The purpose of A Loeb Classical Library Reader is to give the uninitiated a taste of the variety and quality of classical literature in both Greek and Latin, covering a period of about 12 centuries. It presents (very) brief excerpts of famous ancient texts with the original Greek or Latin on the facing page (as in all Loeb Classical Library books). Every possible human emotion and quality is portrayed in vibrant colours: love, wisdom, heroism, fidelity, nobility, sarcasm, shame, vengeance, horror, and humour. I laughed out loud at a reading from Apuleius’ Metamorphoses in which Lucius accidentally turns himself into “a complete ass”—literally, as in donkey:
So, lowering and shaking my head, I silently swallowed my temporary humiliation, and accommodating myself to my harsh misfortune, I went off to the stable to join my horse, my most excellent mount.
There is more dry humour in Juvenal’s account, from Satire 3, of the perils of walking in Rome alone at night:
You could be thought careless and unaware of what can suddenly befall if you go out to dinner without having made your will. … Here are the preliminaries to the pathetic brawl, if a brawl it is when you do the beating and I just take it. … This is a poor man’s freedom: when he’s been beaten and treated like a punchbag, he can beg and plead to be allowed to go home with a few teeth left.
Along with the ridiculous is the sublime, such as Cicero’s fine argument in favour of neighbourly love:
Well then, for a man to take something from his neighbour and to profit by his neighbour’s loss is more contrary to Nature than is death or poverty or pain or anything else that can affect our person or our property. For, in the first place, injustice is fatal to social life and fellowship between man and man. For, if we are so disposed that each, to gain some personal profit, will defraud or injure his neighbour, then those bonds of human society, which are most in accord with Nature’s laws, must of necessity be broken. … Then, too, loftiness and greatness of spirit, and courtesy, justice, and generosity are much more in harmony with Nature than are selfish pleasure, riches, and life itself; but it requires a great and lofty spirit to despise these latter and count them as naught, when one weighs them over against the common weal.
The book has few explanatory notes and no introduction, which I think is a mistake in a book made specifically for non-classicists. Most of the texts deal with universal human themes that certainly need no explanation but some, especially the expository works (such as Pausanias’ Description of Greece), are no less bogged down by confusion at unfamiliar people and places than they would be by adequate footnotes. The excerpts are so short (3–4 pages) that there is little context to go by. Anyone who, like me, is pretty ignorant of ancient history would have a difficult time understanding the full meaning of the historical accounts. Perhaps they expect that the serious reader will be prompted to look these things up, and indeed anyone who wouldn’t probably isn’t going to pursue classical literature any further anyway. Still, lazy creature that I am, I would have preferred a little help with all those mysterious Greek and Latin names.
Nevertheless, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this delightful little volume to anyone who wants a taste of classical literature. It would make a great little introduction for young people who might be in danger of believing that old stuff is boring. As long as you are comfortable with glossing over a few details here and there, you will find plenty to entertain and stir the imagination.