to do so, but it is most certainly in our interest to have it done, and at some point the editors and contributors to projects like this one are going to have to demand that their labor, their expertise, and their sheer love of the enterprise be given a more progressive format. Their own dedication to the field, so richly displayed in these volumes, deserves nothing less. ​

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