Sunday, March 29, 2009


Katharina Volk (ed.), Vergil's Georgics. Oxford Readings in Classical Studies. Oxford/ New York: Oxford University Press, 2008. Pp. 281. ISBN 9780199542949. $49.95 (pb).
Reviewed by Randall Pogorzelski, University of California, Irvine (

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

Eighteen years after the publication of Stephen Harrison's Oxford Readings in Vergil's Aeneid, Katharina Volk (hereafter V.) gives us the "Oxford Readings in Classical Studies" volume on the Georgics. The volume was originally intended to be a collection of articles on both the Georgics and the Eclogues, but the decision was made to split the project into two volumes, and thus we have V.'s collection of ten previously published essays on what is currently the least popular poem of Rome's most popular poet.

The primary aim of the collection, as the statement of the series' purpose on the inside cover of the volume explains, is to provide "a representative selection of the best and most influential articles" on the Georgics. Readers of this volume will find especially useful V.'s introduction and the volume's combined bibliography. The introduction, the only original piece in the volume, provides a brief but fairly comprehensive overview of scholarship on the Georgics from 1970 to 2006. This overview together with the bibliography will be welcome tools for both students and scholars beginning a project or a course involving the Georgics.

The articles themselves provide a necessarily less comprehensive, though more detailed overview of the most debated issues in scholarship on the poem from 1970 to 1995. V. has not picked just any ten of the "best and most influential" articles, but has chosen pieces that work together as a cohesive collection and arranged them in an order that flows nicely. The first four selections (chapters 2-5) treat the poem as a whole and are arranged chronologically. The remaining six selections (chapters 6-11) each focus on a particular passage or section, and are arranged according to the order in which the passages occur in the Georgics.

V.'s selections, as is typical of the series, are fairly conservative. The most recent articles in the collection are from 1995, and each one has stood the test of time. A collection focusing on the traditional core of Georgics scholarship and leaving out samples of the most recent work and the fringes of the field may offer little that is new and exciting to those who are already familiar with the most important work on the poem, but it accomplishes the goal of the series in providing a reliable guide for those who are not familiar with the important scholarly debates and positions on the Georgics.

As a whole, the collection focuses on the most important passages and issues in Georgics scholarship since 1970. It addresses the relationship between the Georgics and agriculture (Spurr; Thomas), the status of the poem as didactic (Thomas; Rutherford), the poem's intertextual relationship with mythological and didactic sources (Thomas; Gale; Wilkinson), the meaning of labor improbus (Jenkyns), the laudes Italiae (Putnam), the proem to the third book (Hardie; Wilkinson; Thomas), and Aristaeus and Orpheus (Griffin). V. often juxtaposes articles in disagreement, giving readers an impression of lively debate. On the issue of intertextuality and the poem's use of sources, for example, the juxtaposition of L. P. Wilkinson's article arguing for the primary influence of Pindar on the proem to the third Georgic and Richard Thomas' piece arguing for the primary influence of Callimachus on the same passage is a nice example of a traditional sort of debate in Vergilian scholarship. Similarly, the first two articles in the collection form a pair debating the issue of whether or not Vergil's poem was a legitimate farming manual. In the first selection, M. S. Spurr takes the position that the poem was intended to teach Romans how to run a farm, and in the second article Thomas, who has two articles in the collection, argues against this position, at one point even using the same evidence as Spurr to draw the opposite conclusion (Spurr 19; Thomas 61).

Perhaps the most well-known and heated debate in recent Georgics scholarship is the fundamental "optimism/pessimism" debate. This issue is represented in V.'s collection by a balanced set of four close readings alternating between the two sides of the debate. In chapter 6, Richard Jenkyns introduces the issue with what he calls a "progressive" (rather than "optimistic") reading of the phrase labor improbus in the first Georgic. The next chapter is Michael Putnam's reading of the laudes Italiae and other passages from the second Georgic, arguing that under a surface of praise, there is a "deeper current of unease" (153). Putnam is followed by Philip Hardie's "nationalistic" reading of the end of the second Georgic and beginning of the third. We have to wait until the final article in the collection for the last word in the debate, in the form of Jasper Griffin's nuanced but ultimately pessimistic (though explicitly not "anti-Augustan"; 232) reading of the Aristaeus and Orpheus episodes. V.'s selection of two articles on each side of the issue follows the series' advice to privilege "no single school or style of approach," demonstrating instead the unfolding of the debate and the continuing lack of consensus.

The "Oxford Readings in Classical Studies" series as a whole has drawn mixed reviews.1 Much of the criticism has focused on the questionable utility of reprinting essays that are readily available in their original publications. Although the series claims that "the collections are particularly valuable for their inclusion of many important essays which are normally difficult to obtain and for first-ever translations of some of the pieces," this is difficult to reconcile with the aim of collecting the "best and most influential articles." Especially in the case of an author as important as Vergil, it is rare that an excellent and influential article remains difficult to obtain or untranslated into English for long. In V.'s collection, none of the essays was originally in a language other than English and none is particularly hard to find. Four of the ten articles are available on JSTOR and the remaining six are available in most university libraries.

