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December 31, 2003

Feeling Narrow-Minded

In the left margin of his weblog, The Cranky Professor lists books "recently checked out", "recently ordered", and "finally getting around to reading". Here is the current entry for the second category:

The Greek Anthology (Loeb Classical Library, #67). I just had to have my own copy of volume 1, which has the Christian epigrams.

I am somewhat embarrassed to admit that it had never occurred to me that anyone would actually buy the Greek Anthology for the Christian epigrams. I have always found them mere filler, to be passed over while looking for Callimachus, Argentarius, Posidippus, Palladas, and the rest. Then again, I'm not a Mediaevalist.

If anyone is wondering, my current reading is Caesar's Gallic War. (Why do I want to say Gallic Wars? De Bello Gallico is singular.) I spent much of my Christmas vacation on a quick read-through of the first seven books. They were surprisingly interesting, and I plan to spend the new year rereading them and the rest of the corpus in a more leisurely and intensive way, keeping a close eye on tenses and moods, hyperbata, textual difficulties, tactical details, and historical uncertainties. Though my current job leaves me with very little spare time, I calculate that if I read just three chapters of the Gallic War or two chapters of the other volumes per day, it will take 366 days, and 2004 is a leap year. It seems a reasonable New Year's resolution.

I have already read all but the Spanish War, but that was over twenty years ago. I hadn't even looked at any since then except for some bits I taught in Latin 201 when I was in graduate school, and even that was fourteen years ago. It was sometimes surprising which parts seemed mildly familiar and which had entirely vanished from memory.

The biggest difference I noticed this time through is that Caesar's victories seem far less inevitable. I had remembered the conquest of Gaul as an unbroken sequence of victories except for the massacre of Sabinus and Cotta and their 1 1/2 legions, which is approximately true, but had somehow thought of these victories as more or less inevitable, with one Gallic or German chieftain after another rising in revolt and quickly and efficiently crushed. I do still have trouble remembering which chieftain is which, also which of Caesar's lieutenants is which, except for Labienus and those famous for other reasons: Quintus the less-famous Cicero, Caninius Rebilus the half-day consul, and of course Mark Antony (only one mention so far, in VII.81.6).

Update: (1:18 AM)

I just realized that Caninius Rebilus' consulship was 2047 years ago today, though even in Italy there are a few hours to go before the anniversary hour, since he doesn't seem to have been named consul until the afternoon of the last day of 45. Which raises an interesting question that someone has no doubt answered somewhere: Was that Prid. Kal. Ian. DCCIX or Prid. Kal. Ian. DCCX? If December 31st is "the day before the Kalends of January, Year N", is N specified as the year of the Kalends, or the year of the day before the Kalends, which is of course different?

Posted by Michael Hendry at 12:41 AM | Comments (1)

December 27, 2003

Optanda II: A Web-Guide To Classical Texts And Translations

For many years, Judith Lynn Sebesta has been compiling a very useful survey of 'Textbooks in Greek and Latin' for Classical World (bibliography here). I think it is time we had something similar on the web, not just for textbooks but for translations as well. Electronic format has many advantages, some less obvious than others:

  1. A web-site could be updated immediately to reflect changes in information. If a forthcoming book acquires a publication date or actually comes forth, or an old title goes out of print or has its price raised, there would be no need to wait months to update the information. It can be done the same day.
  2. With suitable caveats, a web-site could even print helpful rumors: e.g. 'August 2004: Scattered reports that this title is out of stock and will not be reprinted until November'. We have such reports from college bookstores and wondered how widespread the problem was. With a central web-site it should be possible to tell.
  3. Listings could link directly to Amazon and other suppliers, for one-click ordering.
  4. With no page-limit, much more information could be presented. This would obviously add to the work involved in running such a site, but most of the information would not change from year to year. Which translations of the Aeneid are in prose, which in verse, and which of the latter are line-by-line and which are not? Does a Cambridge 'green and gold' text include an apparatus criticus, a list of differences from some standard text, or neither? Does a translation of the Iliad include an index of names, and if so does it include brief descriptions, line references, a pronunciation guide, or all three? All of these would help the teacher in selecting texts and translations.
  5. Amazon-style reader ratings and reviews would be very useful. In a field as small as classics, most of us know a fair percentage of our colleagues, at least from their work. This would make ratings and reviews particular useful. In many cases, we already know whose ratings we trust, and a high rating from Prof. X will make us more likely to order the book, while a high rating from Prof. Y might well have the opposite effect -- if Prof. Y likes this book, it must be crap!
Posted by Michael Hendry at 11:28 PM | Comments (2)

December 26, 2003

Optanda I: DVDs of Ancient Plays

Performances of ancient plays are rare enough, though I did see an amusing production of Euripides' Orestes in upstate New York last summer. Even rarer are those that make any attempt at authenticity, whether in costumes, sets, choreography, or (above all) language. There are surely at least several thousand people in the world who would like to see a Latin Plautus or Seneca, or an Attic Sophocles or Aristophanes,(1) and know the languages well enough to appreciate them without subtitles.(2) Of course, most of us will never have the pleasure, since classicists are scattered thinly around half the world (and even more thinly around the other half). Even if we do, chances of seeing any particular ancient play in one's lifetime are very slim.

