Posts filed under “Books & Literature”


Charles Anthon by Mathew Brady
Charles Anthon as seen by Mathew Brady.
Charles Anthon by one of his students
Charles Anthon as depicted by one of his students in the end papers of one of his textbooks.

The first American classicist to develop an international reputation, Charles Anthon, finally has his own page in our Eclectic Library.

Professor Anthon had much to do with the high standards of learning in nineteenth-century American universities. Much of Anthon’s work was devoted to bringing the best products of English and German scholarship to America in editions that he improved and expanded. His textbooks on the ancient languages were widely admired, and the proof of their utility may be found in the fact that many professors resented them for making the students’ work too easy. The same was often said of his editions of the classics for students: “The editor…has been charged with overloading the authors, whom he has from time to time edited, with cumbersome commentaries; he has been accused of making the path of classical learning too easy for the student, and of imparting light where the individual should have been allowed to kindle his own torch and to find his own way.” (Preface to Anthon’s edition of Horace.) “His minute and copious annotations at first encountered some opposition,” says his obituary in Harper’s Weekly, “but so little effectual has been the force of prejudice, and so generally acceptable, both at home and abroad, have the Professor’s comments approved themselves that many, even of those who at first were loudest in their denunciations of the system thus introduced, have been compelled, by the positive advantages and rich results of this same system, to adopt as far as possible a similar fulness of annotation in their own publications.”

Professor Anthon’s editions were also usefully expurgated, so that a Victorian schoolmaster could confidently expect nothing shocking or embarrassing to mar the perfect decorum in the classroom. As Anthon wrote in the preface to his edition of Xenophon’s Memorabilia of Socrates, “The great merit of the present text, however, consists in its being an expurgated one. Every passage has either been rejected or essentially modified that in any way conflicted with our better and purer ideas of propriety and decorum, for even in the ethical treatises of the Greeks expressions and allusions will sometimes occur which it is our happier privilege to have been taught unsparingly to condemn.”

Professor Anthon is also famous in Mormon lore as the Columbia professor who was shown a transcribed “Egyptian” inscription from the Golden Plates and pronounced it a hoax, which has been interpreted in Mormon history as “authenticating” it. Dr. Boli is not sure what it would have meant for the supposedly Egyptian characters to be authenticated by Professor Anthon. You might take your diamond ring to be authenticated by Neil deGrasse Tyson, and he would reasonably tell you, “I am not a jeweler.” “But you are a famous person with a brain,” you might object. “Just authenticate it and stop beating around the bush.” At that point Dr. Tyson might begin to nod his head, make some indistinguishable affirmative noises, and back away toward the nearest exit, and you would have as much authentication as you were going to get. That is how we imagine Professor Anthon authenticating the inscription brought to him.

At any rate, to wander through Charles Anthon’s prodigious output is to enter a lost world, where a well-annotated edition of Horace could make a man’s name a household word on two continents. It is also to wander back to those heady days when the young American republic was just beginning to earn a place in the republic of letters, and to see an American name on the title page of a European textbook filled his patriotic countrymen with justifiable pride. Now that the cultures of other nations are simply gross parodies of the grossest American popular culture, it is pleasant to spend a few nostalgic hours in a world where it seemed as though the future of American culture might be determined by one American’s remarkable facility with Latin and Greek.


Since we have been talking about classical writers quite a bit recently, here is a little demonstration of bibliographical detective work where you play the role of the detective.

In gathering books for a page of Ovid, or Publius O’Vidius Naso, the well-known Irish poet, Dr. Boli came across the 1626 edition of the translation of the Metamorphoses by George Sandys (pronounced “Sands,” because the Y is only in there to trip you up). He also came across a 1628 edition, and something about that latter book alerted his keen bibliographical senses. It seemed to him that it was probably a pirated edition.

Having done some research, Dr. Boli is pleased to report that his bibliographical instincts had not failed him. He found an article in the Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America, Vol. 35, No. 4 (Fourth Quarter, 1941), entitled “Early Editions of George Sandys’s ‘Ovid’: The Circumstances of Production,” by Richard Beale Davis. (You can find it in JSTOR if you have the requisite access.) It turns out that there are complaints recorded in the Stationers’ Court records brought by George Sandys against the printer of the 1628 edition, who was ordered to cease printing and selling the book, and three years later was ordered to desist again because he had ignored the first order.

