BMCR 2022.12.19

Fifty years at the Sibyl’s heels: selected papers on Virgil and Rome

, Fifty years at the Sibyl's heels: selected papers on Virgil and Rome. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2020. Pp. xvi, 522. ISBN 9780198863861 $110.00.

Fifty Years at the Sibyl’s Heels bears witness to Nicholas Horsfall’s towering stature as a Virgilian and Romanist. This volume gathers 42 papers (the titles are given below) from an immense oeuvre comprising 145 papers; five monumental commentaries on books of the Aeneid; several monographs and co-written, edited, or co-edited books; ‘over 130’ reviews (preface, p. vi; of which 121 are listed in the ‘Nicholas Horsfall Bibliography’ at pp. 487–97); and other occasional pieces such as obituaries, written over almost half a century (1968–2016). Responsible for the selection and author of the preface is Ailsa Crofts, Horsfall’s partner in his later years (per litt.), ‘an ancienne classics graduate and non-scholar’, who consulted with Professor A. J. Woodman (who in turn took wider soundings) about which papers to include. In addition to some ‘classics’, ‘game-changers’, often-cited articles, and ‘standard treatments of their subject’ (preface, p. v), the collection makes available some hard-to-find pieces and translations from the original Italian into English of five papers on aspects of the Aeneid.[1] From such a vast body of work, the selection cannot have been easy.

There are 29 papers on, or partly on, Virgil, the remainder dealing with Roman literary or cultural topics. There is much overlap across the Virgil/Rome division, as Virgil’s poetry is put in its widest possible context. There is also remarkable coherence of method across the fifty years’ worth of papers: from first to last, Horsfall compiled and analyzed seriatim mountains of evidence. Arranged not by subject matter but in order of publication, the sequence gives a sense of the development and expansion of Horsfall’s interests. He often commented on this process, as in later articles he built on or in part revised earlier ones, or expanded in detail on a question that he had previously raised. The only exception to the chronological ordering is the personal and virtuosic end piece, ‘The poetics of toponymy’, first published in Literary Imagination (2002). Here and throughout, Horsfall’s scholarly voice is idiosyncratic and engaging, usually cheerful, sometimes polemic. He emerges from these pages in his full humanity.

The Virgil papers focus particularly on Virgil’s sources and other antecedents. ‘Source criticism as an instrument of literary criticism remains unsurprisingly unpopular’, he quibbled in 1988 (cf. pp. 163, 216 et al.), but how true was that? Homer and tragedy give way to Horsfall’s real interest, which is Virgil’s use of lesser-known sources or of texts that were rarely invoked in connection with him. These include Greek and Latin poetry preserved only in fragments, from the epic cycle through Virgil’s contemporaries, and antiquarian (esp. Varro), mythographic, and historiographic sources, the latter exemplified by Herodotus as a source of colonization motifs. Horsfall also exploited ethnographic and genealogical sources, not to mention statuary and other visual arts, archaeological and topographic evidence from Rome and Italy, and Jewish Messianic prophecy and its channels of transmission. Source criticism is often dry, but Horsfall’s feeling for poetry (and for the tragic) is never far from the surface, as when, commenting on the minor heroes of the Aeneid, he writes, ‘It is death that stirs Virgil’s genius most powerfully’ (p. 208). Yet the inheritance of language is a poet’s greatest source, and Horsfall anatomizes the source domain, register, and connotations of Virgil’s and other writers’ langue and paroles. With curiosity, erudition, and frenetic drive, he makes discoveries of lasting value.

