Lecta Delecta: The Best Ancient Literature of 2013

Codex Amiantinus from Wikipedia

Curtis Dozier, Assistant Professor of Greek and Roman Studies, Vassar College

Lectum Delectum: Quintilian, Inst. Or. 10.3.12-15.

This should be required reading for anyone trying to be an academic writer (what Quintilian says about learning to speak is true of learning to write). And I laughed out loud when I read Florus’ punch line. I’ve been thinking about it constantly while working on my book.

Watson’s Translation:
“Nor is it easy for me to say which I regard as more in the wrong, those whom everything that they produce, or those whom nothing that they produce, pleases. For it is often the case, even with young men of talent, that they wear themselves away with useless labor and sink into silence from too much anxiety to speak well. In regard to this subject, I remember that Julius Secundus—a contemporary of mine and, as is well known, dearly beloved by me, a man of extraordinary eloquence, but of endless labor— mentioned to me something that had been told him by his uncle. This uncle was Julius Florus, the most celebrated man for eloquence in the provinces of Gaul (for it was there that he practiced it) and, in other respects, an orator to be ranked with few and worthy of his relationship to Secundus. He, happening one day to observe that Secundus, while he was still working at school, was looking dejected, asked him what was the reason of his brow being so overcast. The youth used no concealment, but told him that that was the third day that he had been vainly endeavoring, with his utmost efforts, to find an exordium for a subject on which he had to write. Not only had grief affected him in respect to the present occasion, but despair in regard to the time to come. Florus immediately replied with a smile, “Do you wish to write better than you can?” (“numquid tu” inquit “melius dicere vis quam potes?” [Kind of interesting that Watson translated ‘dicere’ as ‘to write’…almost like he, too, found it relevant to what he was doing. -CD]) Such is the whole truth of the matter. We must endeavor to speak with as much ability as we can, but we must speak according to our ability. For improvement, there is need of application, but not of vexation with ourselves.”

Jacob Mays, Ph.D. Candidate in Industrial Engineering, Northwestern University

Lectum Delectum: Juvenal, Satire X

In 2013, the debate over public funding of stadia (in, e.g., Miami, Atlanta, and Brazil) brought panem et circenses to mind. I’m always fond of parallelism between ancient Rome and modern society, and accordingly nominate Juvenal’s Satire X to the Lecta Delecta 2013.

Joe Sheppard, Ph.D. Candidate in Classical Studies, Columbia University

Lectum Delectum: Cicero, Epistulae ad Familiares, 7.26.2

Cicero was the last literary Latin I seriously read this year, so it’s on my mind. And it was a pleasure to read him again — the reason I did Latinfest [a graduate student conference of New York- and Philadelphia-area Classics departements] was because I generally spend all my time either teaching fake Latin to kids or reading Latin documentary sources or coin legends or whatever rather than enjoying all this beautiful literature.

So this passage wasn’t from the readings selected for Latinfest, but it caught my eye because it is roughly contemporary with and discussed a lot of the same themes as the letters to Papirius Paetus: Caesar’s sumptuary law; the intersection of dining, health and socializing; wit / lulz, etc. I thought it was funny how Cicero uses Greek here — first to quote I assume a philosophical and / or rhetorical idea that he learned while studying in Rhodes or Athens or wherever (i.e. litotes), and then in a euphemistic way for a runny Scale-7 deuce that “gripped” (or perhaps “tore right through”?!) him. Of course he ends with a joke — “So I — who was refraining from oysters and eels with ease — was caught out by the [spicy / gourmet pimped-out] beet and mallow-plant”.

Patrick J. Burns, Ph.D. Candidate in Classics, Fordham University

Lectum Delectum: Joseph Scaliger, Poemata Omnia

J.J. Scaliger taught himself Greek at 19 by locking himself in a room and reading Homer with a translation. It took 21 days. After that, he took 4 months to teach himself the rest of the Greek poets. He held off on the orators and historians until the poets were mastered. Hyperbolic, sure. A bit braggy, definitely. And yet, J.J. Scaliger went on to have a remarkable career as a scholar, editor, translator, etc. of capital-C classics—a life dedicated to full mastery of Latin and Greek, a life of extreme comparative philology. He translated Lycophron into Latin—making sure to keep the translation as obscure as the original. When Muret bemoaned the loss of the Callimachean source for Catullus 66, Scaliger composed his own Greek “original”. If anyone earned to the right to embellish his autodidactic roots, it’s Scaliger. I am coming up on my tenth year of a life immersed in the Classics, having traded guitars, bass and drums for text analysis and lit crit. Scaliger has become a sort of paradoxical example for me—simultaneously an example of both how far I have to go but also how much can be done in a lifetime (not to mention three weeks!). Not only that, but Scaliger’s erudition came about because he made it come about—a hint of the DIY ethic that motivated me when I played in bands and now motivates me every single day as a student of Latin and Greek literature.

Caleb Dance, Ph.D. Candidate in Classics, Columbia University

Lectum Delectum: Homer, Odyssey 23.231-240

So I’ve read the Odyssey several times in the last couple years. It’s my favorite book, for sure. But the following passage from Bk. 23 (translation by Richmond Lattimore) kills me every time.

The setting is the palace of Odysseus and Penelope on Ithaca. The suitors are dead. After Penelope lies about moving the marriage bed and tricks Odysseus into revealing his knowledge of its unique construction, she apologizes for testing him. As the two embrace, the narrator resumes:

“She spoke, and still more roused in him the passion for weeping.
He wept as he held his lovely wife, whose thoughts were virtuous.
And as when the land appears welcome to men who are swimming,
after Poseidon has smashed their strong-built ship on the open
water, pounding it with the weight of wind and the heavy
seas, and only a few escape the gray water landward
by swimming, with a thick scurf of salt coated upon them,
and gladly they set foot on the shore, escaping the evil;
so welcome was her husband to her as she looked upon him,
and she could not let him go from the embrace of her white arms.”
—Book 23.231-240

In just these few lines, Penelope and Odysseus switch roles. She becomes the storm-swept survivor who has endured the countless trials of life on the water, and he is the destination–the land–in her journey. It’s the best simile I’ve ever encountered.

Charley McNamara, Ph.D. Candidate in Classics, Columbia University

Lectum Delectum: Julius Caesar, De Analogia, Fragment 2.1

tamquam scopulum sic fugias inauditum atque insolens verbum.

Just as you should flee a rough boulder, you should so flee an unheard and unaccustomed word.

I recently found myself thinking about Caesar after hearing that my undergraduate Latin teacher is working on a new project about Caesar’s extra-military pursuits. Here, we see a fragment of Caesar’s De Analogia (On Analogy), a work that prescribes proper use of the Latin language. The book is dedicated to the famed orator and statesman Cicero, and he wrote it as a side project while conquering/subjugating/decimating the Gauls in modern-day France. A truly virtuosic display of multitasking.

I like to remind my students of this fragment whenever they write words like “whilst” or “amongst” in their own papers. It’s an important lesson: antiquated language doth not goodly prose make. But this fragment teaches another important lesson about the complexity of these historical figures. Again, it was the same Caesar who conquered the Gauls, paved the way for Roman autocracy, and also wrote a book about grammar and style. Was he admirable? Ruthless? Accomplished? Tyrannical? Answering these questions is difficult, and like most humanist inquiry, perhaps should be difficult.