BMCR 2007.04.50

Virgil. The Essential Aeneid

, , The essential Aeneid. Indianapolis: Hackett Pub. Co, 2006. xxxii, 212 pages : map ; 22 cm. ISBN 0872207919. $6.95.

This attractive volume, an abridgement of Stanley Lombardo’s (henceforth L) complete translation of Virgil’s Aeneid (Hackett, 2005), adds a Latin epic to the author’s burgeoning set of translations of mainly Greek poetry.1 L has proved himself a poet-translator and performer of exceptional ability and innovation; by publishing in written and audio media, he has contributed to the awareness in the readership of translations of the centrality of performance to Homeric epic.2 The recently published Aeneid represented his first foray into Latin epic, and he has translated Virgil with the same combination of austerity and accessibility that marked his Homers.

The ‘Essential’ Aeneid, as the abridgement is described, consists of approximately half of the work: Books 1, 2, 4, and 6 are included in their entirety, along with sections of Books 7 (omitting the catalogue of Italian forces), 8 (omitting the tale of Hercules and Cacus), 9 (the Nisus and Euryalus episode only), 10 (omitting the phantom Aeneas wild-goose chase), 11 (Camilla) and 12 (from Aeneas’ return to battle to the end). Brief but helpful synopses are provided to fill in the gaps in the narrative, although line references are rather frustratingly provided to L’s translation, and not to the Latin text (L has used Mynors’ OCT3). This rather hampers a reader unfamiliar with the poem who may want to supplement the omissions from elsewhere. The translation is prefaced by an introduction by W.R. Johnson, itself an abridged version of that in the complete translation. A Glossary of Names and an admirable 3-page bibliography of Suggested Further Reading append the translation.

I will discuss the translation and introduction (both of which are excellent) in due course, but I would first like to address my principal problem with the book. The authors nowhere state the intended readership of this abridged volume, although the sleeve-notes suggest that the ‘Essential Aeneid‘ “will be welcomed by both beginning and seasoned students of the Aeneid, and by students of Roman history, classical mythology, and Western civilisation.” Certain features of the volume, however, make it rather problematic for use by any of these groups. Seasoned readers of the Aeneid will, I imagine, be frustrated by the abridgement’s omissions, and would much prefer to read or to recommend to students L’s charming translation in its entirety. Students of Classics, or other ‘beginning’ students, will also miss out on a great deal by beginning with an abridgement: no one seriously studying the Aeneid could get away with reading half of it.

That said, if we imagine an audience who requires a passing familiarity with the poem (as background reading or as part of a comparative literature course, say) then this abridgement would provide them with a short-cut. Parts of the book seem designed with the beginner in mind. The helpful, though not exhaustive, glossary of names provides an easy guide to pronunciation along with each explanation: the phonetic guidance is extremely user-friendly — even if it looks a little disconcerting on occasion, e.g. Rutulians (Roo-tul’-ee-anz). . . Cupid (Kyoo’-pid)! However, the genuine beginner may struggle with Johnson’s Introduction: it is balanced and thorough, discussing important aspects of the character of Aeneas, the roles of Juno, Jupiter and Fate, and the representation of history in the poem, while providing the reader with an idea of the poem’s historical context, influence and unique style (Johnson emphasizes the ambivalence and complexities of Virgil’s ‘message’ throughout, as he has influentially done in his own scholarship4). Nevertheless, additional explanation of the historical and literary context of the poem, and of the epic tradition and mythical background might have tailored the Introduction more successfully for its ‘introductory’ readership (if, indeed, it is to be conceived of as different to the readership of the complete Introduction within the complete translation).

This minor criticism ought not to detract from the achievements of either translator or introducer. The translation is excellent, on the whole, and perfectly captures the pace and character of the original. Lovely passages such as :

Daedalus once, fleeing Minoan Crete
On beating wings, trusted himself
To the open sky, an unused path,
North towards the Bears and a light landing
On this Chalcidian height,
And dedicated here his airy oarage
To you, Phoebus, and founded his temple.

( Aeneid 6.14-19)

convey Virgil’s use of alliteration and soundplay, if not providing a literal translation; there is no hint of ‘ut fama est’ (6.14) or ‘tandem’ (6.17) here. Such freedom allows L. to convey the beauty of the Aeneid, successfully, in my opinion, though sticklers may gripe at the inaccuracies. He is averse neither to bringing out meanings latent in Virgil’s vocabulary, such as at Aeneid 2.240 of the Horse’s momentous entrance into Troy; ‘On it moved, gliding like a threat into the city’ ( illa subit mediaeque minans inlabitur urbi), nor to occasionally enhancing the rhetoric of the speaking characters; Aeneas’ ‘et quorum magna pars fui’ (2.6) becomes ‘I played no small part in them.’ In doing this, he conveys in accessible English the subtleties and suggestions with which Virgil’s Latin is filled.

