Getting Back to Latin and Greek

An alumna of our classics department wrote to me recently. She asked what I recommend for resuming her studies of Latin and Greek. Since it seemed that other readers of this blog might have the same question, I wrote this post:

  • Recommendations for texts: Start with something easy and try to read a little bit consistently. I recommend this series of texts and commentaries by Dr. Geoffrey Steadman. They are in what Steadman calls the “Pharr format” after this commentary on Virgil’s Aeneid by Clyde Pharr. Each page contains a small portion of Latin (or Greek) text, followed by a section of glosses of most of the vocabulary in that passage, and a section of grammatical notes at the foot of the page. Best of all, Steadman makes his titles available for free online access. The commentaries also include sections on “core vocabulary” words—i.e., all those words that occur a certain number of times in the text. Steadman himself has published his own advice for those wishing “to become a life-long reader of Latin or Greek outside of the university environment”—you can find it here. He recommends beginning with just five lines per day. Steadman’s entire list of advice is worth reading and following, but I will highlight one more item here:
  • Re-read your favorite Latin and Greek texts. Steadman writes, “If a work in Latin or Greek has brought you joy or changed your outlook in life, it is worth reading again. If you struggle to maintain the reading habit or just cannot find a new author that you enjoy, reread your favorite Latin/Greek title.” If there was a particular text you read in college that deeply moved or impressed you, just keep reading, and re-reading, it. And then commit as much of it as you can to memory.
  • Commentaries: Once you reacquire the habit of reading Latin and Greek consistently, you may want to consult commentaries, or other scholarly works, that go beyond explaining the basic meaning of the Greek and Latin.
    1. Cambridge University Press has published for many years a series called Cambridge Greek and Latin Classics. The series now contains nearly a hundred volumes, covering the entire classical period as well as some early Christian works, for example, Augustine’s Confessions. Each volume contains the Greek or Latin text with extensive commentary, an introduction, and bibliography.
    2. Another useful series of commentaries, with less interpretive but more grammatical help, is the Bryn Mawr Classical Commentaries. They include the Greek or Latin text, a very brief introduction, commentary, and sometimes a limited list of titles for further reading.
    3. Dickinson College publishes a series of online commentaries in a similar vein, i.e. intended for beginning-to-intermediate readers of Latin and Greek: Dickinson College Commentaries. These can be accessed for free online. They contain the Greek or Latin text with an option to toggle between notes and vocabulary on the right side of the screen. Some editions include an option to buy the print version or download the PDF.
    4. You can also find many older commentaries now available in the public domain. One particular—and vastly useful—commentary which you can access for free online is T. E. Page’s commentary on Virgil’s Eclogues (or Bucolics) and Georgics.
  • Lexicons: Of course you will also need to dust off your old Greek and Latin lexicons, which should include (in hard copy form): Henry George Liddell and Robert Scott’s An Intermediate Greek–English Lexicon (affectionately referred to as the “Middle Liddell”) and a Latin dictionary intended for beginning or intermediate readers: e.g., Charleton T. Lewis’s An Elementary Latin Dictionary or Cassell’s Latin Dictionary.
  • Books on Grammar and Syntax: Inevitably, as you resume your Latin and Greek reading, you will encounter sentences that seem impenetrable. Don’t despair. Pick up your Greek or Latin grammar. For Greek, turn to Herbert Weir Smyth’s magisterial Greek Grammar. For Latin, you’ve got options: Allen and Greenough’s New Latin Grammar; Basil Gildersleeve’s Latin Grammar; and the book I turn to first for all of my syntactical questions, E. C. Woodcock’s New Latin Syntax. Woodcock’s book is especially helpful because it explains, with extraordinary concision, the historical developments of Latin that lie behind all the rules: for example, why the ablative has so many uses.
  • Other Reference Works: After your lexicons and grammars, the most useful reference work for students of Greek and Latin is the Oxford Classical Dictionary (OCD), now in its fourth edition. But a used older edition will still serve most purposes. The OCD is an encyclopedia of Greek and Roman history and culture. Reference works focused more on Greek and Latin literature include: Albin Lesky’s A History of Greek Literature; and Gian Biagio Conte’s Latin Literature; and the Cambridge History of Classical Literature. One other title worth noting, although not strictly a reference work, is the book by L. D. Reynolds and N. G. Wilson, Scribes and Scholars: A Guide to the Transmission of Greek and Latin Literature, which narrates the history of the preservation and meticulous transmission of Greek and Latin texts from antiquity to the dawn of printing.

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