How to Pronounce Ancient Greek

Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff,

History of Classical Scholarship (trans. Alan Harris):

“Erasmus’ name is linked with the Erasmian pronunciation of Greek, with the result that modern Greeks to a man – except the few trained philologists among them – curse him loud and long. Having learnt the languages from books, rather than from the lips of Greeks, he very naturally insisted on the pronunciation that had been current at the time when the script was formed. Nor was he even the first person to do so (as Ingram Bywater has demonstrated with rare learning); that was the Spanish humanist Antonius Nebrissenis, and no less a man than Aldus Manutius shared his view. Now that scholars have come to realize that every language in every age sounds differently as spoken by different people, and that in the course of time the accepted pronunciation of the written characters also changes, the dispute has lost its relevance. How we are to pronounce, or try to pronounce, ancient Greek is a purely practical question that admits of no universally valid answer, and the idea of condemning the living language of modern Greece as ugly, because, like ours, it has lost its sonority, is one that no scholar at least should ever entertain.”

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Stifling the Spirit of Humanism

Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff,

History of Classical Scholarship (trans. Alan Harris):

“By the time the church recovered its strength, inwardly and outwardly, after the shock of the Reformation, its attitude to antiquity had completely changed. The spirit of humanism was stifled by the Jesuits, who countenanced nothing but formal training in Latin grammar and rhetoric, and used it in their schools with ruthless efficiency to further their own ends. Romantic feeling of any kind was entirely alien to the age of the baroque, when ancient remains were recklessly sacrificed for the sake of ambitious programmes of new building. The famous quip Quod non fecere barbari fecere Barbarini was just; Sixtus V would have liked nothing better than to rebuild the Colosseum itself to house some new foundation.”

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Don’t Waste Time – Read Read Read!

Vergerio, de ingenuis moribus et liberalibus adulescentiae studiis, LIV:

“There is indeed good reason to gather together those times which others tend to neglect, as when we read at dinner or awaits sleep (or avoids it) by reading. Yet, the doctors tell us that these practices are bad for our sight and eyes; this is true if we read too much, that is to say, either too intently or after an excessive meal. But it will also be to our advantage if we set up, in our libraries and right before our eyes, those instruments which are used to measure the hours and times more generally, so that we may see time as it flows and slips away from us. It would also be useful if we were to use those places for nothing else than what they were established, allowing there no external business or thought.”

Bonae etenim rationis est ea quoque bona colligere quae solent neglegere ceteri, ut si quis super cenam legat et somnum quidem inter libros exspectet aut certe per libros fugiat. Quamquam physici obesse ea visui luminibusque contendunt; quod et verum est, si modo praeter modum, id est, aut intentione nimia aut super multam saturitatem id fiat. Sed et illud quoque proderit nonnihil, si intra bibliothecas nostras coram atque in oculis instrumenta haec constituamus, quibus horas ac tempora metiri solent, ut quasi tempus ipsum fluere labique videamus, et si eis ipsis locis ad nihil aliud quam ad quod instituta sunt utamur, nullam ibi aut occupationem aut cogitationem extremam admittentes.

Combating Barbarism, Reviving Knowledge

Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff,

History of Classical Scholarship (trans. Alan Harris):

“In his Elegantiae Linguae Latinae Valla gave proof of the same historical sense in the linguistic sphere by showing how to distinguish the various periods and styles of Latin and waging war, not only on current barbarisms, but also on the practice of mixing words and phrases from entirely different departments of Latin literature – though of course adherence to the best models was bound to end in Ciceronianism, and the case for greater latitude, as advocated by Politian, had its points. Finally, Valla’s philosophical writings, in which he tried to do justice even to Epicurus, were equally bold and equally characteristic of the outstanding acuteness and independence of his mind. If we look deeper, we cannot avoid the conclusion that it was Valla’s contact with the Hellenic genius that lent wings to his soul, and that the advance from humanism to scholarship was entirely due to the influence of Greek literature, which alone could put new life into philosophy and natural science.”

