Wendell Clausen, who belonged to the last generation of great Latin philologists, once gave us graduate students an indignant speech about the status of Roman civilization. Yes, it could be harsh, he said, but why did no one ever cite the Athenian atrocities of the Peloponnesian War to claim that they throw a shadow over Classical tragedy, when the same people assert that the Romans’ brutal reduction of Carthage in the mid-second century B.C. throws a shadow over even the greatest Roman literature?

Professor Clausen also could have taken on ably those who scoff at Roman literature as derivative, and painted the Romans as beefy jocks, grunting over the imported glories of Homer and allowing only a jingoistic, contrived imitation of him in Vergil’s Aeneid. One of the outrages of this characterization is the denigration of twentieth-century Modernism it entails. The Romans brilliantly adapted, elaborated, deepened, and individualized—they thought their way through books, in an age less dependent on public performance and alive to the possibilities urged by the Alexandrian Library in Egypt and the scholarly post-Classical Greek literature that had risen around it.

Professor Clausen also might have noted that the much-sneered-at Roman narrow-eyedness and hard-nosedness created for writers a more stable, continuous, and unified culture in which to develop their various arts. We can more confidently speak here of a single literature and trace intricate developments from generation to generation, instead of having to make abrupt jumps between cities, islands, and even continents that had much less in common. Students of Ancient Greek may delight in the variety of dialects and the only jaggedly related genres, but the benefits of rock-solid centralization gleam in—as a particularly precious example—the works of the late-first-century-B.C. Roman poet Horace.

This son of a freedman, working obscurely in the central Roman bureaucracy, came to the attention of the first Emperor Augustus through the latter’s meticulous system of conscription for literary patronage. Horace (after relatively mediocre early efforts) found, through Augustus’s cultural collaborator Maecenas, personal, material, and political support for perhaps the most sublime lyric poetry in history, which drew on Greek lyric traditions that differed greatly in quality as well as in form and subject matter. At the same time, it drew on a previous Roman generation’s sometimes awkward, sometimes touching experiments on the basis of these foreign works. Horace also evolved native Italian satirical and epistolary traditions to almost queasy aesthetic heights. Horace could exist as Horace because of that quintessential Roman skill: management.

Yet Horace, like most other Roman authors, is comparatively seldom read, studied, and taught in English. This new Oxford collection ought to help. The book gives a carefully presented selection of great Roman authors, stretching from Plautus, active in the late third and early second centuries B.C., to Marcus Aurelius, who lived through most of the second century A.D. The collection includes useful introductions to each author, maps, black-and-white illustrations, and even informative headings for excerpts; its afterwords deal with the writings’ later reception. With these insights, it becomes clear that one of the greatest shortcomings tied to the neglect of Roman literature is the gap it creates in the later history of literature, which in Western Europe evolved in reverence for the Roman classics until the Renaissance, when Greek, it should be recalled, was only added in lofty circles, hardly crowding out Latin and its masterpieces as influences during the centuries immediately following.

When stating that the quality of the translations is the most important factor in an anthology like this one, I have to stipulate that I’m a translator of ancient literature myself, and that I’m appalled by the failure of any of the translators in this volume to be me. But still, I think, a critical word is not out of place here—even if it does partake of my long-term personal frustration with the low status of my calling and the present culture’s failure to make full use of me and my colleagues. We are the Romans of modern education and literature, rebuilding, cleaning, and polishing other people’s monuments and adapting them for broader and more durable use—adding an entrance ramp here, restoring a mosaic there (and then getting outraged letters alleging that it’s not colorful enough or else too colorful). I hereby give my heartfelt testimony, pointing to this book as evidence, that more money and attention thrown our way will do everyone a lot of good. It probably isn’t going to turn any of us into Horace, but it would help address the crisis in humanities education, if I do say so myself.

A major problem with this volume appears to be shortcuts taken in sourcing the translations—especially compared to the diligent care that the editors, the eminent Peter Knox and J. C. McKeown, take in elucidating the authors and their background and foreground. I count twenty-eight Roman authors in all, and all but four of the sources for translation are previous Oxford University Press translations. I’ve got one of these books right here on my shelf, in fact, Ronald Melville’s Lucretius (1997).

I can readily understand the Press’s desire to consolidate its Roman authors into a single reasonably priced and friendly volume for Roman literature surveys, research reference, and the pleasure of Romaphiles. This project does, however, seem to entail some serious limitations. One is a pretty harsh homogenization of an almost antically varied literature. Translations of it that come through the same publishing shop and go forth in the same series (those white-spined paperbacks, in this case) naturally end up sounding quite a bit alike.

