Sunday, September 23, 2018


James J. O'Hara, Vergil, Aeneid Book 8. Focus Vergil Aeneid Commentary. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 2018. Pp. ix, 195. ISBN 9781585108800. $17.95 (pb).

Reviewed by Matthew P. Loar, University of Nebraska – Lincoln (

Version at BMCR home site

[The Table of Contents is listed below.]

Two generations ago, a triumvirate of anglophone commentaries dedicated to Book 8 of the Aeneid appeared in just two short years.1 Mirabile dictu, almost exactly 40 years later another triumvirate of anglophone commentaries has flooded the market: Keith Maclennan's Virgil: Aeneid Book VIII (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2017), Lee M. Fratantuono and R. Alden Smith's Virgil, Aeneid 8 (Leiden: Brill, 2018), and James J. O'Hara's Vergil. Aeneid Book 8 (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 2018), the last of which is the subject of this review. All three new commentaries are pitched at slightly different audiences, and thus all three should rightfully occupy their own places inside and outside the classroom. Although it is not the remit of this review to address all three commentaries, I will make some occasional comments on the ways O'Hara's differentiates itself from the others, which I hope will be instructive and useful especially for instructors pondering which, if any, to adopt for their own courses.

O'Hara's commentary is the seventh to be published in the new series of Focus Vergil Aeneid Commentaries, having jumped the line and appeared before Randall Ganiban's commentary on Book 7.2 To the great delight of those who regularly teach with the series' commentaries, O'Hara's follows the format of the other six single-book commentaries already published, including (in order): a general introduction to the Aeneid penned by the series co-editor, Randall Ganiban; an introduction to Book 8 written by O'Hara; a pair of relevant maps; the text with running commentary printed below the Latin; two appendices on Vergil's meter and stylistic terms; a relatively extensive up-to-the-minute up-to-date bibliography of relevant scholarship cited throughout the commentary; a short list of abbreviations; more than 40 pages of vocabulary; and finally a subject index.

As O'Hara notes in his Preface, much of this material has been repurposed and/or adapted from other sources. The general introduction is nearly identical to what is found in the other commentaries in the series, though Ganiban has appended relevant references from Book 8 to several footnotes that discuss certain lexical items that feature prominently in the book. Likewise, O'Hara has adapted his appendices from those found in Ganiban's 2008 commentary on Book 2, tailoring his examples to Book 8. The vocabulary section, itself adapted from John Tetlow's The Eighth Book of Virgil's Aeneid (1893), reflects a number of the changes already included in the series' other commentaries, though it also deviates at times from its predecessors. For the sake of some examples, I have selected a few early items included in the vocabularies for both Book 6 (by Patricia A. Johnston) and Book 8:

acies, -ei (f.) – edge, sharp sight, gaze; pl. eyes; line of battle (Book 6); edge; line of battle, line, army (Book 8)
adeo (adv.) – to this or that point or degree; so (Book 6); to that extent, thus far (Book 8)
anima, -ae (adj.) – breath, breath of life, life; spirit, shade, soul (Book 6); breath, air, wind, blast; life (Book 8)

One could argue that such differences, minor though they are, might frustrate the undergraduate user who has attempted to master the vocabulary from one commentary, only to be thrown off by the sudden introduction of additional valences to a given word in another commentary. The counter argument, however, is that tailoring definitions to a given book prevents a reader from being overloaded by superfluous meanings that are irrelevant for the task at hand. For my part, I am in favor of the slight differences between books for precisely this reason.

The text of the Aeneid is that of F. A. Hirtzel (Oxford, 1900), though O'Hara has made four changes: tenent for tenet at line 75, furis for furiis at line 205, oculis for oculi at line 223, and nomine for munere at line 519 (viii). With the exception of furis, none of the changes is particularly controversial; while O'Hara briefly notes the implications of furis for the translation of the poem (205–6 n., p. 48), readers interested in a fuller discussion can turn to Fratantuono and Smith (205 n., p. 327), who themselves opt for furiis in their edition of the text. O'Hara also briefly explains how his selection of oculis over oculi impacts the translation and therefore the sense of line 223, but in his notes attached to the other two lines in which he has deviated from Hirtzel, he offers no discussion of the changes.

As to the meat of the Book 8 commentary, like the others in the series, it uses as its starting point T. E. Page's Vergil: Aeneid 7–12 (1900). Traces of Page are detectable throughout, sometimes through verbatim quotation (though not indicated as such) and sometimes through paraphrase. Where O'Hara is borrowing heavily from Page, he often updates the language to make it seem less arcane to a 21st-century reader. Even more entertainingly, O'Hara sometimes elects to modernize Page's then-modern illustrations of phenomena described in the poem. For example, in the note to line 22 (sicut aquae…), where the sun's rays are imagined striking the water and then being reflected back onto different surfaces, Page has this to say: "Any schoolboy can produce the effect with a small mirror" (p. 205). O'Hara, ever mindful of his target audience (viz. undergraduates, many/all of whom were/will be born in the 21st century), offers this instead: "Today the effect can be produced with the face of a watch or cellphone" (p. 24). Additionally, new references to, among others, the 1989 film Field of Dreams (162 n., p. 41; though the date is incorrectly given as 1998), the Supremes' 1964 hit "Where Did Our Love Go?" (395–6 n., p. 73), and Harry Potter (429 n., p. 77; 632–4 n., p. 102) further illustrate O'Hara's efforts to make his commentary as accessible to the undergraduate user as possible. I especially appreciated O'Hara's warning about extrapolating lessons on the fixity of fate from Vulcan's response to Venus when she requests his assistance: "what an oft-cuckolded god says to his wife, the goddess of sex, when she caresses his arms is not a good source of philosophical doctrine about the nature of fate" (396–9 n., p. 74). Wise words.