But what was it that triggered Dr. Boli’s bibliographical alarms?

Both editions carry an elaborate allegorical frontispiece. Here is the one from the 1626 edition:

Enlarge it and examine the details carefully. Now here is the frontispiece from the 1628 edition. Enlarge it, examine the details, compare it to the 1626 edition, and see if you can spot the subtle differences that made Dr. Boli suspect piracy.

You see? You are a bibliographical detective.


The New History of Zosimus book cover

Once again Dr. Boli has the privilege of introducing a work of literature from the remote past, now in print in a very attractive edition from Serif Press. Zosimus, the last of the pagan Roman historians, has been impossible to find in an affordable English translation; but the long Zosimus drought is over, and there is now Zosimus for all at a very reasonable price.

With the kind permission and consent of the publisher, Dr. Boli reprints his introduction here.

Here is one of the most valuable histories of late antiquity. But it is not valuable for its objective narration of the facts: you will find no objectivity here. It is valuable because it is the only source for some events in the history of the Roman Empire; and it is valuable above all because, for much of the history recorded here, Zosimus is the only counterweight to the Christian historians. Zosimus was a pagan who thought the Christianization of the Roman Empire was responsible for its fall. The Romans had risen to power because they had the favor of the gods; Roman power collapsed because the gods justly withdrew their favor. Zosimus tells us at the beginning that this will be the theme of his history, and he sticks to it.

What was it like to be a pagan after the final Christianization of the Empire? There seems to be an assumption prevalent in some circles today that the triumph of Christianity in the Roman Empire was a triumph of superstition over rationalism. Zosimus should be enough to persuade us that the opposite was the case. The Christian historians can be credulous, but Zosimus handily beats them in credulity. He never misses a chance to tell a miracle story, and his objection to Christians is not that they are irrationally superstitious, but that they ignore the supernatural altogether. They refuse to accept what “thinking persons” like Zosimus know: that “the administration of human affairs” is “in the hands of a divine Providence.” It was a common pagan accusation against Christians that they were “atheists,” and this is the attitude of Zosimus. Christians are the ones who ignore the oracles, the rituals, the sacred things and places, the obvious signs of the gods’ displeasure. The gods have therefore abandoned the Roman Empire, and what else did we expect?

There seems also to be an assumption that Christians imposed a puritanical morality on the do-your-own-thing world of the Roman Empire, and again Zosimus will puncture that balloon. He has his favorite villain Constantine converting to Christianity because he had committed sins no pagan could forgive. Zosimus’ moral objection to Christianity is not that it demands excessive moral purity, but that it justifies any sin.

Not surprisingly, Zosimus’ hero in this history is Julian, known to Christian history as Julian the Apostate because he turned back to the old pagan religion, or at least to his fantasy of what the old pagan religion must have been like in better times. Zosimus is never more delighted than when he is narrating Julian’s rampage through Persia, gleefully watching him massacre women and children in the name of restored Roman glory. Those were the good old days!

Zosimus himself was not a witness to any of the events he chronicles. The best guess of modern historians is that he wrote his New History not earlier than 498 and not later than 518. His history breaks off abruptly about a century before that, in 410; either he did not finish it, or the rest is lost. Zosimus depends, however, on now-lost historians who were closer to the events: in particular Eunapius and to a lesser extent Olympiodorus. Photius, writing in the 800s, had read all three: “It may be said,” he writes, “that Zosimus did not himself write the history, but that he copied that of Eunapius, from which it only differs in brevity and in being less abusive of Stilicho. In other respects his account is much the same, especially in the attacks upon the Christian emperors.” In this edition we include Photius’ accounts of both Eunapius and Olympiodorus. His summary of Olympiodorus is quite substantial, and gives us a good idea of where Zosimus’ own history might have gone if it had been finished.

