Rules of thumb for commentary writing

Our commentaries are akin the the Bryn Mawr Commentaries: for first-time readers, whether students or advanced scholars who want to read the text expeditiously. Commentary authors are asked to keep the following considerations/rules-of-thumb in mind:

1. Respect the reader’s time
Stick to what a curious reader would want and need to know to help understand and appreciate the text at hand. Tangentially related material and ancillary texts can be handled in an introduction or in a close reading essay.

2. Look out for what is assumed
Readers frequently need to know what’s not there, or rather what’s there but invisible: the omitted antecedent of a relative pronoun, half of a compound verb form, or the explanation of some constitutional nicety, religious custom, or mythological detail that the author takes as common knowledge.

3. Use jargon only for a good reason
Technical terms are ok, but as a tool, not a substitute for explanation. Explain in a way that doesn’t simply rely on everybody being fully familiar with your own favorite terminology, at least the first time through.

4. Go easy on cross-references
Only use a cross-reference when it’s genuinely important for comprehension, or to spell out what is assumed. Avoid especially untranslated parallel passages.

5. Elucidate first, observe second
First make clear what is going on, whether by judicious translation, paraphrase, rearranging the word order. Then move to whatever comment you would like to make.

6. Look out for what is typical or atypical
It is sometimes useful to point out what is unusual or what is standard, what is distinctive or what is cliché, what is central or what is peripheral, interesting word order, or striking word choice. 

7. Separate interpretation from elucidation
When it comes to serving first-time readers, even expert ones, literary interpretation is out of place. If you advance a clever observation in a note that doesn’t help elucidate the language itself, you are likely to alienate rather than to enlighten. And there’s not enough time in a note to make a literary argument effectively, anyway. Save that for a close reading essay.

8. When the text makes no sense when translated literally, translate it idiomatically
Many commentators on classical texts see translation in a note as dishonest, allowing the reader to cheat. Think of it instead as modeling the sort of careful, close translation you’d like to see: not over-literal pseudo-English, but the real, satisfying mots justes.

9. Save space by linking to stable resources
Link to DCC grammars for grammatical points, to Logeion for lexicography, to Wikipedia for literary devices, to Perseus for classical texts, to Smith’s Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology for those topics, and to Pleiades for geography. But don’t link to a news article or blog post that’s likely to be gone in a year or two. 

10. Model close reading practices
Humanists and scholars read slowly and carefully, alive to the precise meanings of words. They appreciate the beauty of the style. They read critically, aware of what’s left out, what’s partial or unfair. They want to take something away and apply it to life. The other rules flow from this central purpose.

Things That Drive Me Crazy about Plato’s Republic

In a few minutes I have to teach Plato’s Republic (Books 2 and 4) to a wonderful group of first-year students in a writing-based seminar. I dread this. Every time I teach this seminar, I struggle to find something valuable to justify its inclusion in the syllabus with so many great writers, from Homer and Thucydides to Achebe and Du Bois. Every year I investigate how other people teach it. Steven B. Smith’s discussion in Yale Open Courses is available as a free podcast. I find it infuriating, the special pleading, and assertion of the life-changing greatness of the work despite the turgid appearances. The star-studded cast assembled by Melvyn Bragg for BBC’s In Our Time plump for it during the entire program, then end up in the bonus material admitting that his psychology is bogus. I feel like there are not enough people out there just complaining about the Republic, and making this list was cathartic for me. I make absolutely no claim to philosophical insight or subtlety, quite the opposite. I just had to get this off my chest. With that defensive preamble, here is my list of

Things that drive me crazy about the Republic

  1. The narrowness of his political vision. No mention of the successful Persian model of a multi-ethnic empire next door.
  2. The assumption that most people should not and cannot exercise political leadership or know what is best for them.
  3. The exile of Homer. If you can’t see that Homer is humanizing, then something is wrong with you. His view of art as epistemically inferior seems absolutely outrageous.
  4. The assertion that justice involves above all everybody knowing their place and not meddling, staying in their classes or lanes.
  5. The idea that only the educated can have moderation (σωφροσύνη) required for leadership.

