BMCR 2022.03.34

Virgilius redivivus: Einführung, Kommentar und Übersetzung zu Virgilius Maro Grammaticus

, Virgilius redivivus: Einführung, Kommentar und Übersetzung zu Virgilius Maro Grammaticus. Bochumer Altertumswissenschaftliches Colloquium, 107. Trier: WVT, 2021. Pp. 556. ISBN 9783868218817 €63,50.

Ille, as they say, is the sign of an intellect renowned whether for good or ill, as Aeneas, the most expert teacher of rhetoricians, grammarians, and poets, said in praise of a Trojan warrior, ‘fortunate was that renowned Aeneas (felix ille Aeneas), who ten times victor fled from burning Troy and (ce) heading towards India fought for five solid years and ended his life fighting fortunately (uitam bellando feliciter finiuit).’”[1]

Ille can be used to identify someone or something famous; that it belongs particularly to intellectual ability is false. But what should we make of the rest of this sentence, that there was a teacher named Aeneas as well as the Trojan hero, and that the latter died fighting his way to India? This quotation, moreover, comes from a letter about pronouns written by one Virgilius Maro and addressed to someone named Iulius Germanus. What is going on? Who are these people?

Virgilius Maro wrote his grammatical Epitomae and Epistolae in Ireland in the middle of the seventh century. These strange works distantly mirror the Ars maior and Ars minor of Donatus, but they are completely unlike most Latin grammatical writing. They display a strange Latin (shared, at least in part, by contemporary Latin texts from Ireland, notably the Hisperica famina): aside from odd spellings, there are bits of Greek (ce for kai in the quotation above), possibly some Irish and even some Hebrew puns, and many words (particularly terms for aspects of speech) that Virgilius probably invented. He gives two different lists of Twelve Latinities; his bizarre account of scinderatio fonorum includes codes, anagrams, fragmented words, and sentences transformed into series of letters, such as RRR SS PP MM N T EE OO A V I for spes Romanorum perit—ascribed by Virgilius to Cicero (A 10.30–33). He names some 130 people in the course of the two works, some familiar (Aeneas, Terence, Cicero), but also Galbungus, Glengus, and many more. The grammarian Donatus is here—but so is his brother Don, who became a priest. Donatus himself was present at Troy, knew Romulus, and spent four years (of the thousand that he lived) founding a school in Rome and propounding riddles. Virgilius Maro is not the first person of that name: there was a Virgilius who was at Troy, studied with Donatus, wrote poetry and seventy volumes de ratione metri as well as a letter de uerbi explanatione written to another Virgilius from Asia, who was also at Troy. The list of Virgils proudly ends: tertius Virgilius ego. The epic poet we all know (unless he is the one who was at Troy and wrote verses along with metrical and grammatical treatises) goes unmentioned, but Virgilius Maro’s most important teacher, mentioned frequently and quoted above, is Aeneas.

If ever an author needed explanation, Virgilius Maro is it. Until now, however, he has only been translated into a modern language once and has never received a full commentary.[2] In the present volume Lorenzo di Maggio has taken on the twin tasks of translation and explanation of this truly impossible text; he deserves admiration both for his bravery and for considerable accomplishment. A long introduction situates Virgilius in terms of date, location, and his place in the grammatical tradition as well as offering an acute and very valuable discussion of his techniques and the nature of his parody (if that is what it is) and his intellectual goals. Then follow di Maggio’s translation and commentary, interwoven in short sections of translation that are then discussed.[3]

As explained by di Maggio in his introduction, there have been three types of interpretation. In the nineteenth century, the weirdness of the text was ascribed to ignorance and stupidity: a benighted Irishman making a hash of the grammatical tradition to which he was contributing. The second approach, pioneered by Paul Lehmann, was to see the garbled grammatical nonsense as a deliberate parody of the stultifying tradition of late antique grammatical writing. And the third approach, best exemplified by the work of Vivien Law, is to see Virgilius’ work as a kind of hermetic text: a serious argument (in Law’s interpretation, about the nature and sources of wisdom, coupled with a criticism of narrow religious dogmatism) concealed under a riddling and bizarre exterior. The ignorant-and-dumb interpretation is not tenable: Virgilius is not only learned, but at times displays real brilliance. The other two readings are not mutually exclusive: parody and hermeticism both present deceptive surfaces, both rely on the individual reader’s willingness and ability to decipher the meaning, and as a result both are highly subjective.

Di Maggio reasonably inclines to a parody-plus-mystery interpretation, but with much more emphasis on the former: the passage quoted at the outset of this review (among others) demonstrates a reductio ad absurdum of the way grammar in fact absorbed and even replaced literary texts in the early middle ages. He sees also that Virgilius creates a kind of melding of parallel biblical and secular traditions: on a parodic level, Donatus’ thousand-year lifespan outdoes Methuselah, while his brother Don moves from grammarian to priest. This melding is not limited to parody: one of the last figures named in the catalogue of grammarians in Epitoma 12 is the recently deceased Balapsidus, “who on my instructions translated into Latin the books of our law (which I listen to in Greek), of which the opening is: In principio celum terramque mare omniaque astra spiritus intus fouet.” The only traces of the Vulgate opening of Genesis here are in principio and spiritus; more of it comes from the opening of Anchises’ cosmogony in Virgil (Aen. 6.724-26): principio caelum ac terras camposque liquentis / lucentemque globum lunae Titaniaque astra / spiritus intus alit. Di Maggio points this out carefully; he shows that Virgilius may have changed alit in the Aeneid to fouet on the basis of a comment in Augustine; he rightly observes that “… lässt sich zumindest herausstellen, dass Bibel und Aeneis jeweils als Ur-Texte für die theologische bzw. grammatische Grundlage der Gelehrsamkeit stehen und hier … verwoben werden” (341–42). But does it not also matter that the spiritus of the Aeneid is very different from that of Genesis, and that the creation of sky, earth, sea, and the celestial bodies (a version of four-element theory) in Virgil might be seen as heretically different from God creating heaven and earth on Day One? Di Maggio is probably right not to try to specify the relationship in Virgilius between Bible and Aeneid or between grammarian and priest; but throughout he gives theology much less attention than grammar.

