CUP (2022) p/b 398pp £24.99 (ISBN 9781108740548)

Tony Woodman’s output is positively Stakhanovite. Hot on the heels of his Cambridge Companion to Catullus comes this important new edition of what is arguably the finest collection of lyric verse in the Latin language. This impressive volume completes the series for CUP’s ‘Green and Yellow’ imprint of the Odes, after Book 4 (2011), Book 1 (2012) and Book 2 (2017) and is a good hundred pages longer than any of its predecessors.

The Introduction covers the life and times of Horace in a seamless account of the Roman revolution and Horace’s part in it (with a useful chronological table to assist comprehension). W. writes with verve and economy and presents us with a lively and generally reliable account—although he might have discussed in more detail the ‘presumed’ death of Catullus in 54, adding that ‘Lucretius died at about the same time’, which is queried in his own chronological table (p.9). W. gives us a detailed survey of the book at hand, looking first at Odes 1-6 (which he calls ‘the Alcaic hexad’ rather than the more familiar title ‘the Roman Odes’) before surveying the book as a whole, touching sensibly (pp. 20-21) on the degree to which the voice of the poet both reflects ‘real life’ and is also an invented poetic persona. W. demonstrates the sublime literary qualities of the poetry—examining Horace’s word choice, word-order, intertextuality, metrical patterns—and he also provides a useful survey of some recent scholarship on the Odes. W. concludes the introduction with a discussion of the textual transmission, listing some manuscripts which are available online and explaining his own editorial approach.

The Latin text is W.’s own, and in eight places (11.18, 14.20, 18.10, 20.8, 24.37, 26.7, 27.13, 30.2) he prints his own conjectures: the boldest of these are 18.10 (where he recasts the season of the poem by emending Decembres to Apriles) and 30.2 where he reads (and argues persuasively for) aptius in preference to the jejune manuscript reading altius. The apparatus criticus does not distinguish between different medieval manuscripts, but simply between medieval and modern readings, and many variant readings listed are not discussed in the commentary: bibit for instance at 3.12 is listed but not discussed since W. regards bibet as certain. More contentious passages (e.g. 4.10 and 14.11) are examined judiciously and at sensible length in the commentary. The text is student-friendly: W. prints 3rd declension accusative plurals as -es rather than -is—a practice which can on occasion eliminate grammatical ambiguity such as at 18.14 (where a nominative agrestis must agree with silua, while an accusative plural would agree with frondes), and also assimilates prefixes as in OLD, so that for example he reads imbellis rather than inbellis at 2.15 and impiae rather than inpiae at 11.30-31.

The commentary is aimed at a wide range of readership, from school students to emeritus professors: it takes the reader into the poet’s workshop and shows how the poetry is constructed, it teases out the different meanings which the cryptic language can bear (see for instance the wonderful note on iniecta monstris Terra at 4.73), it often helps the student to work out how the Latin is to be construed and translated, and it constantly places Horace in the ever-flowing stream of ancient literature and sees him reacting to (and reacting against) his predecessors. Above all, it asks the big questions about each poem and shows us just how clever this poetry is: his discussion of Ode 7, for example, is masterly in its dissection of the attempted sweet-talking by the unreliable nuntius in the central stanzas and also raises questions about how plausible it is for Horace to have this information in the first place and what this tells us about the veridical status of the poem.

Many readers will compare this volume with the OUP Commentary on Odes III by Nisbet and Rudd (N-R) from 2004. W. is generally more concise than N-R and does not follow them down blind alleys: compare (e.g.) N-R on the name Ibycus at 15.1 with W.’s more laconic note. N-R adduce and quote (without translation) more ancient parallels, whereas W. is sparing in his use of parallels and always translates any Greek (but not Latin) quoted. W. tells us (p.37) that he did not consult N-R at all until after he had written his own commentary on each poem, and his independence is resolute and inspiring: fige modum at 15.2, for instance, is glossed by N-R as showing Horace being ‘sarcastically polite’ but W. both points out the rarity of the expression and then suggests that it may convey an image of ‘Chloris as a prostitute who would post a titulus … at the door to her cella’, and may even imply that Chloris should now be ‘advertising her retirement instead’—which is all a far cry from politeness, sarcastic or otherwise.

The commentary at times, however, fails to deliver complete clarity: in his note on 24.27-8 (pp. 314-5), W. rejects the consensus of previous commentators (Nisbet, Rudd, Williams, Quinn and West, to name but five) and tells us that pater urbium is ‘an almost meaningless phrase’—but fails to finish the job by telling us what then is the reference of urbium and how the Latin is to be read. Perhaps the most famous phrase in the whole of Horace (dulce et decorum est pro patria mori (2.13)) is also not particularly well served, since the note fails to do justice to the difficulty which readers continue to have with the whole phrase. W. explains dulce by pointing to the ‘sweetness conventionally evoked by thoughts of one’s country’, but this somewhat misses the point and would in any case back up Nisbet’s suggested (and discarded) emendation dulci which the apparatus criticus lists but the commentary does not mention: it is not (after all) the patria which is called ‘sweet’, but rather ‘dying’ for it. W.’s remark that the phrase is ‘poignantly motivated by the death of the royal fiancé at the hands of the young Roman’ is suggestive but requires further explanation to be clear to the reader. On occasions the commentator translates a tricky phrase and generally gets the sense well: ‘free-spending buyer of disgrace’ is perfect for dedecorum pretiosus emptor at 6.32, although ‘fearful’ is to my mind a poor rendering of timendorum at 1.5, since it can well mean ‘timid’ as well as ‘terrifying’.

There is a useful general index and an index of Latin words. The bibliography is selective and deceptively brief: many other works are referred to in the course of the commentary but not listed in the bibliography, and readers are also expected to be familiar with ‘standard commentaries on other texts’ without being given bibliographical details (p. 382).

This book has clearly been a long time in the gestation—‘Horace has been my favourite author for close on sixty years’ he tells us (p. ix)—and a lifetime of close reading of Latin has gone into it. W. brings the ancient text to new life on every page and provokes insight into (and admiration for) this ‘exceptional and much loved author’ even when the reader may disagree with the commentator. This book proves (if proof were needed) that a lifetime reading Horace is indeed a lifetime very well spent.

John Godwin