Beach Reading: Ten Easy Latin Works

Beach Reading: Ten Easy Latin Works

Image for postTime to tone up your Latin reading skills for the beach. (4th c. mosaic from the Villa Casale in Piazza Armerina, Sicily [source]).

Looking for something to read this summer? The best way to improve your fluency in Latin is to read a lot of Latin, and the simplest way to read a lot is to read Latin that?s easy. So, here is a list of ten Latin works that are interesting and easy ? at least they?re easy relative to other Latin works. Some of these might not be on your bookshelves already, so I?ve also provided links to versions of each text available free online.

1. Ennius (c. 239?169 B.C.), Euhemerus

I know what you?re thinking. Ennius, that Ennius, easy? It?s true that Ennius?s most famous work, the Annales, has got some weird stuff in it. But in the Annales Ennius was trying to create an epic diction that would be as strange to Latin speakers as the Greek of Homer was to the Greek speakers of his own day. The Euhemerus is different. Sentences are short, words familiar. The Euhemerus presents the rationalistic argument that the gods are not actually divinities, but humans from long ago. We only have fragments: the surviving portions tell the story of Jupiter, who was apparently just some guy who went around trying to trick people into worshipping him. It?s a fun work but short, especially if you?re looking for extensive reading. The surviving fragments are only a few pages long. Consider it as your appetizer for the other works on this list. (You can read the old Loeb here.)

2. Cornelius Nepos (c. 110?24 B.C.), De Viris Illustribus

Nepos has been stuck with the unfortunate, undeserved reputation of being a bore ever since Catullus mock-praised his now-lost history as laboriosus ? suggesting not only that Nepos had worked hard on it, but that getting through it was hard work for the reader. The fact is, Nepos wrote in a simple register that survives in very few works of the classical era. His biographies of Greek generals present engaging bits of classical history, in bite-sized pieces of a few pages each. Imagine Wikipedia-type articles for the major figures of Greek history, written in simple Latin. On top of that, his Life of Atticus provides a provides a marvelous thumbnail history of the Late Republic as told by someone who lived through it. (Latin text with a helpful commentary here.)

3. Suetonius (c. A.D. 70?122), De Grammaticis et Rhetoribus

Like Nepos, Suetonius wrote in a simple, straight-forward style. In addition to his more famous Vitae Caesarum, Suetonius also wrote a history of Latin teachers that has the good fortune of surviving.This work was part of his lost De Viris Illustribus, and it traces the origins and growth of formal, grammatical education in Rome by surveying prominent teachers. These teachers, many of whom were or had been enslaved, took on roles that would be familiar to many teachers and scholars today. They include the likes of Gaius Julius Hyginus, first librarian of the Palatine Apollo library; Cornelius Epicadus, who ghost-wrote Sulla?s memoirs for him; and Lucius Orbilius Pupillus, who wrote a regrettably-lost book called Unreasonable (???? ???????), which detailed the ways that students? parents make the lives of teachers miserable. (Here is a link to the copy owned by President John Adams. If you have access to a research library, I highly recommend checking out Robert Kaster?s edition with text, translation, and commentary.)

4. Aulus Gellius (c. A.D. 125-180), Noctes Atticae

If you like Latin, and you?d like to see a native speaker riff on Latin vocabulary and usage, then the Attic Nights is for you. Gellius writes short chapters on miscellaneous Greek and Latin grammatical, literary, and historical topics, artfully arranged in no particular order, like a smartly curated Instagram account. What?s the difference between praeda and manubiae? Why do men swear by Hercules and women by Castor? How would you translate polypragmosyne into Latin? Gellius has answers to all the questions you were afraid to admit you never asked, arranged in an order that you will never make sense of. (Latin text available here, a lecture in praise of Aulus Gellius by Justin Slocum Bailey here, and an essay about teaching Gellius by Elizabeth Manwell here).

