Category Archives: Latin

Review: A Vulgate Old Testament Reader.

When learning ancient languages, I have gone back and forth between inductive and deductive approaches.  So first-year Greek was painful, because there was so much grammar drilling, but my four months of very inductive, surah-by-surah Arabic lessons left me with little ability to read an unfamiliar text.  When I was teaching myself Latin this summer with Wheelock’s Latin, I stopped halfway through the text to spend some time with Scott Goins’ useful reader in Vulgate Latin.

1-59333-215-7Goins bills this as a reader for intermediate Latin students in Vulgate Latin.  Because the Vulgate’s Latin is so simple, very little background is needed to start reading it, even if some nuances might by missed by the beginner.  Goins selects several of the most well-known Old Testament passages and includes them: hits such as the creation in Genesis, the Ten Commandments in Exodus, David’s fight with Goliath, ten different psalms, and the entire story of Jonah.  (You can view the table of contents on Google Books.)  I really liked the variety of the selections included, although he was a little light on Pentateuch readings.

Each selection has running vocabulary at the bottom of the page, but after three uses of any word he includes an asterisk next to subsequent uses to let the reader know they should memorize that word.  The last two readings had no glosses at all, forcing the student to rely on memory and the glossary in the back of the book.

Goins’ introduction includes a brief history of Jerome and the Vulgate, a guide to Latin pronunciation both classical and medieval, and a brief list of basic vocabulary to memorize. He also has a short bibliography of useful books for the student of Vulgar Latin.  Though adequate for intermediate students, his introduction and bibliography are based on survey texts and omit many of the more recent scholarship on Jerome (e.g. Tkacz’ article or Michael Graves’ scholarship).  A better place to go would be Stefan Rebenich’s recent introduction to Jerome, which includes excerpts from the several different types of writing he did.

The Vulgate is a tricky text for Latin students, because often they already know what it will say.  While that could be seen as a defect allowing students to be lazy, it enabled me to connect with the Latin more, because I was personally and spiritually interested in what I was reading.  Knowing the Latin of the Vulgate is also important to understand medieval theologians, who constantly quote and allude to the Vulgate.  More importantly, it was a nice break from Wheelock’s relentless grammar lessons because it let me get comfortable with reading long Latin passages.

Overall, this was a very useful book, especially alongside Smith’s volume which I recently reviewed.  I can only hope that Goins decides to produce an accompanying volume for the  Vulgate New Testament!

Review: Ecclesiastical, Medieval, and Neo-Latin Sentences.

7982Last summer I taught myself Latin using Wheelock’s Latin, Groton and May’s 38 Latin Stories, and Richard Upsher Smith, Jr.’s Ecclesiastical, Medieval, and Neo-Latin Sentences.  One of the frustrations of being interested in Medieval Latin is the scarcity of teaching resources.  While classical authors such as Ovid, Vergil, and Catullus have numerous glossed readers and commentaries for students, Augustine, Bonaventure, and Aquinas do not.  So I was excited to find this volume, which was just published this year by Bolchazy-Carducci, a specialist in Greek and Latin teaching texts.  Smith, a professor at the Franciscan University of Steubenville, provides medieval and ecclesiastical Latin sentences to accompany Wheelock’s gold standard Latin textbook.

For every chapter of Wheelock, Smith provides 15 Latin sentences.  The blend is diverse: some Vulgate excerpts, a few quotes from patristic and medieval theological Latin, and often a few bits from contemporary Latin liturgy or Vatican II documents thrown in.  I really like how Smith provides the sources for his excerpts, so that the reader can dive further into a text if they wish.  I also like that he grades each sentence in order of difficulty.  (I felt better if I couldn’t get a sentence when I saw that it had an “A” for “Advanced”!)  My only complain here is that he often fails to provide context for more obscure sentences.  This is particularly a problem for quotes from scholastic or astronomical treatises.

In the second part of the book, Smith provides 16 readings drawn from the Vulgate, Augustine, Latin hymns, Bede, and other famous Latin writers.  Trying to include many different types of literature, he even includes a monastery charter and an entire passage from the scholastic Summa of Thomas Aquinas.  I haven’t had the chance to work through these yet, so I can’t comment on them too much, but he gives glosses for everything.