Action scenes are no less effectively rendered: e.g. 11.832-835,

The roar that followed broke through the sky
And struck the golden stars. With Camilla down,
The fight intensified, and all forces converged:
The Teucrian army, the Etruscan captains,
And Evander’s Arcadian squadrons.

Characters speak with a suitably Virgilian combination of modern realism (e.g. Euryalus at 9. 219-221 ‘Stop offering excuses. I’m not going to change my mind. Let’s get going.’) and dignity; see Aeneas at 1.607-610,

While rivers run to the sea, while shadows
Move over mountainsides, while the sky
Pastures the stars, ever shall your honor,
Your name, and your praises endure,
Whatever the lands that summon me.

The translation is very readable and highly accessible: L includes English phrases which will be familiar to a wide audience, and which convey, though their very familiarity (or cultural ‘baggage’), a sense of the poem’s intertextual and cultural scope; e.g. ‘We are strangers in a strange land’ (1.332-333), or ‘In shock and awe, Egypt and India. . .were in full retreat.’ (.8.705-706), and Milton’s (and Johnson’s) ‘darkness visible’ (2.622-623).

Only very occasionally was I struck with the feeling that something important had been lost in translation: Aeneas’ complaint to his disguised mother, for instance, shows no sign of the pathetic ‘totiens, crudelis’ (1.407):

“You! Do you have to cheat your son
With empty appearances? Why can’t we
At least embrace and talk to each other
In our own true voices?”

And Mercury’s urgent and influential warning to Aeneas at 4.569-570 sounds to me to be insufficiently dramatic, rendered as ‘Push off, then, without delay. A woman is a fickle and worrisome thing.’

The formatting (which will be familiar to readers of L’s other translations of epic with Hackett) aids the translation: breaks in the layout provide unavoidable pauses, which help to create the appropriate pace; speeches are separated from narrative passages. The layout encourages the reader to consider the performance of the poem, and its highly dramatic nature, far more than continuous metrical or prose translations such as those of Cecil Day Lewis and David West (though excellent in other respects) do;5 there is always the temptation to read a prose translation in particular as a novel. In addition, the formatting is altered at significantly ‘poetic’ moments: ekphraseis (of the temple doors at Carthage and Cumae, and Aeneas’ shield) are indented, while long similes are indented and italicised. Whilst I approve of raising the reader’s awareness of such self-consciously epic and rhetorical moments, it could be argued that such moments, part and parcel as they are of Virgil’s presentation of his story, should not be too markedly distanced from the rest of the narrative: the insertion of a solemn and isolated ‘So too Dido’ after the simile at 4.69-73, for example, disrupts the elided transition between comparison and narrative, between doe and Dido, which Virgil was so careful to preserve.

On the whole, however, my pleasure in this translation far outweighed my complaints, and it is testament to the translator, but not to the concept of this abridgement, that I could not help but prefer to read the ‘entire’ rather than the Essential Aeneid.


1. L’s translations include Homer’s Iliad (Hackett, 1997) and Odyssey (Hackett, 2000); Hesiod’s Works and Days and Theogony (Hackett, 1993); Sappho’s Poems and Fragments (Hackett, 2002); Callimachus’ Hymns, Epigrams and Select Fragments (Johns Hopkins, 1988); Aratus’ Phaenomena (North Atlantic, 1982); Parmenides and Empedocles, The Fragments in Verse Translation (Grey Fox, 1979); and a selection of Horace’s Odes in Latin Lyric and Elegiac Poetry (Garland, 1995).

2. His audio publications, which feature his own performance of his English translations, include ‘The Essential Homer. Substantial and Complete Passages from Iliad and Odyssey’ (Parmenides Audio, 2006) and ‘The Essential Iliad. Abridged’ (Parmenides Audio, 2006).

3. Mynors, R.A.B. (1969) P. Vergili Maronis Opera (Oxford). The line references in this review are to this volume, rather than to L’s.

4. Johnson, W.R. (1976) Darkness Visible. A Study of Vergil’s Aeneid (Berkeley).

5. Day Lewis, C. (1952) The Aeneid (Oxford World’s Classics); West, D. (1990) The Aeneid. A New Prose Translation (Penguin Classics).