Thursday, April 5, 2012


James J. O'Hara, Vergil. Aeneid Book 4. Focus Vergil Aeneid commentaries. Newburyport, MA: Focus Publishing, 2011. Pp. viii, 150. ISBN 9781585102280. $15.95 (pb).

Reviewed by Anne Rogerson, University of Sydney (

Version at BMCR home site

This commentary on Aeneid 4 is an exemplary addition to the series of commentaries on the Aeneid for students at the intermediate level or higher being produced by Focus Publishing. We already have commentaries on Aeneid 1 (BMCR 2011.03.29) and Aeneid 2 (BMCR 2009.05.42) by the series editor, Randall Ganiban, and on Aeneid 3 (BMCR 2010.11.23) by Christine Perkell. Joseph Farrell's Aeneid 5 and Patricia Johnston's Aeneid 6 are due later this year, as is a combined and condensed version of all these commentaries to be published in a single volume aimed at more advanced students. A single volume on Aeneid 7-12, also for more advanced students, is scheduled for 2013.1

As in all volumes in this series, an introduction to the Aeneid by the series editor precedes a brief introduction to Book 4 by the author, and the commentary is followed by appendices on meter and stylistic terms,2 an up-to-date bibliography, and a vocabulary which helpfully points out unusual word usage in the current book.

The commentary itself is a gem, and students and teachers of Aeneid 4 alike will be very grateful to James O'Hara for the excellent job he has done to balance comments that help with translation and comprehension alongside those that allow students to engage with current scholarly debates about the interpretation of the Aeneid, as well as with Virgil's literary, philosophical and cultural contexts. Throughout, the commentary also positions itself in relation to the other commentaries on Book 4 to which students and their teachers are likely to have access, further fostering the impression that to read with O'Hara's commentary is to engage in an ongoing discussion about the interpretation of this iconic book of the Aeneid.

The commentary is attentive throughout to the needs of intermediate students. O'Hara quite often suggests a translation for particular words and phrases, at times giving both a literal and a more elegant version of the same phrase. He also gives judicious guidance to help with more difficult parts of the Latin, such as quem sese ore ferens (l. 11), identifying parts of speech and parsing sufficiently to explain how an English translation maps onto the Latin original. He refers to Allen and Greenough, where Virgil's usage might be confusing or difficult to identify, and is careful to note where there is more than one way of understanding how a word is being used.3

This sensitivity to linguistic ambiguities is one way in which O'Hara uses his notes to encourage comprehension as a stepping stone to literary interpretation, which in my view is one of the great strengths of this commentary. Thus, for example, when discussing vatum at l. 65, which might be possessive (with mentes) or objective (with ignarae), he notes that "the reader's difficulty in handling the syntax of the genitive vatum parallels the difficulty both Dido and the reader have in interpreting the entrails. Dido does not learn from the sacrifices that her love for Aeneas is going to lead to a bad end; the reader does not learn exactly why this happens." Showing how a reader's experience with the text mirrors the experience of the characters whose story the text tells encourages appreciation of ambiguity as well as personal engagement with the narrative in all its complexity.

Another example of this approach can be seen in comments on l. 332, where O'Hara notes the difficulty in deciding how to translate cura as Aeneas suppresses this ambiguous emotion in replying to Dido's accusations of desertion. His comments here are among several which not only demonstrate how the choices made by translators align with their interpretations of Aeneas' relationship with Dido, but also explore the deep divide that has polarised critics of Book 4 into those who find Aeneas' actions unconscionable and those who see him as an admirable figure. O'Hara himself takes a balanced view, suggesting that the text deliberately leaves these questions open and urging his readers to "strive to keep both views in mind" (p. 57).

The strong feeling that Virgil's choices are deliberate, and that scrutinising them can enhance a literary appreciation of the epic, may also be seen in comments on, for example, Virgil's use of the hexameter, another area with which intermediate students may not have much experience. When noting predominance of dactyls or spondees, the appearance of hiatus, a hypermetric line, or coincidence or clash of ictus and accent, O'Hara is careful to suggest how these metrical features are used to shape meaning.

Perhaps a little less obviously useful for intermediate students, though extremely helpful for those at a more advanced level, is the tendency to quote untranslated Latin (and sometimes Greek) when discussing parallel passages elsewhere in Virgil and in other authors. There is, however, always enough explanation of what the passages pointed to by 'Cf.' are saying, and of why they are important parallels to aid in the comprehension and appreciation of Book 4, so intermediate students will not be left adrift. Comments on extremus ... halitus in l. 684 offer a good example: "the next of kin customarily receive in the mouth the last breath of the dying in order to continue the existence of the spirit; cf. Cic. Verr. 2.5.45 matres ... filiorum suorum postremum spiritum ore excipere; Ovid, Met. 12.424, and Star Trek III: The Search for Spock."