Eunapius broke off about the year 405, and the abuse of Stilicho does indeed seem to be moderated after that, leading up to a summary of his life that praises him as “the most moderate and just of all the men who possessed great authority in his time”—not very high praise, given the standard of the time as Zosimus has described it for us, but still more praise than we might have expected. But every historian would agree that Stilicho is a complex character, and Zosimus is willing to let complex characters be complex. He hates Theodosius the Great for his hostility to the traditional pagan cults, and the Christian historians would certainly back him up on some of his other criticisms of that emperor; but he candidly admits that Theodosius was also capable of great things. “These opposite features of his character have incited in me a degree of wonder,” he tells us (book IV, chapter 50), and every historian who has tackled Theodosius has felt that same kind of helpless wonder.

His dependence on earlier sources means that Zosimus had access to useful facts. But we should hold Zosimus alone responsible for the point of view. Though he may have assembled his history from spare parts pulled out of other historians’ works, he speaks in a consistent voice and makes a consistent argument throughout. It is true that his narration of events before Constantine’s conversion does not really support his contention that the Roman Empire was in fine shape till the Christians got hold of it, but that is a compliment to his honesty, or at least a mark of the limits of his dishonesty. He was willing to fudge a bit here and there, especially in the life of his arch-villain Constantine (as the notes in this edition will point out), but he did not divide his world into flat heroes and villains.

What should we think of Zosimus as a historian, then? He has inspired the most fanatically opposite reactions in later writers. Many Christian historians have dismissed him as a sour crank. On the other hand, he has his devoted fans who think him a paragon of historical integrity. The truth, of course, is somewhere in the middle. Zosimus is no more and no less trustworthy than the Christian historians of his era. He (or his sources) will occasionally distort facts, and he is sometimes simply mistaken. On the other hand, he is worth hearing even when we know he is not being quite honest with us. As a writer he knows how to keep our attention, and as a rhetorician he builds what may be the best possible case for a hypothesis that is difficult to support.

About This Translation.

Our intent has been to give the English-speaking world a good, economical general reader’s Zosimus. To that end we have adopted a flawed but generally good translation of the work, and then tried to correct the worst of the flaws.

This translation is even more of a mystery than Zosimus himself is. It was published in 1814 in an edition riddled with printer’s errors, and no translator is credited. The title page tells us only that it was “Translated from the original Greek, with the notes of the Oxford edition.”

As far as we know, there have been four translations of Zosimus into English. The most recent, by Ronald T. Ridley in 1982, is well regarded, but also rare and expensive. A translation by J. Buchanan and H. Davis, published in 1967, is not popular among Zosimus’ fans.

This 1814 translation is based on the 1679 edition of the Greek printed at Oxford with a dedication signed by “T. S.” (identified by scholars as Thomas Spark). That edition was printed with a running Latin translation in parallel columns, and it would not be surprising to discover that our 1814 translator made liberal use of the Latin in cases where the Greek puzzled him.

The Oxford edition was translated into English once before, in 1684, also anonymously (no one seems to have wanted to be publicly associated with poor old Zosimus). That translation is in the commendably brisk English of the era, but it might strike a current reader as a little dated. There is some evidence that our 1814 translator had the 1684 translation by him, and may have cribbed from it when he was in a hurry; but there is also clear evidence that he did not rely on it, since there is at least one place (in book III, chapter 35) where our 1814 translator botched the translation and the 1684 translator did not. In this edition we have unbotched the text by substituting the 1684 translation of that passage.

According to Zosimus scholars, all copies of Zosimus derive from one defective manuscript in the Vatican library, which was locked up among the very dangerous books until the middle 1800s. The 1679 Oxford edition, therefore, had only secondary manuscripts to go by, as did every edition up to the 1887 edition by Ludwig Men­delssohn. There are few important differences, however, and certainly Zosimus’ argument comes through here.

In fact, once the errors of the printer and the relatively few blunders of the translator have been corrected, this translation has considerable virtues. It presents Zosimus in clear and vigorous English that is a delight to read.