On the other hand (and here’s what I find valuable in the work) he does ask some fundamental questions:

  1. How can we create a concept of justice that is separate from what those in power happened to want to enforce?
  2. How do we get beyond a politics based simply on desire and force? I want this, you want that, let’s see who’s strong enough to enforce his will.
  3. What would it look like if reason-driven people, non-self-interested people, ruled and tried to bring about the maximum happiness for the whole?
  4. What are the psychological sources of political failure and corruption?
  5. What is the best kind of education for the elite?

Ok, that’s a non-philosopher’s two cents. If you love the work, please tell me why in the comments!

Chinese resources for the study of Latin

As readers of this site will know, the study of Latin attracts considerable interest in China, and many Chinese students studying abroad are learning the language as well. Until recently this had to be done almost entirely through English. An incoming first year student to Dickinson from Guangzhou is being forced to defer college for one year thanks to the pandemic. She asked me if I knew of any resources through which she could get started with her Latin during her unexpected downtime. I put out some feelers and received an excellent response. Here are some resources, some of them older and well known, others brand new.

Professor Li Hui (Rosina) at Beijing Foreign Studies University has translated Oerberg’s Lingua Latina Per Se Illustrata:

  1. Familia Romana (《拉丁语综合教程1·课本》) in which all the contents of the original book have been conserved. For the convenience of Chinese students, we added the recording of text reading and the Key to Exercises.
  2. Latine Disco (《拉丁语综合教程1·学生用书》)contains Colloquia personarum, Enchiridion discipulorum, Exercitia Latina, Phonetica Latina, Syntaxis etc. 

Grammars: Gu Zhiyin has translated Allen & Greenough.

Cicero dixit, written by Liu Xun is also a very useful grammar book.

All of these books are available on and Taobao.

Shanghai Normal University is offering a summer Latin course in Late August:  (Application deadline: July 15)

Of course the DCC core Greek and Latin vocabularies exist in Chinese translation. More advanced students will want to visit Dickinson Classics Online, which contains various resources for Chinese speaking students of the Greco-Roman classics.

Please let us know in the comments if you are aware of other things. Thanks!


An honest editorial preface

Pieter Burman’s edition of the works of Ovid (1713, with many later versions) was the dominant edition of Ovid until the early nineteenth century. It was a variorum edition based on the text of the great Dutch poet and classical scholar Nicolaas Heinsius the Elder (1652) with notes in Latin by various scholars, especially the German humanist Jacob Micyllus

Burman’s preface begins with this charming bit of rueful indignation:

text of the beginning of Burman's introduction

“If I ever began a piece of work quickly and eagerly, it was certainly this edition of Ovid. At the same time, I cannot conceal the fact that in the process of completing it so many tedious annoyances arose for me that I cursed my plan of editing Ovid in the first place a thousand times, and I regretted naively trusting men who did nothing but delay and had no concern but their own financial profit.”

Burman’s Latin is just delightful, and I recommend this edition to those who want to understand Ovid’s Latin in Latin, that is, by reading explanatory notes in Latin:

Burman, Pieter. Publii Ovidii Nasonis Opera omnia, vol. 1. (Amsterdam: R. & J. Wetstenios & G. Smith, 1727) unpaginated preface.


2020 Ovid Heroides Online Workshop Announcement

Dickinson Latin Workshop: Ovid’s Heroides

July 16–20, 2020

The Dickinson Summer Latin Workshop will move online this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic and its aftermath. While this situation is far from ideal, we hope it will allow those who could not normally travel to Carlisle to participate. We are privileged to have Prof. Chun Liu of Peking University with us this year as guest instructor. Prof. Liu earned Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in English literature from Peking University, and received a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from the University of California Riverside in 2010. She has written widely on Ovid and Greek epic and tragedy and is currently completing the first ever complete translation of Ovid’s Heroides into Chinese.

photo of Chun Liu outside at some kind of lake


  • Online meetings will take place daily 8:30 a.m. to 12:00 noon, Eastern time US, with a break in the middle. Group translation will be carried on in two sections, one for the more confident (affectionately known as “the sharks”), one for the less confident (even more affectionately known as “the dolphins”) led on alternating days by Prof. Liu and Prof. Chris Francese (Dickinson College).
  • Optional daily discussion sections will happen 2:00–3:00 p.m. Eastern time, led by Chris Francese.

