Homer & Virgil: Resources for Original Language, English to follow

Tony SigThis semester I am taking both Greek poetry and Latin poetry.  For Greek we are running through Homer’s Odyssey and in Latin, Virgil’s Aeneid.  I thought it would be fun to post a few resources I’ve found quite helpful for reading them in case there were some readers who thought running through them would be fun.  And indeed they are fun!  I’ll admit I continue to find Latin hard to deal with, which is counter intuitive as it is clearly the simpler language, but it just hasn’t ‘clicked’ for me yet even though I’m in my fourth semester.  So I tend to get frustrated with Virgil because sometimes I feel like he’s keeping me from reading my Greek.  But that’s not always the case, two scenes in particular were a blast to read; the one where Neptune rebukes the winds and the one where Laocoon urges the Trojans not to take the horse into the city and throws a spear into the side of it.

At least one thing about Homer is that he is not as transparently idealogical as Virgil-the-court-poet giving a founding myth for Rome and incorporating some blatantly political similes in the mix.  Homer uses similes in a very different way, a way far more whimsical and random.  For instance in that Neptune scene I mentioned, Virgil compares Neptune calming the sea to “some man” who quells a revolutionary riot (the Romans have never liked res novae have they? 🙂 ), but in book VI, Homer compares Nausicaa playing ball with her handmaidens to Artemis dancing upon the mountains, chasing deer and boar with the nymphs dedicated to Zeus, which delights her mother.  Homer, too, has a crapload of archaisms in his work, words and phrases that were so old apparently he didn’t even know what they meant, some of which may have gone back to pre-Indo-European languages – those especially connected to places.

Alexander Pope once said “Homer makes us hearers, but Virgil leaves us readers,” and that at least is true.  Homer’s work has its roots and form in oral poetry, but Virgil’s is a literary work;  Homer most often can finish a thought per line of hexameter but Virgil sometimes makes you wait a few lines before you get the verb – which is perfectly normal Latin but it makes for a heady kind of poetry.  You have to connect more dots that way.  Still, I’m excited to continue with both of them.

If you are already confident with the languages then you can do no better value-wise than getting the Oxford Classical Text of both.  Not only are they very affordable for a basic critical text they are housed in a classy high-quality blue hardcover of a more manageable size than the Loebs.  The more expensive paperback Teubner editions don’t strike me as worth the effort unless the OCT in question is woefully out of date.  I should note, though, that the prefaces are in Latin!   A huge plus with Virgil is that his is a single volume that contains all of his works.  Homer’s Odyssey is in two volumes (I and II), as is his Illiad (I and II); his hymns to the gods and fragments complete the five volumes of his total works.

If you’re rusty on the languages and/or want a one stop shop you could instead get the Loeb editions as they contain an edited original language text with facing English translation as well as a very helpful introduction, minor commentary and index; but at least for Homer I have another English translation that I want to recommend, plus the textual apparatus in the OCT is more complete than the that in the Loeb.  That said, the Loebs of course are great and scholarly… an extended apparatus is really only for the very serious scholar of classics who would have the wherewithal to make textual decisions.  I only wish the Loeb’s would make their books a bit bigger.

The text we’ve been assigned for Virgil is an edited and expanded edition of the famous work of Clyde Pharr.  It’s a huge help, indeed sometimes too much of a help!  The notes are helpful, the more sparsely used vocabulary is glossed on the page, and there are lists for vocabulary memorization according to how many times a given work appears in the books examined.  This is a ‘standard’ intermediate text of Virgil.