In this edition, we have corrected the printing errors of the 1814 edition, usually silently, but sometimes adding a note where the correction substantially affects the meaning. In a few places we have changed the translation where the translator clearly blundered, probably through haste; those changes have been noted. We have also in a few places noted the emendations of Ludwig Mendelssohn in his standard edition of the Greek text, and we have compared doubtful places in the translation with the Mendelssohn edition of the original text.

We include all the notes from the 1814 edition, which are translated directly from the Latin of the 1679 Oxford edition. In a few places, we have added notes from the 1684 translation of that edition, where the 1814 translation omits them. These notes are mostly argumentative: they point out where the Christian historians differ from Zosimus (which is very useful), and they generally take the side of the Christians. Neither English translation includes all the Latin notes of the 1679 edition, but the ones included here are entertaining in their own way.

In addition, the present editor has added a few notes pointing out where Zosimus’ account differs substantially from the generally received version of events. It should be remembered, though, that we do not read Zosimus for his historical reliability—even in those places where his account is the only source available. We read him for his polemical point of view, and we take that into account throughout.

We have also added the chapter numbers that have become a standard reference system for Zosimus, which should make it easy to find any given passage in the translation and compare it with the original.

Finally, we have added subheads with dates throughout, so that the modern reader will find it easy to follow the story and check Zosimus’ assertions against those of other historians. This makes the table of contents a useful chronology as well.

The 1684 translation also included a translation of the “Apology” by Johannes Leunclavius, the German historian of the 1500s whose Latin translation of Zosimus was the first printed edition (1576) of the work. It is a fine example of Renaissance scholarship at its best, as opinionated as Zosimus himself. We have added it to this edition and make no apology for the apology.

The result of all this cobbling together, we hope, will be an English Zosimus that is entertaining to read, and also represents the original with tolerable accuracy. The general reader will find our friend Zosimus an entertainingly opinionated companion. Serious scholars will not take this as a scholarly edition; but it is freely quotable at length, and the chapter numbers will make it easy to find any passage in the original Greek.

H. Albertus Boli.

Order the New History of Zosimus from Amazon.


Did you know that Thomas Hobbes, fountainhead of modern political philosophy, author of the comprehensive manual of absolutism, and notorious squarer of circles, had also translated Homer into English verse?

The two greatest epic poets of antiquity, Homer and Virgil, have always attracted crowds of translators, and many unexpected famous names pop up among them.

Of course there’s George Chapman. His translation of Homer provoked Keats to write one of the most famous English sonnets, a poem that every schoolchild was forced to read at some point, and one that deserves to be read by more than yawning schoolchildren. Yet, famous as Keats’ poem is, not one reader of it in a hundred has even glanced at Chapman’s Homer. The world seems to have forgotten Chapman’s Homer exactly in proportion as it remembers Keats’ poem about Chapman’s Homer. It is as if the world had decided to give up summer days, because we have read Shakespeare’s sonnet about them, and what do we need now with the filthy experience? Sometimes, after all, too hot the eye of heaven shines, and really it’s just better to stay inside.

Chapman and Hobbes are far from the only famous translators of Homer. You know that Alexander Pope translated him, of course: Pope is ubiquitous and inevitable. But did you know that William Cowper made a blank-verse translation of both the Iliad and the Odyssey? America’s own William Cullen Bryant also tried his hand at a blank-verse translation late in his life, with some success.

Perhaps the most unexpected name on the list is William Morris, who is probably known to most of the Americans who know him at all as the wallpaper guy. He translated the Odyssey in rhymed and heavily alliterative hexameter.

Virgil also has his share of celebrity translators. In fact the history of printing in English could be traced in the history of printing Virgil in English. One of the first books ever printed in English was Caxton’s Eneydos, which he translated from the French; and although he describes it as “made in latyn by that noble poet & great clerke vyrgyle,” it is a very free adaptation. It is the sort of thing a Hollywood producer might do to the Aeneid if he got his hands on the film rights. The first real translation of Virgil in an Anglic language was by Bishop Douglas into Scots, and he is not sparing in his opinion of the book from Caxton, who

In pross hes prent ane buik of Inglis gros,
Clepand it Virgill in Eneados,
Quhilk that he sais of Frensch he did translait,
It hes na thing ado therwith, God wait,
Nor na mair like than the devill and Sanct Austyne;
Haue he na thank therfor, bot lost his pyne,
So schamfully that storye did pervert;
I red his werk with harmes at my hert,
That sic ane buik, but sentence or engyne,
Suld be intitillit efter the poet divyne;
His ornait goldin versis mair than gilt,
I spittit for despyt to see sua spilt
With sic a wycht, quhilk treulie be myne entent,
Knew neuer thre wowrdis of all that Virgill ment.