Until recently, filming an amateur or university production of any play was difficult and expensive, and distributing the film to anyone except participants nearly impossible.(3) However, that has changed in the last few years. This is from Glenn Reynolds, aka Instapundit, last May:

I've . . . become very interested in video. With my DVD burner fixed (well, replaced), I put together a music-video DVD of my brother's band. I edited some footage I had from his outdoor concert at "Volapalooza" into a passable music video and made a fancy DVD whose menu page featured a cool photo of the band (taken from their webpage) and an animated menu where the buttons showed short loops of video. It was surprisingly easy, and the results look great. I'm very happy with the Sonic Foundry Vegas Video 4 / DVD Architect bundle. Both programs work well, don't crash, and are easy and pretty intuitive to use. Plus, with the academic discount the bundle was only about $250, which is pretty cool since it lets you do things that would have required $250,000 worth of equipment not long ago.

Of course, Reynolds must have already owned a high-quality digital video camera and a computer with read/write DVD capability: the $250 was just for the editing software.

Whoever is the first to put on a competent production of an ancient play, film it, slap it on a DVD, and sell it on the web would earn the gratitude of all classicists, and most likely at least a few hundred dollars or Euros over and above expenses.(4) I would pay at least $20 for a well-reviewed DVD of a moderately 'authentic' production of any ancient play, sight unseen. Yes, even the Rhesus or Trinummus or Hercules Oetaeus. I would pay quite a bit more than that for a really excellent performance of a favorite play.(5)


  1. Has anyone ever done a Greek play with pitch accents? If so, was the experience pleasant or painful?
  2. Years ago, I saw Machiavelli's Mandragola at the University of Chicago. The play was given in English, but one dirty joke was left in the original medical Latin. In an audience of 50-100, I only heard one other person laugh.
  3. I've heard that there's a videotape of a German production of Seneca's Troades floating around, but I've never seen it. Apparently, you have to know one of the participants to get hold of a copy. I've also heard that the tapes are not very high quality. That's one more thing that favors DVDs: they don't seem to lose anything in copying.
  4. DVD-production expenses, I mean. Sales would be unlikely to cover the cost of costumes and sets, much less compensate the actors for time spent rehearsing and performing. But they would pay for a raucous party or two, or the cost of the software.
  5. I don't understand why the complete plays of Shakespeare are not available on DVD. There is a market for the complete works of Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven on CD, even though some of these sets are well over 100 CDs and $1000, and stuffed with juvenilia and ephemera. I would have thought that the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, the Folger Shakespeare Library, to look no further, would already have complete Shakespeares on film, and that they would be able to make money selling DVD selections and complete sets. The college and high school market alone would surely be enough to turn a profit, and plenty of individuals (me, for one) would also be interested. Perhaps they are worried that DVD sales would cut into the market for live-production tickets.
Posted by Michael Hendry at 11:56 PM | Comments (0)

Announcing A New Series: Optanda

For the last few years, I've been mulling over various things the world of Classics needs but doesn't have, and will be posting my thoughts on the subject, starting today. Posts will appear roughly once a day, at least for the next week or two, under the heading 'Optanda'. I would call them 'The Twelve Days of Classics', but I already have sixteen topics outlined.

Coming up shortly: Optanda I: DVDs of Ancient Plays. Feel free to comment on any or all posts.

Posted by Michael Hendry at 11:36 PM | Comments (0)

December 24, 2003

An Interesting Choice Of Example

Leafing through Craig W. Kallendorf's new edition of Humanist Educational Treatises (I Tatti Renaissance Library 5, Harvard, 2002), I stumbled across this passage on page 271:

. . . students should master the difference between the verbs called "active" and "neutral" verbs, i.e., that there can be no passive forms of neutral verbs in either the first or second person when the speaker is an individual -- that is, no one could say "I am ploughed, you are ploughed" [Ego aror, Tu araris] and be correct.

I wonder if the author (Battista Guarino) chose this particular example as one worth avoiding for other reasons as well. I teach at a Catholic boys' school, which means my students are more like Guarino's than most contemporary high schoolers. My boys would undoubtedly find a filthy double éntendre in "I am ploughed" and "you are ploughed", with damaging effect on classroom discipline. And they would be right to read the words that way: aro gets three references in the index to J. N. Adams' The Latin Sexual Vocabulary.

An interesting side issue: some verbs that were formerly active in Guarino's sense are now 'neutral': it is only incorrect to say "I am for sale", "you are for sale" since the abolition of slavery.

Posted by Michael Hendry at 01:21 PM | Comments (2)