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Wild Etymology of the Night

Giovanni Boccaccio, The Genealogy of the Pagan Gods, 1.9:

“The fact that Night is clothed in a painted coat clearly indicates that she is the very decoration of the sky, by which the sky is covered. Night (nox) however, as Papias says, is so called ‘because she harms (noceat) the eyes’; for she takes away their power of sight, since we see nothing at night. Night is harmful, further, in that she is well-suited to evil-doers, since we say ‘one who does evil hates the light’ – from this it follows that the evil-doer loves the shadows because they are more suited to the evil work. Even Juvenal says, ‘Thieves rise at night to cut the throats of others.’ Furthermore, Homer calls her the subduer of the gods in the Iliad, by which we may understand that since great-spirited people turn over important matters in their hearts at night, nevertheless night (not being suited to such things at all) oppresses their overflowing spirits, and overpowers them, subdued, all the way until the light.”

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Quod autem picta palla amicta sit, facile videri potest illam celi ornatum significare quo tegitur. Nox autem, ut ait Papias, ideo dicitur quia noceat oculis; aufert enim illis videndi officium, cum nil nocte cernamus. Nocet insuper quia male agentibus apta est, cum legamus: Qui male agit odit lucem; exquo sequitur ut tenebras amet tanquam malo operi aptiores. Et dicit etiam Iuvenalis: Ut iugulent homines surgunt de nocte latrones. Omerus preterea in Yliade eam domitricem deorum vocitat, ut sentiamus quoniam nocte magnanimes ingentia pectoribus versant, tamen nox minime talibus apta ebullientes opprimit spiritus, eosque tanquam domitos in lucem usque coercet.

Linguistic Laws: Look to the Learned

Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini, de Liberorum Educatione:

“There is the greatest number of those who pamper and arrange their hair, who drink at the baths, who dine out with unseemly zeal, who serve unlawful profit and pleasure. There are few who abstain from these things. Let it not be that we imitate the former; let us avoid them. How many there are, who degrade the Latin language! In place of the word ‘love’ (amare) and ‘to chase after ladies with carnal desire,’ the people of this land say hovizare. They call ‘the expenses incurred on a journey’ cerealia. When they want to say that someone will come, they do not say, ‘he will come,’ but ‘the coming will be soon.’ What then? Shall we follow these people (because they are the majority) and adopt our mode of speaking from the mob? Let this error go away. For indeed, though something faulty has settled in the minds of ever so many people, it should not be accepted as a rule of speech, because good morals – not vice – make for linguistic correctness. Just as it is proper, in life, to call upon and imitate the custom of the good, so too in the field of speech, we must call upon and imitate the established usage of the learned.”


Maximus est eorum numerus, qui comas nutriunt et in gradus frangunt, qui perpotant in balneis, qui summo studio cenas sectantur, qui lucris illicitis, qui libidini serviunt; pauci, qui ab his abstinent. Absit, ut illos imitemur; istos fugiamus. Quam multi sunt, qui verba Latina depravant! Pro eo, quod est ‘amare’ atque ‘insequi Veneris cupiditate feminas,’ ‘hovizare’ huius terrae populus dicit; ‘sumptus qui fiunt ab itinerantibus,’ ‘ceralia’ vocat; quando venturum quemquam significare vult, ipse inquit non ‘veniet,’ sed ‘erit cito venire.’ Quid igitur? Sequemurne istos, quia plurimi sunt, et loquendi consuetudinem ex multitudine recipiemus? Facessat hic error. Non enim, quod vitiose quamvis multis insiderit, pro regula sermonis accipiendum erit, quia non vitia sed mores boni consuetudinem faciunt. Sicut ergo vivendi consensum bonorum, sic et loquendi consonantiam eruditorum appellare et imitari consuetudinem oportebit.

Learning, Poetry, and Madness

Petrarch, Secretum Book 3:

“What good has it been to know many things if you never learned how to accommodate them to your needs? For my part, I admired your error more in pursuing solitude, because you knew what the best authors among the ancients said against it, and you even added new ones. You complained often that solitude could do you no good, which you said in many places, especially in that poem which you wrote about your own condition. Meanwhile, as you sang, I was delighted by the sweetness of the song, and I was astounded because such a sweet sounding song sprang from your insane mouth in the middle of your spiritual storms, or I was astounded at what love could kept the Muses from fleeing from their accustomed house when they were assailed by such whirlwinds and such an alienation of their host. For, as Plato says, ‘one who is sane knocks on the doors of poetry in vain’, and as his successor Aristotle has it, ‘there is no great talent without some mixture of insanity.’ But these quotations apply to a different kind of insanity than yours; we shall discuss this later.”

