Recent Digital Acquisition:
Loeb Classical Library

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A little over a century ago the wealthy philanthropist James Loeb provided significant capital to create a library of authoritative texts with facing English translations of most Greek and Latin authors. He had planned that his library would include all of Greek and Latin writing from Homer up to the Fall of Constantinople. However, so far the 7th/8th century Venerable Bede, whose works include The Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation, the Lives of the Abbots and his Letter to Egbert, is the most recent author. The initial twenty volumes of the Loeb Classical Library were published in 1912, the first being the Argonautica of Appollonius Rhodius. The Loeb Library now includes over 520 volumes, those with Greek authors having green covers while those with Latin authors sporting red covers. A major change occurred very recently with the Loeb Library being introduced in a digital version. BC Libraries has acquired this new format.

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One can imagine that James Loeb would have been delighted by this new digital version as it greatly facilitates his original aim of making as accessible as possible the works of ancient playwrights, orators, historians, philosophers, poets, mathematicians, medical writers and Church Fathers. He had made clear this mission in the first volumes. As we read in his introduction to the Loeb Philostratus, Vol. 2 (1912):

In an age when the Humanities are being neglected more perhaps than at any time since the Middle Ages, and when men's minds are turning more than ever before to the practical and the material, it does not suffice to make pleas, however eloquent and convincing, for the safeguarding and further enjoyment of our greatest heritage from the past. Means must be found to place these treasures within the reach of all who care for the finer things of life.

The print Loeb Classical Library was welcomed by many. As Virginia Woolf wrote on 24 May, 1917 in the Times Literary Supplement:

. . . the Loeb Library, with its Greek or Latin on one side of the page and its English on the other, came as a gift of freedom to a very obscure but not altogether undeserving class. The existence of the amateur was recognised by the publication of this Library, and to a great extent made respectable. He was given the means of being an open and unabashed amateur, and made to feel that no one pointed the finger of scorn at him on that account; and in consequence, instead of exercising his moribund faculties almost furtively upon some chance quotation met in an English book, he could read a whole play at a time, with his feet on the fender.

C. K. S. wrote in The Sphere in April 1916: "Happy is the man who finds one or other volume of 'Loeb Classical Library' in his knapsack or valise when on a journey. He will be entertained and edified in a manner unknown to the reader of most modern books." A few years later in June 1921 Frederic Harrison observed in the Forum: "In these neat manuals they whose ancient learning has gone rusty, and they with whom it was never quite bright, may renew, or improve, their familiarity with the immortal works of old." Over the years the Loeb Library has remained popular and has been widely used. It has even been referred to in a poem by a Nobel Laureate. In The Riverbank Field Seamus Heaney muses on the similarities between a riverbank field in County Derry and Virgil's Elysium (Aeneid VI):

Ask me to translate what Loeb gives as
'In a retired vale ... a sequestered grove'
And I'll confound the Lethe in Moyola
By coming through Back Park down from Grove Hill
Across Long Rigs on to the riverbank—

In the digital Loeb, just as in the print volumes, the Greek/Latin text is on the left-hand or verso page while the English translation is on the facing right-hand or recto page. One may search across the complete Loeb corpus in Greek, Latin or English. Greek words may be searched by using the virtual Greek keyboard to the right of each search box. One may refine one's results by language, author, form, period, and genre/subject with the "Narrow Your Choices" menu. More searching options may be found in the Advanced Search.

Many of the translations in the digital Loeb are of a newer vintage and are likely more congenial to twenty-first century readers. A number of volumes published early in the twentieth century had English translations that dated from the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Many others adopted the style of a Victorian gentleman, versions that today would appear distinctly odd to most. The benefit of more contemporary English is evident over and over in modern translations of the Loeb volumes. I'll mention, for example, Davis Kovacs's 1995 translation of Euripides' Hecuba where the Chorus chants

Hecuba, I have slipped away to you in haste, leaving my master's tent, where I was assigned by lot and sent as a slave when I was carried off from the city of Ilium, a captive of the Achaean spear. I have not come to lighten any of your troubles but with a heavy burden of tidings, my lady, and as a messenger of grief. It is reported that in the full assembly of the Achaeans they have decided to sacrifice your daughter to Achilles.

