BMCR 2016.11.27

The Epic Distilled: Studies in the Composition of the Aeneid

, The Epic Distilled: Studies in the Composition of the Aeneid. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2016. xv, 160. ISBN 9780198758877. $75.00.

If you love Virgil’s epic, you will want to read this short book. To the degree that you are already familiar with the author’s magisterial work on the poet—not least the 1991 Italian monograph of which the present work is most certainly not a translation—you will derive both pleasure and learning from the continuing unfolding of Professor Nicholas Horsfall’s signal contributions to Virgilian studies.1 The present volume is both beautifully produced and well proofread; Oxford Press and editor Charlotte Loveridge deserve special credit for excellent work here. For those more or less intimately familiar with Horsfall’s bibliographical style in the commentaries, it will come as a welcome relief to learn that for all its admirable brevity, the citations and notes are significantly more user friendly than those of his separate book editions of Virgil.

To appreciate fully Horsfall’s method and reporting of the results of the ongoing experiments in his Virgilian laboratory, you really must appreciate the poet’s artistry and learning as much as he does. There is a palpable passion in these pages, whether the subject is the toy weapons of Camilla or the trousers of Chloreus. Throughout, there is no quest to transmute lead into gold in this alchemist’s lair (cf. the book’s cover)—rather a dogged persistence in determining the sources of Virgil’s verse visions, both major and minor. You might want to have a decent port, cigar, or whatever your preferred beverage or pleasure (Horsfall will occasionally comment on such things)—and, if you yourself have written on Virgil, you might need to accept a lesson or reminder about humility, grace under fire, and the loyalty owed by all scholars to the pursuit of truth, logic, and reason—or at least come to an understanding of the bibliographical “rules” of the author’s game. Horsfall is without guile or prejudice; all Virgilian criticism—not least certain preceding items from his own long bibliography of publications2—constitutes a legitimate target for his unforgiving, merciless microscope.3

The Epic Distilled is in part a comprehensive register of the learned notes one might expect to find in the marginalia of a well-worn copy of Geymonat’s or Mynors’ Virgil.4 It is a treasure chest of real delight, of treats all the more enjoyable for those who have immersed themselves in the vast tradition of Virgilian scholarship. There are answers to old questions and favorite problems—and honest willingness to admit where no answer seems possible in light of our scanty sources. The discussion of the Virgilian reception of Odyssean material—especially on Charybdis, Circe, and the Cyclopes —is invaluable; so also the consideration of the poet’s debt to Varro. The indication that the author is more open to metapoetic magic from the poet’s pen represents decisive evidence that old dogs can learn new tricks.5 Some readers may be frustrated at the seemingly random nature of the discussions; the more familiar you are with Horsfall’s work, the more orderly the inquiries appear.

Indeed, now and again there are recapitulations of previously published points, useful summations and reminders of old favorites, of those chestnuts of Horsfallian investigation—sometimes (though by no means often) hastily or imprecisely presented.6 There are second thoughts on judgments published in the commentaries and articles (in some ways, The Epic Distilled offers a convenient revised edition of the preceding entries in the NH catalogue); there are generously detailed outlines of promising avenues for other Virgilians to pursue (this is one of the most valuable and engaging features of the book). Horsfall’s Alambicco offered the method, and his commentaries the demonstration thereof—and The Epic Distilled offers the inquest on the vivisectioned Virgil.

Was Virgil a poet and artist deeply concerned with the fate of Rome under the nascent Augustan regime? Was he a hopelessly pedantic, relentlessly clever hexameter magician who displayed his erudition in every passing verse solely so that later generations of learned mavens could unpeel, disentangle, unravel or “distill” his complex creation?7 Was he all this and so much more? By the end of Horsfall’s pages on Camilla, to give but one example on which the author has written so much and so well, one will be reminded of the influence of the Cloelia of early Roman lore; of exile and infant exposure folklore motifs; of Amazons and Artemisia.8 The reader is not likely, however, to come away with a comfortable understanding or sense of why exactly the poet chose to make his Volscian heroine so central to his penultimate book, other than merely to serve as yet another canvas on which to paint his allusions now Hellenistic, now Metapontine (and not Catonian!). We have come very far from Marjorie Crump’s healthy treatment of Virgil’s composition in sickly green Basil Blackwell boards9—bewitching alchemist on the cover and all—but Thessalian Erysichthon offers his own lessons.

In short, one is left hungry—but the diet prescribed for the patient is another Horsfallian wonder for which to salivate in eager anticipation—this time around, Aeneid 110—the advent of which we await with genuine excitement and grateful appreciation for the editor’s service both to poet and reader.


1. L’epopea in alambicco, Napoli: Liguori Editore, 1991. The review of Richard F. Thomas in Vergilius 39 (1993), pp. 76-80 is essential reading.

2. Conveniently downloadable under the title “BORING.doc” on his personal webpage.

3. Avoidance of the footnotes will largely insulate the reader from such incisive illumination or gratis asseritur critique of predecessors. Individual readers will agree or disagree, be amused or outraged in turn at the treatment of other Virgilian scholars. There is a valuable history of modern Virgilian scholarship in the apparatus of this book, though the map to its use is eminently idiosyncratic. The great virtue of Horsfall’s bibliographical work is that he regularly highlights the importance of scholarship that is regrettably elsewhere forgotten or ignored.

4. Bettter still, an edition of the poet from the days when interleaving was still fashionable.

5. Cf. the author’s Virgil: Aeneid 6, Berlin-New York: Walter de Gruyter, 2013, p. 539. Animals, one might note en passant, are especially well treated in this new Horsfallian work (especially wolves)—though one laments the absence (unless this reviewer has missed it) of the by now expected nods to the author’s own menagerie.

6. Chloreus is not killed at 11.768, or elsewhere in the book—an important detail, since he is consequently denied the glory of having been a victim of Camilla’s aristeia (p. 94; Robert Kaster correctly notes in his Loeb edition of Saturnalia 5.15.12 that Macrobius made a “slip”). Book 5, regarding Palinurus’ fateful slumber it does not tell the whole story to say that “the actual cause is explained entirely in human terms” (p. 91 n.49), and the adverb belies the poet’s emphasis on Somnus’ violent action.

7. Do “inconsistencies” in the epic serve as a deliberately crafted, intentional device of the poet’s strategy in developing and managing his epic—or do they serve primarily (if not only) to provide richer or more “interesting” material for the learned scholar to explicate?

8. Though not, inter alia, of political and military allegory, of Cleopatra and Lucius Arruntius at Actium.

9. The Growth of the Aeneid: A Study of the Stages of Composition … Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1920.

10. Announced at the end of Appendix 2 of the author’s edition of Book 6.