The Loeb Classical Library, Virtually

JAMES LOEB (1867–1933), who envisioned the publishing of the entire corpus of classical literature along the same lines as Aldus Manutius had over 400 years earlier — in small, portable, and inexpensive editions — was the scion of a banking family whose Wall Street firm, Kuhn, Loeb & Company, co-founded by James’s father Solomon, eventually merged first into Lehman Brothers and ultimately disappeared into American Express. Kuhn, Loeb and J.P. Morgan & Company were the two largest and most influential investment banks of their time, and when James retired early in 1902, he was able to enjoy the fruits of an enormous fortune, particularly after the deaths of his mother and his father (in 1902 and 1903 respectively), when he inherited a great deal of money. Loeb had musical training, privately as well as at Harvard (where the composer John Knowles Paine was probably one of his teachers), and his philanthropy moved in that direction too. His money helped to found what later became the Juilliard School, and both Harvard’s Department of Music and the New York Philharmonic benefited from his donations as well. His best-known project, however, was the library of the classics, established in 1911, that bears his name. Going beyond Aldus, the Loeb Classical Library (LCL) contained not only the Greek and Latin texts (in their distinctive green and red bindings and dust jackets), but also English translations as well. Loeb recognized even then that the classics were declining in importance in Anglo-American pedagogy, and his series — which he uncharacteristically allowed to bear his own name, most of his philanthropy having been anonymous — was intended “to revive the lagging interest in ancient literature,” he wrote, “which has for more than a generation been a matter of so much concern to educators.” Humanists have been wringing their hands over the decline of the humanities for a long time now, it seems.

Loeb hoped to publish the entirety of Greek and Latin writing from Homer to the fall of Constantinople, although to date the latest author in the series is the Venerable Bede, who died in 735 CE, over 700 years before the Turks overwhelmed Constantine’s eponymous capital. The Loebs were never intended to constitute fresh editions for the most part. The vast majority of them reprint standard texts (from such established series as the Oxford Classical Texts or the Teubner texts), although there are exceptions, such as the 1934 Valerius Flaccus, Argonautica and Shackleton Bailey’s more recent edition of Statius’ Thebaid. This is just as well, since in general buyers tend to be more interested in the English than in the Greek or Latin; not to mention the fact that to have prepared fresh editions from scratch of all the surviving works of classical antiquity and the post-classical period would have consumed far too much time, and would have seriously hobbled the publication rate of the books. Twenty volumes were published in 1912 alone, and the LCL now constitutes more than 520 books, a vast number that could never have been achieved if all of the texts had been subjected to editing from the ground up. Many of the translations, too, were older ones, even as old as William Adlington’s 1566 translation of Apuleius’s The Golden Ass or William Melmoth’s 1746 translation of the letters of the younger Pliny. The few translations commissioned for the Loebs often met with a rather glum reception from scholarly reviewers in the early years. Sir John Sandys, who did the Pindar volume, and H. G. Evelyn-White, who did Hesiod and the minor works of Homer, were “content,” one reviewer wrote in 1916, “to render their respective authors into competent working prose, without attempting any special graces.” The early volumes rather infamously avoided the widespread salaciousness of the ancients, not to mention their use of blunt sexual vocabulary. Passages in Greek thought too ribald would be translated into Latin, and similar passages in Latin authors would go into Italian. Or the translator might summarize. The American classicist Paul Shorey, who reputedly knew the entire Iliad by heart, commented in a 1913 review of A. M. Harmon’s translation of Lucian that “in the turning of scabrous passages he exhibits a periphrastic ingenuity worthy of a purer cause.” Today the Loeb is quite content to call a spade a spade, and does not even forbear to use the four-letter words that have become common even in the newspaper press. The translations remain stubbornly workmanlike, but that is not a bad thing, since readers often just want “the facts,” and with many authors there are alternative translations of a higher literary quality. The latter, of course, do not very often print the original language.

Over the century since the earliest Loebs were published, the series has undergone almost constant revision, even as more and more texts were added to it. Translations have been scrapped and replaced, the comparatively light scholarly apparatus has been updated when pertinent, and even the choice of Greek or Latin edition has altered as scholarship has progressed and new editions have appeared. Loeb Classical Library No. 1, R. C. Seaton’s edition of the Argonautica of Apollonius Rhodius, for example, published with the first batch of Loebs in 1912, was reprinted several times over the decades, as many Loebs have been, until a new version, by William H. Race, appeared in 2009 to replace it. Race’s textual scholarship takes into account the rich material found in papyrus form at Oxyrhynchus in Egypt that was not available to Seaton, and other changes are equally apparent. Seaton, for example, calls the first printed edition of the Argonautica “a very rare book,” a denomination that Race dropped, presumably in light of the intense bibliographical work that has been carried out on 15th-century books over the last hundred years. (The standard online catalog of incunabula lists no fewer than 121 copies of the book, rendering it in truth quite common.) Race’s translation owes a good deal to Seaton’s, but it is more contemporary, less fusty, dropping the many uses of “thee,” “thou,” and “O,” and generally incorporating a simpler language and word order. Some translations have never been renovated. Arthur S. Way’s dusty and old-fashioned version of Quintus Smyrnaeus’s The Fall of Troy, for example, first published as a Loeb in 1913, remains in the series and cries out for a modernizer. But in general the LCL has always benefited from an active program of revision and updating. It is one of its strengths, and one which digitization can only continue and expand.