Resources provided

  • Latin text
  • Running vocabulary lists of all words not in the DCC Core Latin Vocabulary
  • Commentaries with notes on the Latin text
  • English translations
  • Certificate of completion for professional development hours

Reading Schedule

Thursday, July 16: Heroides 1 (Penelope Ulixi, 116 lines) and 2 (Phyllis Demophoonti, 148 lines)

Friday, July 17: Heroides 3 (Briseis Achilli, 154 lines) and 4 (Phaedra Hippolyto, 1–100)

Saturday, July 18: Heroides 4 (Phaedra Hippolyto, 101–176) and 7 (Dido Aeneae 196 lines)

Sunday, July 19: Heroides 10 (Ariadne Theseo, 150 lines) and 12 (Medea Iasoni 1–100)

Monday, July 20 Heroides 12 (Medea Iasoni 101-212)

Registration and Fee

To register, please email Mrs. Terri Blumenthal, The fee of $200 is due by check on or before July 1, 2020. Make checks payable to Dickinson College and mail them to Department of Classical Studies, Dickinson College, c/o Terri Blumenthal, Carlisle, PA 17013

We hope you can join us!

Announcement for the Reading Group on Epictetus’ Encheiridion

The next session of the online reading group for Epictetus will be Friday, May 8th, 10:30 a.m. CST. We are starting at Ch. 5 The text is available at:

Join us at:

The next session of the online reading group for Epictetus will be Friday, May 1st, 10:30 a.m. CST. We are starting at Ch. 2.2 The text is available at:
Join us at:


In these times when everything seems to be out of our control, we could all do with a good dose of Stoicism.  Join me and a small reading group at LSU as we read through Epictetus’ Encheiridion and we learn answers to important questions such as: “What is and what is not in our control?” “How do we deal with what is not in our control?” and much more.  The fun begins Friday, April 24th, at 10:30 a.m. CST. 

head shot of Albert Watanabe

Albert Watanabe

The text with vocabulary and notes may be found at:  For this first Friday, we will be looking at chapters 1-4.  If you need a refresher on background about Epictetus, click on the links in the left margin of the page.  Thereafter, we will meet on Fridays until we finish the work.  You can join us by clicking on the Zoom link:

If you have any questions, you can email me at

Albert Watanabe

Conventiculum Dickinsoniense Covid-19 Announcement

Prof. Tunberg sends the following important announcement regarding the 2020 Conventiculum Dickinsoniense and the Covid-19 crisis:

We have yielded to the force of circumstances, friends, and decided to put off the Conventiculum Dickinsoniense until the summer of 2021.  However, in July of this year, we will arrange a “virtual” Conventiculum via the internet, so that you can still experience a continuous sequence of days this coming summer at least semi-immersed in spoken Latin! We can do this through ZOOM or other conferencing software. Our “virtual” Conventiculum, which will take place from July 9 to July 14, can’t of course be the full equivalent of an event based on all day and face to face immersion, but it can still offer a lot of interaction and practice—and be fun too!

Our sessions will be designed for the sole purpose of giving those who take part maximum exposure to active Latin and a large opportunity to develop their powers in spoken expression and in understanding others speaking. And—yes—there will even be some written composition in Latin. Our conventicula are not aimed at people just beginning to learn the basics of Latin. They are designed to add an ability for some active expression in Latin for people who already have a reasonable passive knowledge of the language. Participants should know the essentials of Latin grammar and be able to read a Latin text of moderate complexity. But no previous experience in speaking Latin is necessary. So, some sessions will be exclusively devoted to people who have no (or very little) experience in spoken Latin communication. Here they will have the opportunity build up their vocabulary and awaken their powers of expression. Of course, we also welcome people experienced in communicative Latin, and we want the Conventiculum be an opportunity for them to develop and refine their proficiency.


