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 Translation and commentary content continue to be outdated.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 the precisely 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.

Dickinson Summer Latin Workshop 2017

Dickinson Latin Workshop: Prudentius’ Psychomachia

July 12–17, 2017

346The Dickinson Summer Latin Workshop is intended for teachers of Latin, as a way to refresh the mind through study of an extended Latin text, and to share experiences and ideas with Latinists and teachers. Sometimes those who are not currently engaged in teaching have participated as well, including retired teachers and those working towards teacher certification.


Marc Mastrangelo (Dickinson College)

Christopher Francese (Dickinson College)

The text for 2016 will be Prudentius’ Psychomachia. This miniature epic of 915 hexameter lines dramatizes the “Battle of the Soul,” pitting colorful and articulate dramatizations of the virtues and vices in mortal combat.

Chasity Pierces Lust, illustration from a manuscript of the Psychomachia, British Library. Cotton MS Titus D XVI, folio 7r St Albans, England, 1120AD.

Chasity Pierces Lust, illustration from a manuscript of the Psychomachia, British Library. Cotton MS Titus D XVI, folio 7r St Albans, England, 1120AD.

Prudentius (died after AD 405) was from Roman Spain. He practiced law and was twice provincial governor, perhaps in his native country, before the emperor Theodosius I summoned him to court. Towards the end of his life Prudentius retired from public life to become an ascetic, fasting until evening and abstaining entirely from animal food, and writing poems, hymns, and controversial works in defense of Catholicism.

Prudentius’ elegant and vigorous Latin has earned him the title “The Roman Vergil,” and the Psychomachia  creatively uses many phrases and ideas from Vergil’s works, especially the Aeneid.

350Deadline for applications is May 1, 2017. The participation fee for each participant will $300. The fee covers lodging, breakfast and lunch in the Dickinson cafeteria, the facilities fee, which allows access to the gym, fitness center, and the library, as well as wireless and wired internet access while on campus. The $300 fee does not cover the costs of books or travel, or of dinners, which are typically eaten in the various restaurants in Carlisle. Please keep in mind that the participation fee of $300, once it has been received by the seminar’s organizers, is not refundable. This is an administrative necessity.

Lodging: accommodations will be in a student residence hall near the site of the sessions. The building features suite-style configurations of two double rooms sharing a private bathroom, or one double and one single room sharing a private bathroom.

324The first event will be an introductory dinner at 6:00 p.m., July 12. The final session ends at noon on July 17, with lunch to follow. Sessions will meet from 8:30 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. each day, with the afternoons left free for preparation.

TO APPLY: please contact Mrs. Terri Blumenthal, by the application deadline May 1, 2017. The fee for 2016 is $300, due in a check made out to Dickinson College, by the fee deadline June 1, 2017.

For more information please contact Prof. Chris Francese (

Conventiculum Dickinsoniense 2017


July 5–11, 2017

The Conventiculum Dickinsoniense is an immersion seminar designed for all cultivators of Latin who wish to acquire some ability at ex-tempore expression in Latin. A wide range of people can benefit from the seminar: professors in universities, teachers in secondary schools, graduate students, undergraduates, and other lovers of Latin, provided that anyone who considers applying has a solid understanding of the grammatical essentials of the Latin language. A minimum requirement for participation is knowledge of Latin grammar and the ability to read a Latin text of average complexity, even if using a dictionary often.  But no previous experience in speaking Latin is necessary. Sessions will be aimed at helping participants to increase their ability to use Latin effectively in spoken discourse and to understand others speaking in Latin. After the first evening reception (in which any language may be spoken), Latin will be the language used throughout the seminar. Participants will be involved in intensive activity each day from morning until early evening (with breaks for lunch and mid-afternoon pauses). They will experience Latin conversations on topics ranging from themes in literature and art all the way to the routines and activities of daily life, and will enjoy the benefits of reading and discussing texts in the target language. Activities will involve both written and spoken discourse, both of which engage the active faculties of expression, and each of which is complementary to the other. The seminar will not merely illustrate how active Latin can be a useful tool for teachers, it will show how developing an active facility in Latin can directly and personally benefit any cultivator of Latin who wishes to acquire a more instinctive command of the language and a more intimate relationship with Latin writings.


Prof. Milena Minkova, University of Kentucky

Prof. Terence Tunberg, University of Kentucky

Minkova and TunbergWe can accept a maximum number of 35 participants. Deadline for applications is May 1, 2017. The participation fee for each participant will $300. The fee includes lodging in a single room in campus housing (and please note that lodging will be in a student residence near the site of the sessions), two meals (breakfast and lunch) per day, as well as the opening dinner, and a cookout at the Dickinson farm on 9 July. Included in this price is also the facilities fee, which allows access to the gym, fitness center, and the library, as well as internet access. The $300 fee does not include the cost of dinners (except for the opening dinner and the cookout at the Dickinson farm), and does not include the cost of travel to and from the seminar. Dinners can easily be had at restaurants within walking distance from campus.  Please keep in mind that the participation fee of $300, once it has been received by the seminar’s organizers, is not refundable. This is an administrative necessity.

