BMCR 2010.08.27

Aetna (new introduction by Katharina Volk). Classic Editions from Bristol Phoenix Press

, Aetna (new introduction by Katharina Volk). Classic Editions from Bristol Phoenix Press. Exeter: Bristol Phoenix Press, 2008. xxx, ciii, 257. ISBN 9781904675389. $49.95 (pb).

Since 2005, Bristol Phoenix Press (an imprint of the Exeter Press) has released several volumes in an ongoing series of reprints of venerable texts of anglophone classical scholarship, mostly on Latin authors. These paperback editions, relatively inexpensively priced in attractive, durable formats, come with new introductions and updated bibliographies by scholars who have research interests in the authors and works under consideration. In short, Bristol Phoenix deserves the gratitude of classicists who are now able to have ready access to editions that were formerly either unavailable or prohibitively expensive from used book venues. There must be a good reason why the original title page of the series’ works is never reprinted; this could lead to citation problems for users who are not aware of the complete original title of Ellis’s work (and who do not read Volk’s introduction carefully). Ellis’s Aetna (and other of his editions) is available gratis on the internet, though for a commentary it seems preferable to have a printed book to consult. More importantly, users of Ellis’s work online will be deprived of the fine work that Katharina Volk has provided by way of introduction to this classic text, translation, and commentary.

Robinson Ellis’s 1901 Oxford edition of the pseudo-Virgilian Aetna is the most recently released title in this series. It serves as a companion volume to the reprint of Ellis’s edition of Ovid’s Ibis edited by Gareth Williams.1 These two volumes are among the more esoteric in this new reprint series, along with Dilke’s Achilleid; Conington’s Virgil, Palmer’s Heroides, and Mayor’s Juvenal are the more conventional titles. With the recent paperback reprint of Goodyear’s Cambridge Aetna, students of this curiosity of Neronian (?) Latin have easier access to essential reference works on a difficult text.2 Interested parties can also find the earlier editions of both Munro and Sudhaus available in inexpensive paperback reprints.3 Aetna remains to date the only poem of the Appendix covered by Belles Lettres, so scholars also have convenient access to Vessereau’s 1923 Paris text, which, unfortunately, does not include his 1905 thesis commentary notes. Goold’s revision of Fairclough’s old Loeb edition also contains a useful set of introductions to the different poems of the Appendix.4 And, of course, there is the standard Oxford text, to which Goodyear contributed his Aetna.5 While the reprint industry has long served classical texts, we are living in particularly fortunate times for reasonably priced editions: it was not so long ago that even a poorly bound facsimile of an essential text could cost as much as a new monograph.

Volk’s introduction to this Ellis reprint provides biographical information on Ellis as well as an overview of scholarship on the Aetna, with useful bibliography conveniently subdivided into different categories. These twenty-four pages constitute the only new material in the edition; there is no commentary on the commentary, as it were, which is regrettable: seasoned scholars would no doubt enjoy Volk’s views on certain of the more vexing textual problems the poem presents in the context of Ellis’s solutions, while neophyte classical vulcanologists could benefit from a modern scholar’s comment on at least the more exceptional of Ellis’s notes (of which there are several). The constraints imposed by series requirements always occasion some lament, even if the reasons behind the editorial decisions are understandable.

But the Appendix Vergiliana has long been something of a Cinderella of classical studies. Most of the work done on the poems of this miscellany has been textual, and much of the collection is overdue for a critical reappraisal (or, in the case of many of the poems, first study). In the Bristol Phoenix reprint series, a new edition of Conington’s Virgil does not require much beyond a modern introduction and updated bibliography. For a seriously problematic text like the Aetna, perhaps the series would do well to allow for an appendix of brief annotations on the commentary. In some ways a wider gulf exists between Ellis and the moderns than between, say, Conington and modern Virgilians. This is especially true of the series’ reprint of Ellis’s Ibis, where the commentary is in Latin. Ellis’s idiosyncratic style in composing an apparatus might also have merited more attention. Volk provides some comments in her introduction that examine specific notes in Ellis; her good appraisal of these selected passages of Ellis shows how successful a more systematic annotation might have been. Indeed, one imagines that newly introduced editions of classic turn of the century scholarship might profit from exactly such footnoted annotation for the benefit of students, especially graduates who might be embarrassed to ask about this or that scholarly convention and could use a “commentary on the commentary.” Ellis’s Aetna is not a bad choice for such tutelage.

