Doré Woodcut, Divine Comedy, credit Wikipedia


The Cambridge Companion to Virgil (2nd Ed.), edited by Fiachra MacGorain and Charles Martindale, Cambridge University Press: 2019. Pp. i-xvi,1-549, reviewed by Darrell Sutton

Arguably the most illustrious writer of Latin literature, Virgil’s classic, the Aeneid, is central to studies of ancient epic. The popular words arma virumque cano (I sing of arms and the man) resonate in every generation. Many people have been to war but few combatants composed melodies depicting their adventures. Other than Homer, had anyone sung of conflict like Virgil? Homer became Virgil’s model centuries later when he composed his Roman tale of quest and conquest, one filled with Gods who proved to be both baneful and benevolent in their dealings with mankind.

The lifeblood of warriors was poured forth in line after line of the Aeneid. It tells of Rome’s history. Although her legends and myths are rendered in an unfinished account, the Aeneid’s rhythms have been scrutinized countless times by expert and layperson alike. Virgil produced other literary creations. Some writers in the past believe he authored Appendix Vergiliana; some do not (see S. Mcgill’s skeptical but erudite paper (chapter 4) on all the pseudepigrapha).

Virgil was grateful to Augustus for restoring to him his lands. And the Bucolica show his gratitude and his interest in pastoral landscapes. Several poems are dedicated to individuals who were of significance to Virgil. The shepherd’s vocation is extoled; the Muse’s love of woodlands is noted at Ecl.I.2. However, some still believe that his Georgics are the best work that he composed, dealing with various departments of farming. Didactic in style, these four poems shine a light on the technics of organic production in bygone days. Daily chores that relate to crop farming, vine plants, herds and bees are described in technical language. Everywhere some type of symbolism finds expression in the poems. Richard F. Thomas averred that “the Georgics is perhaps the most difficult, certainly the most controversial, poem in Roman Literature…” (Virgil: Georgics, Vol.1, Cambridge Press: 1988; p.16).

Virgil was a celebrated figure. The 4th century A.D. grammarians saw fit to compile short biographies of the ancient lives of Virgil (Vitae Virgilianae). These standard facts can be found in any comprehensive volume on him published since the Renaissance. Critical scholars tend to reject pedantic historical points as untrue, preferring to collate and corroborate salacious bits and pieces.

Virgil’s biographical details are commonplace. Born and raised in the vicinity of Mantua and Andes, his temperament and tastes developed amid his rural surroundings. If Aelius Donatus is correct, he bore the symbol of manhood, toga virilus, by the age of fifteen. He received a well-rounded education in the arts and sciences. Suetonius thought he enjoyed the company of male youth, along with their fervent enthusiasms. Of his philosophy of life, who could have known it? Was Virgil a Stoic? The evidence is thin. It is likelier that he was Epicurean: but consult S. Braund’s fine study, Virgil and the Cosmos: Religious and Philosophical ideas (16) for a more rounded view of some of his attitudes and beliefs.

Neither a soldier or a politician, those interests, if he was controlled by them at all, were expressed in the Aeneid. Julius Caesar was murdered when Virgil was in his mid-twenties. He was devoted to poetry. Writing projects were carefully formed. Having gastral issues, he was not the healthiest person. When he began to compose, he read his poems to worthy persons and to anyone who would listen. At times, he constructed his verse upon the work of his predecessors. His peers accused him of literary theft.

In the final weeks of his life he spent some time with Augustus. Bound for Italy, illness ultimately overcame him in September 19 BC. It seems that on his deathbed he called for his papers and left clear instructions about their handling after his death. The Aeneid had an ill-fated destiny, but in the end, the manuscript was rescued from destruction.

So much for the minutiae of his life – for pictorial illustrations, see L.B.T. Houghton, Virgil in Art (9). Seeing how Virgil was characterized artistically reveals much about those architects of fine Virgilian art. No Roman author surpassed Virgil in eminence. Ovid judged Virgil’s writings to be unforgettable. Quintilian found him to be equal in Latin literature to Homer’s place in Greek. The memory of Virgil will never die.

The Cambridge Companion to Virgil, recently revised, is an introductory work. Before 1997 Cambridge Companions were not devoted entirely to one classical writer. Originally, this volume was “devised for anyone, whether a classicist or not, who is seeking guidance and orientation for a fuller understanding of Virgil” (p.xv). And I think it is much more useful to those already familiar with the poet.

There are twenty-six chapters, divided into five sections, and twenty-two illustrations. Part I: Receptions; Part II: Forms; Part III: Contexts; Part IV: Themes, and finally a section entitled Envois. Anglo scholars of repute offer ingenious expositions of passages. There is a lot to digest. Below I supply brief notes or comments on several papers.

C. Martindale’s Introduction (1): The Classics of all Europe is informative and provides an overview of the different parts of the book and an appraisal of how Virgil was appreciated in the post-World War II era. Naturally, European conceptions predominate. After all, they have done the most acceptable, critical work on him; but one might assume from the structure of the article that there have been very few, if any, readers, commentators or editors of colour of his poems since 1945. Although the issue is unresolved in this edition, F. Mac Góráin is mindful of this misconstrued notion: see Virgil: The Future? (26), p.474.

