BMCR 2009.01.10

Virgil, A Poet in Augustan Rome. Greece and Rome: Texts and Contexts

, Virgil, A Poet in Augustan Rome. Greece and Rome: Texts and Contexts. Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007. v, 161. ISBN 9780521689441. $26.00 (pb).

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Morwood’s (hereafter M.) volume in the Cambridge Greece and Rome: Texts and Contexts series is one of the latest in the unabating stream of books on Virgil’s verse, this time apparently aimed at an audience that will not be reading the poet’s three works in toto anytime soon. For M.’s book provides a survey of the Eclogues, Georgics, and Aeneid, taking us though each work with prose translations of selected parts, short summaries of the many omitted sections, brief annotation (and illustration) relevant to the excerpted lines, and numerous discussion questions to stimulate classroom exchange. Rather than being a guide to Virgil’s opera, M.’s book is a substitute for reading the originals. Something of a throwback to late antiquity, this volume embodies a disturbing move to epitomize the work of masters.

It remains unclear who would actually use this book; the back cover speaks of “both advanced secondary school and undergraduate study.” Ironically, there is a fair amount of attention to Virgilian scholarship (more anon), with the inevitable conclusion that the student is expected to move from this book to a major monograph on the Aeneid without ever having read the poem (one gets the sense the bibliography and references that appear passim are here to facilitate term papers).

Besides an introduction and annotated bibliography, there are eight chapters: one each on the Eclogues and Georgics, four on the first half of the Aeneid, and a scant two on the second half (the maius opus), an odd return to the lamentable trend of pre-1970s Virgilian scholarship that prejudiced Virgil’s Odyssey at the expense of his Iliad.1 Better on this count is deMay’s forthcoming Lucretius in the same series, which offers one chapter for each book of the original.2

The three pages of introduction are well-written, though they try to cover far too much ground (especially for the presumed audience), ranging from a history of the fall of the Roman Republic to Dmitri Shostakovich’s possible anti-Soviet subversiveness as comparandum to Virgil’s Augustan poetry (one can imagine term papers comparing Augustan Rome to Soviet Russia now). The influence of Hellenistic poetry is here, too, and (somewhat astonishingly) an almost casual mention of Homer after Callimachus: “And throughout the Aeneid he [Virgil] invokes both the spirit and letter of the works of Homer.” Indeed, there is more in the introduction on Epicurus and Zeno of Cyprus than on Virgil’s principal poetic inspiration. The student using the introduction is likely to be overwhelmed by densely packed information on more than s/he can possibly digest without much additional aid.

The “Recommended reading” betrays the book’s Cambridge provenance (e.g., “Books 8, 9 and 11 are published in admirable editions by Cambridge,” high praise indeed for the disappointing Gransden 11). A student who is not actually reading Virgil’s integral texts can hardly be expected to need a reference to Dahlmann’s 1954 German article on the Georgics. Small misprints: the translation of Heinze is from 1993, not 1933, and appeared out of California (the Bristol reprint is later, with some cosmetic changes); Williams’ Aeneid appeared in 1972-1973, while the Goold Loeb is 1999-2000. No mention of Horsfall’s commentaries (or his Companion), which might be appropriate given the level of the book’s intended audience, though surprising given other inclusions (Pease on 4). Part of what makes this section somewhat bizarre is the mix of recommended reading with “Authors referred to in the text but not mentioned above,” i.e., works cited. No recent work is here other than Nappa on the Georgics; inter alios, Stephen Harrison’s work is largely ignored, including the very useful “Oxford Readings” collection and his helpful revision of Gransden’s 1990 Cambridge introduction to the Aeneid.3 Michael Putnam, whose work is always accessible to almost any level of reader, is nowhere. Neither are many other luminous names in Virgiliana.

No survey of this brief a compass can be without omissions (which is, of course, a good reason to lament the publication of books that seem to presume one will not be reading the entire poems). Among the inevitable omissions herein, passing over the passed over Eclogues, Book 3 of the Aeneid suffers the most, reduced to the skimpiest of surveys. Inter alia, in Book 2, the Helen episode, whoever wrote it, deserves mention. In Book 5, we miss Acestes and the archery contest portent; in Book 9, the miraculous transformation of the ships into sea nymphs and the role of Ascanius in managing the Trojan camp in Aeneas’ absence; in Book 10, much of the crucial narrative of Mezentius and Lausus (whose death does not cause Aeneas to “give way to sorrow and revulsion”) is passed over in haste; in Book 11, the entire war council and most of the Camilla narrative is omitted; in Book 12, much of the characterization of Juturna is lost. In Book 6, we crave some opinion from M. on the enigmas of the Golden Bough and the Gates of Sleep, which he leaves largely to the students to explicate. The omissions often make the characters seem puppet-like and without motivation; why does Aeneas attack the Latin capital in Book 12, the thoughtful student might wonder. In some ways, the Eclogues fare the best in this work (at least the poems sampled), precisely because of their shorter length. Similes, one of the richest aspects of Virgil’s poetry (and still awaiting a comprehensive study), get especially jejune treatment, not surprising given the rapid prose summaries. No student will walk away from this book with any appreciation of Virgil as poet. Perhaps not surprisingly, among (complete) translations the book recommends David West’s Penguin Aeneid, a quite serviceable prose version; those more poetically inclined are referred to Dryden.

I must note that M. does succeed in the difficult task of managing to include as much as he does within some 150 illustrated pages. But one gets the sense in these pages that Virgil’s own works rail against and defy such condensed treatment (especially the Georgics). Shakespeare, Coleridge, Milton, the scholarly opinions of R.G. Austin and W.R. Johnson: how much can we possibly cram into so little space? Any student who can profit from everything M. provides should be reading Virgil in the first place, with or without the commentator’s more or less useful aid. The book is something akin to a syndicated version of Virgil’s poems, though instead of losing the equivalent of a scene or two, hundreds upon hundreds of lines have been consigned to periwinkle boxes. The strange marriage of such epitomization with engagement of scholarly debates on vexed questions is not a happy one, notwithstanding M.’s workmanly, competent efforts to facilitate the union.


1. M. acknowledges this problem in his introduction to the Aeneid : “The problem was that, in selecting from the Aeneid, it is of enormous importance to give generous expression to the poet’s treatment of the victims of Rome. For this purpose, Dido is simply irresistible and she, of course, belongs to the poem’s first half…I hope that readers will feel able to keep an open mind in their evaluation of the Italian books.” Alas, the presumed user of this book needs M. to tell us what happens in those six books and provide comment. Significantly, M. neglects to note the connection between Aeneas’ limbs, chill with fear, and Turnus’ at the moment of his death (despite his introduction of a controversial interpretation of 1,92): in general, the book is unable to draw connections between the first and second halves of the poem because of the short shrift given to Books 7-12. Connections are made all the harder to draw when the necessary passages have been epitomized.

2. DeMay, Philip. Lucretius: Poet and Epicurean. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

3. Harrison, Stephen. Oxford Readings in Vergil’s Aeneid. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990. Gransden, K.W. Virgil’s Aeneid. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990. Second edition prepared by Harrison, 2003.