The so-called list of canonized books changes according to context, though some, without a doubt, are consistently represented across multiple milieus. There is, for example, a lot of overlap between the notional ‘Western canon’ and the ‘Classical canon;’ classical here being the smaller notion of Greek and Latin classics as opposed to the notion of “Great books” as classics. Certainly any list of classics cum canon would include the works of Julius Caesar, Plato, Cicero, and Aristotle for example as would most lists of works designated as Great Books or Western Classics.
Just take Caesar as an example of why this is so. This is due to influence and tradition. Caesar has been used as an introductory Latin reader for generations. His work also had stylistic influence on historians and geographers for centuries. Here is an example of a Latin translation exercise from a 19th century Latin textbook, adapted from one of Caesar’s most famous passages, a geographical description of Gaul.
Caesar was influential in antiquity and the Middle Ages as well. Just compare Tacitus’ description of Germany with the opening of Caesar’s de Bellum Gallico.
Caesar’s Gallic War. C. Julius Caesar. Caesar’s Gallic War. Translator. W. A. McDevitte. Translator. W. S. Bohn. 1st Edition. New York. Harper & Brothers. 1869. Harper’s New Classical Library.
Tacitus’ Germanica. Complete Works of Tacitus. Tacitus. Alfred John Church. William Jackson Brodribb. Lisa Cerrato. edited for Perseus. New York. : Random House, Inc. Random House, Inc. reprinted 1942.
1. All Gaul is divided into three parts, one of which the Belgae inhabit, the Aquitani another, those who in their own language are called Celts, in our Gauls, the third. All these differ from each other in language, customs and laws. The river Garonne separates the Gauls from the Aquitani; the Marne and the Seine separate them from the Belgae. Of all these, the Belgae are the bravest, because they are furthest from the civilization and refinement of [our] Province, and merchants least frequently resort to them, and import those things which tend to effeminate the mind; and they are the nearest to the Germans, who dwell beyond the Rhine , with whom they are continually waging war
Germany is separated from the Galli, the Rhæti, and Pannonii, by the rivers Rhine and Danube; mountain ranges, or the fear which each feels for the other, divide it from the Sarmatæ and Daci. Elsewhere ocean girds it, embracing broad peninsulas and islands of unexplored extent, where certain tribes and kingdoms are newly known to us, revealed by war. The Rhine springs from a precipitous and inaccessible height of the Rhætian Alps, bends slightly westward, and mingles with the Northern Ocean. The Danube pours down from the gradual and gently rising slope of Mount Abnoba, and visits many nations, to force its way at last through six channels into the Pontus; a seventh mouth is lost in marshes.
Similar examples could be given for the handful of other authors mentioned above. Alfred North Whitehead, the eminent British philosopher, is often noted as having called all of western philosophy mere footnotes to Plato. Examples proliferate (Columbia College).
The advantages of having a canon, even if it is potentially exclusionary, should be obvious. It gives students and scholars a base from which to build their knowledge as well as a common basket of references. But who decides what is canon? This is an argument beyond the scope of this little post, but I would like to offer one example of a canonical list, that of the Great Books program from St. John’s College in Annapolis, MD, one of the oldest colleges in America. This school has been teaching a great books curriculum for decades and if it is on their required reading list it is almost certainly a widely respected and influential work. Here is their freshman year reading list for Fall 2020:
August 27 Homer: Iliad, I–VI August 31 Homer: Iliad, VII–XII September 3 Homer: Iliad, XIII–XVIII September 7 Homer: Iliad, XIX–XXIV September 10 Homer: Odyssey, I–VIII September 14 Homer: Odyssey, IX–XVI September 17 Homer: Odyssey, XVII–XXIV September 21 Plato: Meno September 24 Aeschylus: Agamemnon September 28 Aeschylus: Libation Bearers; Eumenides October 1 Plato: Gorgias, 447A–481B October 5 Plato: Gorgias, 481B–to end October 8 Plutarch: Lives, Lycurgus; Solon October 12 Herodotus: History, I; II 50–53, 112–120; III 37–38, 66-87 October 15 Herodotus: History, V, 105; VI, 48–120; VII (entire) October 19 Herodotus: History, VIII; IX October 22 Plato: Republic, I–II 367E October 26 Plato: Republic, II 367E–IV 427C October 29 Plato: Republic, IV 427D–VI 502C November 2 Plato: Republic, VI 502D–VII November 5 Plato: Republic, VIII–IX November 9 Plato: Republic, X November 12 Aristophanes: Clouds November 16 Plato: Apology and Crito November 19 Plato: Phaedo, 57A–84B November 23 Plato: Phaedo, 84B–118B November 30 Thucydides: Peloponnesian War, I; II, 1-54 December 3 Thucydides: Peloponnesian War, II, 55-78; III 1-87; IV, 1-74 December 7 Thucydides: Peloponnesian War, IV, 75–end; V 1-26, 84–116; VI (complete) December 10 Thucydides: Peloponnesian War, VII; VIII 1–6, 45–end December 14 Plato: Symposium, Beginning–198A December 17 Plato: Symposium, 198–end
