Globalizing Latin with Maffeius

One of the hidden treasures of neo-Latin prose is the Historiarum Indicarum libri XVI (1588)[1] by the Italian Jesuit Giovanni Pietro Maffei (1536–1604, Latin name Maffeius). It tells the story of the Portuguese voyages of conquest and discovery in the sixteenth century around the coast of Africa, to the Malabar Coast of India, on to Malacca, China, and Japan. While Maffeius himself did not travel to the East, he spent eight years collecting material and writing in the royal archives in Portugal, and his work is based on a variety of documents, including letters from Jesuit missionaries, some of which are now lost. The full-scale ethnography of China in Book 6 is of particular importance as a shaper of European images of China in this period. First published in Florence, it went through eight separate editions by 1600, was included in a two-volume edition of all of Maffei’s Latin writings in 1747, and was last printed in Vienna in 1752.[2] There has so far been no modern Latin edition or English translation.

Portrait of Maffei by Giovanni Battista Moroni , ca. 1560-65.

Portrait of Maffei by Giovanni Battista Moroni , ca. 1560-65. Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum. Image source: Wikimedia.

The text merits renewed attention on three main grounds. First is the quality of the Latin. Maffei was a superb linguist (with enough Japanese to publish translations of Japanese texts and to act as an interpreter), a celebrated writer in both Tuscan and Latin, and a famously meticulous Latin stylist. After his early education in his home city of Bergamo and an apprenticeship in Rome under the head of the Vatican Library, Maffei gained the chair of rhetoric in Genoa on the recommendation of Paulus Manutius. While in Genoa in 1565 he submitted his name to the Jesuits, and shortly thereafter returned to Rome and became professor of rhetoric at the Collegium Romanum. He gained fame all over Europe in 1570 on the publication of his Latin translations of Acosta’s history of the early Portuguese voyages to the Indies and associated Jesuit letters. On the strength of this work he was invited by the learned Prince (and Cardinal, later King) Henry of Portugal to tell the whole story in a style worthy of the subject matter. After Henry’s death in 1580 the work was finished under the auspices of Philip, king of the now united Spain and Portugal, to whom the book is dedicated.

Contemporaries compared him to Caesar and Tacitus, but he is no slavish imitator, nor is his Latin as mannered as that of the other great Latin historian of the era, Paolo Giovio. His hallmarks are clarity, elegance, and variety. In the words of fellow historian Famiano Strada, “nothing anywhere unkempt or careless; indeed, elegant perfection from beginning to end—unless his only fault is that he has no faults.”[3] At one of the debates held at the literary salon sponsored by Christina Queen of Sweden at the Palazzo Farnese in the 1650s the question was posed which two authors one should want preserved if all the others should perish, choosing one pro antiquitate, another pro Latino idiomate. The consensus was that, among ancient authors, they would keep Plutarch, among works prized for Latin style, those of Maffeius.[4]

The second reason to turn to Maffeius now is that the text deserves to be better known to historians of the early modern period and the age of exploration. For most of the 20th century, when the dominant geo-political force was the north Atlantic alliance, scholars naturally tended to focus on the early period of contact between Europe and the Americas. The resurgence of China and other Asian powers has created renewed interest in the early history of European colonialism in the Indian Ocean and Pacific areas as well. The importance of the 16th century Latin sources to Atlantic studies has long been recognized, and led to modern editions and studies of authors such as Peter Martyr.[5] But Latin in Asia is still “the great terra incognita of Renaissance literary history.”[6] Sanjay Subrahmanyam’s excellent new study on Europeans’ early contacts with India, for example, neglects the Latin sources in favor of the undeniably important vernacular ones, and does not mention Maffeius.[7] The only substantial discussions of Maffei by historians known to me are by  Donald Lach and, more recently, Stefano Andretta.[8] A readable Latin text, combined with English and Portuguese translations, will make the work better known.

The third reason to make Maffeius better known is to foster the study of Latin in the areas that Maffeius discussed, particularly China. As witnessed by numerous recent conferences and publications, the study of ancient Greek and Latin is blooming in China and Japan.[9] Maffei’s Historiae Indicae would be of interest both to historians from those countries who study European colonialism from their own perspectives, and to students who want to learn to read Latin with a text of direct relevance to the history of their own countries. In particular I hope to edit Book 6, on China, in collaboration with a Chinese scholar, with notes to the Latin in Chinese, and comparison with what the Chinese sources to check the accuracy of and contextualize Maffeius’ and other European observers’ assertions about China in the later Ming period.[10] As the study of the Latin and Greek classics becomes globalized, neo-Latin about Asia and Maffeius in particular can play an important role in both scholarship and pedagogy. Study of such European neo-Latin texts should be coupled with the study of the Latin versions of the Chinese classics, and the wider use of Latin in Asia in sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.[11]

[1] Ioannis Petri Maffeii Bergomatis e Societate Iesu historiarum indicarum libri XVI. Selectarum item ex India epistolarum eodem interprete libri IV. Accessit Ignatii Loiolae vita postremo recognita, et in opera singula copiosus index. Florence: Filippo Giunta, 1588.   

[2] Ioannis Petri Maffeii Bergomatis e Societate Iesu historiarum indicarum libri XVI. Vienna: Trattner, 1752.

[3] From Prolusiones Academicae (1619) II.iii, quoted by Félix Sánchez Vallejo, “Quartus imminet dies saecularis a morte insignis cultoris Latinitatis, Ioannis Petri Maffei,” Latinitas 51 (2003), 50–55, at p. 53.

[4] Pierantonio Serassi, Vita Maffei, in Jo. Petri Maffeji Bergomatis e Societate Jesu opera omnia Latine scripta, nunc primum in unum corpus collecta, variisque illustrationibus exornata, vol. 1 (Bergamo: Petrus Lancellottus, 1747), xxi.

[5] Andrew Laird, “North America,” in Sarah Night and Stefan Tilg, eds., The Oxford Handbook of Neo-Latin (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 525–540.

[6] Zweder von Martels, “Asia,” in Philip Ford et al., eds., Brill’s Encyclopaedia of the Neo-Latin World: Macropaedia (Leiden: Brill, 2014), 849.

[7] Europe’s India: Words, People, Empires 1500–1800 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2017), 63.

[8] Donald F. Lach, Asia in the Making of Europe. Vol. 1: The Century of Discovery (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1965), 803–805. Stefano Andretta, “Modelli di santità nelle Historiae indicae di Giovanni Pietro Maffei,” Monaci, ebrei, santi: studi per Sofia Boesch Gajano: atti delle Giornate di studio “Sophia kai historia,” Roma, 17-19 febbraio 2005 (Rome: Viella, 2008), 451–470.

[9] Kathleen Coleman, “Nondum Arabes Seresque Rogant: Classics Looks East.” Society for Classical Studies Blog, October 16, 2016.

[10] Lach, op. cit., p. 745.

[11] See Noël Golvers, “Asia,” in Sarah Night and Stefan Tilg, eds., The Oxford Handbook of Neo-Latin (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 557–574.

Workshop: Creating a Digital Commentary for Teaching

Dickinson Latin Workshop

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Creating a Digital Commentary for Teaching

Bret Mulligan (Haverford College) and Chris Francese (Dickinson College)

Place: Dickinson College, Tome Hall 115, 10:00 a.m. — 5:00 p.m.

