Monday, March 17, 2014


Roland Mayer, Horace, Odes, Book I. Cambridge Greek and Latin classics. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2012. Pp. ix, 246. ISBN 9780521671019. $32.99 (pb).

Reviewed by Elizabeth H. Sutherland, Boston College (

Version at BMCR home site


With his addition to the Cambridge "green-and-yellow" series, Roland Mayer fills a niche that had long stood sadly empty. Many of us have been using Garrison's excellent commentary in the classroom for years; Ancona's AP edition is helpful for the student just beginning Horace. For research, the Anglophone interpreter of Odes I turns early and often to Nisbet and Hubbard. Until now, however, there has been nothing to bridge the gap between the two levels and styles. Garrison often does not provide the depth or detail that an advanced student might want, while Nisbet and Hubbard are (as they should be) more concerned with providing ancient parallels than with guiding one's translations. Mayer's commentary addresses the graduate student or sophisticated undergraduate who wishes to develop a more nuanced approach to translating the Odes.

After the conventional List of Abbreviations, we find Mayer's Introduction to his edition. This follows the general pattern of the Cambridge series. Its first section, "Lyric Impulse and Lyric Challenge," addresses Horace's inheritance from the archaic lyricists and the Alexandrians; here Mayer treats generic differences between Horace's Odes and Satires. He touches as well on issues of oral vs. written production of poetry. The second section, "Technical Challenges of Lyric," includes subsections on meter, register, and word order. Section 3, "The Architecture of the Ode," outlines some primary ode types, while granting a paragraph each to "Middles" and "Endings" of the Horatian Ode. Subsequent sections of the Introduction cover book structure, publication, and textual transmission. (One will find in the portion on "Transmission" Mayer's few comments on textual choices: there is of course little he can say on the text of Odes I, beyond acknowledging the few modern emendations that he has accepted.) Mayer closes his Introduction with a note on "Interpretation," in which he anticipates potential objections to the conservatism of his remarks on individual poems: there has been a policy decision "to privilege literal or traditional interpretation." The Introduction as a whole is very serviceable, if perforce brief; while I would have liked to see a fuller discussion of oral vs. written lyric, I found the section on meter both succinct and wonderfully lucid.

The text of Odes I comes after the Introduction, with comments on individual poems following the full text. Needless to say, it is here that one finds the commentary's true worth. Mayer opens his remarks on each poem by identifying its meter; he kindly directs the reader to the relevant pages of the Introduction. Occasionally there are remarks on Horace's choice of meter. Otherwise, though, Mayer delays his more discursive comments on individual poems until after the line-by-line commentary; this has the pleasant effect of foregrounding issues of translation while keeping the editor's voice in the background.

Without exception, Mayer's notes conspicuously hit the mark. All the standard bases are covered: unpacking of mythological references (on 3.2, "fratres Helenae = Castor and Pollux, by the figure antonomasia"); explanation of linguistic peculiarities (on qua rem cumque in 6.3, "the generalizing suffix cumque is separated by tmesis from the relative adverb"); the necessary remarks on, e.g., history, topography, and types of wine, not to mention the rich dramatis personae of Horace's world. There are quotations of ancient parallels and brief references to secondary sources, more than one finds in Garrison, but (appropriately) in far smaller quantities than in Nisbet and Hubbard. The notes stand out, though, in seeming to coach the reader through the challenges of reading Horace's elusive verse. Mayer's graciousness is evident, for example, in his discussion of how to translate repetantur in 9.20. The actual data here is not much fuller than what one finds in Garrison. Mayer takes a fractionally more discursive approach, though, to acknowledging the word's difficulties and to summarizing one's options for translation; there is as well an ineffable kindness in his tone. The result—barely over three lines—implies the range of lexicographic possibilities for repeto while also modelling for a student the thought processes of the professional Latinist. Suddenly a more precise and elegant translation seems within reach. One finds occasional statements that are vague, cryptic, or carelessly worded; at their worst, these are minor irritants.

Finally, (relatively) extended interpretation follows the line-by-line comments for each ode. As mentioned above, Mayer announces in his Introduction a policy of adhering to traditional interpretations. The vast (and sometimes quirky) bibliography on these poems, and the limitations of a slender green-and-yellow, make his choice a foregone conclusion. As a result, the discussions after the poems offer a reserved and cautious, not to say conservative, approach to the Odes. The Cleopatra of Ode 37, for example, is "unscrupulously adroit"; editorial policy notwithstanding, I was surprised to find no reference to the extensive scholarly literature that counterbalances the Romans' demonizing of Cleopatra.

Mayer closes with a bibliography of 12 pages (including commentaries and bibliographical studies). There is an index of Latin words that receive special note in the Commentary, as well as a General Index. Overall Mayer's choices are very apt. I would have liked to see just a few more technical terms in the General Index: antonomasia, for example, a term that appears in several places, may well be unfamiliar to some students; yet it does not appear in the Index (nor is it anywhere defined, except by example).

My relatively small objections aside, though, Mayer's edition is an outstanding volume. Cost and narrowness of scope make it unlikely as a required text for the high school or college classroom. For the undergraduate class, though, it will be an invaluable resource to keep on the reserve shelf; presumably it is already on the book lists for graduate seminars.

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