From its inception the Septuagint was the result of an idée fixe,the Ptolemaic obsession with collecting and monopolizing the extant knowledge of the oikumene: the known civilized world. The problem with the Torah or Pentateuch, however, was that it wasn’t written in a language the scholars of Alexandria’s famous library could understand; it was written in Hebrew.
Desirous of the acquisition, however, Ptolemy II decided to launch an ambitious project to translate the holy books of the Judeans into excellent 3nd century BC Greek. Sequestering 72 Hebrew scribes on the island of Pharos (of lighthouse fame) Ptolemy demanded that the scribes each individually translate the 5 books into Greek, with the intent to then compare the translations in an effort to divine the most accurate. According to legend, by a miraculous coincidence, all the translations corresponded exactly to one another and thus must have been the revealed word of the Hebrew god.
It is no wonder, then, that this book became remarkably influential, having been given both a divine as well as a royal seal of approval. The Septuagint is still famous and influential to this day, and it may have been the only version of the Hebrew scriptures that was known to many famous philosophers and theologians of antiquity, including Philo of Alexandria, one of the first thinkers to combine Semitic religion with Platonic philosophy.
The Septuagint was also one of the first books to be printed in Greek after the introduction of moveable type. One example is kept at the Stanford library in Southern California. This particular edition is an incunable, printed in Milan in September of 1481. According to the library notes this book was published as a collaborative effort by the printer Bonus Accursius and the Italian scholar and grammarian of Greek, Johannes Crastonis. The binding is clearly modern, being attributed to 19th century binder Roger De Coverly. The library notes record the following:
“The earliest book of the Bible to be printed in Greek. A liturgical Psalter; the LXX. text, with a Latin translation … the appended canticles include the Magnificat and the Benedictus–the earliest portions of the N.T. to be printed in Greek.”–Darlow & Moule, 4590.
The date and location of the printing are derived from the colophon, illustrated below. All images are downloaded from the Stanford library which has made scans of the entire work available.
British and Foreign Bible Society. Library., Darlow, T. H. (Thomas Herbert)., Moule, H. F. (Horace Frederick). (19031911). Historical catalogue of the printed editions of Holy Scripture in the library of the British and Foreign Bible Society. London: Bible House. https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/001179750
Manning, J. Gilbert. (2010). The Last Pharaohs : Egypt Under the Ptolemies, 305-30 BC. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Edward Gibbon is perhaps one of the best known historians to ever write in the English language, and this more than 200 years after his death. Though many of his conclusions have been challenged, his methodology was surprisingly contemporary and he is sometimes considered the forbear of modern scientific historicism. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church says of his magisterial six volume Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire:
Its breadth of treatment, large perspectives, meticulous accuracy, and its author’s mastery of style are among its principal merits.
Cross & Livingston, 2005, “Gibbon, Edward”
Gibbon was, given his erudition, not unsurprisingly, an avid reader and book collector as well as historical innovator. According to the Oxford Companion to the Book “Gibbon called his library ‘the foundation of my works, and the best comfort of my life’” (Caines, 2011). That a catalog of Gibbon’s library still exists and is available through HathiTrust is truly intriguing and unexpected.