Along the way there are many discussions of ‘invention’ (see esp. ‘Camilla, or the limits of invention’, pp. 211-229), though there is barely a hint in these pages at the theory wars over allusion and intertextuality that were waged in parallel with some of the papers’ composition. Indeed, Horsfall abjures ‘critical theory’, preferring instead to follow his nose (p. 415) and ‘working largely by instinct and inspiration’ (p. 378). He embraces the criticism that he is a ‘traditional empirico-positivist’ when he asserts that ‘Time spared from attempts at self-definition can better be spent on real scholarly problems’ (p. 333). Of course, the philological approach is itself based on a theory, but Horsfall’s under-theorized approach can limit his analysis, as when throughout this collection he ascribes narrative inconsistencies in the Aeneid (repeatedly: see index, s.v. ‘inconsistencies’) to Virgil’s unreconciled use of different traditions—and this despite citing more interpretative work on Virgil’s inconsistencies by O’Hara and others. Horsfall is rightly renowned for his bibliographical voraciousness in many languages, but he was also candid about what he approved and disapproved of; and perhaps understandably, he foregrounds engagement with contributions that are on his own wavelength.

A corollary of Horsfall’s aversion to theory is that his own critical language is entirely free of jargon or copy-and-paste thinking. Commenting on the alleged fraudster who composed the Helen Episode with a hypervirgilian concentration of Virgilianisms, Horsfall writes: ‘His efforts have convinced many distinguished Latinists, but the sweat of his efforts has stained the page and in the end it is those sweat stains that give him away’ (p. 443–44). His sentences are often vivid and jaunty; on sit mihi fas audita loqui (Aen. 6.266) he writes: ‘What Virgil has “heard” (that is, in reality, “read” though the substitution is not necessarily complete and binding) he exalts and ennobles by asking permission to raise a corner of the veil of secrecy’ (p. 295). Another characteristic example: ‘Genealogy is the strongest symbol of continuity; Virgil’s particularly Roman emphasis on familial and national descent through the noble gentes rests on recent pseudo-scholarly work, especially by M. Terentius Varro: fashionable semi-learned tinkering in the service of gentile pretensions is transposed, still in terms of aetiological explanation of particular names (1.277 etc.) into a serious and major instrument (however little it may seem so to us) of cohesion between mythical and historical worlds’ (p. 316).

Horsfall generally devotes much more attention to identifying Virgil’s sources and to analyzing techniques of appropriation (including ‘signposting’ and allegedly spurious appeals to tradition) than he does to interpreting Virgil’s use of his sources. On ideology: ‘That is not the point, however, of this discussion’ (p. 312). But when he does square up to ideological interpretation, his readings are compelling, precisely because they are ballasted with philological analysis of the sources and traditions that are in play. See especially ‘Virgil, history and the Roman tradition’ (a strong ‘Augustan’ reading, which he came to soften slightly), and ‘Virgil and the poetry of explanations’.

Because Horsfall is so closely associated with Virgil, there is a risk that his writings on non-Virgilian matters could be overlooked. That would be a mistake. Indeed, Horsfall sometimes seems more liberated, and his writing more bracing, when he deals with matters beyond Virgil. He has much to offer on such overlapping and contiguous topics as Cicero’s literary prejudices; how much Greek an educated Roman knew, and relatedly, the nuanced complexities of bilingualism; the Palatine library; the so-called collegium poetarum; the titulature of Latin works; recitation and dictation at Rome; the culture and literacy of the Roman plebs and of the Roman legionary, including forms of popular entertainment; early Latin song culture; Petronius’ Cena Trimalchionis; regional diversity in Italian culture from food through building techniques; imprecise topography in representations of landscape. The papers on these topics show prodigious industry in collecting, organizing, sifting and evaluating primary evidence. Horsfall’s mind moves this way and that over the material, and there are countless gains on points large and small.