Di Maggio’s most important contribution meets a real need: explanation of what Virgilius is actually saying. His translation, as he knows (136), inevitably flattens the weirdness (and unfortunately the vividness) of Virgilius’ language, but it is very useful and seems quite accurate. Perhaps too much of the commentary is paraphrase (which often seems to repeat the translation), but Virgilius’ meaning is often obscure, and more elucidation is better than less. The commentary concentrates heavily on Virgilius’ place in the grammatical tradition, and he reaches some very ingenious (and, in the context of Virgilius’ loopiness, quite credible) interpretations. He shows, for instance, that Virgilius’ statement that solessometimes means carmina (A 5.288–91, taken over also by Bede and Alcuin) is based on a (probably deliberate) misreading of Virgil, Ecl. 9.51–53; that his claim that O is an indeclinable equivalent for miror (A 2.46–51) is a distortion of Priscian 3.90.6–9; that the bizarre pronoun helus (A 6.62) is equivalent to solus because, as Virgilius elsewhere says (A 4.230), Hebrew hel (=deus) is taken over in Greek as helius, and thus equivalent to Latin sol, and hence helus=solus. Di Maggio’s introduction and commentary provide many such ingenious and learned close readings.

At the same time, however, di Maggio’s consistent focus on Virgilius’ place in the grammatical tradition gives short shrift to other aspects of this remarkable text. He pays inadequate attention to Vivien Law’s reading of Virgilius in the context of religious wisdom literature: although Law is too one-sided, her understanding of the importance of sapientia in Virgilius needs to be reckoned with.[4] As noted above, di Maggio does not push beyond grammar to theology, but the religious aspects of Virgilius’ work are explicit and crucial to any interpretation. Nor does di Maggio deal with the literary aspects of this text: he says almost nothing about the curious narratives that Virgilius gives of his encounters with other grammarians and that are a major difference between his writing and that of other grammarians nor, except for dealing with linguistic riddles, does he have much to say about Virgilius’ style; he sometimes misses classical allusions while recognizing grammatical and biblical ones (e.g. canino ore latrant at B 3.5 may be taken from a patristic source, but it also comes from Roman satire; the wide and narrow roads at B 3.32–33 have biblical precedent, but are a frequent metaphor in Roman poetry as well).

It is hard not to read Virgilius as a set of linguistic puzzles, but he is also a literary and philosophical puzzle. Leofranc Holford-Strevens (following Dáibhí Ó Cróinín) has recently explored Virgilius’ use of Aulus Gellius, in particular the narrative patterns of anecdotes and of the quarrels among grammarians.[5] Virgilius is constructing a set of stories aboutgrammar and philology, he constantly displays the arbitrariness of language and, like Gellius, demonstrates the importance of the acquisition of wisdom through critical reading and discussion. His ultimate goal (particularly with respect to theology) passes my understanding, and his choice of methods is indeed bizarre, but he constantly reminds us of the opaqueness of language and the problems of interpretation. To enter his world is like going through the looking glass:

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”


[1] Virgilius Maro, B 2.206-213. I cite the text from Löfstedt’s 2003 Teubner edition (as does di Maggio), but (like Polara, n.2 below) use A and B to designate Epitomae and Epistolae respectively; English translations are my own. Di Maggio improves on and sometimes emends Löfstedt’s idiosyncratic text, on which see L. Holford-Strevens, BMCR 2003.08.16.

[2] The only modern translation I know is that of Caruso and Polara in G. Polara, ed., Epitomi ed epistole di Virgilio Marone grammatico (Naples, 1979). V. Law, Wisdom, Authority and Grammar in the Seventh Century: Decoding Virgilius Maro Grammaticus (Cambridge, 1995) translates B 2.14–93 and A 12.

[3] The greatest defect of di Maggio’s book (which may not be entirely his fault) is that it is very difficult to use: not only is there no index, but di Maggio refers to Virgilius’ works by unhelpful titles (e.g. “Epit. sap.” for Polara’s A 1, or “Epist. verb.” for B 3) and the running headers do not give section titles or numbers. In the introduction di Maggio quotes Virgilius in Latin; in the commentary he gives first a German translation (with no Latin text) but the individual lemmata are in Latin. The result is that to find a cross-reference one needs to consult both di Maggio’s table of contents and Löfstedt’s text to find anything at all.

[4] See my review of Law (above, n.2) at BMCR 1995.10.23. For di Maggio’s rather summary rejections of Law, cf. pp. 101, 267, 464, 477.

[5] L. Holford-Strevens, “The Harp that once through Aulus’ Halls,” in Early medieval Ireland and Europe: chronology, contacts, scholarship : a Festschrift for Dáibhí Ó Cróinín, ed. Pádraic Moran & Immo Warntjes (Turnhout, 2015) 395-404, citing D. Ó Cróinin, Early medieval Ireland, 400-1200 (London, 1995) 212 n.85.