Tome Hall, Dickinson College

Tome Hall, Dickinson College

Do you write your own notes on Latin texts for your students? Are you frustrated with the limitations of Microsoft Word when it comes to parallel display of text, notes, and vocabulary? Now you can create attractive, usable reading texts online with vocabulary lists and notes simultaneously displayed, and the ability to include hyperlinks and add audio-visual material. This workshop will demonstrate and provide practice with a new plugin for the WordPress CMS that mimics the easy-to-read format of Dickinson College Commentaries. In addition, participants will see demonstrations of and practice using a variety of online tools that are helpful in the creation and annotation of reading texts: The Bridge for vocabulary list creation; DCC core vocabulary; Pleiades for geography; digitized grammars and reference works for simplifying annotations; Johan Winge’s macronizer; and others.

This workshop will be of interest primarily to Latin teachers, but others are more than welcome to attend. The workshop is free of charge, but to order materials and food we need to have an accurate count of attendees. For pre-registration please contact Terri Blumenthal:, by October 9, 2017.

Bret Mulligan is Associate Professor of Classics at Haverford College. He is a specialist in Late Antique Latin Literature, and a leading digital classicist. He is project director of The Bridge, the author of Life of Hannibal, Cornelius Nepos (Open Books Publishers and DCC), and a contributor to The Living Past: Recasting the Ancients in Late Latin Poetry (forthcoming, Winter Verlag).

Chris Francese is Asbury J. Clarke Professor of Classical Studies at Dickinson College. He specializes in Latin literature, and is project director of Dickinson College Commentaries. He is the author of Ancient Rome in So Many Words (Hippocrene 2007), and Ancient Rome: An Anthology of Sources (Hackett, 2014).

New Directions in Global Classicism

Excitement is mounting for the coolest Ovid conference in a generation, or maybe ever, Globalizing Ovid: An International Conference in Commemoration of the Bimillennium of Ovid’s Death. Organized primarily by the indefatigable Jinyu Liu of DePauw University, the conference is jointly sponsored by the Chinese National Social Science Foundation, Shanghai Normal University, and Dickinson College. It will take place May 31–June 2, 2017, at Shanghai Normal. The large international cast of Ovidian luminaries includes John Miller and Allison Sharrock, as well as many wonderful Chinese Latinists. I am  delighted to be giving the concluding address, of which the abstract follows. Abstracts of all the talks are available now via the conference website, linked above.

The impulses motivating the study and teaching of the classics have been alternately outwardly and inwardly directed. On the one hand, the classics promise effectiveness in the world, more informed public action through the cultivated powers of thought and expression. On the other hand, and at other times, the classics promise a kind of inner ennoblement, a purer refuge from the less desirable aspects of modernity. These fundamental aspects of studying the classics do not change as globalization occurs, or with the actual content of the canon or national tradition. What is changing, and quickly, is the size and the interconnectedness of the communities of classicism. The role of digital technology in these changes has been much discussed. The best uses of technology are those that create opportunities for the promise of classicism to flourish among people. It is a mistake to follow the apparent dictates of technology separately from the communities of actual people among whom it operates and which it serves. The best opportunities for serving, augmenting, and enriching the communities of global classicism lie in three areas. First, the creation of commentaries geared toward specific communities of readers (e.g., accessible commentaries on the Chinese classics in English, or commentaries on Greco-Roman texts by Chinese scholars for Chinese students) with a focus on close readings of key passages.  Second, an approach to digitization that creatively rescues good pre-digital work in order to create broader access and better pedagogy—for example special dictionaries like Frieze’s Vergilian dictionary or Goncalves’ Lexicon Latino-Sinicum. Third, the creation of experiences and communities around the love of the classics, outside traditional academic venues. The Paideia Institute is the model here. The challenge is that none of these activities is sufficiently rewarded by the incentives of individuals in academic life. Yet the rewards of these approaches will be very real for all of us who love the classics.

In the Tracks of Alexander

[update 5/4/2017:  the apparent mistake of Alexander going to Bangladesh derives from an error in the Pleiades database. Malli is described as “An ancient Indian people that settled at the confluence of the rivers Hydaspes, Acesines, and Hydraotes.” These are indeed the folks Alexander terrorized in the Mallian Campaign. But the current location in Pleiades has them way off near the Padma. They should be much further west, in the Indus valley. I have alerted the good folks at Pleiades to this.]

I got a nice response on Twitter to a photograph of a composite of Google Earth maps made by my students of the expedition of Alexander the Great. (People were too kind to point out that some of the students thought Alexander made it all the way to the Padma river in what is now Bangladesh).

My students’ Google Earth maps of the expedition of Alexander, as seen from space.

A.M. Christensen (@AM_Christensen) asked me to post the assignment that generated these maps, and so here it is. I have done this for several years, and the reaction from students ranges from “Google Earth is infuriating” to “That was the best assignment we did–time consuming but really valuable.” I was on the point of cutting it out of the Ancient Worlds on Film class when a former student in that class convinced me to put it back in. 

As with most unorthodox assignments it requires careful preparation and explanation well in advance, and a willingness to be flexible when technical issues crop up. For me this works because it is in sync with my learning goals: learning about the ancient world on the basis of primary sources. To do well a student must summarize and tell the significance material based on the reading, and cite the sources–by no means easy tasks for the average non-classics major in a general education classical studies course.

I spent some class time demoing Google Earth and showing them the magic of Pleiades, which has readily downloadable .kml files of the places.  (Pro tip: “Tyre” is not findable on Pleiades. You have to know to search for Tyros.) One problem is that the dates of events are not always indicated in the books they are reading. So I pointed out the very full chronology available on Wikipedia. I have learned to be very, very clear about the necessity of having the entire folder highlighted before you save your .kmz. This is by far the most common problem. Second to that are Google Earth crashes, in which some students lose work. Make sure they save their stuff and back it up. I also pitch this as a way to take notes on the reading in Arrian. Pick a couple spots in every night’s reading, write down their significance, and making the map will be easier when the time comes.

Here is the whole 3-week timeline from start to finish:

4/10       Alexander (2004)  no reading                        

4/12       Watch Alexander: Director’s Cut

4/14       Youth; Aristotle; sack of Thebes   Romm, Alexander the Great, pp. 1–32; Plutarch, Life of Alexander, sections 11–14.

4/17       Granicus → Fall of Tyre    Romm, Alexander the Great, pp. 33–69. Plutarch, Life of Alexander, sections 15–17 and 21–23.

4/19       Egypt → Gaugamela; Death of Darius      Romm, Alexander the Great, pp. 70–93. Plutarch sections 27–28, 33–34, 36–40, and 42–43.

4/21       Central Asia; Roxane      Romm, Alexander the Great, pp. 94–113. Plutarch sections 45 and 47.

4/24       India; the Gedrosia desert    Romm, Alexander the Great, pp. 114–148. Plutarch, sections 64–67.

4/26       Susa weddings; death of Hephaestion      Romm, Alexander the Great, pp. 149–173. Quiz on Alexander.

4/28     Alexander Map assignment due

Ok, here is the assignment. The grading rubric follows.

In the Tracks of Alexander the Great

The intent of this assignment is to familiarize you with the geography and chronology of Alexander’s conquests through the making a Google Earth map of them. It will act as a kind of combined map and timeline. It is due by noon Friday, April 28, 2017, via Moodle.

You will need to download Google Earth to your computer. A tutorial by Google on how to create a map with place marks is here:

 . . . and see below for a step by step guide.

Using Romm’s book Alexander the Great (which contains the writings of Arrian) and the account of Plutarch in his Life of Alexander, create a series of place marks and a route to guide you through Alexander’s expedition. For each place, create a place mark, name it, and then write annotations in the description field. Each annotation should contain:

  1. a Pleiades link
  2. a brief discussion of your view of the significance of the place, based on your reading in Arrian and Plutarch.
  3. specific source citations of Arrian (book and chapter) and/or Plutarch (chapter) from which you got your information, along with any other sources you used
  4. an image of any relevant landscape, archaeological remains, artifacts, or an artist’s reconstructions from this place, with a title and specific photo/artist credit.

