What is your favorite classical commentary? What place did it have in your intellectual development? Recently I asked the members of the DCC editorial board to write for the blog about these questions. Here is the response of Jonathan Rockey, who teaches Latin at North Penn High School in Lansdale, PA.
I’ve learned over the years not to assume that my students—even the dedicated ones—will greet a commentary with the same enthusiastic appreciation that I may have for it. In fact, the format of the commentary genre can be off-putting to students: it all looks so fragmentary, so technical; it feels at first like harder work to extract the “help” from the commentary than to just use a dictionary (and a pony) to trot out what you can, hoping for the best. In fact I find my students much better served—as with much in the profession—when they are shown (and not just told) how to benefit from a good commentary. So in my (junior) Latin Lyric poetry course, I begin with healthy doses of Catullus aided by Garrison and occasional support from Quinn. A few of the students will have already met Vergil, and hence R. D. Williams.
In fact, my first thought when asked about a favorite commentary was the R.D. Williams’ two-volume opus on the Aeneid, which was my guide through a one-on-one tutorial on Vergil in my first real Latin literature course in college. I was prepared to expatiate fondly on Williams’ clarity, sensitivity and restrained thoroughness. And what’s not to like about a classicist with the scope, depth, and hairdo of R.D. Williams? Alas James Morwood scooped me on that, so I turn instead to the commentary on Horace, Odes Book I by Margaret Hubbart and the late R.G.M. Nisbet, published by Oxford University Press in 1970.
By the time we get to Horace in the third quarter, my students have been trained in the art of balancing two books at a time; referring back and forth from main text to commentary; finding the bits and pieces of lines in the main text to be illuminated by the commentary; browsing the text and deciding what they need to know and what they could know better and what just catches their interest; balancing that all against whatever too short amount of time they have to give to it all in the first place. But with that initial use of more school-friendly commentaries under their belt they are then ready for a taste of Nisbet and Hubbard. The expectation is not really that the students will absorb all N. and H. have to offer. I don’t think I’ve ever accomplished that for myself, except for a very few, very often reread poems. It’s really more an exercise in giving the students the gift of being in the same room for a while with true scholarly greatness, linguistic mastery, and literary insight of the first magnitude. For this I especially like N. and H.’s treatment of the Cleopatra ode (I.37, nunc est bibendum). In what amounts to an article-length (14 pages to the poem’s 32 lines) disquisition on a poem celebrating the suicide of one of Rome’s foes, we are treated first to a six-line English précis of the poem followed by four pages of historical and literary background. Then we get to the line-by-line analysis and commentary proper, replete with parallel citations, Greek antecedents, and later echoes and imitations. Students who might have been intimidated with N. and H. as their first commentary experience instead find them informative, authoritative, inspiring even. The occasional scholar will even ask for more.
One other particular delight of N. and H. is their rare and essentially British talent for barbed wit, especially in the understatement department. Some examples:
On an emendation by Zielinski from deo to deae at 1.5.16: “deae has been rejected by editors with the not altogether reassuring exception of A.Y. Campbell.”
In the general introduction to l.8 (Lydia dic): “But these inconsistencies do not matter; a charming blend of the Greek and the Roman, the fanciful and the actual, is a characteristic feature of Horace’s Odes. Hellenistic sentimentality and Augustan militarism might seem not to mix, but in this poem Horace does not take either of them too seriously.”
On divine kingship themes in 1.12 (Quem virum): “The description of Augustus as Jupiter’s vicegerent jars with the republican tone of the previous section, where the Princeps is simply the greatest Roman. This is not so restrained a poem as is sometimes imagined; for a ruler to claim that he is God’s vicegerent is not really a sign of modesty.”
Or in their ability to portray an entire literary tradition with a few quick strokes, as on 1.13 (Cum tu, Ludia, Telephi): “For much of its length the poem moves in the epigrammatists’ world of furtive tears and smouldering marrows, bruised shoulders and nectareous kisses. Telephus indeed belongs completely to this milieu, to which he owes his name, his pink and white complexion, and his violent habits.”
Nor are N. and H. mere Horatiolaters: when a poem is outstandingly good, they will say so; but neither do they spare critical assessment just because the subject is Horace. Consider this on 1.26 (Musis amicus): “Yet it remains true that Horace is not celebrating his friend so much as his own power to celebrate his friend … As a result the ode lacks content, in spite of all its elegance. Poetry is not the best subject for poetry, and Horace’s greatest odes are not written simply about themselves.”
And historical insight, as on 1.37 (Nunc est bibendum): “The tale of Cleopatra’s barbaric death was a godsend to Octavian’s propaganda; it provided the perfect confirmation of his own assessment … The story was almost too good to be true. Perhaps it was not true.”
And on Cleopatra’s seemingly magical charm (likewise 1.37): “Cleopatra was 39 when she died, and an ugly and vindictive woman; but she did not captivate two great men simply by strategic resources and political acumen.”