The word “classical” can mean many things, from old-fashioned through to top-quality to unchanging. But for centuries the main meaning was “deriving from the ancient Greeks and Romans,” with a classical education meaning the study of the literature of these peoples. This last sense is that encapsulated in the title of this pocket-sized book, a selection from the writings of 16 Greek and 17 Roman authors.
The Loeb Classical Library was founded in the UK in 1911 but is now owned by Harvard University Press (www.hup.harvard.edu/loeb). It publishes a vast range — one is tempted to say all — of Greek and Roman literature in bilingual editions. As such, it used to be an institution, both for students wanting cribs and for the general reader wanting, as well as an English translation, at least a sense of how the works looked in the original. That is exactly what the series still offers today, and to celebrate the publication of its 500th volume (as well, you suspect, as to reach out to new audiences) Harvard has produced this little sampler, giving only three or four pages each from 33 revered ancient authors.
To imagine that the library includes all that's known of “classical” literature isn't that far-fetched. As Tom Stoppard pointed out in The Invention of Love , his wonderful 1997 play about the poet A.E. Housman, what we have of the ancients' great books is a mere fragment of what originally existed. Whether a book survived the Dark Ages (“dark” because they were dominated by monasticism and lacked the light of Greek and Roman reason, recovered at the Renaissance) was largely a matter of chance.
Many people think, for instance, that the tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, and the comedies of Aristophanes, are merely the greatest of the ancient Greek plays. The truth, however, is that they are all we have of classical Greek drama. It's possible they were among the best because Aristotle mentions Aeschylus and Sophocles in his Poetics, and Aristophanes certainly kept the best company as he appears in person in Plato's Symposium. But the reality is that we have nothing else to compare them with. As far as Greek drama is concerned, they're all we've got.
It so happens that the four pages of Aristotle reprinted here highlight this situation in that they contain his discussion of Margites, a burlesque epic that may or may not have been by Homer, but which is certainly now lost. We're even lucky to know that it once existed. If another writer doesn't mention them, then lost literary works are well and truly gone for ever.
Even as things stand, it was touch and go in some cases. Some now celebrated works, such as the poems of Catullus, survived the Dark Ages in a single manuscript. If that hadn't been found (in the Renaissance) it would be as if he'd never been.
A Loeb Classical Library Reader prompts many emotions. It opens with Odysseus in the cave of the Cyclops, Polyphemus, and you're immediately gripped by the heaps of dung lying on the floor, the drunk Cyclops' thick neck bent to one side as he sleeps, and Odysseus twisting the olive stake into his only eye being compared with the way the Greeks drilled a ship's timbers using a leather strap wrapped round a pole, with men pulling at either end. You don't know who to admire more, Homer or the old translation by A.T. Murray, revised by George E. Dimock in 1995.