There should be at least one or two placemarks from every major stage of the expedition, a minimum of 20 total. Observe that the notes in Romm, and your translation of Plutarch’s Life of Alexander (Greek Lives pp. 448 ff.) specify dates for many incidents. The actual look of the tour is up to you, and you should feel free to add whatever enhancements you like. When you have finished making your place marks, put them in a folder and save the folder (it will save as a file with the suffix .kmz).


  • Make sure when you save your work that the whole folder is highlighted, not just one place.
  • Give the folder a name that includes your own last name.

Submit the .kmz file via Moodle. Please feel free to contact me if you have any questions at all.

STEP-BY-STEP GUIDE to creating and saving placemarks:

  1. Download Google Earth:
  2. Under the “Add” menu select Add Folder. Name the new folder with your name and Alexander’s Route or something similar. The folder you just created will now show up in the Temporary Places list at the left, and look something like this:
  3. Add a placemark: Either search in the search bar of Google Earth to find a place, or (more accurate) go to Pleiades and search for a place and download their ready-made placemark. On Pleiades, when you find the relevant site, scroll down to the list of “Alternate representations”:

Click on “KML.” (This stands for “Keyhole Markup Language,” the file type used by Google Earth.) Download and open that file and it will create a placemark for you in Google Earth at the precise location you want. (You may have to delete some extra placemarks included by Pleiades as associated places.) Make sure that your placemark is within the folder you created earlier.

1 placemarks must be included under the right folder or they will not be saved in the project when you save at the end.

  1. Edit the placemark: Right click on the placemark and select Properties.

You can change the name to whatever you want, add text, links, images, and change the look of the placemark itself by clicking on the small icon at the top right of the Edit placemark window.

Here is an example that has been edited to include an image, with information about that image, and some short annotations with source citations. Your annotations should be longer, several sentences.

  1. Create the Route. Click on the “Add Path” icon at the top of the screen

Name the path, and before closing that window, draw the path you want. Consult the maps in Romm’s book as you draw the paths. From the Properties window you can style the path, giving it any width you want.

  1. Save the file. Make sure that you have the whole folder highlighted, not just a single place within it, when you save. Go to File > Save > Save Place As and save the file on your computer as a .kmz. Submit that .kmz file via Moodle. You are done!


20+ Places accurately identified?  
Route accurately marked?  
Significance of the spots clearly explained?  
References to sources included?  
Every major stage included?  
Dates included?  
Pleides uri included?  
Images included?  


From Concordance to Lemmatized Text

For generations before the rise of computing, classicists produced concordances of Latin and Greek authors. Concordances are verbal indices, complete alphabetical lists of words in a text. They typically feature a dictionary headword, followed by every instance of that word in the text, with a citation for each instance. Sometimes the word itself is listed in the form it appears in each location, and sometimes a line or two of context is included as well. Here are some examples of this now defunct genre of classical scholarship (Latin only):

  • E. B. Jenkins, Index Verborum Terentianus (1932)
  • L. Roberts, A Concordance of Lucretius (1968)
  • M.N. Wetmore, Index Verbroum Catullianus (1912)
  • N.P. MacCarren, A Critical Concordance to Catullus (1977)
  • Bennet, Index Verborum Sallustianus (1970)
  • M.A. Oldfather et al., Index Verborum Ciceronis Epistularum  (1938); Index Verborum in Ciceronis Rhetorica (1964)
  • W.W. Briggs et al., Concordantia in Varronis Libros De Re Rustica (1983)
  • L. Cooper,  A Concordance to the Works of Horace (1916)
  • E. Staedler, Thesaurus Horatianus (1962)
  • D. Bo, Lexicon Horatianum (1965-66)
  • J.J. Iso, Concordantia Horatiana (1990)
  • E.N. O’Neill, A Critical Concordance to the Corpus Tibullianum (1971)

5 volume concordance to the Latin Vulgate Bible (from Wikipedia, s.v. Bible Concordance)

There are many others, for Livy, Vitruvius, Lucan, Valerius Flaccus, Statius, Silius Italicus, Manilius, etc. You can find them listed in the bibliographies in Michael Von Albrecht’s Geschichte der römischen Literatur.

Biblical concordances go back to the early days of printing, and even before. For classical scholars, the tedious work of compiling such concordances was considered helpful as a way of studying the characteristic vocabulary of the authors. Concordances allowed scholars to find parallel passages quickly. They helped translators and commentators by allowing access to a full list of instances of a particular lemma, something dictionaries did not provide. They could also help scholars discern which words did not appear in an author, which words were being avoided. They could help textual critics, too, in their efforts to come up with plausible emendations.

All these functions are of course much easier now with computers. Right? In the case of Latin the answer is, well, sort of. As we all know from using search engines, a computer search for a word does not always bring up just instances of only the word you want (Latin music, anybody?). Many words have homonyms, like wind (air) and wind (turning). Or suppose you wanted to study meanings of the verb “to have” in a corpus of English. You would first have to somehow filter out all instances of “have” used as an auxiliary. Have you thought of that, Google engineers? This “homonym problem” is actually far more pervasive in Latin than in English, and linguistic and lexical analysis is made much easier by a concordance that accurately identifies all the instances of every headword in a text. The correct distinguishing of potential homonyms was real, valuable work, and for all practical purposes work that cannot be readily duplicated by a computer.

In the digital age, this Latin homonym problem severely hampers the accuracy and usefulness of automatic parsers like the Perseus Word Study Tool. Various researchers (e.g., Patrick Burns) are trying to improve the accuracy of automatic parsers through computing techniques and algorithms, contextual analysis, and so forth. Teams all over the world are hand-parsing Latin and Greek texts to tag for part of speech and dictionary headword, as well as syntactical dependency.

Nobody has evidently thought of mining the dozens of existing print concordances which are, in effect, fully parsed texts of classical authors re-ordered by dictionary head word. With enough text processing, these works could be used to create fully parsed texts where each word in the text is paired with its headword, by line or chapter in order of occurrence.

The first job would to round up and digitize the concordances. Then one could work with computer scientists to do the requisite text processing (not trivial by any means), and start producing lemmatized texts as .csv spreadsheets and sharing them with the world. Such a project would rescue these old scholarly products and redeem the thousands and thousands of scholarly hours spent producing them. Having readier digital access to more parsed texts would be useful to

  • Any researcher who studies lexical usage and word frequency in classical texts
  • The digital project I direct, Dickinson College Commentaries, which features running vocabulary lists, many of them based on fully parsed texts produced by LASLA
  • Bret Mulligan’s The Bridge, which uses fully parsed texts to allow users to generate accurate vocabulary lists for reading.

For me, the promise of more lemmatized texts means the ability to widen the biggest bottleneck in DCC, the production of accurate vocabulary lists. But such data doubtless has many other uses I have not thought of. Do you have any ideas? If so please share a comment on this post.

Sebastian Brant: An Early Modern Editor of Vergil and Multimedia Text Annotation

The illustrated edition of Vergil’s works by German humanist Sebastian Brant and Strasbourg printer Johannes Grüninger from 1502 is an extraordinary example of early European book printing. In addition to the lavish and intricate illustrations, it contains the notes of five different people, none of whom is Brant himself, and who lived many centuries apart, from the 4th century scholar Servius to the near contemporary Italian humanist Cristoforo Landino. The notes contain information about history, religion, grammar, plants and medicine, rhetoric, contemporary vernacular poetry, and much else. The illustrations are best thought of as a visual translation and commentary on the text, distinct but related to the textual commentary. Brant’s Vergil is strikingly different from most commentaries of today, in which a single master scholar typically gives one synthetic perspective on the text. It is a diverse, highly collaborative, multimedia edition, and one that can provide a way to think about creating a collaborative, polyphonic, multimedia editions of the Aeneid in the digital realm.

