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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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.