Too Much Work? Quarantined with Kids? These Latin Works Can Be Read in Minutes (or Seconds!)
Last summer I wrote up Beach Reading, a list of easy Latin works for your long, leisurely summer hours. But in the age of Covid-19, if you have kids, your free time has probably diminished to a few spare moments between doing the dishes and playing one more game of Hide and Seek. So, I’ve put together a list of collections of Latin works that can each be read in minutes, or even seconds, for those of us with little time who still want to read the occasional piece of Latin. I also provide links to versions of the texts in the public domain, since your local university library is probably closed, even if you had the time to go there.
- Graffiti (Epigrammata) Martial, late first century
Martial is the master of epigrammatic wit. His beats are fast, punchy, outrageous, and (sometimes) hilarious. He quips, he complains, he flatters, he mocks, he shocks. He calls people out and he riffs on the ephemera of the day. Claire Hall’s comparison of Martial and Twitter shows just how perfectly Martial should fit into our modern tastes in media consumption. But it’s not just the brevity and the attitude — it’s also the repetition. I once heard it said that Martial’s reputation suffers from having too much of his work survive, as if it were an embarrassing oversight that he repeated so many jokes. But it would entirely miss the point to claim that a meme, for instance, is only funny the first time, and to dismiss every variation as derivative. We’re probably better primed to appreciate Martial now than any generation since his own. And yet, to be clear, if Martial were on Twitter, he’d be an obnoxious jerk on Twitter. He’s mean-spirited and abusive. He punches down. He even dismisses his critics as part of an “outrage culture,” accusing them of being “ostentatiously unhappy” (ambitiose tristis) and claiming that they are just angry at the “naughty truth of (his) words” (lascivam verborum veritatem, 1.pref.). Martial may not be the poet we want, but he’s the poet we deserve.
Not all of Martial’s poems can be read quickly, especially since his topical references usually need explaining in a commentary. But the poems tend to be very short, and they go faster the more of them you read. Random selections of epigrams with commentary here, here, and here.
2. Venus All Night Long (Pervigilium Veneris) Anonymous, c. fourth century
What if the Venus from Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura starred in her own work? Welcome to the Pervigilium Veneris! The poem celebrates Venus as the generative force, and the pulsing pleasure, of procreation in the natural world. “May anyone who has never loved make love tomorrow” is the constant refrain, “and whoever has loved, let them make love too!” (Cras amet qui numquam amavit, quique amavit cras amet). As a late antique Latin work, the poem is truly unique. It’s a poem written for a festival of Venus at a time when Christianity was the dominant cultural force. It was written, perhaps, by a woman at a time when male-dominated society allowed few opportunities. It was written in an unusual meter (trochaic septenarius) that flies in the face of high literary tradition. Take note: if you blush easily, perhaps don’t read it with your children nearby.
You can find a Latin text here. If you do happen to have a university library handy, check out the detailed textual work in William Barton’s new edition. The poem itself is 93 verses, not quite bite-sized, but its short stanzas can each be read on their own.
3. A Book of Ancient Inscriptions (Inscriptionum Antiquarum Liber), ed. M. Smet and J. Lipsius, 1588
Inscriptions speak with the voices of people whom high literature has often excluded, like women and the enslaved. And there is something uniquely moving and memorializing about the woodcuts of inscriptions in Renaissance-era volumes, like the Inscriptionum Antiquarum Liber, since they also illustrate the inscribed object itself. One of my favorite inscriptions is an epitaph for Julius Felix, a freedman and librarian of the Palatine Greek library. We would know almost nothing about the enslaved and freed librarians of ancient Rome if their epitaphs did not remain. But Julius Felix conceals a secret: he never existed. His epitaph is the work of Pirro Ligorio, the greatest forger of his age. Ligorio’s forgeries made their way into many epigraphic collections, and they were only kept out of the definitive modern epigraphic collection, the Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum, by the decision to treat any inscription seen by Ligorio as a forgery.
You can peruse the inscriptions of the Inscriptionum Antiquarum Liber (which only contains a few forgeries!) here. Take note that you have to flip through the first dozen pages or so to get to the inscriptions.
4. A Syllabus of Erudite Girls and Women (Catalogus Doctarum Virginum et Faeminarum) Elizabeth Jane Weston, 1606
Elizabeth Jane Weston was a contemporary of Shakespeare, and at the time she arguably had the higher reputation, at least internationally. Weston was a poet at the imperial court of Rudolf II in Prague, which had become a hub of alchemy, astronomy, literature, scholarship, and the arts. Her Catalogus comes at the end of her third book of Parthenica, a compilation of her poetry and her correspondence with other famous figures. The Catalogus begins with Deborah (the Biblical one) and Minerva, then continues through a host of ancient and modern female writers and scholars, each of whom receives a brief sentence or two. At the end of the list, Weston (with Horatian modesty) places herself as the culmination of this tradition and her most recent book as its terminal achievement: Elisabetha Johanna Westonia, Angla, … hisce et aliis scriptis ac linguarum aliquot peritia clara (“Elizabeth Jane Weston, English … famous for this very book, for other writings, and for her skill in several languages”).
Each entry of the Catalogus can be read as its own brief work, and the whole can be found in Book III of Weston’s Parthenica (link here); you have to turn to the page marked F3, which is at almost the very end of the book.
5. Jokes(Facetiae) Johann Ludwig Prasch, 1689
Knock knock. Who’s there? It’s a book of bad jokes in Latin. If you just laughed, or even cracked a smile, you’ll be rolling on the floor when you read Johann Ludwig Prasch’s Facetiae. Most of the jokes are admittedly weak, but they are occasionally funny and are always culturally interesting— as Mary Beard has shown with ancient jokes. Joke books have a long tradition, from Tiro’s compilation of Cicero’s jokes (in three volumes!), to the Philogelos (which was mined for jokes by Monty Python), to the bawdy, irreverent Facetiae of the humanist Poggio Bracciolini. In Prasch, who compiles his jokes from a mix of earlier sources, you’ll meet some of the stock characters from Roman jokes, like the scholasticus, whose reasoning always seems to miss something crucial. In a storm at sea, when all the other passengers on a ship are grabbing loose planks to try to stay afloat if it wrecks, the scholasticus cleverly grabs the anchor, which after all is much more secure.
You can read Prasch’s Facetiae here.
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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