BMCR 2007.12.07

Virgil, Aeneid. Introduction by W. R. Johnson

Virgil., Stanley Lombardo, Aeneid. Indianapolis: Hackett Pub. Co, 2005. lxxi, 355 pages : map ; 22 cm. ISBN 0872207323 $9.95 (pb).

Stanley Lombardo has provided the reader and teacher with another fine translation of a classical text. Included with the translation and introduction are a map of Aeneas’ wanderings, a glossary of names, and suggestions for further reading.

Johnson’s (hereafter J) introduction to the translation provides the reader with an outstanding overview of the salient issues in reading the Aeneid. The sections “The Legend of Aeneas” and “Turnus” are very fine as plot and character summary, as are the sections “Aeneas the Wanderer” and “Aeneas the Warrior.” These sections as a group are invaluable in preparing a new reader for the complexities of the text and the choices Vergil made in creating an epic which has such strong ties to the Homeric epics yet which is yet such a solidly Roman text. The section “The Gods, Fate, and Fortune” provides the reader with a wonderful explication not only of the roles of the gods in Homeric epic but also of the differences in Vergil’s treatment of these aspects in relation to Epicurean philosophy and early Italic religion.

Some aspects of these sections do warrant caveats, however. For instance, J’s conclusion that Aeneas is not angry with Turnus at the end of book 12 rings too quickly final in his discussion. In the same vein, the idea that Latinus is equivocal and cowardly is too strong. Latinus is, after all, quite quick to decide on Aeneas as a suitor when given divine advice to forego Turnus. Although his withdrawal into his chambers at the start of the hostilities in Book 7 strikes some modern readers as petulant, it also resembles the quick decision and withdrawal of Aeneas when he feels wronged. Latinus is acting under divine influence, and that he has not explained his reasoning to Amata and Turnus, let alone to his people, should be attributed to time and royal prerogative as much as to timidity and indecisiveness.

In the same vein, some of the conclusions in the section “Anthems for Doomed Youth” are perhaps too syncopated to go without comment. For example, it is true that a love of gold contributes to the doom of Camilla, but it is not to be then ignored in the Nisus and Euryalus scene. This love of spoils for the young of both sexes serves as a warning to the warriors of Rome as Vergil saw it shaping up under Augustus’ reign. An elaboration of this point would play into his concluding section “The Shield of Aeneas: Virgil and History” when he notes the similarities between Aeneas once lifting his father in sorrow at their departure from Troy and now lifting the shield made by Vulcan with joy at the revelation of the consequences of his duty and destiny.

Turning to Lombardo’s translation itself, I find the text flowing and readable. Although I as a reader do not care for the convention of setting similes in italics, I do find it immensely valuable as a teacher for drawing attention to these devices, especially for students both in Latin or Greek courses and in literature courses.

I have read and used Lombardo translations of the Homeric epics in my classes before, and I was curious to see how he would apply his translation style to the Aeneid. Lombardo states in his preface that he uses the same rhythmic line for Vergil which he “developed in response to the classical hexameter” and which is “based. . .on natural speech cadences.” This generally plays out well, for, as he states, “[the Aeneid ] although it is literary rather than oral epic was nonetheless intended to be recited, practically sung.” Still, in this choice there are ups and downs. On the one hand, being forced by the lines and his construction of sense units to obey a somewhat demanding rhythm, I was slowed when reading aloud, unable to feel the poem at times as a story but only as individual lines demanding their time. In that light, this constraint does reinforce the fact that this is a poem in translation. On the other hand, it can become wearying to read this lilting tempo for extended periods of time if one is giving each line its fair measure, a possible drawback for the less dedicated reader. This is not an effect which I felt in his translation of either the Iliad or the Odyssey, and I do think that it can be attributed to difficulty is making Vergil’s language fit that model.

I believe that it is, in some respects, churlish for another Latin scholar to point out individual instances in the translation where they would have translated this line or that phrase differently. Lombardo is an accomplished scholar with specific, stated goals and approaches to translating; I will therefore address the matter of language as a whole. For me, the question in approaching the language in a new translation is this: is this a translation close enough to the original that I would assign it to a student or recommend it to a Latin-less friend? Can I trust that these two audiences will receive a fair picture of the piece as the author intended it? Will they be aided by the beauty of the translator’s language to last the rigors of the text? I believe that the answer here is a resounding “yes.” The language is smooth, comprehensible, and renders phrases in a manner befitting the original. Once in a great while, however, the tenor of the language seems to me to be perhaps too contemporary. My own instinct in the regard was encouraged by a chance conversation with a student. I assigned Lombardo’s translation to my AP Vergil class and happened to run into a particularly conscientious student who had already started the reading early in the summer. She said that she was enjoying the translation but sometimes found the phrasing a bit “too modern.” If a third year student has this feeling based on her limited exposure to Latin, then it is not unlikely that some scholars of Latin will agree. Still, with the rather poor attention spans of many of today’s students, a teacher would likely be happy to overlook this small quibble for the chance that their students will stick with an enjoyable, skillful version of the epic. Overall, Lombardo has a knack for capturing the heart of a line with his renderings, as he does in Dido’s first reproach of Aeneas in Book IV.

One issue with the publication is that the glossary of names should include a more extensive list. I found in reading the text that nearly half of the names which I wanted to check were not included. Perhaps it is not plausible to include every name, but most readers, even experienced ones, would find a broader list beneficial. Another helpful addition would be the inclusion of the page numbers of at least the first appearance of each character listed.

There are many advantages to this translation, especially for the teacher looking for a version which will captivate their students and provide them with a thorough, useful introduction and accompanying materials. This is a translation to which I will turn as a reader and as a teacher again and again.