Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2018.08.08 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2018.08.08

S. J. Heyworth, James Morwood, A Commentary on Vergil, Aeneid 3.   Oxford; New York:  Oxford University Press, 2017.  Pp. xii, 327.  ISBN 9780198727828.  $50.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by James Taylor, Harvard University (

As a book that once required defending against being the ‘dullest’ portion of Virgil’s epic, Aeneid 3 has enjoyed something of a reversal in its fortunes of late.1 The newfound enthusiasm for the third book is demonstrated by the fact that Heyworth and Morwood’s commentary is the third such volume in recent years, following those of Horsfall and Perkell. 2 The ideal audience of this commentary lies between those of its two most immediate predecessors. Though Heyworth and Morwood offer translations of particularly tortuous sentences or clarify the precise use of an ablative, those students requiring more comprehensive guidance concerning syntax and grammar will be best served by Perkell. At the other end of the spectrum, Horsfall will be the natural choice for those conducting research into Virgil or needing extensive bibliography on a particular issue in Aeneid 3. The most immediate audience for Heyworth and Morwood is advanced students, who are able to read Latin competently and confidently but may be encountering Virgil for the first time, as they transition from commentaries focused more exclusively on issues of translation to ones dealing more extensively with interpretative questions, such as the “Green and Yellow” series. That being said, more advanced readers will find many useful insights within the commentary, not least its panoply of intertexts. An additional advantage for any reader is the commentary’s eminent portability. For those wishing to (re)read Aeneid 3 with a companion that can travel easily and whose notes will illustrate most points of interest without disturbing the momentum of their own reading, this commentary will be an obvious choice and a welcome alternative to that of Williams, whose utility as a guide to Virgilian scholarship has inevitably been diminished by the passage of more than fifty years.3

The commentary is preceded by an introduction comprising eight sections: “Vergil’s poetic career, life and times”, “The Aeneid: a synopsis”, “Intertexts and influences”, “Style”, “Contexts and themes”, “Metre, scansion, and versification”, “Text and transmission”, and “Glossary”. The introductory material assumes very little knowledge on the part of the reader and is perfectly designed for any student’s first encounter with Virgil or advanced scholarship. The glossary in particular will equip students with critical tools and vocabulary not only for reading the text before them, but for reading further scholarship that takes such knowledge for granted. It is typical of the commentators’ thoughtfulness that under the glossary entry for ἀπὸ κοινοῦ a pronunciation guide is included for students without Greek (“apo coenu”, p. 54). Four maps following the introduction will similarly help students navigate the book’s dense geographical details. Though those already familiar with Virgil may find themselves skipping over the more panoptic sections, for the most part the introductory material is well integrated into the commentary as a whole. For example, the detailed reading of Arethusa’s appearance in metapoetic terms (ad 692–6, p. 261–2) is complemented by the introduction providing students with a larger sense of the Virgilian career (p. 1–10), while the exploration of exile and displacement through the figure of Meliboeus (p. 6–7) prepares the reader for the herdsman’s subsequent cameos (ad 140–2, p. 123; ad 156–60, p. 128; ad 325–9, p. 169).

Since the text has been newly established by consulting critical editions, a list of emendations adopted is given in the textual introduction (p. 53), each of which receives concise and clear discussion and justification ad loc. Of the four emendations that remain after one has excluded those already adopted by Mynors or Conte, I found the replacement of rudentem with tridentem (561) and the deletion of 702 persuasive, but thought the substitution of limite for litore (419) had too flat an effect and the rejection of secundos for sacerdos (460) depended in part on too literal an understanding of the line and the Sibyl’s powers. In addition to these interventions, the text has been re-punctuated several times with excellent discussion ad loc. and somewhat mixed results. For instance, though the flow of Virgil’s Latin is improved by the removal of any strong stop after ventisque vocatis (253), the decision to divide lines 247–9 into two sentences robs the opening to Celaeno’s indignant speech of its momentum. A similarly choppy effect is achieved by inserting a full-stop in line 10, which produces more digestible sense units but diminishes the opening’s grandeur.

The third section of the introduction, “Intertexts and influences”, brings onto the stage the commentary’s favorite critical tool and does the necessary work of contextualizing the many authors mentioned throughout. The centrality of intertextuality is reinforced by the “Appendix of Major Intertexts” that follows the commentary and contains twenty passages, lettered A–T, from poets as diverse as Homer, Apollonius, Euripides, Pindar, Callimachus, Lucretius, Virgil himself and Ovid. Many of these intertexts contain not one but several passages: A, for example, actually comprises four excerpts from Odyssey 9. The provision of English translations for each passage, as is the case for almost all Latin and Greek within the commentary, ensures that there is no expectation for readers to know Greek as well as Latin and that students will not feel overwhelmed by finding the equivalent of another book of the Aeneid to translate at the back of their commentary. The convenience of gathering these passages together for students who are not yet habituated to hunting down a slew of cf.’s is obvious. Those disappointed that the appendix consists so uniformly of the usual suspects, a gallery of canonical poets, can be reassured that the main text of the commentary refers to a much larger cast of authors in prose and verse, ranging from predictable appearances, such as Dionysius of Halicarnassus (e.g. ad 10–12, p. 88; ad 356–462, p. 176; ad 388–93, p. 187), to those lying off the beaten track of Virgilian allusion, such as Crinagoras (ad 124–7, p. 120) or Xenophon (ad 523–4, p. 215–6: Italiam. Italiam …/Italiam = θάλαττα, θάλαττα, Anabasis 4.7.24).