It should be noted as well, that numerous private letters of Gibbon’s have also been published and provide insight into Gibbon’s opinions concerning matters contemporary to him, such as the American revolution, as well as treating of his scholarly interests and personal matters. To hear the insights of a learned man on the important matters of his day are always of interest and provide new ways of viewing historical events.
For example, in one excerpt from a letter written in 1778, at the height of the American War of Independence Gibbon writes to a friend:
No news from America, yet there are people, large ones too, who talk of conquering it next summer with the help of 20,000 Russians. I fancy you are better satisfied with private than public War. The Lisbon Packet in coming home met about forty of our privateers.
Gibbon & Gibbon. (1907: 220).
In another letter form 1791 Gibbon touches on British colonialism in India.
I know not what to say at present of India bonds — do they not Sink? Our affairs in that Country seem in a very ticklish situation. At all events consult with Darrel, he has knowledge of that sort and is a real friend. Yet I am almost ashamed to complain of some stagnation of interest, when I am witness to the natural and acquired philosophy of so many French, who are reduced from riches, not to indigence, but to absolute want and beggary.
Some of the most influential early modern versions of Ovid’s Metamorphoses translated into English were those by George Sandys who first began publishing in the 1620s. In the 1632 edition the lush illustrations and decorations of German painter and illustrator Francis Cleyn were added creating what would become the de facto standard version of Ovid’s mythological tales in the English language. The Oxford Companion to the Book calls Cleyn’s engravings “early landmarks of 17th-century book illustration in England.” (Ivy, 2010) While Wiley and Sons’ Handbook to the Reception of Ovid calls Sandy’s work a “largely successful effort to bring Ovid’s sense into a current, idiomatic, and unobtrusive English.” (Hooley, 2014, 345). Hooley also calls Sandys translation the ‘primary vernacular source’ for generations of English readers (ibid).
Ovid, 4. B.C.-17 or 18 A.D., Virgil., Sandys, G. (1632). Ovid’s Metamorphosis: Englished, mythologiz’d, and represented in figures. An essay to the translation of Virgil’s Aeneis.. [Oxford]: Imprinted at Oxford by Iohn Lichfield. https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/010823513
There is a seemingly endless array of classical texts out there available to students and scholars, covering a wide gamut of abilities and interests. Some are presented sparsely in translation or in the original Greek or Latin, while others are presented with copious notes and critical apparatus. Still others are presented in dual language editions. In this post I have selected only a few of the most common classics book series available to libraries, professors, and students. This is by no means an exhaustive list. What I have tried to do, instead, is to give precedence to those accessible and popular materials which are presented in uniform series and then select, at the series level, for coverage of a variety of skill sets in readers. I begin with basic and inexpensive works in translation and work up in difficulty through more exhaustive treatments, and towards, finally, primary sources presented in untranslated critical editions.
Penguin classics is one of the most accessible and straight forward paperback series of classics texts available on the market and are widely used in classrooms across the country at every level of education. These books are presented with cogent if not exhaustive introductions by reputable scholars, and notes are unobtrusive and concise. The Oxford World’s Classics series is similar in scope, style, and cost to the Penguin editions, and both are commonly used at the university level. The only real difference is that the Oxford editions seem to me subjectively to be printed on a slightly higher quality paper and have more thorough endnotes, generally speaking. Either series is useful for reading works from the classical world in translation, and both are readily available.
For a more elaborate treatment of classical material, especially histories, the Landmark series, published by Anchor books, are highly recommended. These books are invaluable in studying the material which they cover and should be of great use even to experts in their respective topics, though the series is limited to a handful of classical authors. What makes these books so valuable are their copious notes, appendices, and supplemental material which include many useful maps which provide telescoping views of areas covered in the texts continuously throughout their respective narratives. The latest volume, which is a complete works of Julius Caesar, includes numerous additional appendices presented online, in addition to those published with the book itself.
