Virgilian Legends and More

Gustave Doré, Dante et Virgile dans le neuvième cercle de l’enfer, credit Wikimedia Commons

Virgilian Legends and More

Nicholas Horsfall, Fifty Years at the Sybyl’s Heels: Selected Papers on Virgil and Rome. Oxford University Press, 2020. Pp. i-xv; 1-522, reviewed by Darrell Sutton

Technical studies of Virgil’s texts exist in abundance. Periodicals do not lack submissions on esoteric themes that are discoverable in his poems. Consequently hundreds of papers are issued annually. Literary specialists who write with verve often tell Virgil’s tales better than he did. Textual editors, too, apply their skills to his texts routinely. Virgil’s readership, ranging from antiquity through two thousand years, has been consistent and can be numbered in the millions. Scores of scholars currently study his more popular poems in Latin as well as the Appendix Vergiliana. In the same way, students by the thousands study his poems in translated forms around the world.

Despite the ongoing revival within the fields of Virgilian research, few commentators on the Aeneid in recent times have made advances that are comparable to those made by Nicholas Horsfall (NH).[i] Forty-two of his one hundred and forty-five published papers are included in this book. None of his reviews, though numbering over one hundred and thirty, is included. Unhappily, his epigraphic research is excluded too from this collection. Favor is extended to definitive research, literary pieces and to papers published in obscure journals or to articles he wrote in Italian, which appear here now translated. Papers are arranged chronologically. NH was polylingual and came from cosmopolitan stock. In his scholarship, at times he held rather inflexible views. He spoke his mind loudly and in print on numerous occasions. Able to explicate the finer shades of ancient Latin idiom, his universal knowledge of the Graeco-Roman contexts of Virgil’s poetry and of Greek legends that here and there formed their bases, are well known. Historical examinations conducted by him never made for dull reading. He solved many problems. The titles of the collected articles are appended at the conclusion of this review.

NH was a consistent and thoroughgoing writer. His earlier work is as valuable as his later pieces. Number 1, which opens the collection, is titled ‘Numanus Remulus: Ethnography and Propaganda in Aeneid 9.598ff.’ [Hence, I note only the chapter number]. It is only nine pages in length and instructive. Few modern readers would link the two characteristics, patience and endurance, or be aware that the formation of a softer generation of men and women is the result of upbringing and natural influences. Italians were a hardy people, durum genus, who believed that farmers made the best soldiers. NH shows how the environment created such physically strong citizens. From bathing their infants in icy rivers to the hard labors of agricultural tasks, they considered patienta… to be part and parcel of [Italians] their duritia. ‘It is a virtue not to be applied lightly or often to peoples other than Romans’ (p.4)

In a well-written paper regarding titular ascriptions in Roman texts, 11, it is helpful also for critics of biblical texts to learn that ‘Roman books did in general have titles, and that those titles were often demonstrably the author’s own and not those later supplied by booksellers, librarians, or purchasers’ (p.138), and citing R. Pfeiffer and R. Blum, NY writes ‘it is also clear that one of the great achievements of Callimachus… was to systematize the titulature of Greek literature’ (p.139). Ancient authors had a keen desire to live on through their literary work and saw little need to hide their identities unless they organized their material under duress.

Moreover, the chaotic state of Aeneas-legends during Virgil’s day is addressed briefly in 12. However, NH argues that ‘we should not suppose that Virgil regularly confronted directly a mass of conflicting prose and verse texts’ (p.154). NH seems to have read everything on this subject. Numerous sources are cited. But he concludes by stating that ‘Virgil was not passionately interested in antiquarian or technical minutiae, and we have already seen that consistency mattered much less than effect’ (p.163).

In 16, NH presumes Virgil’s dependency on previous studies of the Aeneas-legend, saying that educated classes of people easily would have noticed those verses that relied on Varro’s eloquence (p.194). Whatever ancient writers made of inconsistencies in the telling of the Aeneid, NH leaves the strongest impression that Virgil was an educated reader.

In 26 NH makes note of the penchant that scholars have for understanding Virgil’s sources. If ten percent of recent research into the literary sources of his poems accurately reflects the truth, then Virgil had little artistic ability, he merely plagiarized; but much of what is published nowadays is farfetched. I agree with NH, however, who, when wondering about Virgil’s epic narrative structures, questions ‘whether we have really been framing the right questions about them’ (p.311). The answer is clear. We have not. NH believes we should look to ‘the literature of prophecy’ and to ‘aetiological poetry’. Rightly he insisted that the Aeneid works because, from a Roman religious perspective, it is a ‘great historical meditation’.

On the other hand, NH does not tread lightly in 37 when he asserts ‘we know virtually nothing, in terms of hard fact, about the life of Virgil, apart from a couple of dates’ (p.428); but one page earlier, seeing that criticism of the Lives of the Saints began c.1607, NH lamented the fact that Latinists refused to critically evaluate, likewise, Virgil’s biographical data. And while pondering aloud he inquires ‘Why is it clearly harder to write sensibly about Virgil than about Christ?’ (p.427). As for the Helen Episode (HE), NH disagrees with anyone who assumes that parts of the passage lapse into an un-Virgilian style of language. In fact NH considers the HE to be too Virgilian to be genuinely Virgilian (p.432). And again, ‘Repeatedly, the writing is excessively Virgilian…’ (p.443). As well, Servius, the one whose writings preserve it, cannot be trusted, or so it seems. NH examines the flaws of the Latin phrases in detail. He concludes that the HE is roughly more a form of scholarship than poetry.

