Wednesday, June 6, 2018

How I Began Reading Latin


From the time I was a small child I'd see a volume here and there of Classical literature in English translation, mostly Homer. Then I became aware of Loeb's Classical Library, Latin in red covers and Greek in Green. I believe the first Latin volume I owned -- or half-Latin, the other half being the facing-page English translation -- was one of the Loeb volumes of Augustine's Confessions. I would've gotten this at a yard sale or a thrift shop. The content bored me. The fact that half of it was in Latin interested me. I can't remember a time before I was fascinated by languages, and by books which promised to open up new vistas for me.

Besides the Augustine, I may have gotten one or two more red Latin Loeb volumes, before I obtained the first volume of Latin I would read all the way through: the OCT (Oxford Classical Texts) Lucretius.

I may have gotten it at a yard sale or thrift shop, or maybe at Karen Wickliff Books in Columbus, Ohio, a great place back then and probably still is, although I see by Google Maps they've moved a mile or so north up High Street from where they were. I'm imagining bright lights and broad clean aisles in their new location and already missing the crowded, dim stacks in the old place.

Wherever I got it, I had it by 1990 at the latest. I was quite struck and intimidated -- that is: intimidated, and thoroughly thrilled at the same time, and committed to mighty labours of scholarship -- by the fact that there was no English anywhere in this book except for the fine printing listing the editions and printings on what would now be the copyright page, and an OCT catalog in the back. Even "OXFORD/AT THE CLARENDON PRESS/LONDON AND NEW YORK" on the title page had been changed to "OXONII/E TYPOGRAPHEO CLARENDONIANO/LONDINI ET NOVI EBORACI." "EBORACI" was my first hint to look out for place-names that might be quite different in Latin than in English.

Also probably before 1990, and definitely before I had been able to read Lucretius all the way through, I got a second OCT volume: Horace.

It's difficult to remember how little I knew about Latin and Latin literature back then. Getting the OCT volume of Lucretius was the first that I had heard of Lucretius. (I had heard of Horace, but not much. I mistakenly thought back then that Horace had authored the line "ars longa vita brevis," an error which persisted with me for a very long time.) It took me a while to figure out that "LVCRETI" was the genitive of "LUCRETIUS." I was starting near zero.

I still have both of those volumes: Bailey's 1900 edition of Lucretius, revised in 1922, my copy from the 1957 printing; Wichham's 1901 Horace, revised by Garrod, the 1957 printing. Sometime before 1957, OCT changed from the orange covers they'd originally had, which from across a room can sometimes be mistaken for the orange of old Teubner editions of Greek Classics, to the dark blue they have now. However, page numbers were added neither to my copy of Lucretius nor to my copy of Horace.

Speaking of Teubner (the world's most prominent publisher of the Greek and Latin Classics, OCT coming in second), the first news I got of their existence was during the 1991-1992 academic year, when I was a graduate assistant in the German Department at Ohio State in Columbus. Outside of the department's office doors was a table where old books were left for anyone who wanted them. Someone left the first volume of the Teubner Dindorf-Hentze Iliad and the Teubner Ludwich Odyssey on that table, with orange covers; and the Teubner Tacitus Historia, the Tacitus minor works, and the Tuebner Cicero De officiis with their light blue covers, and I wanted them all, and a Latin textbook left there.

By the time that I had finished my last year as a grad student in 1992, I still had not finished Lucretius, and some might be asking themselves why I was obtaining all of these books which I couldn't read. It's an unconventional approach, but even then, 15 years before I was diagnosed as autistic, I already suspected that my brain was not typical, and that I could succeed with unusual methods of language acquisition, including the confrontation of texts written for native speakers at an unconventionally early stage. I studied several different Latin textbooks at the same time, reasoning that they might tend to round out each others' shortcomings; I consulted several different Latin dictionaries; and I spent a lot of time staring at pages of incomprehensible type. I would recite passages in Latin without knowing what I was saying. And every now and then I would have one of those wonderful breakthroughs which only those who study foreign languages have, and quite suddenly one of those incomprehensible passages was comprehensible.

But I was doing all of this in my spare time, and it took many years' worth of spare time before I achieved a level of fluency comparable to someone with a Bachelor of Arts and a major in Latin. At some point I had read Lucretious all the way through, and I turned right back to the first page and began again, knowing that I would be able to understand much more the second time through. I haven't kept count; right now, I think I'm on my fifth or sixth time through the volume. The Epicurean philosophy, although appealing, is not entirely convincing to me. But Lucretius' language just keeps getting more and more beautiful, the more fluent I become.

Horace, who also followed Epicurean philosophy for a while before rejecting it, is no slouch, either. It was a great stroke of dumb luck for me that the two first Latin books I read were Lucretius and Horace. I started right up at the top. I can also recommend, with a clear conscience, Sallust, Ovid, and Livy.

It must have been around 2003 when I read Steven Runciman's History of the Crusades, and started to read Orderic Vitalis and William of Tyre because of Runciman's enthusiasm for those authors. This was my introduction to Medieval Latin, which I believe is still somewhat underrated by some Classicists who have read little or none of it. Yes, there is a lot of Medieval Latin prose and verse in print which is mediocre or worse. No doubt, a very great amount of bad Latin was written in ancient times as well. The difference is that less of the bad ancient stuff has survived.

Medieval Latin led me to Renaissance Latin and Latin more recent than that.

The first Latin publication which I awaited with great excitement, and pre-ordered before it was published, is RJ Tarrant OCT edition of Ovid's Metamorphoses.

The Latin prefaces to the Latin and Greek texts from OCT, Teubner and the various 19th-century publishers I've learned about, are much easier to read than the main texts themselves, as least for me. And so, very early on in this entire autodidactic process, I became fascinated by the transmission of ancient texts. In my very first OCT volume, right at the start of the preface, Cyril Bailey, states something quite fascinating indeed: "Lvcretiani carminis qui exstant codices ab uno exemplari deducti sut omnes, quod demonstravit Carolus Lachmann quarto aut quinto saeculo scriptum fuisse et in regno Francico servatum." ("All of the existing manuscripts of Lucretius' poem derive from one copy, which, as Karl Lachmann has demonstrated, was made in the Frankish kingdom in the fourth or fifth century.")

I wondered: how exactly did Lachmann demonstrate such a thing? This is possibly the single most famous demonstration in the history of textual criticism, and I've read much more about it since then, and how Jacob Bernays deserves much of the credit which Lachmann has received, and how some of the details of their model have been corrected. Don't ask me to explain it to you. In a couple of years, maybe. I'm still learning.

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