Old knowledge, new ideas

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Next time you come dashing into the Wodehouse Library and find yourself overwhelmed by all the things and stuff, pause a moment on our blog (before you load Google and search for a Wikipedia article) to share in Dr. Hulls’ enthusiasm for one of our e-resources: The Loeb Classical Library…

Dr. Hulls writes:

It is a cause of some celebration, in my world at least, that we at DC can now access all (well, most, and all the best bits) of classical literature at the touch of a button. The library now subscribes to the online version of the Loeb Classical Library, a facility which includes nearly every literary text written in Latin or classical Greek and provides the reader with a facing, English translation. The concept of newness in my subject is always a little artificial and the Loeb library is itself over a hundred years old, but this is a little innovation that has certainly transformed my working day at least.

James Loeb was an American of Jewish-German extraction, born in the 1890s to a powerful banking family, Hellenist and philanthropist. Loeb had wide intellectual interests; he founded part of the Juilliard School of Music, instituted lectureships, supplied museums with their collections and helped pay for the Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry. There was a time when bankers were good people – boys of Dulwich take note!

Each text is translated into English and, as Harvard University have in recent years revised the collection, less cagey about issues of sexuality and obscenity than in Loeb’s time. The more discerning reader may also note another language peeking through the Greek, Latin and English, known only as ‘Loebese’. The English translations have a style all of their own and can be sometimes laughably old-fashioned. Here’s an example taken (almost) at random from Shackleton Bailey’s rendering of Statius’ Thebaid: ‘And yet methinks him not impenetrable to my arms; he did not come with limbs made up of bronze and solid adamant.’ Extraordinary in itself, but even more ridiculous to think that this is the new version, published in 2003. Yet this is part of the charm and I for one am comfortable with the notion that it is sometimes easier just to read the Latin!

The collection Loeb started was and is designed to make classical literature accessible to the widest possible audience; the small volumes, green for Greek and scarlet for Latin texts, are perhaps the most distinctive text books in the field of classical studies and beautiful objects in their own right. Virginia Woolf in her Times Literary Supplement review of 1917 called the Loeb library: ‘a gift of freedom’. I hope those who are not explicitly classicists will take a moment to glance through the collection (Homer, anyone? Virgil? Grattius?); a moment following in the footsteps of these giants is well spent indeed.



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