Similarly, the series' statement of purpose suggests that there is additional value in that, "Many articles are thoroughly revised and updated by their authors or provided with addenda taking account of recent work." In V.'s collection only two footnotes in one article have been updated with new bibliography.2 This is not to say that the reprints do not improve the articles at all. Three of the selections feature corrections of minor errors in their original publications.3 Translations of Latin, Greek, and German quotations have also been added to the articles that originally lacked them.

I would have preferred that the translations be added more consistently. Sometimes short Latin (and sometimes Greek or German) phrases lack translations, and often when a particular passage is quoted more than once in the same article, a translation is provided only for the first quotation. More significant is the misleading note that Putnam's article has been reprinted "with...the addition of translations of the Latin passages by the author." It should be noted that with two exceptions the translations of passages from the Georgics in this essay are not done by Putnam, but are from Fairclough's Loeb, as should be obvious to a reader who knows Putnam's usual translations to be somewhat more current and precise than, for example, "[you] drivest the craven Indian from our hills of Rome" (2.171-2, quoted on p.143). Fairclough's translations are also included (though not attributed) at the end of the original publication of Putnam's essay, although the translation of 2.541-2 was altered.

While the utility of a series that reprints often readily available articles may be questioned, especially in a time of limited resources for academic publishing, this collection successfully accomplishes the goal of the series. Certainly V.'s introduction and the volume's bibliography will be useful introductions to scholarship on the Georgics. The selected articles themselves cover in detail the most important issues and passages in Georgics scholarship of the late twentieth century. Focusing on the goal of selecting very good and influential pieces that work well together rather than selecting hard-to-find articles, V. has produced a collection that accurately represents the influential debates about the Georgics from the last 38 years.


V.'s introduction (p.3 n.3) gives a URL for Niklas Holzberg's bibliography on the Georgics, but the site is no longer accessible.

On p.35 n.54, read "figure" for "figures" (this error is also in the original publication of Spurr's article).

On p.100 n.13 read "naturai" for "naturae" in the quotation of De Rerum Natura 1.586 (this error is not in the original publication of Gale's article).

On p.152 the second 'e' in "tempe" should be italicized (this error is not in the original publication of Putnam's article).


Scholarly Approaches to the Georgics Since the 1970s / Katharina Volk -- Agriculture and the Georgics / M. S. Spurr -- Prose into Poetry: Tradition and Meaning in Virgil's Georgics / Richard F. Thomas -- Authorial Rhetoric in Virgil's Georgics / Richard Rutherford -- Virgil's Metamorphoses: Myth and Allusion in the Georgics / Monica R. Gale -- Labor Improbus / Richard Jenkyns -- Italian Virgil and the Idea of Rome / Michael C. J. Putnam -- Cosmology and National Epic in the Georgics (Georgics 2.458-3.48) / Philip Hardie -- Pindar and the Proem to the Third Georgic / L. P. Wilkinson -- Callimachus, the Victoria Berenices, and Roman Poetry / Richard F. Thomas -- The Fourth Georgic, Virgil and Rome / Jasper Griffin.


1. For positive remarks on the series in other reviews, see especially Kraus and Volk. For more critical comments on the series see especially Farrell, but also Lacki, Olson, and Kruschwitz.

2. Notes 2 and 5 in Gale's "Myth and Allusion in the Georgics" have been updated with new bibliography.

3. Errors corrected in the reprint of Rutherford's article are: On p.85 (23 in the original) the emphasis on "vidimus" has been removed. On p.87 (24 in the original) a reference to Georgics 1.294 has been corrected to 3.294.

Errors corrected in the reprint of Gale's article are: On p.108 (43 in the original) "labor" is now italicized. On p.111 (45 in the original) "working-out" has been corrected to "working out." On p. 112 (45 in the original) "weapons" in the translation of Georgics 1.332 has been corrected to "weapon." On p. 114 (47 in the original) "Early man is durus" has been changed to "Early man is tough." On p.117 (48 in the original) the ellipsis has been removed from "Cyclopum ... agros" in the quotation of Georgics 1.471. In n.11 the ellipsis has been removed from "ferreus ... decrescit" in the quotation of De Rerum Natura 1.314. In n.17 "maris sudor" has been corrected to "sudor ... maris" in the quotation of De Rerum Natura 2.465. In n.46 the reference to Georgics1.378 has been corrected to 1.318. In n.68 "E.g." has been corrected to "e.g." In n.89 "Virgil may have mind" is changed to "Virgil might mind."

Errors corrected in the reprint of Putnam's article are: On p.138 (171 in the original) "conservation" is corrected to "conservative." On p.141 (173 in the original) "Tyrrhenian seas" is corrected to "Adriatic and Tyrrhenian seas." On p.151(181 in the original) "Utopia" is now capitalized. In n.3 a reference to Georgics 1.153 has been corrected to 2.153.

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