In 39 NH ponders the Jewish influence on select lines of Virgil. I do not think readers of his day would have been startled by any motif that implied an inauguration of a new age in accordance with the birth of a peculiar child. Buc. 4.6 and Isa. 7.14 have little contextual similarities. Indeed ‘child’ and ‘virgin’ appear in those lines, but Isaiah’s particular verse became even more exceptional in the eyes of Christians with the composition of the Gospel of Matthew. During Virgil’s day Buc. 4.6 was a less fantastic kind of verse-text. The birth of heroic-like children in Greco-Roman myth and legend, whose appearance signals a new epoch, is not infrequent, but is common in mythic narratives inscribed in cuneiform too.

Several papers build on themes discussed earlier. For example, 13 firms up the thoughts on the parade of heroes elucidated in 9; but 21 defines some Latin terms from 20. It was illuminating where NH wrote that ‘according to his commentators, Virgil avoided excessive specifics; he preferred not to use certain words that were too ugly or explicit, and where the argument was uilis, he carried the tone to a decorous level with high-sounding words’ (p.265). In addition, the ‘underworld’ of Virgil is successively taken up in 40 and 41 where poetic singers often seem to end up in Elysium (p.474). 8 and 19 are smaller masterworks, brilliant in their coverage and in their emphases. Each paper, in turn, looks at the transmission of the knowledge of Greek idiom and of the bounds and levels of literacy.

Attention-grabbing sentences can be found on occasion. E.g., at the opening of 42, ‘Names are signposts in a child’s imagination and thereafter in an adult’s memory.’ So far, items in the book place emphases on an educated reading class. Presumably, these readers outnumbered other readers. Yet one knows from misspelled ancient graffiti and inscriptions of a varied sort that people at all levels of reading tried to construe the ancient poets. And the preserves of the best and worst of Latin poetry were not wholly absent from the everyday dialogue of  ordinary folk who often heard oral citations of well-admired  passages from powerful citizens.

A few criticisms: his attempt in 4 (p.34), to use gematria in order to underscore the numbers 3-30-300=333 in Jupiter’s prophecy is overstated. At 18 (p.213), while writing of the invention of myth and old age witnesses used by Virgil and Ovid, he refers to the biblical character Daniel (7:9). The reference is unsuitable for NH’s discussion on oral testimony, as the language of Daniel is not poetic and in his vision of the ‘ancient of days’, Daniel claims, his is the result of direct inspection. Of the Latin couplet that NH presents in 35 (p.414), he imagines many things.

Ut mihi potanti possit sua dicere facta
Miles et in mensa pingere castra mero

So the soldier may tell me his deeds as I drink and draw his camp in the wine (Trans. By NH). I believe his translation confused him. NH claims that the two lines contain a ‘conventional denunciation of war and warriors’ or that ‘we have no idea whether such things ever really happened.’ Therefore he conjures up notions that should be inconceivable to anyone interpreting the contexts of the Latin.

As for textual criticism in 38, his effort to settle ‘what Virgil actually wrote at verse[6] 852’, proved to be not insignificant; however, I contest his choice of reading. He prefers the reading pacique imponere morem (to impose the force of habit upon peace) to pacisque imponere morem (to impose the habit of peace). Both English renderings above are NH’s: the latter Latin expression is found in a single MS. Again, his translations have him and readers running in the wrong direction. Since instances of ‘peace’ are the result of controlled conduct, why not retain the MS reading and translate so, ‘to impose the ethic of restraint’… ? Indeed if NH’s preference for the dative form, pacique, is the choice of critics, then ‘proper conduct’ must be added to persons who have peaceful dispositions.

NH’s footnotes were concise and were not padded with irrelevancies. He was not the sort of scholar to take on trust the critical results of text-critics and historians, he made inquiries then followed the lines of reasoning to wherever he believed they were taking him. In a few articles he  analyzes battle scenes and enjoys elucidating the lifestyles of warriors. Virgil’s legends, although unauthenticated, were popularly told in traditional forms. And NH exposed readers more fully to aspects of Virgil’s tales that other researchers failed to appreciate or notice (e.g., see 10). Eduard Fraenkel stimulated several of his explorations. NH’s polemic style of writing was not disproportionate to the task that he set for himself. Because he was fond of the work of select German classicists on Roman poetry, he also relished Italian classical scholarship on Virgil. He preferred passionate discourse to mild-mannered kinds of debate. Nonetheless, he did not find it distasteful to cite in his footnotes the names and works of scholars of his era with whom he differed.  A maven of Virgilian poetry and Greco-Roman cultures and myth, NH’s scholarship will endure.

Table of Contents

1: Numanus Remulus: Ethnography and propoganda in Aeneid 9.598ff.; 2: Dido in the Light of History; 3: Turnas and 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 sermons utriusque linguae?; 9: Virgil, Varro’s Imagines, and the Forum of Augustus; 10: From history to legend: M. Manlius and the geese; 11: Some problems in 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: Topagraphy and illusion; 15: Illusion and reality in Latin Topographical writing; 16: The Aeneas-legend and the Aeneid; 17: Non uiribis 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 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.

Horsfall’s Bibliography follows on pp.487-497. There are two indices, one of passages and the other of general topics, pp.499-522


[i] For informative remarks on his scholarship see, J.J. O’Hara’s tribute, ‘Nicholas Horsfall, 1946-2019’ in Vergilius 65 (2019) 161-167. But also see, Maria Luisa Delvigo, ‘Nicholas Horsfall†’, in Gnomon, Vol. 92, 2020, pp. 669–671

Darrell Sutton is a regular contributor to QR

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1 Response to Virgilian Legends and More

  1. Oscar Wilson says:

    A school pupil of my acquaintance thought there was an opera called Dildo & Anus. Won’t be long for that goes on the London stage with Dildo as a transgendered person of colour and Anus as a paralympic deaf-mute afflicted with white privilege. Any offers?

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