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.

The Loebs may err from time to time on the side of dull directness, but overseers of the series have always aimed for simplicity, precision, accuracy, and comprehensibility, and with minimal annotation. For all this, readers have been the richer.

From the publication of the first volume of the series in 1912 (the Argonautica of Apollonius Rhodius) the Loeb Library, which never published in any particular order of works, has always catered more to those unable or too unpracticed to read Greek: 322 of the current collection are greens (Greek), while only 177 are reds (Latin). The Top Ten Loeb Bestsellers are predictable: Homer (three volumes), Virgil (two volumes), Ovid, Hesiod, Caesar, Aristotle, and the All-Time Number One, the Plato volume containing the dialogues Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Phaedo, and the Phaedrus.

Not surprisingly, these volumes hew closely to those texts most often assigned in schools and universities.

When surveyed as a whole, the Loeb Classical Library does make an arrestingly imposing set of books, so much so that the Harvard University Press has broadcast some fun facts worthy of Trivial Pursuit. The Loebs take up precisely 43 feet of shelf space, weigh 372 pounds, and were anyone ever inspired to do this, he could stack the volumes vertically end-to-end to build a column of 276 feet, the height of each tower of the Brooklyn Bridge.

With statistics on offer like these, we know we're about to observe something big. Out to celebrate the release of the 500th volume (the Roman rhetorician Quintilian's Lesser Declamations I, expertly translated and edited by the distinguished classical scholar D.R. Shackleton Bailey), Harvard has also issued this Loeb Classical Library Reader, an appropriately diminutive collection of excerpts of the greatest hits from the series.

You might call practically anything published in the Loeb Classical Library one of the world's greatest hits, but this anthology provides a leisurely flat-rock skip across the wide, roistering seas of ancient experience. Nevertheless, while the current general editor, Jeffrey Henderson, claims that selecting passages for the Reader "occasioned no little debate" among those charged with the choosing, the result satisfies.

All choices, each strikingly brief, make eminent sense. Although few seem especially predestined for the collection, we might be astonished if some had been left out. Anything by Homer meets the gold standard, and the choices are legion, but the editors settle here on the episode of Odysseus escaping from the Cyclops's cave. Antigone's struggle of conscience to defy the state that she might give proper burial rites to her brother still speaks down the centuries through the play of Sophocles. And within the pages of the Phaedo, Socrates bids farewell on the eve of his execution. Aeneas relates the fall of Troy to Dido in the Aeneid.

Not all the predictable selections are poetic or dramatic. All those who were made to read Xenophon in Greek class would recall that bit from the Anabasis where he joined the army of 10,000 mercenaries crouching before Babylon. The works of Herodotus, exploring as they did the cultural differences among ethnic groups and nation-states, take on timely urgency as he describes the triggers of war between the Greeks and the Persians. Thucydides, in his astringently dispassionate history, recounts how Nicias, the Athenian general, sought to turn his countrymen away from the foolhardiness of invading Sicily. And Plutarch, fascinated with the intersection of history and character, describes the nobility of Brutus. All of these short passages are monuments both to history and literature.

The Reader is nicely seasoned, though, with a few extracts whose selection few would have foreseen, and these make for wide-eyed perusal. The Jewish historian Josephus expands on Herod's palace at Masada. We find the Hymn to Demeter of Callimachus, Aristophanes, some Lucian, a spot of Terence, a dab of Propertius, the Elder and Younger Pliny, and (most surprising to me) a segment of the Astronomica of Manilius. The collection is topped off with a whimsical letter of St. Jerome, who muses on the pleasures of the bucolic life and their foreshadowings of Heaven.

These byway pieces most of us never read in school, and they remind us that more always waits to be discovered. And raising the curtain on the slightest portions of these treasures may be this anthology's greatest virtue. Wide gulfs still separate us from the ancients whenever we try to match their thoughts too cozily to ours. The persistent proximity of the eye to the original languages alongside their English renditions encourages all readers, whether scholars or laymen, to exercise humility, to beware of those blithe conclusions about what Homer or Virgil, Plato or Cicero, Herodotus or Tacitus, really meant--cocky declarations that always emerge most effortlessly from those who have never learned a speck of Greek or Latin, or even glanced over to see what they look like.

Tracy Lee Simmons, director of the Dow Journalism Program at Hillsdale College, is the author of Climbing Parnassus: A New Apologia for Greek and Latin.