On the opposite page to this comment, we see more comparisons to other texts in the discussion of Virgil's depiction of Iris coming down to cut a lock of Dido's hair.4 As often, O'Hara is interested in how the Aeneid was interpreted and alluded to in the Classical world, as well as in how Virgil alludes meaningfully to earlier literature, shaping his heroes and heroines on models provided by a range of genres, most notably earlier epic and tragedy. The reader is thus given insight into the richness both of Virgil's engagement with his literary predecessors and of his influence, and such comments not only educate but also provide room for further discussion in the classroom.5

O'Hara's engagement with twentieth and twenty-first century scholarship on the Aeneid is equally detailed. His notes consistently direct the reader to his full and up-to-date (mostly Anglophone) bibliography for more on modern theoretical approaches to literature as well as the interpretation of Virgil. Here too there is often enough information in the notes referring readers' attention to the bibliography to allow for discussion of the issues in class. Indeed, such close classroom engagement with the commentary seems to be encouraged when O'Hara includes reference, for example, to a classroom exercise where students were asked to finish the sentence that Aeneas begins at l. 340, discussing what he would do if he could do what he wanted and weren't driven by destiny to Italy. That most of them completed the sentence with an expression of a desire to stay in Carthage highlights the shock to Dido when the hero says that if he could do what he wanted he would have remained in Troy, and encourages a class using the commentary to think about their own expectations of the hero.

In conclusion, this is an engaging, learned and extremely useful commentary. It is well-directed to its intended audience of intermediate students but is also a useful resource for more advanced readers, particularly those wanting insight into the current state of scholarship on the Aeneid and significant recent debates about Book 4. It is lucid and well edited,6 and I highly recommend it.

Table of Contents

Preface, p. vii
Introduction to Vergil's Aeneid by R. Ganiban, p. 1
Introduction to Book 4: Its Role in the Aeneid, p. 13
Map, p. 18
Latin Text and Commentary, p. 19
Appendix A: Vergil's Meter, p. 95
Appendix B: Stylistic Terms, p. 101
Bibliography, p.105
List of Abbreviations, p. 116
Vocabulary, p. 117
Index, p. 149


1.   Individual books in this volume will have their own editors: Randall Ganiban (Book 7); James O'Hara (Book 8); Joseph Farrell (Book 9); Andreola Rossi (Book 10); Charles McNelis (Book 11); Christine Perkell (Book 12). Such a swift publication schedule is impressive, and this volume will be a wonderful resource. It is, however, a shame that single book commentaries with a little more grammatical help for intermediate students are not also being produced for the second half of the Aeneid as they have been for the first.
2.   The appendices are similar to those in the earlier volumes, though adapted to the needs and focus of the book under commentary.
3.   Along the way, answers are also given for many other questions that might arise as intermediate students read the Aeneid and start to engage with commentaries on Classical texts. What does polyptoton mean, for example? What form is Aenean and how does the name Aeneas decline? What relation do adverbs of manner in Romance languages such as French and Italian bear to adverbial uses of ablatives in Latin? Why is quercus described with a feminine adjective? What does it mean when an author is cited in square brackets? Answers are given in comments on ll. 9-14, l. 74, l. 105, l. 441, and ll. 596-9.
4.   These texts include Macrobius, Sat., Horace, Carm., Euripides, Alc., Aen. 6, and Catullus 66.
5.   When O'Hara notes, for example, on l. 418 that "the first-century CE critic Probus" is said "curiously" to have "thought that Virgil should have cut this line" he invites his readers to consider the implications of making such a cut.
6.   I found a very few minor errors, easily corrected for the combined volume on Books 1-6. On p. 38 (first paragraph) 'known' >> 'know'; in the note for l. 193 '663-4' should read '643-4'; the note for l. 244 advises translating resignat as 'unseal', 'open', while the vocabulary entry favours Servius' suggestion of 'seal up', 'close'; the text for l. 386 reads inprobe while the note (supported by other uses of the adjective and by the vocabulary) has improbe; the note for 452 quotes 10.855 as lucemque relinguo not relinquo.


  1. I wonder if scholars have given sufficient thought to the connection and contrast between Cleopatra and Mark Antony, and Dido and Aeneas. Both women were royal temptresses from North Africa, passionate and brave. Antony succumbed, abandoning his Roman traditions, lifestyle and allegiance. Aeneas did not,but tore himself away through his sense of duty, destiny and pietas. The contrast will have been obvious to educated Romans of the time. It does not detract from Virgil's masterpiece, but adds a topical dimension and, I suggest, fits into the project of legitimising the Augustan regime and its moral agenda.

  2. Yes, there's quite a long bibliography on this subject.


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