VIRGIL

Alison Keith

Bloomsbury (2020) p/b 208pp £18.35 (ISBN 9781848859203)

This little book, part of the ‘Understanding Classics’ series edited by Richard Stoneman, is claimed by the author in her preface to have been ‘conceived and written not for professional scholars but for amateur students of the classics and the general reader.’ True, but too modest. Simply written with a refreshing absence of academic jargon, this is indeed an excellent companion for those coming to Virgil for the first time, even if they are not going to read him in Latin; but at the same time, those who know (or think they know) Virgil may well find insights and angles they have not thought of.

There are just five chapters. The first covers what we know, and can guess, about Virgil’s life and times, the effect on him of living through three-plus decades of almost continuous civil war followed by the hope of final peace after Actium, the people who were important to him whom he refers to in his poetry, the classical and cultural influences on him. This leads to three chapters dealing in turn with the Eclogues (K. calls them the Bucolics, more correctly, explaining that an ‘eclogue’ strictly refers to a single poem `extracted’ from the set), the Georgics and the Aeneid. 

The subtitles given to divisions of the three central chapters indicate how K. structures her exploration of each poem: for the Eclogues, ‘Theocritean Bucolic’, ‘History and Politics’, ‘Epicurean Music and Leisure’, ‘Virgil’s Poetry Book’; for the Georgics, ‘The Didactic Tradition’, ‘The Philosophical Tradition’, ‘The Alexandrian Tradition’; for the Aeneid ‘The Homeric Tradition’, ‘History and Politics’, ‘Philosophy and Religion’. She dissects each poem in detail, extracting what we can discover about the influences which affected Virgil at each point: as K. herself puts it, ‘we shall explore the intersection of Virgil’s poetic, political and philosophical interests in each of the canonical works’. The final chapter, ‘Reception’, summarises Virgil’s literary influence and importance, starting from his own lifetime and continuing to the present day.

K.’s treatment illuminates many aspects which will be both more and less familiar to Virgil readers, including some which even experienced Virgilians may not have fully appreciated. For example, besides the well-known influence of Homer, Hesiod and Theocritus, she points out Virgil’s debt to other sources both past and contemporary, including Epicurean philosophy and especially Lucretius: Virgil studied during the 40s BC with the Epicurean Siro at Naples and may have known his associate Philodemos, some of whose writings have been found at Herculaneum. K. uncovers ubiquitous Epicurean influences throughout the poems, as well as from Callimachus and the Alexandrians, from Stoic philosophy (e.g. in the character of Aeneas), from contemporary poets such as Catullus and Pollio (e.g. in the treatment of the Dido affair), etc. The political background hinted at in the Eclogues, the expropriation of farmland to resettle veterans during the triumvirate, is explored; whether Virgil was finally deprived of his Mantuan farm (Servius) or allowed to keep it (Donatus) remains unclear, but the evidence suggests that Virgil, like Horace with his Sabine farm, was comfortably off and died a wealthy man, which may well colour his eulogies of country life. 

No single book could possibly cover all that could be said about Virgil, but this one certainly deserves to be taken seriously. References are given in note form at the end and there is an extensive bibliography and a list of the classical references quoted. Only one caveat: it would have been helpful to have a full glossary of abbreviations used. There is a very short one, which states that ‘names of classical authors and titles of their works are abbreviated following the conventions of the Oxford English Dictionary’ but then gives just four examples: there are many others in the text where one is left floundering. Some are clear enough, such as DRN (de rerum natura) when discussing Lucretius, but how many know what VSD (by Donatus) stands for (Vita Suetonii vulgo Donatiana)? There is nowhere in the book where one can find out.

Colin McDonald

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