BMCR 2011.08.31

A Companion to Vergil’s Aeneid and Its Tradition. Blackwell Companions to the Ancient World. Literature and Culture

, , A Companion to Vergil's Aeneid and Its Tradition. Blackwell Companions to the Ancient World. Literature and Culture. Chichester/Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010. xiv, 559. ISBN 9781405175777. $199.95.


This is the age of the companion; the tide shows no sign of abating. Virgil is well-served, as one would expect,1 but this Blackwell companion, edited by two Virgilian greats, makes a significant contribution, especially on the reception of Virgil. The line-up is impressive, and there are many fascinating insights into pockets of the history of reading the Aeneid. The reception of Virgil is a gigantic subject, but choices reveal current agendas. The segregation of the Aeneid from the other poetry of Virgil is difficult to maintain; the Eclogues and Georgics do tend to creep in.2 What image of the Aeneid emerges from this collection? The editors’ introduction emphasises their concern to bring out “the highly contingent nature of the Aeneid ” (2). They imagine it as being “like the labyrinth of multiplying possibilities that its hero contemplates on the doors of Apollo’s temple of Cumae”(2). This is an Aeneid strangely akin to Ovid’s Metamorphoses; the collection might be read as a series of metamorphic moments in which the poem changes shape for different audiences and contexts. In sum, this is a very useful mine of information and showcase of approaches, with something for everyone. It complements the Ziolkowski and Putnam collection of primary material on Virgil and the tradition.3 While it is unaffordable for many individuals, it will be indispensable for libraries.

Brief comments on each essay: The first section begins with Virgil’s “sources.” Damien Nelis produces a dense discussion of ‘Vergil’s library,” stacked with fascinating material. He does not shy away from attempting to answer questions such as what did Virgil’s text of Homer look like, and how did he work with texts when composing poetry. Nelis presents Virgil as a poet-scholar, focusing on Homer and Callimachus. Hexter’s essay, “On first looking into Vergil’s Homer,” has some overlap with Nelis but focuses particularly on the impact of Homeric comments and scholia on Virgil’s reading of Homer. He argues that Virgil creates an aporetic text of Homer by engaging playfully with different scholarly traditions. This essay is part of ongoing work on the commentary tradition. Casali’s excellent discussion of “The development of the Aeneas legend” looks at antiquarian and historiographical material, and, in plenty of depth, at the polymorphous nature of the legends: what were they like and what did Virgil choose to do with them? Panoussi’s chapter on “Aeneas’ sacral authority” discusses Aeneas’ characterisation by sacrificial and other rituals –a discussion related to her book on women’s rituals, but containing new material. Reed, in contrast, in “Vergil’s Roman,” largely draws on his 2007 book, giving a summary and condensation, more on Romanness and less on gazing —well worth reading, even if you have already read the book. Similarly, O’Hara’s article, “The Unfinished Aeneid ?”, is closely related to his 2007 book. It is a summary and reflection, incorporating new material, including some nice observations on Ursula LeGuin’s reading of the end of the poem in Lavinia —lucid, stimulating and a good read. O’Hara is a sceptical reader of the Virgilian biographical tradition; Stok is much more optimistic in his exploration of “The life of Virgil before Donatus.” He offers much material on the ancient reception of and reaction to Virgil. Putnam’s chapter feels rather a different creature from the others in this section. (More reception in antiquity might have been nice: first-century epic is notably omitted, though that has, of course, been well treated elsewhere.) Putnam’s essay treats Virgilian material in Ovid’s exile poetry, especially Aeneas as exile. It exemplifies the core message of the whole undertaking, namely reception as reading.

The second section begins with late antiquity. Wills on Augustine gives a readable snap-shot of his use of Virgil. It is particularly welcome to see a chapter on Dares and Dictys from Spence, who gives a good summary of Virgil in these influential prose romances. The section on the Chanson de Roland, however, is rather tangential, more about absence than presence. One of my favourite chapters in the book was Jacoff’s “Virgil in Dante”— very compact, lucid and nuanced, and an excellent introduction to the topic. Looney’s contribution on “Marvellous Vergil in the Ferrarese Renaissance,” which takes in Ariosto and Boiardo, is much less tightly written, not really encompassing its stated aims. There are some interesting observations on Turnus in Aeneid 9 and 10, however. The next chapter, from Hardie, on “Spenser’s Vergil: The Faerie Queene and the Aeneid,” is characteristically dense and labyrinthine. The chapter shows that Spenser’s use of Virgil (and Ovid) is far from casual. Power on “The Aeneid in the age of Milton” is a substantial contextualisation of Dryden and Milton, with a focus on political uses, especially of book 6. Haskell surveys Jesuit engagement with Virgil and gives an overview of Jesuit Latin epic and Virgil in a Jesuit education. Laird builds on his Mexican work in “The Aeneid from the Aztecs to the Dark Virgin” and focuses on one particular poem, the Guadalupe of Vilerías y Roelas. The final chapter in the section covers a larger period, printed books from 1500-1800, from Kallendorf; it bridges this section and the next, by focusing on the materiality of the text, illustrations as well as editions. It is an excellent introduction to the history of interpreting Virgil and the reasons for studying receptions, readable, well-contextualised with interesting and detailed examples. This is my pick of the book for undergraduates studying Virgil.