Registered participants should plan to arrive in Carlisle, PA on July 5, in time to attenDSCN2294d the first event of the seminar. This first event is an opening dinner and welcoming reception for all participants, which will begin at about 6:00 p.m., in which all languages are acceptable. The actual workshop sessions (in which Latin will the exclusive language) will begin early the next morning on July 6.

For more information and application instructions write to: Professor Terence Tunberg:


Core words not in the Aeneid

Vat.lat_.3225_0101_fr_0049r_lcroppedDiverting Latin parlor game: take a very common Latin word (in the DCC Latin Core Vocabulary) that does not occur in Vergil’s Aeneid, and explain its absence. Why would Vergil avoid certain lemmata (dictionary head words) that are frequent in preserved Latin? Sometimes the reason is simply metrical (celeriter, imperator); in other cases, perhaps a word sounded too prosaic (cibus, servusuxor, interim) for high poetry; sometimes a word just isn’t appropriate for the “prehistoric” period of the epic (provincia, praetor). Sometimes it’s a little hard to figure. Why not sapiens? Why not maiores? Why relinquo but not reliquus? Why vagor but not vagus? Check out the list below and let me know what jumps out at you. The Vergilian data comes from LASLA  (no automatic lemmatizers were used, all human inspection), as analyzed by Seth Levin. To check its accuracy, search the DCC version of Frieze’s Vergilian Dictionary, which includes definitions and citations, as well as (LASLA-based) frequency data for individual lemmata. At times there might be some lemmatization issues (for example barbarus came up in the initial list of excluded core words, since Vergil avoids the noun, though he uses the adjective twice. I deleted it from this version). Ok, here’s the list. Enjoy!

eo (adv)
mundus (adj)
solum (adv)

Image: detail of an illustration of Vergil’s Underworld, from  Fulvii Ursini schedae Bibliothecae Vaticanae (Vaticanus Latinus 3225), also known as the Vergilius Vaticanus or “Vatican Vergil” (49r), magnificent illustrated codex written in Italy in rustic capitals at the end of the fourth or the beginning of the fifth century AD. Source: Digital Vatican Library.

Dickinson Latin Workshop 2016 Bede

Thanks for a great week to everyone who participated in this year’s Dickinson Summer Latin Workshop, reading selections the Venerable Bede for five days: Janet Brooks, Daniel Cummings, Michael DiMarco, Michael Erdman, Andrew Fenton, Jen Larson, Eli Goings, Jason Lalonde, Jacqueline Lopata, Kristen Masters, Hugh McElroy, Oliver Morris, Lauren Murphy, Julia Rhodes, Jonathan Rockey, Kitty Zackey, Ashley Roman, Clara Hardy, Rob Hardy, Peter Rook, and Louise Wesson.

Thanks also to everyone who helped make it possible: Terri Blumenthal (Classics Academic Department Coordinator), the staff at Conferences and Special Events, especially Dottie Warner, Jodie Bowermaster, and Sarah Ireland, and also the Dickinson drivers and dining hall staff, and to the Roberts family, whose generous gift to the Dickinson classics department helps us keep the costs low for participants.

Special thanks to Andrew Fenton for bringing his delicious home cured meats to share, and to Hugh McElroy and Jen Larson for bringing home made mead. What would reading Bede be with a good cup of mead?

Most of all, thanks to Rob Hardy for providing us with superb notes that will be the basis of his DCC commentary on selections from the Historia Ecclesiastica.

This was a delightful, rewarding, and rejuvenating week with a wonderful group of Latinists and friends. I hope to see everyone next year!

–Chris Francese

Workshop: Commenting on Latin Poetic Texts

I am both pleased and daunted to be leading a workshop on writing commentaries on Latin poetic texts, a full-day affair to be held on June 30, 2016 at the Guanqi Center at Shanghai Normal University. Here is an abstract:

Ut tibi sit legisse voluptas: Commenting on Latin Poetic Texts

This workshop will consider the art of commenting on Latin poetic texts, first as it has been done in recent years for English-speaking audiences, and then, in open discussion, considering how it might be done in the future for Chinese-speaking audiences. While scholars sometimes think of commenting on a text as an objective process of collecting the facts necessary for full understanding, in practice, the question of audience is paramount. Commentators mediate a text for an imaged reader, and must have a sympathetic awareness of what that reader needs, desires, and can process or understand. In addition to supplying felt needs, however, the commentator can actively lead and model humanistic practices: the precise appreciation of poetic language, close reading, cultural literacy, and skill in translation. The workshop will analyze some good examples of this kind commentary in English on Ovid, then invite a forward-looking brain-storming session on how best to enhance the experience of reading Ovid for Chinese readers of Latin literature. Topics will include the art of the interpretive paraphrase, gloss, and summary; some reliable resources for finding information about geography, mythology, grammar, Roman customs, and rhetorical and literary devices; and techniques of commenting on style and tone.

