BMCR 2005.03.16

Servius’ Commentary on Book Four of Virgil’s Aeneid

, , , , Servius' commentary on Book four of Virgil's Aeneid : an annotated translation. Virgil. Aeneis. Liber 4.. Wauconda, IL: Bolchazy-Carducci Publishers, 2002. xxiii, 156 pages ; 23 cm. ISBN 0865165149. $29.00 (pb).

After a slim introduction (xi-xxiii), this little book presents four texts: (1) a version of Aeneid 4 “that conforms to Servius’ suggested readings”; (2) a translation based on a nineteenth-century trot — the first six books, by one Davidson (only the surname turns up in web searches); (3) the Harvard text of Servius, with some changes by Charles Murgia;1 and (4) their translation of the commentary. The Latin texts are on the verso pages, the translations on the recto. The book ends with eight pages of endnotes and a brief bibliography (149-157). Throughout the commentary, the authors have provided an important service by identifying references.

Cautiously used, this is a serviceable book for some of the audience described in the preface — “students of Virgil and of the late-antique commentary tradition” as well as to “students of late-antique and medieval history” (ix). I take “students” to mean mostly scholars interested in the commentary tradition on Vergil, though perhaps some graduate students may find it useful. The volume will hardly serve any purpose for most undergraduate and graduate students.2

The introduction is slender; many sections vie for space in its thirteen pages. The brief comments on the “quality” and “aim” of the commentary amount to a short description of the practice of Servius and Servius Danielis, with glances at Jerome, Fulgentius, and Macrobius. In the second sentence of their introduction, the authors assert Servius’s “value as a guide” which “has remained unquestioned … to the present day” — an indefensible claim. The commentary has dubious value, at best, as a guide to the poem, but it is valuable for the study of the commentary tradition and of history and religion.

The authors are often inconsistent or even careless in their translation. Repeated citations are rendered diversely. Here are a few examples of carelessness. At 16, both text and commentary, “uinclo iugali” is translated “conjugal bond,” but becomes “conjugal bonds” in the commentary to 27; “corpora uiua” becomes “a living body” at 654. At 24, “cleverly” renders “callide” and at 30 it renders “bene.” “Graium armis” becomes “Grecian sword” (228); “ut,” obviously meaning “as in,” is often expanded (despite the contrary assertion on page xx). Tenses are casually ignored — “definiuit” becomes “defines” at 654; “fuissem” becomes “would be” at 655 — as are subjunctives (“nauiget” at 223). These problems are, no doubt, small but they are frequent and thus cumulatively disturbing; some at least might have been averted by careful editing at the press.

The failings of Servius’s commentary are large and troublesome, as the late Peter K. Marshall, among others, has pointed out (pp. 29ff.). The long and authoritarian preface, in which Servius alleges the major influence of Argonautica book 3, is both unqualified and misleading, but the authors say nothing to warn the unwary about it nor about the fact that it is just one of two substantial prefaces to individual books (the other is that to book 6; there are slight prefaces to books 3 and 7). Their endnotes are mostly either clarification or paleographical details; only occasionally do the notes suggest shortcomings or errors in the commentary. There are also considerable imbalances in the commentary. As Marshall notes, while Servius has major interest in language, religion, mythology, and history (despite the notorious and apparently unique misdating of the assassination of Caesar), he appears to have a “strong lack of interest” in philosophy and law (pp. 5). The authors provide a sketchy account of Servius’s procedures and interests, giving little attention to his peculiar limitations. Servius’s commentary is indeed valuable, if one knows how to assess it. The authors have provided only a little help in this respect.


1. Servianorum in Vergilii carmina commentariorum editionis Harvardianae volume III, ed. A. F. Stocker and A. H. Travis (Oxford, 1965); Charles Murgia, “Critical Notes on the Aeneid ιιιHSCP 72 (1967) 311-350.

2. Peter K. Marshall, Servius and Commentary on Virgil (Pegasus Press, 1997): Marshall believes that Servius’s commentary was aimed at schoolmasters rather than schoolboys (20).