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Petrarch Gets Advice on Living His Best Life

Petrarch, Secretum 2.6:

“You ought on the other hand to confess that nothing is sweeter or more pleasant than such a life as long as you live by your own laws and not those of the raging mob. Why then do you torture yourself? If you measure yourself by your own nature, you were rich long ago; if you measure yourself by popular applause, you will never be rich, but something will always remain. You will pursue it and be snatched away through the steep precipices of desire. Do you remember with how much pleasure you used to wander around the distant countryside, and how you were at one time drinking in the murmur of the plashing water as you lay in the grassy meadows? How at another time you were measuring out the field below with a free glance? How at one time you were enjoying longed-for tranquility as you were seized by sleep lying in a shady spot of the sunny valley; how you were never totally idle, but always revolving something lofty in your mind, and never alone in the company of the Muses? Then, you followed the example of the old man in Vergil who

“was equaling the riches of kings in his mind, and returning home late at night was loading his table with a meal which he did not buy”

as you returned to your home at sunset content with your own goods. Did you not then seem to be by far the richest and clearly the most fortunate of all mortals?”

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Read Like the Bees

Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini, de Puerorum Educatione:

“We do not advise people to read all the poets by the way and to affix their minds entirely to them. For, since many of these are amatory verses and full of vice, attention ought not to be paid to all of the things which are said by them, just as neither all theologians nor all philosophers should be heard. But when they commemorate the sayings or deeds of excellent men, then the reader ought to be moved and inflamed in all his mind and try himself to be such as they were. But when they happen upon mention of wicked people, they ought to flee their example. Listen to Basilius, the most sanctified and experienced man: ‘We praise the poets, not when they relate chastisements, nor when they imitate lovers or drunks or chatty people, nor when they define happiness by the rich man’s table and dissolute singing; we praise them least of all when they say something about the gods, especially when they suggest that they are many and discordant among themselves.’ And a little later, ‘These same things should be said of other writers, and then especially when they are read for pleasure.’ And again, ‘But now most of all we embrace orators, when they either extol virtue or fulminate against vices.’ In our readings of poets and other writers, we ought to imitate bees. For, as some take nothing from flowers except the odor and the color, bees know how to take honey out of them; thus, those who follow not only the pleasure of the words are able to derive some profit. Nor, further, do all bees approach flowers equally, nor do they completely consume those which they approach, but rather, they take that which is needed for their work, and they leave the rest behind.”

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Poets, Philosophers, Fools

Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini, de Puerorum Educatione:

“What should I say about theologians? What error in faith has not stemmed from them? Who brought about the Arrian insanity, who separated the Greeks from the church, who seduced the Bohemians, if not theologians? At one time, the Romans expelled every kind of doctor from the city because they were guilty of all sorts of crimes; once the guilty had been punished, they allowed the innocent to return to the city. What about orators? Does Cicero not say that many cities were razed to the very ground because of the eloquence of evil people? But just as neither all orators nor all doctors nor all theologians nor all philosophers ought to be rejected on account of a few bad apples, similarly, we ought not to shrink from all poets on account of the vices of a few. Otherwise, even Plato himself should have been ejected from the city which he formed, since he was given to tragedy and Macrobius relates some of his poems which prove that he was a poet. Nor would Cicero have remained in that city, since he was not only the greatest cultivator of poets, but even wrote out three books On His Own Times in verse, in the old poetic fashion. Boethius’ objection merits laughter rather than a response. For who could hold back a laugh when it is said that a poet is condemning poetry? Is Boethius not a poet in all ways? For in his work, Philosophy (who speaks with him) goes on in verse and fiction. How many stories are found there? How many types of meters? Boethius seems similar to that guy who used to swear that no one should swear. But let us not impute what those others think to Boethius, who was both a philosopher and a poet. Let us suppose that he had something else in mind, which it would be tedious to discuss right now.”

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