Albrecht Dürer, Portrait of a Man (Sebastian Brant). 1520. Silver point drawing from the collection of the Berlin Kupferstichkabinett.

Sebastian Brant (1458–1521) was a noted German humanist, poet, legal scholar, anti-Reformation theologian, and author of one the classics of the genre of satire, Ship of Fools (Das Narrenshiff), which was first published in 1494 in Basel. Ship of Fools has been called the most important piece of German literature before Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther. In the Latin translation of Jacob Locher (1497) it became the first book by a German author to have importance in European literature more generally. This portrait was made in Antwerp by Albrecht Dürer in 1520, by which time Brant was a senior figure in German letters. He was not, however, from a distinguished family. The son of an inn-keeper from Strasbourg, his father died when he was ten and he was raised mostly by his mother, born Barbara Picker.

In 1475, at the age of 17, Brant entered the recently founded University at Basel, where he studied philosophy initially, but quickly turned to law. He was teaching law there by 1486, both canon law and civil law, as well as humanities. Brant preferred the Roman-inspired civil law to ecclesiastically-based canon law, and was a lifelong supporter of the Holy Roman Empire, which he saw as a direct descendant of the Roman Empire. Allegiance to Emperor Maximilian and the Roman Church he saw as the only way of uniting Christendom in a hoped-for campaign to retake Constantinople and the Holy Land from the Turks.

During the late 1480s Brant became interested in the new medium of printing, and started to work as a publication expert and advisor for the Basel book printers, editing manuscripts, reading proof, writing introductions or prefaces, and composing what we would call “blurbs” in the form of dedicatory Latin verse soliciting readers’ interest in newly published books. At least one-third of all volumes printed in Basel before 1490 show signs of his collaboration. Latin verse composition was one of Brant’s particular talents, and his substantial collected works include equal amounts of Latin and German.

Anonymous, “Of Useless Books” (1494). Woodcut to accompany Sebastian Brant’s Ship of Fools, Latin edition, Basel 1498. University of Houston Libraries

This is a fool, the first in the gallery of a hundred or so in Brant’s most celebrated work.

If on this ship I’m number one

For special reasons that was done,

Yes, I’m the first one here you see

Because I like my library.

Of splendid books I own no end,

But few that I can comprehend.

Ship of Fools was produced with the help and financial aid of Brant’s friend the printer Johann Bergmann von Olpe of Westphalia, and it is a magnificent piece of book binding with some of the finest woodcuts of the fifteenth century.

Here is a folio from the Latin version of 1497, in an exemplar from the John Carter Library. Each type of fool gets an illustration, which itself has a verse caption. Then there is a prose summary, and then the main part of the poem, around 30-70 lines.

On the strength of the success of Narrenschiff Brant was a famous man when, in 1500, he left Basel and traveled back to his native city to enter in 1501 the status of Syndic of the City. In 1503 he became Stadtschreiber or chancellor, a position he held until his death in 1521. From this position he began a collaboration with the great Strasbourg printer Johannes Grüninger, and the two produced the first German translation of the Aeneid in 1515.

Title Page
Sebastian Brant, Publii Virgilii Maronis Opera cum quinque vulgatis commentariis expolitissimisque figuris atque imaginibus nuper per Sebastianum Brant superadditis. Strasbourg: Johannis Grieninger, 1502.
Universitätsbibliothek Heidelberg

But one of his first projects when he returned to Strasbourg was the great Latin edition of the works of Vergil which is my main subject today. It appeared in 1502, comprising 540 leaves, with 214 specially made woodcuts.

As the placement of too-many-books guy at the start of Das Narrenschiff might imply, Brant had strong views on education and literary life, and he wrote on the topic frequently. Brant’s critique of late Medieval education was the same one expressed by Lorenzo Valla, Erasmus, and others: the medieval grammarians bewitched their students with trivial and confusing logic chopping, teaching them to know nothing, or leaving them more foolish than when they arrived. In Ship of Fools he compares contemporary teachers to the Biblical plagues of Egypt. “Night and day they shout the wordy dogmas of logic, like the raucous croaking of frogs. With such enticements as these the young are violated (violatur prima iuventus), seeking nothing useful, nothing delightful.” (Stultitiae Navis [Basel 1497] 38 v). The solution, Brant perhaps felt, could be founds in Vergil. Here was a text both useful and delightful (Ūtile nīl quaerēns, nīl dēlectābile gustāns).

Anonymous, “Of Useless Learning.” 1494. Woodcut to accompany Sebastian Brant’s Ship of Fools. Latin edition, Basel 1498. John Carter Brown Library.

As the 15th c. Italian humanist Christoforo Landino argued in the preface to his seminal commentary on the works of Vergil, this poet, with his sublimely sweet, dignified style and superlative examples of character, “offers us the most when it comes both to speaking with gravity and eloquence, and to living well and happily.” Vergil was useful both as a manual of eloquence and a guide to life. When properly presented, Brant believed, Vergil could be the breath of fresh air that modern intellectual life required. In the printer Johannes Gruninger Brant found an ideal collaborator. Active in Strasbourg since 1482, he had developed his workshop into a leading producer of illustrated books, putting out at least 51 illustrated editions between 1485 and 1500. He had already produced annotated, illustrated editions of classical authors including Terence (1496), Horace (1498), and Boethius (1501).

The illustrations are intricate, and pay close attention not just to the details of the text itself, but also to scholarly material, in this case to the Life of Vergil by the ancient grammarian Donatus. The title page portrays Vergil being crowned by a Muse amidst various people important to his life and career, including the emperor Augustus, Cornelius Gallus, and Maecenas. There is generous treatment of landscape, which is typical of woodcuts in this period in Germany.

Vergil is seen in the background conversing another figure, evidently saying something about the horses which stand in front of them. A third figure comes in at the left, holding a basket. This derives from an apocryphal story told by Donatus, according to which Vergil as a young man was trained in veterinary medicine at Milan, and came to the attention of one of the stable keepers of Octavian living there. The stable keeper gave Vergil a daily ration of bread in return for veterinary consultations, and this allowance was doubled by Octavian when he learned of Vergil’s amazing skills at predicting the quality of horses.

Another notable feature of the engravings is their ignorance of ancient dress and building styles, and their pervasive anachronism in terms of furniture and physical environment. Here is the introductory woodcut for the Aeneid, which goes with the proem and the first twenty or so lines which explain the origins of Juno’s hostility to the Trojans. We see the judgment of Paris in the lower right, with Paris dressed as a contemporary Alsatian herdsman. At the left, Vergil addresses the Muse from a chair just like that of the too many books guy, but in this case the intent is not satirical. Rather it indicates that he is a scholar. The cityscapes are contemporary, as in the tradition of medieval manuscript illumination. This is Carthage from the same folio.

And here is how Paris is depicted in the famous illustrated book Liber chronicarum printed in Nurenburg in 1493, and you can see the same kind of towers and buildings.

