Learning Latin and Greek

Learning languages is a chore at the best of times, so adding ancient Greek or Latin – the “prestige” tongues of the West that almost nobody speaks – to the roster can feel beyond the best of us. 


Regarding Greek, this is especially the case thanks to the fact – on top of the usual linguistic pitfalls – there are style and pronunciation to worry about. 


Concerning style, for instance, some of the best scholars find Thucydides cryptic at best and opaque at worst, while Xenophon can be a piece of cake even at an early level. On the topic of pronunciation, the reconstruction of Homeric Greek seems like a fantasy language to some and reading Plato in a modern Greek accent appears a little weird to others.


Resolving issues on the former can be a doddle. Photios’ Bibliotheca, for one, is replete with sagacious verdicts on the “Greats” if readers are ever bereft of an opinion. The latter, however, as it is an altogether trickier and controversial creature, and may be worth returning to via an expert in a future guest post.


Nevertheless, every journey starts with a footstep, so here’s a compilation of titles to help any budding Byzantines fulfil their Roman potential by mastering the two languages of the empire. 


It’s important to remember, however, a very unfashionable truth before eyes are put to page and pen to paper: learning is often boring but it’s also very useful. So don’t expect fun, instead, with Aeneas, learn to appreciate the lacrimae rerum or tears of things (I, 462); feeling the profound is a great prize.





Athenaze, Book I: An Introduction to Ancient Greek (2016)

Maurice Balme, Gilbert Lawall and James Morwood 



The closest Greek gets to reading the Cambridge Latin books, this is where many a clueless chump begins. If it feels a little too easy, try Alpha to Omega by Anne H. Groton (1995) instead, which includes fifty lessons with readings beginning with Aesop.




Primer of Greek Grammar (2000)

Evelyn Abbott and Edwin Mansfield



Think of this primer as your nuts and bolts: the unglamorous paradigms alongside descriptions of grammar and syntax. Pick up a relatively simple text (Greek’s equivalent of Caesar’s Commentarii de bello Gallico) that you know the general meaning of – the New Testament for instance – and trudge through the Greek version word-by-word.




Greek: A History of the Language and its Speakers (2014)

Geoffrey Horrocks



A compelling survey of the Greek language from its Mycenaean beginnings to the present day (via Byzantium), Horrocks has produced a superb summary of the culture in which Greek swims. An exciting addition to the Anglophone world in particular, it’s the first book in English to explore the evolution of the language as a whole; taking in its regional and social heterogeneity, as well as its spoken and written forms.




An Introduction to Attic Greek (1993)

Donald J. Mastronarde



Don’t be fooled by the “introduction” in the title, this is a demanding text that scholars often use to test their vocabulary long after they’ve mastered the tongue. Split into 42 chapters, each is a self-contained unit that exposes students to the grammar and morphology of the language, getting more and more difficult as readers progress from Lysias and Plato to Aristophanes.




An Introduction to the Composition and Analysis of Greek prose (2016)

Eleanor Dickey



Alternating composition with reading and analysis of sentences, as well as constant self-testing that engages recall abilities and various types of exercises, Dickey’s book has succeeded where many failed: namely in supplanting the antiquated primers upon which most have typically relied.




An Intermediate Greek-English Lexicon (2010)

Robert Scott & H. G. Liddell



Begun in the nineteenth century (one of the co-editors, Liddell, was the Dean of Christchurch, Oxford, whose daughter, Alice, inspired Lewis Carroll to write Alice in Wonderland) and over 1,000 pages long in its middle edition (there are “little” and “great” options too), this leviathan has been delivering solutions to lexical issues since the reign of Otto I. Just remember that it’s Greek-English (not vice versa), and that it covers all the major classical dialects as well as koine.








Cambridge Latin Course: Unit I (1990)



The Cambridge books have made Caecilius, Quintus and Grumio famous world-wide, if only for the incredibly mundane lives they lead for the sake of Latin beginners. The series is particularly good at spoon-feeding images so that even the simple-minded can intuitively guess their way through half the sentences.


Alternative Beginner: 


Gwynne’s Latin (2014)

N. M. Gwynne 



Few Latin books make declining or conjugating words either effortless or enjoyable. Gwynne has achieved it – sort of – in this small but thick volume, however. Refusing to shy away from the fact readers need practice and a lot of it, every single syntactical construction is flexed for hours on end until – one day – it all comes naturally. Those who want an even more rigorous option should purchase So You Really Want to Learn Latin (1999), where N. R. R. Oulton kick-starts a process not dissimilar to coding.




Latin (1969)

Ed. R. A. Hendricks & A. V. Kelly



Hardly the most inspiring title in the world, Latin offers a course in basic grammar and syntax to the standard of GCSE examining boards and includes exercises that give practice in all the major usages. It’s a great one for self-tuition, too, as answers are provided at the back. If it all gets a little too dull, there’s another workhorse-text known as Kennedy’s Revised Latin Primer (1965) to remind leaners that it’s not meant to be fun.


Alternative Intermediate:


A Natural History of Latin (2004)

Tore Janson



Recounting the story of how Latin went from small beginnings in seventh-century BC Rome to the tongue of the civilised world, Tore Janson charts its survival into modern times. Though admittedly not without slip-ups – mostly to do with presentist biases – despite these flaws, it’s an underrated overview of what’s supposed to be a dead language. Those who prefer their history leavened with more facts than opinions, however, should plump for N. Ostler’s Ad Infinitum (2007).




Translate some Catullus, Horace, Propertius or Maximianus


Flexible word order and quantitative meter are the two features of Latin poesy that set it apart from its English counterpart. I learned Latin properly (instead of begrudgingly) to read its love poets during self-dramatising break-ups. So – in my heart – Latin poetry will always remain the pinnacle. Surfing the golden line, highlighting the chiasmus and counting out elevens in the hendecasyllable has the disorientating effect of joining mechanisms to flights of the sublime – a real reward to Latinists worth their salt.




Translate some Sallust or Tacitus


Sallust is a difficult author to translate. Quite apart from his speed and brevity, his archaisms and bright poetic colours are hard to reproduce in English without creating impressions of affectation or precocity. Then there’s Tacitus, a name that terrifies those weaned on the Ciceronian style. Deploying ellipsis and asyndeton beneath the banner of brevitas, his concision, syntax and lexical ingenuity can be a challenge to even the most accomplished Byzantines.