Then come the appendices.  He has a 12-page outline of differences between medieval and classical Latin, as well as an extensive bibliography of the Latin texts he draws from, with many short biographies of Latin authors.  At the end there is an index of every author and book of scripture from which he included exercises.

For the student using Wheelock’s Latin who wants some exposure to ecclesiastical and medieval texts, there is no need to justify this book.  Rather than trying to reinvent the wheel and write a new Latin textbook, Smith has added to what is already the gold standard in many high school and college Latin programs.  This book would also be very useful for someone trained in classical Latin who wants a segue into medieval and ecclesiastical texts. Working through Smith gives the student an idea of some of the medieval and ecclesiastical Latin authors out there, and provides basic vocabulary to understand those texts.

But for the beginning student with no Latin and no prescribed textbook, why not use Collins’ A Primer of Ecclesiastical Latin?  Before Wheelock’s, I tried Collins’ book, and found it to be less useful for self-teaching.  Because Wheelock’s is so popular, there is a wealth of study aids, flashcard sets, and accompanying volumes (like Smith’s) to use alongside it.  Plus Wheelock’s is just fun in a way that Collins is not, and it exposes the student to classical authors and Roman culture along with the grammar.  Having tried both methods, I think it better to use Wheelock’s with Smith’s volume, rather than Collins’ by itself.

Smith writes in his preface that as medieval studies grows, more books like his will be needed.  In future posts I will review some of these recent texts, such as Randall Meissen’s Scholastic Latin: An Intermediate Course and Scott Goins’ A Vulgate Old Testament Reader.  And no student of medieval Latin should be without Leo Stelten’s Dictionary of Ecclesiastical Latin.

Translating the “Dies Irae.”

Working through Wheelock’s grammar is tough.  (I’m at chapter 16!)  Naturally, I decided to liven up my Latin by reading a famous medieval dirge for the dead.  The “Dies Irae” is ascribed to Thomas of Celano, thirteenth-century author of the first hagiography of Francis of Assisi.  Think what you may, I am sure you have heard this hymn before, especially if you saw Amadeus:

Here I’d like to look over the first two stanzas of the hymn and supply some translations.  I have given up trying to keep the meter, rhyme, and meaning intact.  I figure two out of three ain’t bad!

Dies irae, dies illa
solvet saeclum in favilla
teste David cum Sibylla.

Quantus tremor est futurus
quando iudex est venturus
cuncta stricte discussurus!

Notice that each line is in trochaic tetrameter, “Dies irae, dies illa,” with eight beats in each line.  In each stanza, all three lines rhyme: illa / favilla / Sibylla.”  Peter Walsh’s translation in his fantastic Dumbarton Oaks One Hundred Latin Hymns: Ambrose to Aquinas volume is the most literal I have seen:

Day of fury, that sad day
will reduce the world to dust,
as claim David and the Sibyl.

What a trembling there will be
when the judge is to appear
all things harshly to review! (Walsh 347)

As amazing as Wash’s volume is, his translation doesn’t even try to keep the poetic elements of the hymn.  I tried my hand at keeping the rhyme.

The day, that day of fury
When the world will turn to ashes in a hurry
As David and Sibyll told us to worry.

How greatly all will be trembling,
When the judge is assembling,
The world gone to disassembling.

[Alternate translation of the second stanza:]
A great tremor will be scattering,
When the judge with his feet the earth battering,
The world gone to shattering.

Despite my best efforts, some of my wording is just awkward: “As David and Sibyll told us to worry” doesn’t capture the eschatological urgency of the original.  Sometimes the languages provide their own obstacles.  The participles that rhyme so well in Latin translate into static gerunds in English that don’t adequately capture the drama and action.

Two other translators tried to keep the rhyme:

Day of wrath and doom impending,
David’s word with Sibyl’s blending,
Heaven and earth in ashes ending!

Oh, what fear man’s bosom rendeth,
When from heaven the Judge descendeth,
On whose sentence all dependeth.
(William Josiah Irons, 1849 — link)

That day of wrath, that dreadful day,
shall heaven and earth in ashes lay,
as David and the Sybil say.

What horror must invade the mind
when the approaching Judge shall find
and sift the deeds of all mankind! (link)

Irons’ is the loosest, even switching the second and third lines in the first stanza.  I like it more, despite its archaisms. The other one uses very limpid verbs (“lay,” “say”) — not appropriate for eschatology!