While a certain class of scholars will celebrate having Ellis’s Ibis and Aetna available in convenient editions, one does, however, wonder at the intended audience for some of these volumes in light of the series’ self-avowed aim “to make available familiar editions.” I do not think either of the series’ Ellis volumes can be called “familiar editions,” notwithstanding the good reasons why his work should be more accessible to modern classicists of all levels. Presumably there are good reasons why Ellis’s Catullus was not chosen for the series’ program, a volume that has been available in an expensive reprint with no modern annotations or introduction and that might appeal to a wider audience of classical students. However, this reviewer confesses that Volk’s introduction did spur him to pursue Ellis’s Avianus (1887, also available in a recent reprint) and Orientius (1888, for the Poetae Christiani Minores and harder to find).

The introduction might have profited from some consideration of the Aetna as more than a textual nightmare. The probably Neronian Aetna would seem to have much to offer by way of insight into the relationship between Virgil and Lucretius; the introduction could have done more to situate this “vigorous and enthusiastic poem” in the context of the Latin didactic poetic tradition (one of the avowed goals of the new edition). Again, series space constraints may be at work here.

Though one might wish that Volk had been given more space to comment on Ellis’s work, her accomplishment deserves high praise for offering a reliable modern appraisal of a classic work on this enigmatic and compelling poem. Besides, in an age where (as Volk notes) too many classicists have abandoned the work of textual criticism, perhaps it is fitting that two volumes of Ellis on obscure poems off the beaten canonical track have appeared in this reprint series. They serve as a useful reminder to a new generation of scholars of the giants who deserve to be better remembered and admired for their knowledge of Latin and (at least on occasion) emulated both for philological rigor and (in the case of Ellis) creative daring in the venerable art of brilliant (if not always convincing) conjecture. We can only hope that the recent spate of Aetna reprints will spur scholarship on this neglected work and inspire someone to produce a modern commentary that takes into account textual riddles, literary concerns, and scientific analysis.

There is a further reason to celebrate the Bristol Phoenix series of Ellis reprints. Robinson Ellis was a daring and highly original scholar. An example of his mind’s supple openness to extreme possibilities is his speculation that the Aetna was authored by the Trinacrius whose Perseis is mentioned by Ovid at Pont. 4.16.25. Volk is correct that there is absolutely no evidence to support this thesis.6 But in the absence of evidence as to authorship, such speculations do have a place in classical studies. They cannot be proven or disproven, but they represent the creative energies of an active mind. This very creativity can happily inspire classicists to be willing to offer speculative answers to hitherto problems. There is something refreshing in working through Ellis’s notes, a spirit that more than merits the preservation Professor Volk and Bristol Phoenix Press have afforded it.


1. Williams, Gareth, ed. Ovid’s Ibis, edited by Robinson Ellis. Exeter: Bristol Phoenix Press, 2008.

2. Goodyear, F.R.D., ed. Incerti auctoris Aetna. Cambridge, 1965.

3. Munro, H.AJ., ed. Aetna. Cambridge, 1867. Sudhaus, S., ed. Aetna. Leipzig, 1898. Cambridge University Press is especially to be thanked for releasing the volumes of the Cambridge Classical Texts and Commentaries series in moderately priced paperbacks.

4. Goold, G.P., ed. Virgil. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1999-2000 (2 volumes). Volk also cites Iodice’s recent commentary in the Fondazione Lorenzo Valla Mondadori series ( Appendix Vergiliana, Milan, 2002), itself a splendid advance in Appendix studies.

5. Clausen, W.V., ed., et al. Appendix Vergiliana. Oxford, 1966.

6. I am less convinced that “it is also inherently unlikely that the work’s author, who exhibits a decidedly rationalistic and overtly anti-mythological stance throughout the text, would have referred to his poem with the name of a nymph.” (xxvi n. 34), especially in light of the poem’s extraordinary ending.