To most modern readers this compares very favorable to the translation by Arthur S. Way in the 1912 Loeb:

I have hasted hitherward; the pavilions of my lord,
O my queen, have I forsaken, in the which I sojourn
Whom the lot hath doomed to fall unto a king, a thrall
From Ilium chased, the quarry of Achaean hunters'
spear, —
Not for lightening of thy pain; nay, a burden have I
Of heavy tidings, herald of sore anguish unto thee,
For that met is the array of Achaea, and they say
That thy child unto Achilles a sacrifice must be.

The contemporary translators of the Loeb texts while naturally providing exact translations also emphasize the readability and literary quality of their translations. Most have taken to heart Horace's injunction in his Ars Poetica: "nec verbo verbum curabis reddere fidus interpres", i.e. "not seek to render word for word as a slavish translator."

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Even before this new digital Loeb editorial principles changed in other respects. For example, as Harvard University Press relates in its overview of the history of the Loeb Library, over the past couple of decades modern translations dispensed with the old practice of bowdlerization: "the seemingly harmless edict included in the early contracts to alter or omit licentious and obscene passages—anything that 'might give offense'—is now considered to be shabby scholarship." In older translations frank sexual vocabulary was eschewed. For example, the 1914 version of Suetonius in the section on Tiberius leaves whole pages untranslated with the original Latin interweaved with the English translation. However, the modern translation in the digital Loeb provides a candid translation of Tiberius's sexual exploits. Formerly scandalous four letter words are now common.

It's fun searching through the digital Loeb. We easily find the motto of Boston College, αἰὲν ἀριστεύειν, commonly translated as "Ever to Excel". It appeared in Homer's Iliad, Books II and VI: αἰὲν ἀριστεύειν καὶ ὑπείροχον ἔμμεναι ἄλλων. We are told in the Loeb translation of Book II that Peleus charged his son Achilles "always to be bravest and preeminent above all". Many hundreds of years later we find the phrase used again, this time in Book XI of Strabo's Geography. This time the Loeb translation is "Ever bravest be, and preeminent o'er others." A search for the noun ἀγάπη revealed that it was not used by the ancient Greeks, though other forms such as ἀγάπημα, ἀγαπήνωρ, ἀγάπησις were. Rather, it became common among the early Christians and means a sacrificial love, the type of love Christ showed by dying. At least three other Greek words for love are found among the Loeb authors: ἔρως, φιλία, στοργή, all three having quite different meanings and meanings which tended to evolve over the centuries.

One may also look up uncommon words and see how different writers used them. The Latin word dodrans, or three-fourths, especially of land, is found only in Ausonius, Columella, Frontinus, Varro and once in Vol. 359 Remains of Old Latin, Volume IV: Archaic Inscriptions where it is defined as ¾ of an as, a unit of Roman currency. It is also interesting to browse the digital Loeb for familiar words and see how their understanding changed over the years The very common Greek word ἀρετή is a good example. Though often meaning "bravery" in Homer, over the centuries it came to mean various other forms of excellence. Though one can do similar searches in such major dictionaries as Liddell & Scott's Greek Lexicon, the Loeb Library has the great advantage of allowing one to actually read the different meanings in full context.

The Loeb Library presented a significant step in the democratization of ancient literature in the early twentieth century when few learned Greek or Latin at school or university. As access to the classics has continued to decline over the subsequent century, they have persisted in serving as a small though important egalitarian access for many who might otherwise have found it very difficult to read ancient authors. Now, the new digital Loeb should prove of even greater use and not only to those studying Classics, but also to those in English, Philosophy, Political Science, Romance Languages and many other disciplinary areas.

Brendan Rapple
Collection Development Librarian
O'Neill Library