The Magazine

Little Big Books

The red and green guides to the wisdom of the ancient world.

Jul 3, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 40 • By TRACY LEE SIMMONS
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A Loeb Classical Library Reader

Harvard, 240 pp., $9.95

THEY DO CATCH THE EYE, those handsome, pint-sized green and red books keeping their own elite company in the more recondite or otherwise up-market bookstores.

Their simple covers don't flash, though they fairly sing--sotto voce--their authority. They may look quaint, but these midget volumes have become the missals of the bookish classes. Generations have known them as "the Loebs," though they belong to what is properly called the Loeb Classical Library, and, within the English-speaking world, they are deemed an essential accouterment to the life of the mind. For within them we can find, in all their antiquated Greek and Latin glory, those exquisite feats of the ancient Greeks and Romans in poetry, drama, philosophy, and history--not to mention architecture, agriculture, geography, engineering, mathematics, botany, zoology, and even horsemanship and hunting.

Although they don't strike us as the stuff of bestsellers, their ubiquity surprises. One finds them equipping almost every public and institutional library in the land, as well as residing in not a few household libraries amassed by those with yearnings for intellectual nourishment of the genuine kind. They look far more erudite than a set of Penguins. They certify seriousness. Employing the royal "we" in a way only she could do, Virginia Woolf, a creditable amateur classicist herself, who once called Greek "the perfect language," said, "We shall never be independent of our Loeb." And she meant it.

The source of the Loeb Library's cachet may be shrouded from us in a trifling age, but that of their popularity isn't hard to discover: Along with the original Greek and Latin texts printed on the left-hand page as each book opens--texts, to say the least, of circumscribed value to most people--on the right-hand side we find crisp, unembellished English translations. The Loebs are the world's classiest crib, a trot for grownups. They are classics with a safety net. Here was an excellent innovation for those who have mentally mislaid the mastery of the classical languages they gained in schooldays. Here was also a perfect device for those who never learned them, and they make a somewhat larger crowd these days.

Despite the sense many of us have that the Loeb Classical Library has always been there, it has in fact existed for only just under a hundred years. The series was founded in 1911 by James Loeb, a gentleman of parts who was both a classicist and a successful businessman, and his goal was straightforwardly democratic in spirit: To make the finest, most consequential literature of the classical Greeks and Romans accessible, if not to the huddled masses exactly, then certainly to the hundreds of thousands of an emerging educated class whose schooling had not embraced the old classical curriculum when they opted for the applied sciences or an earlier form of Humanities Lite.

Loeb and the founding editors, the formidable classical scholars and teachers T.E. Page and W.H.D. Rouse, believed that this group sported as much need as any for the Good, the True, and the Beautiful--and, in the new age dawning of mechanical wonders, perhaps more.

That this grand inheritance might be conferred without forbidding labor, the new requisite for the educated man and woman was to be not a classical education (with all its numbing rigors and extravagant demands) but a curious, reasonably informed mind aspiring to know much more. The Loeb Classical Library wasn't only for them, as scholars were also to benefit from clean texts tricky to come by; but it served the nonprofessional aspirants best.

Matthew Arnold once wrote that the "power of the Latin classic is in character, that of the Greek is in beauty," which makes a tall order for translators of either language. Yet the scholars commissioned by the Loeb's editors for almost a century have produced splendid renderings of the best from each language that all readers of English can understand. Which is not to say that the language used in all volumes matches our own. The translations are inevitably unequal, not only because translators differ in skill, but also because some texts have neither been retranslated nor the editions revised.

The Loebs have their shortcomings. They lean towards the literal, which is why some translations of lyric poetry--poetry once defined as that which cannot be translated--are less than pleasing. They're also products of their time, which is why, depending on the date of publication, Plato can come off at times sounding like nothing so much as an Edwardian gentleman in tweeds, with Malacca cane and pince-nez ("But surely, my good sir . . . "). As they inevitably do, these translations have taken on the complexions of the eras from which they arose: The phrases, the idioms, and most certainly the reticences. But on the whole, the bargain has been sound.