OUP (2023) h/b 568pp £190 (ISBN 9780198827764)

This is a major contribution to the (already vast) library on Virgil.  The scale (and accordingly the price) of the book is on the heavy side, approaching the dimensions of Watson’s commentary on Horace’s Epodes or even Fraenkel’s Agamemnon.   C. wrote his commentary with forty previous editions of these poems on his bookshelf and most scholars would despair of finding something new to say about this well-ploughed furrow: but it is to C.’s (and Virgil’s) credit that there are always new things to be said about the Eclogues.

Virgil wrote in a time and place surrounded by conflict and uncertainty, and C. wisely starts the book with an account of the era when the poems were conceived—an era of land confiscations and proscriptions in the aftermath of Philippi, of the Perusine War, and of the wily ways of Sextus Pompeius, who had his headquarters in Sicily, which was both the homeland of Virgil’s predecessor in the genre (Theocritus) and also something of a bread-basket for Rome.  These apparently faux-naif poems also have their political side: the first poem opens with the expropriation of land, selectively carried out at the behest of the ‘young god’, while Pollio—the man of high culture and political nous—was both a proto-patron of Virgil and also somebody who worked for peaceful resolution to the conflict but whose ties to the wrong side (Antony) soon put an end to his political influence.

In the succinct but highly effective introduction, C. discusses the extent to which we can say that Virgil himself was affected by the land confiscations, and wisely reminds us that simply writing about them was something of a political act, although the intertextual links with Theocritus render this a more oblique function. The Eclogues are (of course) more than simply historical poems, even though readers right from the start wondered who was the child referred to in Eclogue 4 (the so-called ‘Messianic’ Eclogue).  The fact that we are still arguing about this child surely proves that Virgil did not see his identification as a poetic priority—and if these poems were indeed produced in the stormy waters of the early 30s BC, then the poet had every reason to be cautious about nailing his colours to any one mast.  In general, C. is rightly cautious about identifying the named speakers of the poems with historical figures, although he shows some sympathy (p.288) with Stephen Harrison’s theory that the poet Parthenius lurks behind Silenus in Eclogue 6.

The debt these poems owe to Theocritus is very well established both in the introduction and the commentary and C. clearly knows Virgil’s Greek predecessor as thoroughly as he knows the Latin text itself. The location of the poems is shown to be a blend of Theocritus’ Sicily, Virgil’s Mantua, and the semi-mythical Arcadia—with more than a dash of Epicurus’ Garden.  The architecture of the ‘Bucolic Book’ is examined with real authority and insight, and there are useful brief sections also on Virgil’s use of the hexameter metre and the textual transmission of the poems themselves. The text printed by C. differs from Mynors’ OCT only in four places and is printed here without any apparatus criticus: textual issues—such as 1.59—are discussed as they crop up in the commentary.

The commentary, which runs to 448 pages, shows immense breadth and depth of scholarship, and demonstrates many years of close study of these poems and the vast secondary literature which they have spawned—indeed the bibliography runs to 43 pages and over 1200 items, including work produced since the original Italian edition of this book in 2012. The detail is painstakingly and generously imparted, as in the case of the sexual aposiopesis at 3.8, the impressive botanical knowledge on display (e.g. 1.78, 6.63), the wonderful riff on the griffin at 8.27, the details of viticulture at 2.70, the expert handling of mythography (especially in Eclogue 6), and of course the life and importance of Gallus, handled in a magisterial note on 6.64 which tells us all we need to know about this seminal poet while also offering some suggestions as to what he is doing in the song of Silenus.  The commentary on each poem opens with an evaluative essay with a detailed bibliography of both general and specific points relating to the text.  C. is attentive to the overall architecture of the book, such as the importance of Eclogue 6 as the first poem of the second half of the book—and even flirts with numerological analysis (pp. 22-23).

C. is excellent on the poetic effects—the use of devices such as hyperbaton, assonance, and enjambement is usually noticed and the commentator has an excellent ear for the music of these lines, spelling out the poetic features of the words (e.g. (inter multa alia) the spondees of 5.24, the ‘hammering alliteration’ of 6.4-5, and the bilingual wordplay at 10.22). Intertextual references are chased up and Greek sources are often quoted (and translated):  this is of course essential in places such as 3.12-15 where the Theocritean intertext is the key to unlocking Virgil’s lines—a passage where C. well argues that we are (as it were) eavesdropping on men discussing topics familiar to them but unclear to us. Part of the magic of these poems is the way in which they blend colloquial Latin with references to very literary Greek, and C. does ample justice to both in his commentary.   

Where the commentary is less successful is in the amount of help offered to less advanced readers.  These poems are deceptively difficult, and readers coming to them expecting plain rustic sentimentality from simple peasants are in for a big surprise.   To use a suitably pastoral image, C. does not always see (and spell out) the wood for the trees:  and Anglophone readers keen to engage with the poems for the first time would still be advised to have the commentaries of Coleman (1977), Williams (1979), and Clausen (1994) to hand.

The original Italian version of this commentary was published with a facing Italian translation by Alfonso Traina: and it is a great pity that the publishers chose not to provide a facing English translation here, as they did in the case of (e.g.) the edition of Virgil’s Aeneid 10 by Stephen Harrison.  Virgil’s Latin is not easy at times, and where linguistic help is provided it can be less than user-friendly for a novice.  The ‘dense syntax’ of 1.54, for example, ([saepes] Hyblaeis apibus florem depasta salicti) is a good case in point:  C. gives us nineteen excellent lines discussing the Hyblaean bees and their significance here, but only four lines to explain the language (‘the dative of agent (Hyblaeis apibus), typical of poetry, is governed by depasta (cf. e.g. Aen.1.440…) with an accusative of respect (florem) i.e. the so-called ‘Greek accusative’): on the same passage, Williams takes the time to explain this construction, translating as he goes, and Coleman discusses two different ways of construing the sentence.  Where the terminology is more recherché, C. does helpfully explain less familiar terms on their first appearance (but not thereafter):  so for example, the ‘golden line’ at 2.50 is fully explained, as is the ‘parenthetic apposition’ at 1.57.  There is a general index, an index of proper names and an index of Latin words. Most Greek quotations (but not all) are translated, and the standard of copy-editing and proof-reading is impressively high.   

‘Virgil’s trees can and do teach us something’ says C. (p.18) and no matter how well you think you know these poems you too will learn something on every page of this astounding book.  It is to be hoped that a paperback edition will be produced to bring it into the affordable reach of the wide readership it so lavishly deserves.

John Godwin