The deadline for receipt of entry fees for our “virtual” Conventiculum is June 1, 2020. Indeed, we encourage people to register earlier than this deadline, when possible, since the Conventiculum may well fill up fairly quickly. We will be unable to accept more than 25 participants in this event.


The entry fee for this new “virtual” Conventiculum will be $200. And please note that there will be no refunds of entry fees when they have been deposited in the Conventiculum’s account.

Those interested in applying for admission should write to Prof. Terence Tunberg at this address:


Maffei Reading Group

Next session of the online reading group for Maffei’s Historiae Indicae will be Thursday, May 14, 11:00 a.m. EDT, 4:00 p.m. BST, 11:00 p.m. CST. Please join us!

Here is the Latin text. We are beginning at the section titled “The cruelty of Portuguese governor on Ternate

The same Zoom info below should work again. Looking forward to it!

Meeting ID: 873 089 112


Next session of the online reading group for Maffei’s Historiae Indicae will be Thursday, May 7, 11:00 a.m. EDT, 4:00 p.m. BST, 11:00 p.m. CST. Please join us!

Here is the Latin text. We are beginning at the section titled “The empress Eleni of Ethiopia and her massive retinue”

The same Zoom info below should work again. Looking forward to it!

Meeting ID: 873 089 112


Next session of the online reading group for Maffei’s Historiae Indicae will be Thursday, April 30, 11:00 a.m. EDT, 4:00 p.m. BST, 11:00 p.m. CST. Please join us!

Here is the Latin text. We are beginning at the section titled “The miracle of the lobsters

The same Zoom info below should work again. Looking forward to it!

Meeting ID: 873 089 112


Next session of the online reading group for Maffei’s Historiae Indicae will be Thursday, April 23, 11:00 a.m. EDT, 4:00 p.m. BST, 11:00 p.m. CST. Please join us!

Here is the Latin text. We are beginning at the section titled “The challenge of dealing with Brazilian cannibals

The same Zoom info below should work again. Looking forward to it!

Meeting ID: 873 089 112


Next session will be Thursday, April 16, 11:00 a.m. EDT, 4:00 p.m. BST, 11:00 p.m. CST.

Here is the Latin text. We are beginning at the section titled “The Customs of Chinese Women”

The same Zoom info below should work again. Looking forward to it!

Meeting ID: 873 089 112


Next session will be Thursday, April 9, 11:00 a.m. EDT, 4:00 p.m. BST, 11:00 p.m. CST.

Here is the Latin text. We are beginning at the section titled “Brahmans and Gymnosophists in India”

The same Zoom info below should work again. Looking forward to it!


Update March 30, 2020: After an enjoyable first session last week full of fascinating Brazilian critters, the Maffeius reading group rides again this Thursday, April 2, at 12:00 p.m. EDT, 4:00 p.m. BST, 12:00 a.m. CST. Please join us if you can!

Meeting ID: 873 089 112


During this time of isolation I’ll be leading an online reading group for Maffei’s Historiae Indicae (full text on Google Books) starting  Wednesday 3/25, 12:00-1:00 p.m. EDT, 4:00-5:00 p.m. GMT. If you would like to participate, just email me ( and I will send you the information for the Zoom call! I imagine we’ll meet one per week, maybe more if there is interest. 

Jacques de Sève, “Le Pangolin,” illustration from Georges-Louis Leclerc, comte de Buffon, Histoire Naturelle, générale et particulière, avec la description du Cabinet du Roi (1749–1804). Source: Gallica

Jacques de Sève, “Le Pangolin,” illustration from Georges-Louis Leclerc, comte de Buffon, Histoire Naturelle, générale et particulière, avec la description du Cabinet du Roi (1749–1804). Source: Gallica

First published in Florence in 1588, Historiae Indicae tells the story of the Portuguese voyages of conquest and discovery in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries around the coast of Africa, to the Malabar Coast of India, on to Malacca, China, and Japan. The primary interest of the work today lies in the wealth of information Maffei provides about a wide variety of peoples, products, and places across the globe. The full-scale ethnography of China in Book 6 is of particular interest, and the diverse subjects treated will appeal to students from many backgrounds, and anyone interested in the customs, products, and cultures of the world. 