For, in fact, as of September 15 of this year, the entire contents of the Loeb Classical Library have been digitized and made available through subscription on a website associated with the LCL’s sole publisher, Harvard University Press. The website is not the first to be constructed for making classical texts available — Perseus, for example, has been doing so since pre-internet days, and Project Gutenberg, the Internet Archive, and Google Books contain a lot of classical literature in various forms, even some of the early Loebs that are no longer protected by copyright — and the necessity to charge for access to the LCL (a personal subscription will cost $195 for the first year and $65 for subsequent consecutive years) will make it available only to those who can afford to pay. Yet its scope is huge — Homer to Bede, as noted above — and its search capabilities will make it a sine qua non even for readers who do not really need the translations. A search on the phrase ver novum, for example — the opening words of the fourth-century poem “Pervigilium Veneris” (The Vigil of Venus), by Tiberianus — reveals that this phrase occurs nowhere else in Latin literature. Since this poem is often pointed to as marking a liminal moment, when accent began to be substituted for quantity even before the Romance languages had separated out from late Latin (a contention with which not all scholars are in agreement), it is rather a fine thing to learn that its opening is unique.

A second search on a word from the “Pervigilium,” Hyblaeis, is equally if differently interesting. Mount Hybla in Sicily was known for its sweet honey — Leigh Hunt published a book in 1848 entitled A Jar of Honey from Mount Hybla — so in a sense the number of hits is not surprising. In addition to the “Pervigilium,” this form of the name of Mount Hybla occurs in texts ranging from Virgil’s Eclogues (c. 40 BCE) to the Epistles of Ausonius, which postdate Tiberianus’s poem, perhaps by a few decades, and include Statius’ Silvae and two of Martial’s Epigrams along the way. Almost all of the instances of the word involve honey or honeycomb, one of the Epigrams by Martial being the single exception. It would not be impossible to gather these references without the Loeb’s search function, but it would certainly be far more time-consuming. I then searched under the nominative form Hybla and got many further hits, including eight in Greek. Of those, only one, in Strabo’s Geography, alluded to the famous honey; the remainder, ranging from Herodotus (fifth century BCE) to Athenaeus (c. 200 CE), were primarily political references. One can begin at least to wonder whether that jar of honey from Mount Hybla began its reputation with Virgil in a work of pastoral poetry.

The search function covers all aspects of every book in the LCL, including not just the English and original texts but the introductions, notes, and the rest of the scholarly apparatus. Searching for Greek words and phrases is accommodated by a pop-up Greek keyboard, which is easy to use. Using it, one can learn that the name Aphrodite in the nominative occurs 93 times in the extant corpus of Greek literature, and that of Achilles 118 times. (He would be pleased, wouldn’t he?) Or that the nominative form of αρετη (goodness, excellence) can be found 202 times, while φιλια (friendship, “a state intermediate between Sycophancy and Hatred,” according to Aristotle) occurs 123 times. Truncated searches allow one to account for varying case endings: αρετ* and φιλι* yield almost exactly identical occurrences, at 608 and 610 respectively. This kind of search does sometimes produce “noise” from the wrong language. The self-indulgent searcher determined to discover how often the Latin word for what dictionaries modestly used to refer to as the pudendum muliebris was used by writers, and wanting to do a truncated search in order to account for case, will turn up many instances of “cunning” and other variants that will have to be weeded out. She or he will also learn that Martial had the dirtiest mouth among the Roman poets. The Greek equivalent is far more rare.

The digital Loeb will be a godsend to all sorts of people, not just to or even primarily to classicists. College students will have instant trots at their fingertips. Readers whose interests extend beyond contemporary fiction (and there are many, despite what the book pages of most newspapers seem to suggest these days) will benefit from the easy access and the readability of the Loebs, not to mention the various sorts of useful research that can be quickly done with the search function. Even most educated people these days do not read Latin, much less Greek, and of course it is that population for whom the LCL was always intended. Now it is on your shelf even when it is not. It would cost $13,000 and a lot of houseroom to own a complete LCL in printed form today, so the subscription cost seems a tremendous bargain. (Libraries and schools, who will pay substantially more for a subscription than individuals, will make the digital Loeb available to many readers who cannot afford to subscribe personally.) James Loeb’s aspirations have been transformed with this digital project, and doubtless he would be “extraordinarily pleased” (found once, in Longus’ Daphnis and Chloe).


Bruce Whiteman is a Canadian poet who lives in Grinnell, Iowa, and writes full-time.