CUP (2020) p/b 314pp £22.99 (ISBN 9781107416789)
A Cambridge ‘Green and Yellow’ should be accessible to a reasonably wide range of readerships, encompassing A-Level students and their teachers, as well as undergraduates and the wider classical and academic community. The challenge of a commentary like this is to remain accessible whilst also facilitating a fuller appreciation of Virgil’s style, his use of language, and his storytelling.
In these respects, this new edition and commentary is a resounding success, and it will be immensely useful to readers in all these groups. There is a thorough introduction, which contextualises Book XI and its role in the plot of the Aeneid. Each section of the introduction hones in on key themes or characters. One of the strongest aspects of the book is its treatment of Camilla and Pallas, the two doomed, beautiful figures whose deaths are the focus of the beginning and end of Book XI. There is a lucid exploration of the gender-bending similarities between Camilla and Pallas in the introduction. The introduction ends with an overview of Virgil’s use of metre and a short discussion of the textual tradition. What remains, the bulk of the book, consists of the commentary itself, which is detailed, clearly-written, and well-researched. The book is well-produced and there are few typographical errors or slips. There is sufficient attention to issues of form and style that readers of all levels can find something that makes Virgil’s text more interesting or exciting, and technical terminology is usually explained at its first appearance in the commentary in a way that better elucidates the text.
This is a book which is extremely successful at providing its readers with the tools needed to understand and appreciate Book XI. One of the challenges of a commentary is in selecting what to include and what to omit, and it is only in sins of omission that I find anything to quibble about. McG. is selective. This is right in a commentary like this, for it makes for a highly effective learning tool, but may create missed opportunities. McG. appears hesitant to explore what cannot be proved, and shies away from ambiguity. We are told of obruerent in line 162-3 that the ungrammatical imperfect subjunctive is used for ‘metrical convenience’, unlike referret in the same sentence which is a present unfulfilled wish (p. 106). It seems possible, and potentially much more interesting for what it says about Evander’s state of mind, that obruerent could also evoke a present unfulfilled wish. A similar example is found in the note to line 536: virgo, McG. says, is ‘clearly’ Opis, rather than Camilla (p. 196). Again, it seems more interesting that virgo might evoke either figure, or even Diana herself, with Virgil using ambiguity to assimilate the three figures (cf. Gildenhard and Henderson, Virgil: Aeneid 11, 2018: p. 429). Such readings are perhaps less likely than McG.’s, and clarity is a virtue in a commentary like this; but this same clarity risks sometimes obscuring the complexity implicit to the Aeneid.
A further quibble along these lines concerns McG.’s treatment of Aeneas. The Aeneas of Book XI is a man coming to terms with the terrible acts he committed in Book X. Generally, McG.’s treatment of this is apt, depicting Aeneas as keen to show remorse through displays of pietas, but he also recognises that ‘traces of the fighter remain’ (p. 6). McG. makes a great deal of Mezentius’ breastplate, and spends an appropriate amount of time wrestling with Aeneas’ Achilles-like sacrifice of living captives. But there is no discussion of the veiled implication that the duces in lines 83-4 could have been crucified. It may be that McG. judges the reading too unlikely to mention, but the possibility of such a reading adds further layers of grey to Aeneas’ character which make him both more complex and more compelling. Similarly, much is made of the epithet bonus at line 106 of Aeneas (p. 93): it ‘points out his outstanding character and ethics’ in granting the Latins’ request (the return of their dead). One wonders if there is any irony to the word, coming shortly after Aeneas has sent living captives for sacrifice, and in light of the authorial hint that nobody in their right minds could refuse the request (haud asperanda). Similar in this vein is McG.’s discussion of the reaction of the envoys to Aeneas’ agreement: they are ‘dumbstruck in admiration for the generosity and humanity that bonus Aeneas displays’ (p. 96). Again, there is no suggestion that they might be feigning deference in fear that he might return to his previously displayed furor. From this perspective, Drances’ sycophancy becomes more readily understandable.
These are minor faults, and my criticisms may very well be misplaced or pedantic, for this sort of commentary has a much wider practical purpose and value. It is an admirable book and it makes Virgil more accessible to a very wide range of readers. That can only be a good thing; anyone working on Book XI will find a great deal of use for it.