I have prepared a Google doc with some selections, as follows:

Notable Critters of Brazil (Book 2, pp. 35-36) 

The many uses of the coconut in the Maldives (Book 7, p. 149) 

Dining, tea, and tea sets in Japan (Book 12, p. 268) 

Brahmans and Gymnosophists in India (Book 1, p. 27). 

The customs of Chinese women (Book 6, p. 122) 

Chinese writing, literature, and the examination system (Book 6, pp. 125-126) 

The challenge of dealing with Brazilian cannibals (Book 15, p. 328). 

A strange corpse that will not stay buried (Book 5, p. 112). 

The beautiful solemnity of oath taking in Pegu (Bago, Myanmar) (Book 7, pp. 146–147) 

The empress Eleni of Ethiopia and her massive retinue (Book 11, pp. 247–248). 

Francisco Serrão and his men outwit some pirates (Book 5, p.109) 

Th cruelty of a Portuguese governor on Ternate (Book 10, pp. 211-12). 

Francis Xavier called to go as a missionary to India (Book 12, pp. 253-254) 

Francis Xavier arrives in Goa (Book 12, pp. 259–260). 


Leo Africanus, De viris quibusdam illustribus apud Arabes

A couple days ago I happened on a mysterious (to me) Neo-Latin text, a minor work by  the great early modern geographer Leo Africanus (born al-Hasan, son of Muhammad in Granada, c. 1494 – c. 1554), “De viris quibusdam illustribus apud Arabes” (On Notable Men among the Arabs). I put it out there on Facebook and Twitter:

Several people responded that this indeed sounded like an interesting project, and some offered to help in editing it for a modern audience. Thanks to some excellent bibliographic sleuthing by Mischa Hooker of Augustana College I can now provide a bit more information for potential collaborators.

The anonymous author of Biblioteca Antica e Moderna di Storia Letteraria vol. 3 (1768), p. xxx, writes (my translation)

Giovanni Leone Africano was a Muslim slave who while in Rome embraced the Christian faith and took the name Gianleone from Pope Leo X. In 1513 he returned to Africa but moved later to Tunis and returned to his original faith. There he wrote in Arabic a small treatise about writers famous among the Arabs. A Latin translation of this work was preserved in the Medici library. Ottingero had a copy from Florence and included it in his Bibliotecario quadripartita, which was printed in 1664, as we said above. Fabricio reprinted it in Book 13 of his Biblioteca Greca, p. 259. I see fit to reproduce this here with a few annotations by the same Fabricio. 

I have no idea where the Arabic original might be. But here is the first printing of the Latin version: J. H. Hottinger, Bibliothecarius Quadripartitus (Zurich, 1664) III. De Theologia Patristica, cum Appendice Leonis Africani hactenus ἀνεκδότῳ, de Scriptoribus Arabicis [pp. 246ff.]

Here is the first reprint, source of the existing annotations: A. Fabricius, Bibliotheca Graeca, vol. 13 (Hamburg, 1726) [pp. 259ff.]

Here is edition I quote from above: Biblioteca antica e moderna di storia letteraria, vol. 3 (Pesaro, 1768) [pp. 312ff.]

And here is a manuscript copy of the third quarter of the 17th century, in Kassel, Germany, deriving from the version in Florence:

Leo’s much larger and more famous work on the geography of Africa (vol. 1; vol. 2)was widely translated and published. According to Wikipedia

A twentieth-century rediscovery of the originally-dictated manuscript revealed that Ramusio, in smoothing the grammar of Leo Africanus’s text had coloured many neutral details,to make it more palatable to Christian European audiences; French and English translators added further embellishments. Modern translations which incorporate this manuscript are thus more true to the original.

See Crofton Black, (2002). “Leo Africanus’s “Descrittione dell’Africa” and its sixteenth-century translations.” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes. 65: 262–272. JSTOR 4135111

De viris quibusdam illustribus apud Arabes seems quite neglected by comparison.

