The Vergilian Society has never before given a named prize or award, but established this one in honor of our former President Alexander Gordon McKay, whose legacy represents the finest traditions of Vergilian scholarship and, in the larger sense, of the humanities at its best. We view this prize as an extension of his legacy.
The call for nominations stated the criteria for the award, “the book that, in the opinion of the prize evaluation committee, makes the greatest contribution toward our understanding and appreciation of Vergil.” The judges were faced with a difficult choice between a number of books, each of which had new and interesting things to say about Virgil.
After considering the merits of each submission, the committee decided to award this year’s MacKay Book Prize to Anton Powell’s Virgil the Partisan. Anton Powell is better known as a Greek historian than a Virgilian, and the contribution of this book lies above all in the compelling argument that the political and military history of the 30s BC is more important for an understanding of all three of Virgil’s major works than it is often taken to be; that, in important respects, all three poems (including the Aeneid) reflect on the triumviral period as much as they look forward to Augustan Rome. In particular Powell makes the case that Octavian’s desperate and protracted struggle with Sextus Pompeius casts a long shadow over Virgil’s oeuvre. Aeneas’ much vaunted pietas transfers to the ancestor of Augustus a virtue that Sextus had very much made his own, styling himself Magnus Pius. The surprising prominence of Sicily in the wanderings of Aeneas is more intelligible set against the history of the Sicilian War with Sextus. Powell’s Virgil is unashamedly pro-Octavian, pro-Augustus, a poet one of whose main goals was to address and palliate the weakness and unpopularity of Octavian. This is not a fashionable approach to Virgil, and doubtless many will resist Powell’s political reading. But it will be impossible in future to ignore Powell’s careful and detailed arguments for the centrality of the historical context of the war with Sextus, however individual readers may wish to exploit this context in their own readings of the poems.
For all of these reasons, we in the Vergilian Society are proud to present the 2011 McKay Prize for Vergilian Studies to Anton Powell for his work, Virgil the Partisan.
In the 2009 the McKay Prize for Vergilian Studies was awarded to Professor Jan M. Ziolkowski of Harvard University and Professor Michael C.J. Putnam of Brown University for their work, The Virgilian Tradition: The First Fifteen Hundred Years.