Sometimes, however, Horsfall fails to conquer the chaos of his materials (cf. his own metaphor in ‘Virgil and the conquest of chaos’) and to achieve clear exposition. At times, even the most attentive reader will struggle to see the wood for the trees. The argument is dispersed or fragmented or sometimes only implied across the accumulation of data and references to scholarship. Horsfall demands a reader prepared to work almost as hard as he has done and ready to chase up the scholarship to which he is responding but which he very rarely summarizes, to the detriment of his own argument and of a complete picture of his topic. Related obscurantist factors include the form of his citations (often: ‘Cf. Author, Journal title number (year) 365ff.’ with no item title or indication of page run), and the fact that little Greek or Latin is translated. There are tangled discursive sequences, and ones that simply cannot be understood, or where Horsfall’s conclusions cannot be evaluated because he does not present the necessary information. The reader who wishes to know why a Praenestine cista is dismissed as irrelevant needs to read the sources cited on p. 217. Later, on the prehistory of Latin literature, ‘It is quite unnecessary to offer a guided tour to the whole problem and I select only two striking examples of calqued details’ (p. 345). The reader of the paper on Cicero’s poetic prejudices will understand much less if s/he does not follow up all the references that are cited but not quoted or summarized. Similarly, discussing the geography of the Georgics: ‘Do not forget Velleius 2.89.4’ (p. 380). The reader can be left behind as Horsfall chases the Sibyl, solving ‘problems’ (one of his favourite critical terms) that he has not clearly defined. I found paper number 4, parts of 7, 10, 12 (to some extent), 13, and 29 the most bedeviled by elliptical argument or a thicket of materials. A symptom of Horsfall’s tendency to untidy argument is that his selective summaries of his own earlier papers, unencumbered by detailed discussion, are invariably much clearer than the paper itself was.

Overall, his oeuvre gives a sense of a grand tapestry, a perpetual work in progress (‘The topic is, for me, very much “work in hand”, p. 163). His prolific restlessness is both his genius and his Achilles’ heel.

As Horsfall himself might say, quibbles could be multiplied, but I nonetheless finished this volume eager to read more of his work. The best time to read a paper by him is when already immersed in the materials that he is writing about; that is when the gaps will be smallest and most pardonable and his erudite asides most intelligible.



  1. Numanus Remulus: ethnography and propaganda in Aen. 9.598ff.
  2. Dido in the light of history
  3. Turnus ad portas
  4. Virgil’s Roman chronography: a reconsideration
  5. The collegium poetarum
  6. Virgil, history, and the Roman tradition
  7. Some problems in the Aeneas-legend
  8. Doctus sermones utriusque linguae?
  9. Virgil, Varro’s Imagines and the Forum of Augustus
  10. From history to legend: Manlius and the geese
  11. Some problems of titulature in Roman literary history
  12. Virgil and the conquest of chaos
  13. The structure and purpose of Virgil’s parade of heroes
  14. The Caudine forks: topography and illusion
  15. Illusion and reality in Latin topographical writing
  16. The Aeneas-legend and the Aeneid
  17. Non uiribus aequis: some problems in Virgil’s battle-scenes
  18. Camilla, or the limits of invention
  19. The Uses of Literacy and the Cena Trimalchionis
  20. Chloreus’ trousers
  21. Barbara tegmina crurum
  22. Aeneas the colonist
  23. Virgil and the illusory footnote
  24. Externi duces
  25. The Aeneid and the social structures of primitive Italy
  26. Virgil and the poetry of explanations
  27. Empty shelves on the Palatine
  28. Cicero and poetry: the place of prejudice in literary history
  29. The prehistory of Latin poetry: some problems of method
  30. Rome without spectacles
  31. The cultural horizons of the Plebs Romana
  32. The geography of the Georgics
  33. The unity of Roman Italy: Some anomalies
  34. The unity of Roman Italy: Anomalies in context
  35. The legionary as his own historian
  36. The Moretum decomposed
  37. Fraud as scholarship: The Helen Episode and the Appendix Vergiliana
  38. Excudent alii
  39. Virgil and the Jews
  40. Poets and poetry in Virgil’s Underworld
  41. Exempla in Virgil’s Underworld
  42. The poetics of toponymy

Nicholas Horsfall, a bibliography

Index of passages

General index



[1] The papers have been retyped for this publication (preface, p. vii), and some typographical errors have crept in.