The danger of this focus on intertextuality is, of course, that of slipping into a dull catalogue of parallels, but this threat is mostly avoided. Instead, the invocation of intra- and intertexts frequently contributes to nuanced readings that capture the vitality of Virgil’s characters. These often elucidate small, easily missed details, as when Anchises’ short but noticeable pause (haud multa moratus, 610) in responding to Achaemenides is read as a sign that he is mulling over his decision in light of Priam’s deception by Sinon and as a correction of Alcinous’ unreasonable pause following Odysseus’ supplication in the Odyssey (ad 610–12, p. 241). A similar example of a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it detail is Andromache’s failure to acknowledge the son born to her as a result of her rape by Pyrrhus beyond a brief mention of labor (seruitio enixae, 327); the emotional force of that omission is effectively brought out by the comparison to Euripides’ Andromache, who protects, and places all her hopes in, that same child (ad 325–9, p. 170).

That sensitivity to character can also be discerned in the persistent reminders that Aeneas is tailoring the story to his audience: the emphasis placed on the role of greed in Polydorus’ tragedy is seen as a direct appeal to Dido, whose husband Sychaeus was killed for his fortune (ad 56–7, p. 100–1); the introduction of Palinurus into the epic with ipse signals his expertise to those with no pre-existing knowledge of him, i.e. the Carthaginians and first-time readers (ad 201–4, p. 137); even Aeneas’ attribution of his arrival on Carthage’s shores to the agency of an unspecified deus is interpreted as a piece of flattery directed towards Dido (ad 714–5, p. 268). Such readings could have been extended: in the case of hoste vacare domum sedesque astare relictas (123) we are told that this tautology communicates Aeneas’ surprise (ad 121–3, p. 119). More likely it is a point worth repeating that the Trojans found Crete empty and did not engage in any aggression against an existing population, because Aeneas is seeking to assuage any doubts that Dido and the Carthaginians may have about the Trojans as colonial or piratical aggressors. The more sinister implications of such rhetoric fit well with the observation that the encounter with the Harpies provides “an alternative glimpse of the Trojans as an aggressive invading force” (ad 219–24, p. 143), since this isolated aggression comes against monsters with whom the Carthaginians are unlikely to identify.

Naturally, in any commentary there are points with which a reader disagrees or which leave them wanting more, but there were a handful of notes whose methodology gave me pause. Though an attitude of skepticism is initially adopted towards the biographical tradition (p. 1–2, less skeptical at p. 51), the description of the Sibyl’s prophecies as carmina leads to an extensive comparison between the prophetess and Virgil that includes references to the Donatan life and Macrobius as evidence for Virgil’s disorderly manner of composition and for the disappointment of those who wished to read or hear his poem (ad 445–7, p. 198). How far either Heyworth and Morwood would endorse these snippets as facts about the historical Virgil is unclear, as their final parallel, that of the Sortes Vergilianae, is so obviously grounded in Virgil’s reception. On the following page, however, discussion of the Sibyl’s lack of concern with rearranging her disrupted leaves prompts the comment that “it is tempting to see this as a depiction of despair from an author who had found his own carmina in disorder, whether physical or metaphorical” (ad 448–52, p. 199). It seems that the despair here is the reader’s rather than the Sibyl’s own, since she is explicitly free from bothering herself with the issue (nec… curat, 451). Whether Virgil felt such anxieties or not is impossible to deduce from his poetry, but this reading has more than a whiff of the modern academic’s disordered office projected onto the poet. Unlike the Sibyl, Virgil probably had slaves or freedmen to hunt down the library of books to which he alludes and keep his notes in order. Even in biographical fictions of the wonder-poet, Virgil has a freedman called Eros to jot down ex tempore completions of half-lines (VSD 34). A similar attempt to redeem some portion of the biographical tradition seems to lurk behind a later note claiming that Andromache would have reminded Virgil’s contemporaries of Octavia’s grief for Marcellus (ad 300–5, p. 163). In each case one could have expected a more consistent attitude to the evidentiary value of the biographical tradition and a clearer distinction between Virgil qua historical person and Virgil as construct of his readers.

A handful of notes are, however, rather minor qualms to have with such an informative and well edited commentary. Typographical errors are extremely rare and those that I did find produced no confusion as to a sentence’s meaning (‘suprising’, p. 119; ‘pleaure’, p. 196). Though English translations are usually provided immediately after block quotations of Latin or Greek in the same font size but without an indent, there is the odd inconsistency, e.g. where a translation is confined to a footnote (p. 2) or presented in brackets before the block quotation (ad 73–7, p. 107). On the whole the commentary will serve its intended audience extremely well, as well as providing much food for thought to more advanced readers. As someone who learned a great deal from Morwood’s books as an undergraduate, it is a pleasure for me to recommend his final book for use with future generations of students.


1.   This now infamous description of Book 3 originates in one such defense offered by A.W. Allen (1951) “The Dullest Book of the Aeneid”, CJ 47.3: 119–23.
2.   N. Horsfall (2006) Virgil, Aeneid 3. A Commentary. Brill: Leiden; C.G. Perkell (2010) Vergil. Aeneid Book 3. Focus Publishing: Newburyport, MA. Reviewed in BMCR 2007.08.47 and BMCR 2010.11.23 respectively.
3.   R.D. Williams (1962) P. Vergili Maronis Aeneidos Liber Tertius. Clarendon Press: Oxford.

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