BMCR 2020.07.07

Selections from Virgil’s Aeneid books 1-6: a student reader

, Selections from Virgil's Aeneid books 1-6: a student reader. London; New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2020. vi, 220 p.. ISBN9781472575708 $20.65 (pb).

This volume offers a selection of passages from the first half of the Aeneid, with a companion volume on books 7-12 in the pipeline. Given that individual books of the Aeneid are regularly set for examination at GCSE and A level in the UK, this book (and its sister volume) could become a standard textbook from which to select the 120 lines required at GCSE—or the 220 lines required at A level—from a single book of the Aeneid. Reading the Aeneid is not of course restricted to examination candidates, and the book would not be out of place in any course which seeks to increase reading fluency in students, while also helping them to ‘understand and appreciate Virgil’s poem’ (as the blurb has it), using the text of R.D. Williams (Macmillan, 1972).

The book certainly aims to be student-friendly. There is very little page-flipping required—each double page has a chunk of text with running vocabulary underneath and running commentary opposite, and a few interesting questions in a text box at the foot of the page to stimulate enquiry and discussion (and possibly written exercises). The level of explanation and literary analysis is targeted at students in schools (and above) who have mastered the basics of the language and who need a friendly mentor to guide them through some complex verse in a very different era to our own. In this Carter succeeds very well.

The running vocabulary aims to keep the reader reading. The commonest words are assumed to be known—although the author does not provide (or point to) a list of these commonest words. Words are glossed as they occur (and only once in each individual book of the poem, unless their meaning is radically different next time they occur): if students forget what a word meant last time they are directed to the ‘word-list’ at the end of the book. This does not always work perfectly: the verb iacto, for instance, occurs at 1.3 and is not glossed when it reappears 224 lines later at 1.227: ora is glossed at 1.95 but not again at 1.354 and 1.589. ter is glossed at 1.94 but not at 1.272. These common words might be expected to be learned as the reader goes along, but agetur in 1.574 needs glossing in situ (as Williams does) as the use of ago (‘treat’) is very different from its previous incarnation at 1.32. Bizarrely, the word is glossed at 1.32 with both the meaning relevant to that line and also the meaning to be applied 542 lines later. The word list gives five different meanings of the word ago, with no indication of which one to use where: it would have been helpful if line references had been added to such very different meanings of the same word. It would also have been useful for the vocabulary (and the word-list) to have long syllables marked with macra, to encourage the correct reading aloud of this poetry.

The commentary notes range from the full (e.g. 1.367-8, 3.158-9) to the concise, and generally do a good job of explaining key references to people and places and also offer some helpful literary and linguistic tips on how the poetry is working: Carter does well to give students enough information to understand the Latin and keep moving on without getting stuck. To avoid the danger of spelling out literary points too dogmatically, the author puts some literary issues into the form of questions at the foot of each page, asking the reader to think how and why a literary device is used and how effective it is: see for instance the questions relating to the pathos of 2.768-773, the word order and sound effects of 4.296-9, and the similes at 2.304-8, 6.453-4. The questions are open and the register is well suited to the school pupils who will be answering them: they are evaluative rather than drearily factual—not ‘What does Aeneas say in 4. 333-61?’ but rather ‘Evaluate Aeneas’ response to Dido. Is he fair to her? What sort of man does he seem?’. This is all excellent pedagogical practice. The notes explaining the way Virgil’s language works are at times thin: volvendis at 1.269 is translated but not explained (unlike Williams, who does explain it), and a little more detail on the ‘back-story’ would have been helpful: at 1.671-2 (Iunonia hospitia) Carter correctly tells us that it was Jupiter who arranged this (and not Juno) but gives the reader no clue as to where we can find the relevant passage (1.297-304: not included in this book). The notes rarely sit on the fence and often state conclusions with perhaps more confidence than is normally found: obviously space precludes full scholarly discussion, but sometimes this short-changes the reader (e.g. ‘Virgil invents a cognomen for [Ascanius]’ (1.267-8) is not so straightforward in fact: see Austin’s note on 2.563). The notes on 6.851-3 (tu regere imperio populos…) take a perfectly reasonable but perhaps over-simplified view of ‘Virgil’s purpose’ (morale-boosting for Aeneas and his Roman audience), and perhaps a more nuanced tone (and more probing questions) would have been fairer to the passage and more interesting to the reader. Elsewhere (e.g. 6.568-9) Carter does a better job of conveying the complexity than Williams, although the reader would learn still more from Austin ad loc.

The selection of passages is of course fraught with difficulties. Choosing about 250 lines from each book means that we will find at least one of our favourite passages missing from the cut, including key speeches such as: 1.198-207 (Aeneas), 1.615-30 (Dido), or scenes such as Panthus (2.318-338), the discussion of Venus and Juno at 4.90-128, or the ghost of Deiphobus at 6. 494-534. This is inevitable and not a criticism: and if the book encourages readers to look up the missing passages for themselves, then so much the better.

The book claims to offer ‘an in-depth introduction’ but this is the most disappointing section of the whole volume, being brief and more like a series of lists for reference than a genuine introduction to the poem itself. Ten pages (of sixteen) are devoted to information on literary terms and proper names: there is a useful description of the hexameter and a synopsis of the narrative of the books covered in this volume, but ‘Virgil and the Aeneid’ only gets a page and a half. The suggestions for further reading take up a mere eight lines of text and are very dated: the most recent critical book referred to is Camps An Introduction to Virgil’s Aeneid(Oxford 1969)—here wrongly entitled as An Introduction to Virgil—and the only translations mentioned are those of the Penguin Classics series. Much more help is needed for students (and teachers) who are looking for further discussion and help: there are (for instance) excellent editions of individual books of this poem, many of them aimed at students (such as Heyworth and Morwood’s edition of Book 3 (OUP 2017)), and it also seems scandalous not to refer to R.G. Austin’s OUP editions of 1, 2, 4 and 6. Quinn’s and Camps’ general books on the Aeneid are of course wonderful—but other more recent books could have been suggested, to augment and broaden their view of the poem. Many of these are relatively inexpensive and accessible to students—Jasper Griffin’s Virgil (OUP 1986, now reissued), Gransden’s Student Guide to the Aeneid(Cambridge 2004), Philip Hardie’s succinctly brilliant Virgil (2010, Greece and Rome New Surveys), The Cambridge Companion to Virgil, to name but a tiny handful of the many available.

The book is well proof-read on the whole and the layout is neat and attractive (the worst typo I found was at 1.281 where the text prints refert for referet). There is a useful index.