John Dryden is to Virgil what Alexander Pope is to Homer. But the list of Virgil’s translators is long and varied. William Morris shows up here, too; he translated the Aeneid into fourteeners like Chapman’s Iliads, but with much more alliteration.

Comparing these translations is revealing. All the Homers are certainly Homer, and all the Virgils (with the arguable exception of Caxton’s) are Virgil. But both ancient poets are magic mirrors in which the translators see everything they think is good in poetry. For William Morris, Virgil and Homer are perfect medieval bards, and he translates them in alliterative verse that would have appealed to William Langland. Alexander Pope’s Homer is a refined gentleman, for all his ancient ways. Chapman’s Homer is an expert at playing to the pit and delivering the applause-inspiring line that makes the patrons think they are getting their halfpenny’s worth. Bryant’s Homer is the kind of deeply thoughtful soul who might write a poem called “Thanatopsis.”

Experienced readers have already guessed that a long literary article like this means that there is a new page in the Eclectic Library. On this occasion there are two new pages: one for Homer and one for Virgil.


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One of the handy sidebar tools in the Microsoft Edge browser is a translator. It will translate any language you can think of. Azerbaijani, Bashkir, Divehi, Faroese, Inuinnaqtun, Upper Sorbian. It will translate Klingon.

Not Latin.

You may ask yourself: How many people are likely to want something translated from Latin, and how does it compare with the number of people who are likely to want something translated from Upper Sorbian?

In the fifteen seconds he was willing to devote to the problem, Dr. Boli was not able to think of a good answer to how many people need to have things translated from Latin. But we can at least guess how many people are likely to be producing content on the Internet in some of those lesser-known languages. There are roughly 13,000 speakers of Upper Sorbian in the world. There are (by the last census) 1,316 speakers of Inuinnaqtun in the world. Let us assume that every one of them is a content producer. If they work eight hours a day producing content, it will take them decades to create as much content as is already available on the Internet in Latin.

What, then, does it mean that Microsoft Edge will not attempt to translate Latin? When we see the omission of Latin—which is actually quite typical for language tools (remember how long it took to get usable polytonic Greek in the computer world?)—we immediately begin to think that there is a giant cultural assumption at work here. The assumption is not just that the past is worthless: it is that it would be wrong not to repudiate the past. You would feel dirty if you programmed your translator for Latin. The eighteen people who communicate on the Internet in Inuinnaqtun should be encouraged; the millions of scholars of worthless dead things who need to read Latin should be told what we think of them.

Under the circumstances, we should give Google some credit for attempting to translate Latin, even if the results are usually comical.


Mr. Samuel Hazo is a titan in the world of poetry, the former poet laureate of Pennsylvania and an outsized influence on younger poets. And now, at the age of 94, he has just published a new novel, available from our friends at Serif Press.

I Want It to Happen book cover

I Want It to Happen: Love as a Saga is, on the surface, a simple romance. But it is put together with the usual Samuel Hazo care, every word meticulously chosen to create the illusion that no thought went into it at all.

Mr. Hazo has been busy. At almost the same time as his new novel, he came out with a new collection of poems written in the last six years: The Less Said, the Truer, published by Syracuse University Press.

Samuel Hazo will also be reading his own poetry in Pittsburgh this Saturday at the Beatrice Institute’s Holy Slang: A Weekend of Poetry. He will be joined by the equally legendary Jane Greer, founder of Plains Poetry Journal and beacon of the New Formalist movement. By coincidence, she also has a new book out from Lambing Press: The World as We Know It Is Falling Away, a stunning collection of poems that may leave you thinking the best days of English poetry are ahead of us.

The World as We Know It Is Falling Away book cover