5. Perpetua (died A.D. 203), Passio

Perpetua was a noblewoman who fell in with an obscure religious sect that must have seemed to outsiders like a kind of death-cult. She was arrested with other practitioners, and she chose execution in the arena over leaving the group. The Passio, an account of her death, includes Perpetua?s prison diary, in which she recounts the journey of her radicalization, which divided her from her parents and the mainstream community. She also describes having a phantasmagoric vision of her own death, in which she strips off her clothes to reveal a changed gender (facta sum masculus) before fighting against an incarnation of pure evil. Transgressive, radical, and determined to face down a violent end: Perpetua is a riveting read. (Latin text available here, with facing Greek translation; the Latin is the original, though the Greek is nearly contemporaneous.)

6. Egeria (wrote c. A.D. 380s), Itinerarium

In the late fourth century, a certain woman (Egeria? Aetheria? Silvia?) traveled to the biblical lands and wrote about her journey for her friends back home. Her account is the oldest description of a Christian pilgrimage, and it?s a monument in the history of travel literature. Some parts of the tourist experience never change. While modern-day guides in Troy will happily show you exactly where Achilles fought Hector, Egeria?s guides could point out the very spot near Mount Sinai where the Golden Calf was made. The Itinerarium is also a monument in the history of Latin: the language was starting to distinctly show changes that would be characteristic of the Romance languages. (Latin text available here. Take note that the text has gaps, including a large one at the beginning. The surviving portion begins with Egeria getting to the place where God spoke to Moses from the burning bush.)

7. Hrotsvitha of Gandersheim (c. 935?973), Dulcitius

Roman comedies have a general pattern: they are focalized through the perspective of a young man, and they follow his hijinks in pursuit of a woman, whose feelings on the matter are never considered. Then there is a happy ending: marriage. The Dulcitius turns this all on its head. It?s told from the perspective of three young women who are trying to avoid the pursuit of the title character, Dulcitius. Hijinks still remain, and a befuddled Dulcitius winds up groping a set of kitchen pots. The happy ending is that all three women escape Dulcitius?s advances and then are brutally murdered. Seriously, that?s presented as the happy ending. If you ask Hrotsvitha, marriage is out, martyrdom in. (Latin text of Dulcitius here)

8. Dante Alighieri (1265?1321), De Vulgari Eloquentia

While most famous as a pioneer of the vernacular, Dante?s most compelling work (to me!) is his history of language, written in Latin. Dante starts with the garden of Eden and continues to his own day, showing a surprising grasp of language change and language families. Dante correctly hypothesized that language might change over time in a way that is nearly imperceptible to any individual, but pronounced with historical hindsight. Dante puts a special focus on Latin, the Romance languages, and the dialects of Italian. (Text available here ? there is a dropdown menu on the left to change the language from English to the original Latin.)

9. Bartolomeo Platina (1421?1481), De Vitis Pontificum, Vita Pauli II

At the height of Renaissance Rome, Pope Paul II arrested a prominent group of humanists on charges of conspiracy and heresy. They were imprisoned in Castel Sant?Angelo and tortured before ultimately being released. One of those humanists, Bartolomeo Platina, later wrote a Lives of the Popes that became the definitive history of the papacy for hundreds of years. The work included a Life of Paul II, which Platina used as an opportunity to defend himself and humanism ? and to attack Paul II. It is a remarkable work of literature, in which the main conflict in the story plays out between the protagonist and the author himself. And Platina is nothing if not antagonistic. (Self-promotion disclosure: I co-edited an edition of the Paul II, the pdf is available for free here.)

10. Anna Maria Van Schurman (1607?1678), Dissertatio De Ingenii Muliebris ad Doctrinam et meliores Litteras aptitudine

Van Schurman was a scholar, poet, and religious reformer. She published works in Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and French (sometimes all within one book). After fighting to secure herself entrance in a university (becoming the first European woman to do so), she became an advocate for women?s access to higher education. She wrote her 1641 Dissertatio on the subject in scholastic Latin, which is a real shock if you?re not used to it. Yet as different as the scholastic Latin is from the classical paradigm (which she employed in letters and other works), it is remarkably comprehensible: you know what she means when she refers to some people as stupidiores. (Original edition of her 1641 Dissertatio is here.)

Any easy Latin works that you want to share? Have links to better online editions than the ones I linked to? Post them in the comments!

Tom Hendrickson teaches Latin and English at Stanford Online High School. His Ancient Libraries and Renaissance Humanism won the Iozef IJsewijn Prize.

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