An editor of critical texts rarely becomes a reputed historian of ancient ideas or a prodigious literary critic. But R. Tarrant’s paper (3), Aspects of Virgil’s Reception in Antiquity is thorough, exact and shows acquaintance with numerous Virgilian models and allusions in Latin sources. And further along in Tarrant’s paper Poetry and Power: Virgil’s Poetry in Contemporary Context (14) does not disappoint. G. Clark is a first-class Augustinian scholar. Her publications illustrate it. She is a close reader of his texts. However, she theorized in her paper Augustine’s Virgil (5), that he “used the techniques that he learned for Latin literature, asking whether the text was correct, how it should be read, what readers need to know, whether the author speaks in person or in character…” (p.80). He thesis is doubtful; but her claim could have been made better by defining the exegetical methods of Patristic writers employed in Augustine’s day.

Fowler’s piece is revised by S. Casali and F. Stok. It should have been extended because as it stands, The Virgil Commentary of Servius (6a) is well written but too abridged (6 pages) to review its riches appropriately, unlike the impressive evaluations in their paper, Post-Classical Commentary (6b). W.W. Batstone, in Virgilian Didaxis: Value and Meaning in the Georgics’(11), is concerned with discarding an “interpretive paradigm that seeks some demonstrative communication, discursive unity, or magisterial and totalizing perspective” (p.193). His own quest concerns “what the poem does for its readers” (p.194). The wording of the citation above reveals the kind of abstractions readers will encounter in his paper. He knows Virgil’s Georgics; but his approach to them is less positive, which is why he concludes by saying, “Rather than create security, clarity, message, the poem complicates our feelings and confounds our paradigms” (p.213). It is unclear quite what he means here.

J.G. Zetzel’s survey of Rome and its Traditions (15) is full of stories of legendary tales and prophetic characters. Well-versed in mythography, what is and is not authentic history is taken up, and the ancient Roman person’s conception of historical matter takes shape when viewed through the lens of Zetzel’s analyses. Virgil’s Style (20) is considered by J.J. O’hara. Reading Latin aloud, and understanding it, both are skills that requires dexterity. Knowledge of minute grammatical matters are essential to O’hara’s investigation of Virgil’s syntax and rhetorical devices. A multitude of examples are classified, of which he boldly states that “At the simplest level, his words can often be interpreted in more than one way, sometimes in diametrically opposed ways, and he offers ambiguities or indeterminacies of syntax, some of which parallel larger problems of interpretation” (p.376; but see fn.27).

As usual, whatever A. Barchiesi discusses offers original perspectives and innovative encounters with classical Latin idiom. His English is graceful as in his translations in two chapters, Virgilian Narrative: Storytelling (22a) and Virgilian Narrative: Ecphrasis (22b). Still, there is no sound reason for his beginning his storytelling paper by asserting “The narrator of the poem is a first-century BC Latin poet, whom it is easiest to call ‘Virgil’” (p.400).  Why inject doubt into the minds of readers without first considering the evidence?


A persistent awareness of the genre of ‘Reception’ directs the formation of most of the articles commissioned for this project. Many of the writers do supplement Latin citations with translations. The revisions are noteworthy. However, there seems to be a prevailing rule among certain Virgilian scholars that in order to write up an accessible paper, one needs to quote Heidegger or Arendt or other modern theorists. In no place was the implementation of philosophical jargon a necessity for understanding Virgil, except where a contemporary writer composed verses in Virgilian style.

By its title, readers might suppose that C. Martindale’s article Green Politics: The Eclogues (10), is a political diatribe. It is not. It is a valuable addition to Virgilian studies. As for E. Oliensis, Sons and Lovers: Sexuality and Gender in Virgil’s Poetry (23), it is what you would expect from the title. Although she writes with verve, the utility of applying psychoanalytical technique to ancient texts is questionable. And classicists who were trained according to traditional philological method – that is say, able to read Latin fluently, will criticize sharply her readings of most Latin texts and the historical interpretation of those same passages.

In The Death of Virgil (25), F. Cox lacks subtlety. She presents her thoughts on The Death of Virgil, which is Hermann Broch’s English rendition of the German novel Der Tod des Vergil. It is a comparative study, in which it is argued that the novel “pivots around Virgil’s eventual realization that he has contributed to… a lie which he asks readers to accept as reality, namely the glorious beauty of empire” (p.463). However, her words must be taken with caution. ‘Empire’, for those raised in a monarchical society, is most likely not the enemy, individual leaders with a bad character are. Also, the paper is misplaced and should have been inserted in Part I Reception. If a 3rd edition is issued, all of the material should be rearranged. And it could begin with four excellent pieces: D. Kennedy, Virgilian Epic, V. Moul, Virgil as a Poet, P. Hardie, Virgil and Tragedy, H. Lovatt, Character in Virgil, in that order.

There are numerous commentaries on Virgil’s poems. But a good introduction will always remain indispensable. And although this Cambridge Companion lacks any critical investigation into Virgil’s biography, the book achieves its main objective (cited above) and is therefore recommended.

[Included is a Dateline (pp.479-482), an extensive Works Cited section (pp.483-530), an Index Locorum (pp.531-538) and Index Nominum et Rerum (pp.539-549).]

Darrell Sutton Lives on the Kansas/Nebraska border and reviews classical books for QR

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