For Homer, we’ve been assigned the W. B. Stanford text out on Bristol.  The introduction is just great and includes historical and morphological notes as well as an explanation of dactylic hexameter.  Unfortunately I’ve found the endnotes far less helpful as a general rule; they often interact with other secondary literature of which I have no knowledge, besides, the grammar is most often straightforward, what takes time with Homer is the endless looking up of vocabulary.  Which led me to find these amazing books (books VI-VIII & IX-XII) put out by a Phd who teaches high school kids the classics, Dr. Geoffrey Steadman.  He takes pedagogical style from Pharr and uses it for Homer.  So on the left side of the open book there are 20 lines of text and on the side opposite, minor grammatical notes and most importantly, all the non-major vocabulary glossed with stats on how often the word appears.  So instead of spending 80% of your time getting vocab, you can get more familiar with the text.  I’ve found his book absolutely essential.  But I should note that Steadman self-publishes because nobody seems interested in his texts, so there will be minor mistakes here and there, but I’m able to catch them quickly.  There are two things which would perfect his work, 1)  A more extensive introduction such as Stanford’s, and 2) Grammatical references to Smyth’s Greek Grammar as in the Mather-Hewitt Xenophon text. Steadman has also made all his books available in PDF form for free on this site, though he asks that if you use them often perhaps consider purchasing a book to support his work.  Finally, in case you didn’t know, there is a lexicon dedicated exclusively to Homeric use that one ought to have.

Finally, there is the Perseus website – an indispensable resource for studying ancient literature in the original langages.  You can find most of the standard classics there.  The texts are morphologically tagged so if you click on a word it will parse it for you and give you statistics for where it turns up.  These statistics can be used to compile helpful vocab lists as well.


  1. Helpful stuff here Tony.

    I’d throw one more thought in the mix, though I don’t know of particular volumes to recommend for Homer or Virgil. As sort of an “intermediate” phase between working with the critical text by itself and working with a critical text with English on facing pages—and especially for someone who is trying to pick up / or maintain another research language—it can be great to work with a critical edition that has facing pages in French or German. The “Sources Chretiennes” series is an obvious example for the French, though I’ve found a more obscure, but analogous German series called “Fontes Christiani.” When you get “stuck” in the original language, looking over to the French or German is often illuminating even if you don’t know the French or German all that well, mostly because you’re likely to be getting “stuck” in different places in the different tongues. Having French or German takes away the temptation for an “easy” solution, and it also helps keep the other language from falling out the back of the skull as Greek or Latin is loaded in the front.


  2. Tony,

    Great post. We are reading Aristotle and Plato in my class, Rhetorical Theory Applied to Technical Documents, here in Mankato, MN. For Plato’s Phaedrus and Gorgias, we read from the Perseus web site. The site is fantastic for the depth of reading possible. Although it seemed many of the words were voted on (?) for their definition … I didn’t quite understand that.

    Anyhow, I think when this type of translated ancient text is available in ebook form, it will permanently change the way we read ancient works. Why read a codex book with footnotes when you can read an electronic text, where all you have to do is click the word; automatically the etymology could be available along with every reference in the text and all the verb tenses for the word.

    Do you know if these types of text are available in ebook forms already?


    1. Hey Jonathon,

      There is a good reason for the voting system on Perseus. For instance, most words when parsed can in isolation be in multiple forms; a most obvious example is what someone thought was an accusative could be a nominative, etc… It gets more complicated when you get participles, ancient forms, and other such things in the group. So Perseus assumes two things (I take it) of people who vote, 1) That they understand the language and wouldn’t vote if they didn’t, and 2) that they will have a good chance of understanding what form is represented where so those less experienced can trust their judgment. It’s not a perfect system but few people vote anyway.

      As for online texts, I know there are plenty of Latin texts in eBook form but I know less in Greek. Biblical stuff is always pioneering these things and future work could piggyback off their effort.

      You’re right on the one hand that electronically tagged text makes tons of sense, but on the other for the “serious” scholar the text on the epage will still need to be a critical text otherwise it has only limited value; and critical texts aint cheap. Not only that, but scholars are often technologically conservative (sometimes for no good reason) and it will take them a while to “catch up” to epublishing I imagine.

      Welcome to the comment section, btw.


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