Anonymous. 1495. Ship of Columbus. Woodcut to accompany. Historia Baetica. Cristoforo Colombo Epistola de insulis nuper inventis (Basel 1495). Beineke Library

Aeneas’ ships look for all the world like the Spanish galleons of Brant’s own day. In fact, close examination of Aeneas’ ships shows that the artists were aware of the recent publication of Columbus’ accounts of his voyage to the new world. Aeneas’ ships look like Columbus’ down to the smallest details. One could see this a mere plagiarism, or perhaps there is an effort to equate the voyages of discovery and colonization of these two explorers, one contemporary, one ancient.

How were the images created? In the dedicatory preface Brant takes credit for the making of the images (tabellas quas pinximus),

Quam nisi ut hās nostrās quās pinxerim, ecce, tabellās

        Virgiliō chārās  tu quoque habēre velīs,           50

hās tibi nēmo antehāc tam plānē  ostenderat usquam,

        nēmo  tibī voluit pingere Virgilium.

nunc memorare  potes monochromata  cuncta Maronis

        quam leviter pictīs, lector amice, locīs.

Please be willing to consider the pictures that I have painted here to be delightful additions to Vergil. No one has ever displayed these to you so clearly before, no one has been willing to paint Vergil for you. How easily, gentle reader, can you can now call all the monochromes of Vergil to mind, now that the passages have been illustrated! (Brant 1502, preface p. 7, my trans.)

But it is unlikely that Brant was actually doing the cutting of the blocks. Rather, evidence from Brant’s other collaborations in Basel suggests Brant provided design sketches and scholarly information, and the woodcuts were executed by the artists in Gruninger’s shop. As we have seen the attitude of the scholar is often apparent in the illustrations. They seem designed to capture the maximum amount of relevant information about the text.

Brant 1502. Exit from the Underworld. Woodcut to accompany
Vergil, Aeneid 6.854-901

In an image for Book 6, we see the famous final scene describing the death and funeral of young Marcellus, Augustus’ heir. In the center, Anchises finishes telling Aeneas and the Sibyl the future of Rome. In the lower center, Marcellus’ famous namesake M. Claudius Marcellus drives away a Gaul or a Carthaginian, as described by Vergil (855-9; sistet eques, sternet Poenos Gallumque rebellem 858); on the elder Marcellus’ shoulder hangs the spolia opima, the armor that an ancient Roman general stripped from the body of an opposing commander slain in single combat. Marcellus was the third and last to do this (tertiaque arma patri suspendet capta Quirino 859), a fact only obliquely alluded to by Vergil.

Young Marcellus, Augustus’s adopted son and heir, is shown on the left, below a funeral scene. In this scene, Augustus stands in regal attire pointing at a funeral bier, which has flowers scattered on it and a fire burning beneath it. A woman weeps at the bier, and other mourners gather behind the tomb. Vergil himself says nothing about Augustus, the funeral, a bier, or bystanders. He just has the narrator Anchises lament the lost potential of Marcellus, and urge all to bring flowers with full hands. The ancient commentator Servius, however, whose notes Brant includes in his edition, reports that public mourning for Marcellus was intense, and that Augustus ordered a funeral procession of 600 biers to enter the city and proceed to the Campus Martius, where Marcellus was interred with great ceremony (Serv. ad 8.61.)

To the right, Vergil, in the guise of a bard, sings to Marcellus’ mother Octavia, Augustus’ sister, whose importance is signified by a crown next to her. She holds the ashes of her son Marcellus. None of this is in the text. Once again it is Servius who reports, in a note on this passage, that Book 6 was once recited to Augustus and Octavia with such emotion that they would have ordered the performance to stop at this point, had not Vergil said that this was in fact the end. Servius explains that this whole passage was written to flatter Augustus, as an elegy to Marcellus (ergo modo in Augusti adulationem quasi epitaphion ei dicit). This explains the prominence of members of the imperial family in the image.

In the top right corner, the very final scene of the book is depicted: Anchises leads Aeneas and the Sibyl up from the underworld, out through the gates of Sleep, to the world above. Aeneas’s ship waits along the shore by the underworld’s exit (893-8).

So this is far from a straightforward illustration of the text, since it includes several things that do not actually occur in it, but which are found in Servius’ commentary, and which provide historical context that makes clear the importance of the scene.

Why did Brant and Grüninger spend so much time and money creating these elaborate woodcuts? Clues to their intent can be found in the introductory promotional poem. There Brant stresses the importance of visual art as a medium. He makes the argument that visual art should hold a valued place in the humanities, just as it did in ancient times, when important public figures were painters, and when important painters were publicly honored. He also speaks of expanding the audience for the poem beyond the highly learned scholars who were the audience for Aeneid editions hitherto. Aeneas himself, he points out, is nowhere said to have been learned, yet he fed his soul on images, such as the reliefs on the temple of Juno at Carthage. In a poem at the end of the volume it becomes even clearer that Brant envisioned the widest possible audience for the book: 

Vergilium exponant aliī sermōne disertō.

        Et calamō puerīs trādere et ore iuvent.

Pictura agrestī voluit Brant atque tabellīs

        ēdere eum indoctīs rusticolīsque virīs.

Nec tamen abiectus labor hic, nec prorsus inānis.

        Nam memorī servat mente figura librum.

Let others explain Vergil in eloquent speech and be pleased to teach him to boys in written and spoken form; Brant wished to publish him for unlearned and peasant folk in rustic pictures and drawings. Nevertheless, this task is neither lowly nor wholly useless, for the picture preserves the book in the remembering mind. (Brant 1502, appendix fol. 33 v., trans. Annabel Patterson)

Brant 1502. 212r. Vergil, Aeneid 4.65-76 with commentary

Illustration as a way to broaden the audience for a text was nothing new, of course. In fact Brant hearkens back to a medieval tradition of church art that was intended to make the stories of the Bible more memorable, an idea that is explicitly stated as early as Gregory the Great. And the illustrations for Ship of Fools were a significant part of its popular success. But in this case it is clear that the illustrations in no way substitute for the text. In fact it is not really possible to understand them without some knowledge of the text beforehand. And as we just saw they often encode scholarly knowledge that it not in the text at all. The images require explication just as much as the text does. Bernd Schneider is probably closer to the truth when he speaks of the images as a kind of visual translation of the text. I would call them translation and commentary on the text, since at times they bring in scholarly knowledge and historical context, and connect the text to the world of the reader. The mnemonic function is also clearly important.

The actual textual commentary of Brant’s Vergil edition is not original with Brant. He reprinted notes that already existed, such as those of Servius and Landino. But he did add his own verse summaries of the Aeneid at the head of every book. This shows that one of his main goals was to keep the reader oriented in the story—an important thing when one it reading slowly through a long text in Latin that might be only imperfectly understood, and something that these images can do very well.

It is important also to place the images in the content of the volume in which they are situated. Brant, as I mentioned, did not write notes, but included notes by the late antique commentators Servius and Donatus. These are primarily linguistic and antiquarian. He also  included notes by Renaissance Italians Landino, Mancinelli, and Calderini. Landino’s preface, quoted earlier, makes clear the rhetorical perspective of these writers. Their notes often point out literary effect, tone, and the like. But they also treat Vergil as a kind of gateway to all kinds of knowledge, including astronomy, medicine, history, and other subjects. This approach is typical of Renaissance commentaries, and is seen in its most extreme for in the colossal Vergil commentary of La Cerda, which positively engulfs the text with encyclopedic learning. You can see what the commentary part of the book looked like in this translated excerpt of the notes for a single page, the passage in Book 4 where Dido is consulting diviners to try and deal with her love for Aeneas. Vergil famously compared her to a stag wounded by a Cretan hunter.

Brant 1502, translation of commentary at 212r.