The Loeb Classical Library is a dual language series of texts (English and Greek or Latin) published by Harvard University. Founded in 1911 the book series is well known among scholars and students alike and easily found on shelves due to its distinct red (Latin) and green (Greek) covers and its small form factor. Loeb is well known for its deep catalog and sometimes archaic translations, though with new editions, new translations, and now digital versions of the texts are becoming available. As the series web page notes:
Over a century ago, James Loeb announced the founding of the Loeb Classical Library and his intention to bring the written treasures of the ancient Greek and Roman world “within the reach of all who care for the finer things in life.”
There is a history of Harvard University Press available by author Max Hall, though it was published in the late 1980s. In 2014 Loeb began offering an online version of its series to subscribers as noted in this article from Harvard Magazine.
Similar to Loeb but less well know are Les Belles Lettres editions, published in paris and presented in either dual French/Latin or French/Greek format. The Belles Lettres editions are harder to come by in the US than the Loebs, often requiring import, and can be expensive due to their multi volume treatments, but they offer a deeper catalog, more extensive introductions, and a more authoritative critical apparatus.
For classical language students the Cambridge Green and Yellow editions are a staple. These are often not complete texts in themselves but rather are extended selections in Greek extracted from longer works and presented with extensive english language commentary to aid in student translation. These editions are quite nice for learners though the texts may not be considered authroitative.
Finally, for the most authoritative editions there are the Oxford Classical Texts series of books which are presented by the Clarendon press of Oxford and come exclusively in hardbound editions with extensive critical apparatus. Notes and introductions are in Latin only, and these editions can be quite expensive. The series is also somewhat limited, and not all classical authors may be available, but these books set the gold standard for accomplished translators and scholars interested in the nuances of manuscript history and transmission.
Hall, M. (1986). Harvard University Press : a history. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
The three books I have chosen to describe are the following: A two volume work from 1853 by John Gardner Wilkinson entitled A popular account of the ancient Egyptians; a second work by the same author from 1878 in three volumes, notably produced by a different publisher, entitled The manners and customs of the ancient Egyptians; and finally Egypt, the land of the temple builders, by Walter Scott Perry. Notably, perhaps because of my interest in limiting my search by subject and not considering a larger swath of literature about ancient Egypt, the works I looked at skipped over the period of the early 20th century, sometimes considered a ‘golden age’ of Egyptology, at least in terms of subject awareness in the popular imagination.
The earlier book by J. Gardner Wilkinson, it turns out, is an abridged and popularized version of the latter, which is a subsequent edition of the 1841 Quelle from which both derive. Thus both works have an interesting relationship both to each other and an as of yet unexamined predecessor. One difference that is immediately evident from the front matter of A Popular account of the Ancient Egyptians is that the original lithographic illustrations have been reworked as woodcuts for the popularization. In all likelihood this was done to make the work more affordable, but may also have been done for size as the Popular account appears to be in sexidecimo format, hardbound in ochre book cloth with a gold embossed title. The actual page dimensions are 20 cm x 12.5 cm.
Other than university markings there is no sign of previous ownership. Neither volume contains a colophon, leaving the only publishing information to the front matter title page. Lacking even a date, the book, we are told, was produced for the Harper & Brothers publishing house in New York, located at 329 & 331 Pearl St., Franklin Square. The only date is provided by the author’s own preface which is signed “August, 1853.”
The paper is quite smooth, lacking in visible grain, and possibly coated. I do not have enough experience to tell if this choice in paper was due to the number of illustrations or if it was common for books of this period, but judging from the lack of yellowing this was a high quality production, despite having been prepared for a general audience. The type is discernibly embossed onto the paper indicating the expected use of a letterpress for the printing process. The font used is a decidedly narrow Roman style font. Pages are laid out with a generous provision of white space and feature 34 to 36 lines of regular body text per page. Footers are used for notes and headers feature chapter number, page number, and, in all caps, the section subhead. Pages are devoid of watermarks.