The tendency toward dulling down, however, is clearest here in two of the exceptions to Oxford Press derivation, which are sourced from the Loeb Classical Library, that green (Greek literature) and red (Roman) series with English translations and original texts on facing pages. If I’ve been known to complain about the dutiful, rather flat translations in almost all series, the Loebs—how do I put this?—go the furthest toward giving unimpeachable academic authority a bad name. One of the Loeb-derived selections in The Oxford Anthology of Roman Literature is from Quintilian—translated by Donald Russell—the leading orator of his day (in the late first century A.D.) and the most famous Roman educator ever. Russell conveys—and what Loeb translator doesn’t share it?—Quintilian’s great probity, but not the exquisite rhythms of his diction, the Quintili-essence (sorry) of the rhetorical science the author spent his life learning, performing, and inculcating:

[Our children] see our mistresses, our boy lovers; every dinner party echoes with obscene songs; things are to be seen which is it shameful to name. Hence comes first habit, then nature. The wretched children learn these things before they know they are wrong. This is what makes them dissolute and spineless: they do not get these vices from the schools, they import them into them.

The words that “dissolute and spineless” are supposed to represent (to pick out just one of Quintilian’s off-hand achievements in this passage) are soluti ac fluentes, which work sort of the way they look in English. They were moral terms, but with strong imagery indicating that ruined boys dissolve and flow away physically as well as intellectually and morally. This was the essence of Roman strictures against vice, which the ancients associated with effeminacy much more than with aggression. And “they do not get these vices from the schools, they import them into them” is a really spineless wind-up compared to the original non accipiunt ex scholis mala ista sed in scholas adferunt, with its alliterative verbs at either end and different versions of the word for “schools” framing the words for “those [damned?] vices.” Ista is a pronoun adjective usually indicating contempt.

Another Loeb translator here is D. R. Shackleton Bailey. He also taught me at Harvard, and like Wendell Clausen wasn’t all that impressed with me—but the greatest Latinist of the last century didn’t need to be impressed with anyone. Though he of course knew exactly what he was doing with the Martial, champion author of epigrammatic poetry, I do sense the judgment that translation is a paltry business, and that it would be clownish for a scholar to render metrical verse as such or to update his English. Hence we have, for example, “pastilles” for breath mints, and “for the check” meaning “in spite of being reined in.”

Among the selection from Oxford volumes, there is less archaism, but not a great deal more panache. But to move on and try to dodge a charge of careerist solipsism: I suspect that the production of an in-house volume imposed another (and many would argue, more important) limitation, and that would have been on the range of authors included. I notice that the editors themselves translated a selection from Vergil’s pastoral poems, the Eclogues (and it’s a chaste, unpretentious rendering—though again, I miss meter), probably because there wasn’t an Oxford translation of this important work available to them. Was there a casting around for ways to present essential authors, and is the final roster what the editors would have chosen had they been given fuller latitude? There is nothing from Cato the Elder’s On Farming, or from the satires of Lucilius, two foundational and influential early works. Because now neither is well known, frequently assigned in courses, or easily translated (the styles are, in different ways, what our own ancestors would have called “crabbed”), they must never have been serious candidates for Oxford translations that could have been subsumed here. But to be fair, I wouldn’t count on finding a good up-to-date literary translation of Cato or Lucilius anywhere, and to commission either would be dauntingly troublesome and expensive. It’s proper on this occasion to lament the state of scholarly and educational publishing under pressure from the Internet rather than to blame Oxford for not providing the public with enough authentic Roman excitement.

Moreover, that the Press has a terrific stash of more-familiar works on hand in translation has provided for some commendable latitude in another direction: Knox and McKeown include several authors who wrote in Greek in a Roman environment and, if not all on Roman subjects and in Roman genres, at least on subjects of interest to Romans and in modes congenial to Roman traditions. There’s the Romanized historian from Greece, Polybius; Josephus, a vital contemporary source on Judaism from his adopted Roman perspective; the philosopher and biographer Plutarch; the rhetorician and comic novelist Lucian; and the philosophical emperor Marcus Aurelius.

And here’s the really great thing about the volume’s apparent restriction to the mainstream: There is no Sulpicia, who might otherwise have gotten in by force of affirmative action. This is a female Roman author, but she’s narrow, whiny, and pointlessly lubricious, so who needs her? On the whole, Oxford has given us an excellent guide to what the Romans achieved in letters, and how and why.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 32 Number 10, on page 68
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