Note especially the diversity of voices. Servius is telling you about declensions and conjugations, Landino is quoting Pliny on botany and medicine, and including a quotation from the love lyrics of Petrarch. This is a polyphonic commentary that uses all kinds of resources and scholarly and artistic voices to enrich the reading experience and to mediate between the world of the text and the world of the reader.

The commentaries that I and other contemporary classical students typically use are authored by a single scholar, usually one of many decades experience in teaching and research, such as the masterful Vergil editions of R.G. Austin, which I adored as a college student. But the Brant-Gruninger Vergil contains the notes of not one but 5 different people, none of whom is Brant himself, and who lived many centuries apart, from the 4th century scholar Servius to the near contemporary Italian humanist Landino. The notes contain snippets of information about history, religion, grammar, plants and medicine, rhetoric, contemporary vernacular poetry, and much else. Then there are the illustrations: lavish, detailed, intriguing, seemingly separate from the notes but actually enmeshed with them and offering a totally different kind of window into the world of the text. In short, Brant’s Vergil is a diverse, highly collaborative, multimedia edition, and one that, it seems to me, can provide a way to think about creating a collaborative, polyphonic, multimedia edition of the Aeneid in the digital realm, one quite different from the standard print commentaries of today, where a single scholar controls the discourse exclusively.


Brant’s Ship of Fools (1494)

Brant, Sebastian. Sebastian Brands Niv-Schiff von Narragonien [Das Narrenschiff]. Basel: [Johann Bergmann], 1494. The editio princeps. An exemplar at the Darmstadt University library has been well photographed: 

Brant, Sebastian, and Jakob Locher. Stultifera Navis. Basel: Bergman de Olpe, 1497. Free Latin verse translation of Das Narrenschiff, made by Locher under the general supervision of Brant. Two exemplars from the John Carter Library have been well photographed. A printing from 1572 has been fully transcribed and digitally edited by a team at the University of Mannheim: 

Brant, Sebastian. The Ship of Fools, translated into rhyming couplets with introduction and commentary by Edwin H. Zeydel, with reproductions of the original woodcuts. New York: Columbia University Press, 1944 (repr. Dover 1962). Free, rhyming trans. into English from the German version. Excellent introduction, and passable reproductions of the woodcuts.

Modern Scholarship:

Kallendorf, Craig. “The Aeneid Transformed: Illustration as Interpretation from the Renaissance to the Present,” in Sarah Spence, ed., Poets and Critics Read Vergil (New Haven: Yale Uiversity Press, 2001), 121–148. A good analytical survey. Kallendorf is the key scholar in this area writing in English.

Kallendorf, Craig. “Vergil and Printed Books, 1500–1800,” in Joseph Farrell and Michael Putnam, eds., A Companion to Vergil’s Aeneid and Its Tradition (Malden, MA: Wiley Blackwell, 2014), 234–250. Well-informed discussion of various types of early modern reading practices.

Raab, Theodore K. “Sebastian Brant and the First Illustrated Edition of Vergil,” The Princeton Library Chronicle 21 (1960), 186–199.

Schneider, Bernd. “’Virgilius Pictus’—Sebastian Brants illustrierte Vergilausgabe von 1502 und ihre Nachwirkug: Ein Beitrag zur Vergilrezeption im deutschen Humanismus.” Wolfenbutteler Beiträge 6 (1983), 202–262. Excellent analysis. Key for understanding Brant’s role in the creation of the illustrations.

Suerbaum, Werner. Handbuch der illustrierten Vergil-Ausgaben, 1502–1840. Hildesheim: Georg Olms, 2008. The comprehensive catalogue and bibliography.

Wilhelmi, Thomas. Sebastian Brant: Kleine Texte. 2 vols. Stuttgart-Bad Cannstatt: Günther Holzboog, 1998. Good modern edition of all the minor works.

Winsor Leach, Eleanor. “Illustration as Interpretation in Brant’s and Dryden’s Editions of Vergil,” in Sandra Hindman, ed., The Early Illustrated Book: Essays in Honor of Lessing J. Rosenwald (Washington, DC: Library of Congress, 1982), 175–210.


Charles Nisbet (1736-1804), Dickinson Classicist

The classics are useful, not from their being writ in dead languages, or because it costs a great deal of pains to read them: but they are valuable as models of just thinking, examples of true taste, and monuments of the wisdom and capacity of ancient nations, and have been the delight and wonder of many successive generations.

Charles Nisbet, from “An Address to the First Graduates of Dickinson College” (1787)

I have been reading Caroline Winterer’s wonderful bookThe Culture of Classicism: Ancient Greece and Rome in American Intellectual Life, 1780-1910 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004), and came across this discussion of the first president of Dickinson, Charles Nisbet. The context is a discussion of how late 18th and early 19th century classical teachers thought that Greek and Roman culture could be known simply through a study of the Greek and Latin languages.

A typical rendering of the expansive possibilities of language was articulated by the classically educated Scottish Presbyterian minister Charles Nisbet (1736-1804), who emigrated to America in 1785 to become [the first] president of Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Nisbet possessed a formidable knowledge of the classics, even by the standards of hi time, and was widely known as a walking library. The utter vacuity of Dickinson literally sickened him, and he once called America a nation of “Quacks.” Though tempted to leave Dickinson, he was convinced by the trustees to stay, and until his death Nisbet made Carlisle a little oasis of classical erudition in America.

Winterer, The Culture of Classicism, pp. 30-31.

As Winterer’s discussion makes clear, in this period and context the word “quack” referred to people who pretended to have classical learning but really did not, so in today’s terms he was probably calling America a nation of bluffers or poseurs.

Verbatim notes by a student on a series of 65 lectures on literary criticism as delivered by Nisbet in 1792 give further insight into his literary and ethical ideas.

Improving Perseus

The flagship digital classics site Perseus is preparing to re-design its interface, amidst a whirlwind of infrastructure upgrades, tool development, and ambitious plans for multilingual support. It’s a daunting task, and in acknowledgment of the difficulty project director Gregory Crane has floated a draft RFP, with a tentative list of desiderata, for public comment. It is extraordinary and wonderful to invite the whole user community to comment on the development of a site that is so central to digital classics, indeed digital humanities itself, at such an early stage of the design process. So . . . here are my thoughts, offered with the utmost respect for the revolutionary impact of Perseus on our field and on digital humanities, and the massive contribution Perseus makes to global learning about the Greek and Roman classics.

It’s no secret that many users have been unhappy with the existing Perseus interface for a long time. Old concerns with speed seem to have been addressed. But navigation issues remain. The Word Study Tool continues to be inadequate. Translation and commentary content continue to be outdated. Aesthetics leave a lot to be desired. And the glut of information on the page that is often of unclear value and relevance to readers continues to be a major concern. How to proceed?