As noted on the title page, in an unusually ornate font, the work is “Illustrated with five hundred woodcuts,” presumably a valuable marketing asset. There is no credited author for the woodcuts, but biographical information on the author suggests that all such designs were at least ‘based on’ his own original drawings, done during his fact finding journeys to Egypt. Both volumes contain a frontispiece, the first volume’s being printed on a regular leaf and depicting “a complete Egyptian temple.”
The frontispiece for the second volume is more interesting, an oversize illustration that has been printed folded and then pasted into the book. The paper used for this illustration is also noticeably thinner and coarser than that used in the rest of the volume. One other irregularity that appears in the second volume but not in the first, is an extra leaf which appears prior to the frontispiece and simply presents the words “history of nations.” in all capitals, center justified and appearing just above the center of the page. This otherwise unexplained notation suggests that the work as a whole might be part of, or might have been intended to be part of, a larger series.
My supposition is that, perhaps, the book was intended for a student audience as well as for common consumers, and that this might explain this appearance of such an abridgment, but without having one of the early editions for comparison at this time it is speculative on my part. In the preface the author notes that there is new information provided, both in the form of text and imagery, which was not contained in the previous book due to his own subsequent research. He also explains that the work lacks references (unfortunately) but does contain a useful new index at the end of the second volume.
The second work, as already noted, is by the same author as the first and a later edition of the original work from which that first book had been abridged and updated. This work, too, is presented as an updated edition of that early 1840s edition. A three volume set, this instance is unfortunately lacking the third volume. The two volumes that are represented are bound in new cloth library bindings, titles and call numbers embossed in white ink upon the spine. A sticker in the back labeled Heckman Bindery Inc., and dated Feb. of2004 offers fairly conclusive proof that this book has been rebound. The paper is again smooth and of good quality, having resisted much yellowing and any fragmentation, though it is coarser to the touch than the previous item. The paper appears to be uncoated but hot pressed and lacking in watermarks. The fine condition of the work and the lack of markings or plates suggests that the library was the original owner of this book.
There is no date given again on the title page, and the work lacks a copyright page. As in the previous work we must deduce the publication date from other parts of the frontmatter, in this case the dedication page, which is made out to the “The Earl of Beaconsfield” and is dated “February 2, 1878.” There then follow three prefaces, the final being specific to this edition and written by Samuel Birch, who is credited as a co-creator responsible for revision and correction. That final preface is dated February 9th of the same year. Still offering comparison with the first work, we note that this second book has been published by a different publisher: Dodd, Mead and Company, still based in New York. I can only wonder, at this juncture, if there is yet another, different, English edition, as the aforementioned digital Quelle was published in London.
The first two prefaces refer to the original 1837-1841 edition of Manners and Customs of the Ancient Egyptians, and deal primarily with the content and structure of the work. In the “Preface to the present edition” (xii – xiv) however we are afforded more information about this reworking. First we learn that the esteemed Sir Wilkinson has passed away between publications and that this work is being offered posthumously. Because of this fact there is a distinguishing feature of initials given after textual notes to differentiate between Wilkinson and Birch, his editor. Birch also indicates that the present work should be considered authoritative on ancient Egypt calling the “present work a text-book on the subject” (xiii). He also notes that in some cases he has revised the orthography of certain names and terms.
Some other features that distinguish this production from the former is that it is occasionally studded with oversized foldout illustrations, some of which are printed in color. It is not explicitly stated how the images are produced but the type and images are smooth to the touch so it is my supposition that the book is printed with a lithographic process, though the color and fold out images are printed on a thicker and coarser stock than the inline images and type. Some of the regular pages in the first volume are regularly creased towards the fore edge of the book.
The typeface of this edition is less vertical and of a denser ‘color’ than that of Popular Account, making an overall impression of being more contemporary though only twenty five years separates the editions. There is also less whitespace on the page, the format is larger, and each page averages more than 40 lines of text.
As there is no overall table of contents available in this edition, it was necessary to examine a digitized copy of that final volume to understand its contents, which continue the work contained in the first two volumes and then ends with a comprehensive index. There is no colophon or other material following the index.