The next section is rather a mixed bag, perhaps as a result of the laudable aim of tackling the interactions between different media; it focuses on visual arts and music, and drifts towards a later period, with emphasis on the Romantics. Rowland provides a perspective from the history of architecture in “Vergil and the Pamphili Family in Piazza Navona, Rome.” The subject matter is the Palazzo Pamphili, with its decorative scheme by Pietro da Cortona, and the collaboration of Bernini and Kircher on the Fountain of the Four Rivers (less straightforwardly Virgilian). The tendency to narrate and describe makes this essay less analytical than others. The next, by Reuben A. Brower, stands out because it dates from 1972. The chapter compares Rubens’ visual adaptation of Virgil with Dryden’s translation. The editors chose to include it because they judged it “prescient of future work on the interplay of the verbal and visual arts fostered by the influence of Virgil” (7). It is an interesting piece but does feel dated; its provenance is not well sign-posted. Eastin’s piece, which looks like a rather marginal contribution from the title, “The AEneas of Vergil: A Dramatic Performance Presented in the Original Latin by John Ogilby,” is tightly argued, thoughtful and well worth reading. It sets the Cleyn engravings used in Dryden’s translation in their original context of Ogilby’s translation, exploring the influence of his background as theatrical impresario. These visual chapters are also well illustrated. Blayney Brown’s chapter (“Empire and Exile: Vergil in Romantic Art”) is one of the least convincing,loosely written, but with some interesting material on Turner (less on Girodet, Blake and Palmer). Most’s chapter on “Laocoons” may well turn out to be the most cited of this book and is accomplished and stimulating. He suggests that Virgil’s Laocoon is likely to have inspired the sculpture, if indirectly and vaguely, and that it might form the first artistic response to the Aeneid. It would have been nice to hear how we might read the “Laocoon Sausage” cartoon, for instance. The image of a butcher and his apprentices apparently overcome by writhing sausages, while a passer-by gives a sidelong glance, might be a reflection on Classics as a discipline, on its distance from “relevance,” and the puncturing of a realm of “high art” with which both Virgil and the sculpture can be (must be?) associated. Yet on the other side, it might suggest that awareness of classical culture offers an escape from the everyday toils of the working man.

Fitzgerald’s effective survey of “Vergil in Music” focuses on opera, mainly Purcell and Berlioz. There is also material on early polyphonic responses to Dido and Lizst’s Sunt lacrimae rerum. One connection with Most is the idea that receptions can eclipse the original in the popular imagination, as is the case with both Laocoon and Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas. But to mix the metaphors, many different roads lead to Virgil, and any eclipse must be only a partial eclipse; I like the image of the Aeneid as the sun, while receptions revolve around it (and us?), perhaps obscuring the original, or making us see it in a different light.

The next section (Virgil in America) begins with Richard’s survey of education in the antebellum period; he presents both the centrality of Virgil and the classics in the curriculum and criticisms of Virgil, with an emphasis on pastoralism. Winterer and Ronnick provide political correction to the focus on men in power with essays on women and black Americans respectively. Both are more descriptive than analytical. I am not convinced that women really choose “softer topics” as their academic focus: there is a strong female presence in Flavian epic, and indeed in Virgil himself.

The diptych of essays by Lowrie and Connolly in contrast is highly analytical. Lowrie, too, is a condensed reprint, originally published in Cardozo Law Review (2005; 27.2 945-76). This is a much more judicious choice of re-print; it is a re-reading of the end of the Aeneid in the context of Benjamin and Arendt, arguing that the revolutionary violence of Aeneas and Augustus is like Benjamin’s conception of divine violence, whereas Arendt instead reads the poem as showing that “all attempts to tame violence fail” (402). Connolly in response explores the affinity between Juno and Aeneas. Both of these chapters are focused on the poem itself, and might fruitfully have been located in the first section (although they do set critical responses in a broader intellectual context).

This intellectual context is examined in Haynes’ chapter, which discusses the idea of the classic (and the classical) in Heyne, Sainte Beuve and Eliot. It is a rather slow-moving and disappointing essay that somehow never seems to get down to business. Farrell is doing something rather different and more wide-ranging in his discussion “Virgil’s Detractors” from antiquity to the present day, which might have made a fine closing piece, if it would not have finished things off on a sour note. The essay is not without a sharp sense of irony, and Farrell brings a lesson from the critics of the Aeneid about the continuing freshness of the poem itself. Braund’s chapter on translation is equally excellent and insightful, not only exploring French and Russian receptions of Virgil, but also setting out a manifesto for the defamiliarizing translation, for making readers realise how far Virgil and his world are from us. It also includes a persuasively positive review of Ahl’s translation of the Aeneid. The volume endswith a whimper, perhaps, rather than a bang, and Kirchwey’s survey of ‘Vergil’s Aeneid and contemporary poetry’, a collection of interesting material, which could have been developed further.

In all, the volume has much to recommend it, reaching the heights of sublimity more often than sending its readers to purgatory. For such an enormous enterprise the editors are to be congratulated, especially as it is well-produced, with very few errors or problems.


1. Including: Horsfall, N. (ed.) (1995) A Companion to the Study of Virgil. Leiden; Martindale, C. (ed.) (1997) The Cambridge Companion to Virgil. Cambridge; Perkell, C. (ed.) (1999) Reading Vergil’s Aeneid: an Interpretive Guide. Norman, Oklahoma.

2. For instance, Richard’s essay on the Early American Republic begins with pastoral; Blayney Brown discusses the Eclogues and Georgics; Fitzgerald’s survey of music also discusses Eclogue VIII.

3. Ziolkowski, J. M. and Putnam, M. C. J. (eds.) (2008) The Virgilian Tradition. The First Fifteen Hundred Years. New Haven.