Self-Taught, Late to Learn, Eager for Greek

J.E. Sandys, A History of Classical Scholarship Vol. II

“Isaac Casaubon (1559 — 1614), who was eighteen years younger than Scaliger, was born at Geneva of Huguenot parents, who had fled from Gascony. At the age of nine he could speak and write Latin. He was learning Greek from his father, with Isocrates, ad Demonicum, as his text-book, when the news of the massacre of St. Bartholomew’s drove them to the hills, where the lessons in Greek were continued in a cave in Dauphine. Till the age of nineteen his father, who was a Huguenot pastor, was his only instructor. The son describes himself as ὀψιμαθής [late to learning] and αὐτοδίδακτος [self-taught]. He hardly began any consecutive study until the age of twenty, when he was sent to Geneva, there to remain for the next eighteen years (1578-96). At Geneva he read Greek with the Cretan, Franciscus Portus, whom he succeeded as ‘professor’ in 1582. His second wife (1586) was a daughter of Henri Estienne, who jealously prevented his son-in-law from having access to his mss, and hardly ever lent them: ‘he guards his books’ (writes Casaubon) ‘as the griffins in India do their gold’. But, when Estienne died in loneliness at Lyons, Casaubon inscribed in his journal a few feeling lines lamenting his loss. Meanwhile, he read all the Greek texts that he could find, besides buying transcripts of unpublished mss. from the Greek copyist, Darmarius. Even at a place where literary interests were almost dead, he carried out his own ideal of classical learning. In an exhaustive course of reading he made a complete survey of the ancient world. Among his foremost friends in Geneva was the venerable Beza; his correspondents in France included De Thou and Bongars. In 1594 he writes to Scaliger at Leyden: — ‘I never take up your books or those of your great father, without laying them down in despair at my own progress’; and, on hearing of Scaliger’s death in 1609, he notes in his diary, that he had lost ‘the guide of his studies, the inseparable friend, the sweet patron of his life’. Scaliger himself had said of Casaubon: ‘he is the greatest man we now have in Greek’; ‘his Latin style is excellent, terse, not diffuse Italian Latin’.”

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