It’s crucial to let an awareness of the audience drive the design discussion. Crane defines three types of users: a) advanced researchers; b) somewhat knowledgeable students; and c) readers who have no knowledge of a language at all but want to study a text as deeply as possible. Which pieces of Perseus content will be each be most interested in? Professional scholars have historically had little interest in, and even hostility towards, Perseus, which was not originally conceived with them in mind, has little to offer them, and which they often perceive as a way for their students to avoid learning morphology, and a source of misinformation about morphology and poor translations. The plans articulated in the RFP, with their focus on treebanking, linked data infrastructure, continued reliance on automatic parsing tools, and no discussion about updating text and translation content, don’t seem set to change that. The professional audience also has access to research libraries and high quality, edited databases like TLG, LLT, TLL, LCL, and Brills New Pauly, which far surpass Perseus in terms of accuracy and completeness. Somewhat knowledgeable students are the core constituency. They typically need accurate texts, translations, and word-level definitions and parsing. A huge boon to this group is Perseus’ digitization of older but still very valuable encyclopedias, such as Smith’s Dictionaries (e.g. this), and the various lexica. The total neophytes would also value word-by-word definitions and parsing, analogous to the interlinear trots of an earlier age, but badly need concise and consistently accurate dictionary entries, which Word Study Tool does not yet provide. An audience implicit in Crane’s whole discussion is the global, non-English speaking audience who would like to encounter classical texts with helps in their native languages, and not have to go through English. This is a massive undertaking, given the lack of legacy reference works of the kind on which English Perseus is based. It would involve Russian 5-year-plan style mobilization of scholarly time and effort, and will be the work of many decades. So it seems unwise to make design decisions now for an audience for whom you don’t yet have much in the way of content. Another implicit audience is corpus linguists. But this is a very small audience and not worth catering to in terms of design decisions.

So from a design perspective it seems imperative to focus on the needs of the intermediate student or self-taught learner who wants to encounter texts in historical languages. What resources does Perseus provide to that audience?


  • Original language texts: a major service provided by Perseus, the crown jewel.
  • English Translations: often seriously outdated or even (in cases such as the translation of Ovid’s Amores by Christopher Marlowe) downright archaic. There are also many gaps (see below). Sometimes good contemporary translators have contributed their work (Vincent Katz for Propertius and Anne Mahoney for Sulpicia). 
  • Commentaries: seriously outdated, except in cases where good scholars have contributed material, such as Jim O’Donnell’s notes for Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy. Some of the older material is still valuable for specialists, e.g. T. Rice Holmes on Caesar.
  • Grammars: very valuable, but not easy to navigate, and not effectively tied to individual passages that might need elucidation
  • Encyclopedias: very valuable, but not easy to navigate, and not effectively tied to individual passages that might need elucidation. The navigation and searching in Smith’s invaluable mythological and biographical dictionary is particularly bad (try searching, for example, for Ajax or Helen)
  • Lexica: supremely valuable, but not easy to navigate. Perseus’ digitization of lexica has been one of its most significant contributions. Logeion has in essence fixed the navigation and interface problems Perseus (adding new content, too) and become a fundamental part of the field for all the above-mentioned core audience, and specialists as well.
  • Textbooks, such as Benner’s selections from the Iliad and Allen & Greenough on Caesar.


  • Word Study Tool (pop-up dictionary and parsing tool that activates on clicking a word). This is perhaps the most controversial item, the heart of the digital services Perseus provides, but the source of much of the distrust from professionals and love but also frustration from students. The new way forward is going to be via Alpheios and treebank data, with which I am not familiar enough to comment. In my opinion, though, we’re still many years away from a reliable automatic parser, even though some texts, like Homer, are fully parsed by humans and ready to go. One current issue is that the Word Study Tool sometimes directly contradicts definitions and parses in handmade notes like those of O’Donnell.

So, prima facie, if I were setting out to improve Perseus, I would try to serve that core audience of students and autodidacts by a) finding or commissioning competent, up-to-date translations of classical works; b) commissioning commentary content that explains the texts for learners and connects it thoughtfully to the various reference works; c) improving the accuracy of the word study tool; d) improving the interfaces of the grammars and encyclopedias, to do for them what Logeion did for the lexica; e) digitizing better, author-specific lexica so learners have just the information they need to read, say Xenophon or Cicero, not the firehose of a large lexicon or the very unreliable scattershot of “short defs” (a world in which the Latin scribo [“write”] means “to scratch, grave, engrave, draw”).

Improving the interface, not the content, is the focus of the RFP, so I’ll take some of the issues raised there, in order.

Chunking and Browsing

Perseus confronts an important problem: how do we divide up and tag classical texts so as to allow individual passages to be located easily in a digital environment? This key infrastructure and navigation issue is also being worked on by Harvard University Press and the Loeb series. Perseus is focused on the emerging standard CITE architecture which will create a new, machine readable reference system for classical texts. But there is also the existing “system”—chaotic, not readily machine readable, but very widely used.  Ideally, readers should be able to take a citation they find in their reading (e.g “Tertullian, On the Shows 22”), plug it into a search box, and find the relevant primary text in the original and translation, so as to check the accuracy of the use of the primary text in the scholarly literature (or for that matter Wikipedia or elsewhere on the internet). It is hard to overstate the existing barriers to this basic, crucial scholarly and intellectual process on the internet. Students without specialized knowledge cannot readily do it. I recently charged a class of 35 undergraduates in an introductory course taught in English to look up and check a single scholarly reference of their choice from an article  (one which didn’t use that many abbreviations and was written for a general audience). I asked them simply to find the original source, read it, and say whether the primary source backed up the point the scholarly author was making. Only 6 of the 35 were able to find what they were looking for successfully on the first try, and one of the main obstacles is that you can’t just go even to the Loeb Digital Library (much less the open internet) for a mainline classical text and put in a citation and find a translation. If you have specialized knowledge of classical texts, or unusual tenacity, you can do it, but that is not the way things should be in the age of Perseus. So I would prioritize this, and work if possible with Harvard UP to develop standard tags that reflect traditional reference systems, in addition to working on the CITE URN system for the long term.

I would also like to put in a plug for the virtues of the traditional “card” breaks of Perseus. In the proposal this is treated as something of a holdover from primitive versions of Perseus, but in fact such medium-size chunking, though somewhat arbitrary and not as precise as sentence by sentence or line by line systems of reference, carries distinct advantages. One unsolved problem in digital classics is the aggregation of commentary traditions. Notes in the existing classical commentary tradition are often, but not always, tied to particular words via a lemma (specific words from the source text repeated at the beginning of the comment). So ideally you would want to see all the comments on a particular word. But the fact is that editors used no standard system of lemmas, and often commented on ranges of lines, not specific words. So an agreed-upon card chunking would be immensely useful for aggregating notes in a sensible way that really catches all the relevant material. DCC has adopted Perseus card chunks as standard, and I think they should not lightly be abandoned.

Word frequencies

“We need information about word frequencies—this is a very important function for critical reading.” (p.10) Important for corpus linguists perhaps, but not for most readers. The main issue the core audience would want to know is: is this word common (one that I should memorize or write down) or is it unusual (and hence not worth the time focusing on now).  The focus of Perseus on statistical word frequencies (themselves based on the often faulty parses of the WST), and the devotion of screen space to this, is an example of catering to the vanishingly small corpus linguist audience. The Max/Mix figures are confusing rather than illuminating for most people. I did not understand them fully until I read the explanation in this RFP I would remove all this information to some secluded spot where the interested can find it.

Left hand workspace

Metadata at the top: “Do we even need this? Does it deserve this scree real estate?” (p. 13) No, definitely not.

Canned searches: “Do we need this on the left hand side?” No.

Table of contents: left nav like this seems to be standard web design. Removing all the stuff above will put it in its rightful, prominent place. I would also remove the browsing bar navigation above, which is not standard web design, is not terribly attractive, and which I personally rarely use. Left nav is sufficient.

Right hand work space

Focus/Load: “this is a very attractive feature.” Agreed.

“Provide an index of relevant works that cite the focus text” (p. 18) This References panel seems like information glut to me. To actually utilize this information to interpret a given passage requires time and skill and courage beyond what most users will possess. I consider this to be clutter, to be removed to some more discrete location.

Alignment with manuscripts: this seems too ambitious, and beyond what the core users of Perseus need to have. It makes sense as a separate project, like the Homer Multitext, which really is for specialists.

Here now is my personal list of desiderata, chosen based on what is not there now. I realize some of this may be in the works.