The third book in my survey, Egypt, the land of the temple builders, by Walter Scott Perry, came 20 years after the second, making the three books as a group more or less equally spaced apart in time. It is notable, therefore, that each book also uses a different means of image reproduction. Clearly the late 19th century was a time of rapid technological innovation in printing and image making, judging from our sample. That the final work was not an additional continuation of our first author’s work is unfortunate, but John Wilkinson had passed in 1875, leaving the field of Egyptology open for new explorers and adventurers to advance.
This third book was published as a single volume, slender and small compared to our previous entries. Like the other two, it appears to have been rebound in library binding, green cloth with gold embossed titling, though this book suffers in terms of condition when compared with the earlier works. The work appears as if it may have been bound as a series of singletons as opposed to a collection of gatherings. The text is set in a rather nondescript Roman font much like the previous work.
Markings tell us something about the provenance of this volume. A book plate inside the front cover tells us it was a gift given to the John Herron Art Institute presented by William Coughlin, benefactor. Facing this is a sticker labeling the later ownership of Indiana / Purdue University at Indianapolis. Again, on the copyright page we see the name of William Coughlin inscribed beneath the publisher’s name, hand-written in ink. Finally, inside the back cover there are covered stickers and security labels, as well as a binders mark for the National Library Bindery.
Again, like the other books we have a very fine grained paper, probably coated, definitely pressed for smoothness. This book has been treated in a rougher manner than the other two, or at least has suffered more scars from handling, and though the pages are not overly yellowed, some have cracked and torn along the bottom edge. The frontispiece in this tome is a map of the Nile and the Egyptian countryside surrounding it . The work has been pasted onto the page and has separated from it, leaving a torn upper left hand corner to the image.
A short preface declared the books intent to serve as an art educational manual for teachers and students, and notes that the photographs reproduced belong to the work of the author. No closing date is given as signature to the preface. A table of contents, a list of the many illustrations, a black line reproduction of the rosetta stone, and a brief introduction follow (i-xv). The book itself is laid out in a rather peculiar manner, seemingly unevenly, providing oversized margins of whitespace at the outside and bottom edges of the text and image blocks. The book looks as if it could easily have been printed in a much smaller format. Another peculiarity with respect to the printing is that the textual leaves and the image leaves alternate, so that each image is printed with another image on its reverse, while each text block does so similarly. Thus as we page through the book it presents an alternating pattern of text on the recto side followed by text on the verso side. Each image page is stamped on one side (always the verso) with a John Herron Art Institute stamp. The photographs are reproduced with halftone lithography whereas the typeset pages appear to be letterpress.
France. Commission des sciences et arts d’Égypte. (1809). Description de l’Égypte ; ou, Recueil de observations et des recherches qui ont été faites en Égypte pendant l’éxpédition de l’armée française / publié par les ordres de Sa Majesté l’empereur Napoléon le Grand. Paris: Imprimerie impériale.
Hawks, F. L. (1850). The monuments of Egypt: or, Egypt a witness for the Bible.. New York.
Pauw, C. (1774). Recherches philosophiques sur les Egyptiens et les Chinois. G.J. Decker.
Perry, W. Scott. (1898). Egypt, the land of the temple builders. Boston: Prang Educational Co
Riggs, C. (2017). Egypt : lost civilizations. London, UK: Reaktion Books.
Russell, T. M. (2001). The Napoleonic survey of Egypt : description de l’Égypte : the monuments and customs of Egypt : selected engravings and texts. Aldershot: Ashgate.
Thompson, S. E. (2020). Ancient Egypt : facts and fictions. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO.
Wilkinson, J. G. 1797-1875. (1837). Manners and customs of the ancient Egyptians : including their private life, government, laws, arts, manufactures, religion, and early history : derived from a comparison of the paintings, sculptures and monuments still existing, with the accounts of ancient authors . London,John Murray,1841. https://doi.org/10.5962/bhl.title.27720
— (1853). A popular account of the ancient Egyptians. New York: Harper & brothers.
Wilkinson, J. Gardner, & Birch, S. (1878). The manners and customs of the ancient Egyptians. New ed., rev. and cor. / New York: Dodd, Mead and Company.