Undergraduate readers should be cheered by O'Hara's not infrequent acknowledgements of how challenging the Latin can be in places. In fact, in the note to lines 236–9 (p. 51), for example, O'Hara's first words are, "difficult Latin," but he then proceeds to offer an annotated translation of the lines to help the reader understand how the Latin works (cf. 563–6 n., p. 92). Page, by contrast, had merely supplied translations for the lines in question, without attempting to explain (or acknowledge) the complex syntax. In reading and using O'Hara's commentary, then, one gets the sense that O'Hara is down in the trenches struggling right along with you—and having a good time in the process.

O'Hara's method throughout is variable, which suits a commentary "for use at the intermediate level of Latin or higher, though it may have something to offer to anyone working on the book" (vii). Where grammatical aid is necessary, O'Hara typically foregrounds it in his comments, allowing the translation-oriented user to move on to the next passage without getting bogged down with additional information. Indeed, in those passages laden with particular historical or political meaning, O'Hara heaps up the in-text citations (e.g., 626–728 n., pp. 98–101), which more advanced users of the commentary—be they graduate students or scholars—should find useful. Lastly, when the literary features of the text are being highlighted, O'Hara offers abundant intratextual and intertextual references, but unlike Maclennan and Fratantuono and Smith, O'Hara largely restricts his intertextual sources and literary comparanda to Vergil's predecessors and contemporaries (with the notable exception of the Vergilian commentators). Where Greek authors are cited, the Greek itself is rarely printed—an improvement on Page, at least insofar as it does not assume that today's intermediate or advanced Latin student can translate, much less read ancient Greek. That being said, when Greek does appear it is inconsistently transliterated and/or translated— sometimes transliterated but not translated (49 n., p. 28), sometimes translated but not transliterated (98–100 n., p. 34), and sometimes neither transliterated nor translated (112–14 n., p. 36). Perhaps there is a reason for such seeming inconsistency, but it was not immediately evident to me.

One of the same criticisms/observations that reviewers have aimed at the other commentaries in the series applies to this one as well: the bibliography is almost exclusively anglophone, and where O'Hara has referred to a non- English source, he indicates the language in which it is written. To me, however, this does not seem problematic; predominantly anglophone though it is, O'Hara's bibliography is nonetheless impressively capacious—far more so than Maclennan's sparse selection of texts for "Further Reading"—and readers in search of a more robust (and more polyglot) bibliography can happily turn to the mammoth tome just published by Fratantuono and Smith. Not only that, but it is unlikely that the commentary's primary target audience—fifth-semester Latin students (or at least these were the ones on whom O'Hara claims he tested his in-progress commentary, ix)—will be familiar enough with German, French, etc. to make use of non-anglophone scholarship for research papers or presentations.

Finally, if I were to take issue with one thing in this commentary—and here I reveal my own scholarly predilections—it would be with the placement and inclusion of a Hercules temple in Map 1, "Evander's Rome" (p. 18). Next to the Ara Maxima, O'Hara has indicated a possible location of a (possible) Temple of Hercules Invictus. My quibbles with this are twofold: to the extent we have ancient literary evidence attesting to the existence of such a temple, it seems to be called not a Temple of "Hercules Invictus" but rather a temple of "Hercules Pompeianus." More to the point, when O'Hara directs his reader back to this map in his summary of lines 102–25 (p. 35), he does so by referring to the Ara Maxima and a Temple of Hercules Victor, not Invictus. Will the inconsistency of Invictus/Victor flummox an undergraduate user of this commentary? Probably not, but I point this out nevertheless.

As the editors of this excellent series of commentaries continue to publish the remaining volumes, I would like to encourage them to add a pair of items to their appendices: "s.v." is not currently included among the list of abbreviations, though it appears frequently throughout the commentary, and "prolepsis" strikes me as a rhetorical term worthy of definition in the appendix of stylistic terms.

Ultimately, for accessibility, affordability, and portability, O'Hara's commentary is hard to beat. I fully intend to use it when I next teach Aeneid 8 in my advanced Latin class, and I can heartily recommend that others do too.

Table of Contents

Preface, p. vii
Introduction to Vergil's Aeneid, by R. Ganiban, p. 1
Introduction to Book 8: Its Role in the Aeneid, p. 12
Maps, p. 18
Latin Text and Commentary, p. 21
Appendix A: Vergil's Meter, p. 119
Appendix B: Stylistic Terms, p. 125
Bibliography, p.131
List of Abbreviations, p. 148
Vocabulary, p. 149
Index, p. 191


1.   P. T. Eden, A Commentary on Virgil: Aeneid VIII (Leiden: Brill, 1975); K. W. Gransden, Virgil: Aeneid Book VIII (Cambridge University Press, 1976); C. J. Fordyce, P. Vergilii Maronis Aeneidos Libri VII–VIII (Oxford University Press, 1977).
2.   The other commentaries are: Book 1 (Ganiban), BMCR 2011.03.29; Book 2 (Ganiban), BMCR 2009.05.42; Book 3 (Christine Perkell), BMCR 2010.11.23; Book 4 (O'Hara), BMCR 2012.04.08; Book 5 (Joseph Farrell), not [yet] reviewed in BMCR; Book 6 (Patricia A. Johnston), not [yet] reviewed in BMCR.

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