The Level of Poeticism in Latin Synonyms

Two of the students in my senior research colloquium, Beth Eidam and Tessa Cassidy, have decided to write on the question of the level of poeticism of Latin synonyms.  Their work is based on the fundamental article of R.G.G.  Coleman, “Poetic Diction, Poetic Discourse and the Poetic Register.” This 1999 paper is long, technical, and brilliant.  Coleman lists and defines a series of features that are distinctive to the language used by the Latin poets. These include the lexicon, of course, but also features of syntax, the use of proper names, special declensions, distinctive compounds, syncope, diminutives, Grecisms, the usual poetic devices like metaphor and metonymy, among others.

two pidgeons talking, listing synonyms for "sword"

What makes Latin poetry poetic is not just being in verse, or using rare, archaic words, or avoiding certain words. Rather, Coleman shows, there is constellation of features that elevate the language and give it energy. He emphasizes the importance of context.  Words like mollis and tener were quite at home in rustic or horticultural contexts (asparagi molles, tenerae gallinae), but in poetry of a Callimachean type they were polarized with durus and severus to cover in the wider metaphorical range.  Nothing in Catullus 85, he points out, is lexically poetic. It lacks all the other conventional markers of poeticism, like metaphor and archaism. But the combination is distinctively memorable and poetic, partly due to the extreme density of verbs. I recommend this article to all lovers of Latin poetry, if you can hang in with it.

Coleman’s discussion of synonyms (like ensis and gladius, fera and bestia, amnis and flumen) notes that we can often tell which was the more poetic and which was more associated with common speech by looking at the presence or absence of derivatives in the Romance languages. He points out that Vergil’s Dido is always pulchra, not formosa (although Vergil did not avoid formosa in the Eclogues).  Pulcher is likely to have been more poetic and literary and removed from common speech, since, unlike formosa, it left no trace in the Romance languages.

Beth and Tessa are planning to add some data the discussion.  Coleman made no attempt to assess the relative frequency of Latin synonyms in a poetry and prose.  But we now have the ability to do so with some degree of confidence, thanks to the data collected in Opera Latina. As Patrick Burns wrote in a 2017 SCS review,  

Opera Latina is a search interface from the Laboratoire d’Analyse Statistique des Langues Anciennes (LASLA) at the University of Liège that draws on over five decades of linguistic research on Latin literature. The database currently includes 154 works from 19 authors: Caesar, Cato, Catullus, Cicero, Horace, Juvenal, Lucretius, Ovid, Persius, Petronius, Plautus, Pliny the Younger, Propertius, Quintus Curtius Rufus, Sallust, Seneca the Younger, Tactius, Tibullus, and Vergil.

The database currently includes 2,104,866 words of Latin, 385,258 of them from poetic works, 1,719,608 from prose.

Every word in the corpus has been annotated with the following information: the lemma, or dictionary head word (following Forcellini’s 1864 Lexicon totius latinitatis); the form of the word as it appears in the text; a citation with the word’s location in the text; the word’s morphology; and its subordinating syntax. Records are also flagged to distinguish ambiguous forms, mark proper nouns, and call attention to notable miscellany.

The plan is to work with the sets of synonyms collected in Doederlein’s Handbook of Latin Synonyms, collect the counts of those lemmas in Opera Latina, and create a database that will show the frequency of each synonym relative to the others (is gremium or sinus more common? As it turns out, sinus is commoner by a count of 317 to 78), and relative frequency in poetry and prose of each word.  Since the overall number of prose tokens is higher, the poetry count will be adjusted up so they are comparing apples to apples.  When those calculations are done, it will be possible to determine whether each word is relatively more common in prose or poetry. The plan is to express this as a number between zero and one, with zero assigned to a word that occurs exclusively in prose, 1 to a word that occurs exclusively in poetry.  On this scale (with the counts adjusted), gremium comes in at 0.89, sinus at 0.79–both are poetic.

The plan is to collect as much of this data as possible in one half semester. Beth and Tessa will divide up Doederlein and get as far as they can. Then they will turn to individual passages in Latin literature that actually use the synonyms and do the kind of analysis and close reading Coleman does, but backed up with data. Ideally, when the complete data is collected, we can create an online, enhanced version of Doederlein and put it up on DCC for all Latinists to enjoy. I would love to hear any comments or suggestions you might have for this project.