(The Latin tag in the title comes from the epigram to Ovid’s Amores.) The workshop is part of the festivities for the second annual Shanghai Normal University Guangqi International Center for Scholars Classics Lecture and Seminar Series, organized by the wonderful team of Jinyu Liu 刘津瑜 and Heng Chen 陈恒


Prof. Liu is the Principal Investigator of “Translating the Complete Corpus of Ovid’s Poetry into Chinese with Commentaries,” a multi-year project sponsored by a Chinese National Social Science Foundation Major Grant (2015-2020). She is collaborating with more than a dozen scholars from four countries A full conference with a very impressive roster of speakers will be held in Shanghai in May 31-June 2, 2017.

I am not directly involved with this project, but it served as a useful handle to think about a commentary-writing workshop in Shanghai, helping achieve a more concrete focus for what is a rather terrifying topic. My own activity as an editor on DCC has given me lots of particular ideas and preferences, but the last thing I would want to do is foist those on a Chinese audience. The really exciting thing here is the opportunity to reinvent the genre in a different context, taking the best aspects from the traditions of European commentary and liberating new energies. My goal is to show a few examples of what I think are particularly good recent instances in English, and let the discussion go where it will. Looking forward to a stimulating discussion!

–Chris Francese

Favorite Commentaries: Jones’ Selections from Ovid’s Metamorphoses

I’ve been reading Ovid’s Metamorphoses with a third year college Latin class, and we are using Peter Jones’ commentary on selections from this work, published by Cambridge University Press in 2007. I wanted to take a minute to celebrate the virtues and pleasures of this book, as does Betty Rose Nagel in her enthusiastic BMCR review. What Rose Nagel couldn’t do is show the layout.

If you can take a minute to read the introductory paragraph, text, notes, and close readings for this short passage (pp. 33–34), it will be clear that this is philology of a very high order, but put at the service of the first-time reader of Ovid.

Jones p. 33 Jones p. 34


  • Introductory note
    • Clear, brief summary of what has gone just before, setting the physical scene for the passage
    • Mention of who the main characters in the scene are, with details that are important background for understanding the passage at hand, in this case their lineage
  • An italicized heading, with line numbers and summaries: helps in reader orientation
  • Text with macrons: this helps in pronunciation and metrics. Jones’ word order helps, those little carats, are idiosyncratic and may seem distracting to experienced readers, but they are quite helpful to students, at least when first encountering Latin hexameter poetry. They taper off later in the book.
  • Notes:
    • line numbers signaled in bold
    • vocabulary is given in full dictionary form, with typographic difference between lemma and definition
    • references are given to a standard grammar
    • glosses are literal, with any understood matter in brackets.
    • freer translations are followed by a more literal versions in parentheses
    • high frequency vocabulary is marked as such (and given in a list at the end of the section)
    • definitions are brief, and context appropriate
    • there is mention of rhetorical figures, but not too much
    • the important items for comprehension are given first, followed by other information (see especially the ordering of the three items in the note on 353 iungo)
    • notes point out what is typical of Ovid (e.g., note on 351)
    • typography contributes to clarity (note the hanging indents)
    • There are no quotations of parallel passages from other authors, such as litter most classical commentaries, often bewildering and frustrating novices
    • There is a small number of frequently used abbreviations
  • Close readings (at the foot of the page):
    • every point made is followed by parenthetical citation and/or quotation of the Latin that supports it.
    • “cf.” is used sparingly for relevant parallels from the work under discussion
    • Jones comments on tone (“tearful emotions,” “charming innocence”)
    • He frequently mentions what Ovid chooses not to do, but which might have been expected
    • Discussion of rhetorical devices notes the effect of such devices
    • He comments on what makes the passage particularly effective and well-written

Writers of commentaries on classical texts, even at levels higher than the student audience Jones aims to serve, could do worse than imitate its style, layout, and self-restraint. Cambridge’s Green and Yellows get much love in the classics world, and have even inspired a tribute rap. But surely I am not the only one to blanch at the baroque tendencies of some recent volumes of the series. Perhaps there is a middle ground to be staked out, a commentary that possesses the clarity and restraint of Jones, so helpful to novices, but which also puts the reader in touch with contemporary scholarship and criticism, as the Green and Yellow series does so admirably.

Needless to say my students loved using the Jones commentary, and missed his help when we moved on to read some excerpts from Fasti 4, with the aid of Fantham’s excellent Greek and Yellow. But by that time, thanks to Jones’ help, they were no longer novices, and could take on the challenge of figuring out things on their own. Indeed, the final project is a collaborative commentary writing exercise on the Parilia section of the Fasti, in which they are trying to imitate Jones’ style. The results should be ready to show in a week or two, and will be published online. Watch this space for more details. And on behalf of the members of this class, thank you, Mr. Jones!