Texts lacking (e.g.):

Archimedes, Augustine (except for a few letters), Galen (only one treatise), Lactantius, Libanius, Orosius, Arnobius

Texts with no translations (e.g.):

Apuleius, Aelius Aristeides, Arrian, Augustus RG, Marcus Aurelius Meditations, Ausonius, Bede, Cicero De Oratore, De Re Publica; Cassius Dio, Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Eusebius, Greek Anthology, Juvenal, Lucian, Martial, Scriptores Historiae Augustae, Seneca the Younger (except Apocol.), Valerius Maximus

Outdated things, e.g.:

Aristophanes trans. (1907); Allen-Sykes commentary on the Homeric Hymns; Catullus translation; Horace Odes trans. 1882 by Conington; Lucretius trans. Leonard (1916)

Reference Desiderata

Good English-Greek and English-Latin dictionaries

These reflections are based on an admittedly rather hasty survey of what’s there now, and I am sure the Perseus team is working hard on many of these problems. But this is the direction I would take to simultaneously streamline the interface and enrich the content.

The lesson of Logeion is that we can help. Take some Perseus content and improve the navigation issues and whatever else you see that needs fixing. We did that with the Latin grammar of Allen & Greenough, and it has become one of the most popular parts of our site. If I had time and money, I would do that to every grammar that Perseus has digitized, and add Munro’s Homeric Grammar for good measure. Perseus has shown us how to build the future of classical studies. Let’s all contribute to making that future serve our scholarly communities.


Classics Podcasts

[Note Jan 16, 2017: I am happy to report that my list of classically themed podcasts has now been blown out of the water by David Meadows, aka @rogueclassicist]

Surprisingly few academics have learned how to podcast – but it’s a great way to reach a wider audience. A recent article in The Guardian makes the case for the medium, and offers some how-to advice:

Todd Landman, “Podcasting is perfect for people with big ideas. Here’s how to do it.”  The Guardian January 13, 2016.

Here is a list of classics podcasts ( I would appreciate notice if you know of others!):

Jessica Hughes and Elton Marker, Classics Confidential. Interviews with classical scholars on various subjects, since 2010. The producers are members of the Department of Classical Studies at The Open University.

Ryan Stitt, The History of Greece Podcast. By a self-confessed “enthusiastic amateur.”

Rhannon Evans, Emperors of Rome. Dr. Evans is Lecturer in Ancient Mediterranean Studies at La Trobe University, Melbourne

Alessandro Conti, Semones Raedarii. “Podcast Latinum incisum dum autoraedam moderor. Loquor prolixe et mendose de arte docendi. Interdum etiam fabulas narro.”

Jeff Wright, Trojan War: The Podcast. “History’s most awesome epic.” Retelling of Trojan War mythology with comment on matters mythological.

Chris Francese, Latin Poetry Podcast.  a series of short Latin passages, discussed, translated, and read aloud.

Lantern Jack, Ancient Greece Declassified. “a podcast about making the Classics accessible to everyone.” “Lantern Jack” is a graduate student in ancient philosophy.

Alison Innes and Darrin Sunstrum, mythTake. Scholarly informed discussions of mythological heroes and topics. Alison Innes is a journalist with an MA in classics from Brock University, in Ontario. They also maintain a list of humanities podcasts.

Nowadays podcasting is a highly developed and diverse medium, widely enjoyed as recreation be people as they exercise, walk, travel, go about housework routines, etc. This is an audience hungry for new content, eager to explore new ideas, and interested in all sorts of things. For my podcast I did a series of 5–10 minute recordings on Latin metrics, close readings of interesting passages, and whatever I was reading or thinking about at the time. I felt that the podcast medium was ideal to discuss Latin pronunciation and metrics, which are passions of mine, but also to bring across Latin poetry as a performance art. I never focused on grammar or translation as I would have in a classroom setting, but tried to foster appreciation and aesthetic enjoyment. I kept the tone informal, warm, and conversational. My model has always been Karl Haas, the classical music radio host, who used to make the world of classical music sound like the most welcoming, wonderful place, and who could effortlessly pronounce half a dozen languages. With him you always felt like you were getting the benefit of a lifetime of experience and wisdom in the presence of a true humanist.

There are now a variety of podcasts on classical topics, many especially on Greek mythology and history, and Roman history. None of them is overwhelmingly successful, or up to the Karl Haas level, and suffice it to say there is room for a lot of innovation and improvement in this medium.

I’m a journalism student from Australia, who also learnt Latin in high school (read at poetry competitions too) and I have desperately been trying to find someone who still reads it. Your site is perfect.

I have been teaching myself Latin over the last 8 years and I really enjoy your podcasts! I hope we’ll be getting some new updates soon!

Many of the comments I got on my podcasts were urging me to get off my duff and produce more, or noting problems in download. This is not the place to get into the mechanics of podcasting. Suffice it to say that it is well within the technological competence of most classicists, and there are several good how-to guides to be found on the internet. The most gratifying aspect of podcasting is that it gets you in touch with a whole audience of like-minded enthusiasts and autodidacts out there who really appreciate hearing from somebody with some expertise. They often show their appreciation by leaving comments or voting in various podcast awards competitions.

Success in the medium, as with much teaching, requires a conversational style, a sense of humor, and an ability to tell stories. It’s important to have fun with it, not to be turgid or pedantic.

Podcasting principles:

  • Be conversational. Imagine talking to your mom.
  • Tell good stories.
  • Be enthusiastic. Enjoy yourself.
  • Listen to other podcasts.
  • Always respond promptly to comments.
  • Buy a Snowball microphone ($50 US)

If you have thoughts about what makes an effective podcast, or know of any classics ones that I missed, please leave a comment!

Hussey’s Latin Homonyms

John Muccigrosso (@JD_PhD), whose published work was so helpful in the creation of the DCC core Latin vocabulary,  alerted me recently to a hidden gem of classical scholarship, George B. Hussey’s Latin Homonyms: Comprising the Homonyms of Caesar, Nepos, Sallust, Vergil, Terence, Tacitus, and Livy (Boston: Benj. H. Sanborn, 1905; available here in scanned form). It is a very full list of homonyms from these authors (the entire corpus in most cases, but only [only!] the orations of Cicero and early books of Livy, up through XXII), crucially including citations of each instance. So, for example, we learn that feri means “fierce” 6 times in that body of Latin, and “strike!” only once. The string ferias means “holidays” twice, and “you may strike” once.

a small taste of the Latin geek delights to be had from Hussey's Latin Homonymns

a small taste of the Latin geek delights to be had from Hussey’s Latin Homonymns

Fascinatingly, Hussey chose to include at the bottom of the page “unmated” homonyms, that is, cases in which one of the pair, while grammatically possible, does not actually appear in the corpus he examined.

It is as if Hussey in 1905 had chosen to do precisely the task that computers are notoriously poor at doing. The potential here for natural language processing in Latin, and the improvement of automatic parsers, seems manifest. If we could expand on Hussey’s data to take in a larger corpus, and continue to use human inspection to categorize the occurrences, then we could get a pretty good picture of the likelihood of a particular homonym deriving from a particular dictionary headword, even without looking at the context. With his homonym list, finding thousands more occurrences of each is now a trivial task. With the help of contextual analysis of the kind being pursued by Patrick Burns (@diyclassics) and others, we could really make progress. For me the goal here is to augment tools such as the Bridge, which creates vocabulary lists that are accurate and helpful to readers. Combining this sort of data with good, author-specific dictionaries holds enormous potential to ease the burdens of Latin and Greek learners in the years ahead.