Still, there seems to be a certain energy in the original Latin that rhyme-oriented translations don’t capture.  So I worked on keeping the meter instead:

Day of wrath, that day when all burns
World turns ashes, God breaks, smashes,
David, Sibyll witness’d, told us.

Tremor breaks out, how great, how loud,
When the Judge is coming, sitting,
Viewing souls, soon shatters bad ones.

I love the energy of the first stanza.  The second stanza did not come out as well, especially the third line.  (Any suggestions?)  Ironically, to keep the meter of the Latin, I have to use short, one-syllabled Germanic words!

I could only find one translation that preserves both meter and rhyme.  Ambrose Bierce satirically throws meaning out the window:

Day of Satan’s painful duty!
Earth shall vanish, hot and sooty;
So says Virtue, so says Beauty.

Ah! what terror shall be shaping
When the Judge the truth’s undraping!
Cats from every bag escaping!

Thoughts?  Suggestions?  How would you translate it?

Handout: Timeline of the Vulgate.

One thing I like to do when studying a new subject is make diagrams and charts.  I made my own verb charts when I was learning Hebrew, because that way I knew I was making sense of it myself.

I just stumbled across a timeline of Vulgate translation that I made when I was working through the Old Testament Vulgate Reader.  Here it is: Vulgate Translation TImeline.  I mostly based it off of Catherine Brown Tkacz’s article, “Labor Tam Utilis: The Creation of the Vulgate.”  If there I anything I’ve noticed about studies on the Vulgate, it is that there seems to be an absolute paucity of them.

Caravaggio, "St. Jerome Writing."

Caravaggio, “St. Jerome Writing.”

Feel free to use it for whatever you want.  I appreciate any comments or corrections.  In the next few days I will make a section of this site for these handouts.

An apologia for classics majors.

This weekend I helped recruit for the classics major to incoming first-years.  I should say first-year because only one showed up to our session!  This is normal for a program like classics.  The good thing for me was that the session forced me to think about why I value the major.

When I transferred to my university, I started taking Greek to better understand the New Testament.  I quickly learned that my university did not offer many Greek reading courses on texts relevant to early Christianity.  There was one New Testament Greek course.  I decided I would major in Greek, resigning myself (!) to reading Homer, Herodotus, and Sophocles.

But when I read these authors in translation, I was hooked.  I decided to not only continue reading these classical Greek writers, but to add the whole major, not just the language courses.  This was definitely one of the best decisions of my time in university.


Classics is interdisciplinary.  I do not like disciplinary boundaries.  I prefer playing with them to see the broad connections between many fields of study.  Classics enables me to do this.

For example, last quarter I took a philosophy class on ancient Stoicism.  The Stoics, who stressed living in accordance with the pantheistic telos of the universe, were one of the most famous schools of thought of the Hellenistic age.  At the same time I was also taking a course on the history of the Hellenistic era.  I saw how philosophical schools fit into the Hellenistic world, as one more school providing answers and roadmaps for those uprooted by the strange new world wrought by Alexander.  I also connected the Stoics with my fall religious studies “Gender in Early Christianity” course, as the Stoics make the same connection between manliness and virtue that Greeks, Romans, and early Christians made.  These connections between philosophy, religion, and history also tie into the Latin language itself, where vir (man) and virtus (virtue) are connected by etymology.

One sacrifice we make for interdisciplinary is breadth.  A history major might not let you engage in as many modes of reading culture, but it would give you a better overview of many different times and cultures.  But if you begin with Hesiod (7th/8th century BCE) and end with the fall of Rome (476 CE), you are still covering 1,200-1,300 years of human history in classics.  And that’s not counting the Minoans and Mycenaeans beforehand, or the 1,500 years of classical influence on Western culture afterwards.  Nor is that counting the interactions Greeks and Romans had with Near Eastern and Asian cultures via warfare and the Silk Road.

Classics gets respect.  The unfair but true fact is that some liberal arts majors are seen as fluff.  I would know – my other major is religious studies.  Even though few people study Latin or Greek any more – perhaps because of it! – it still carries a certain cachet.  Studying it makes people perceive you as intelligent.  And rightly so — language courses are definitely the hardest part of a classics major!

If you are applying to graduate school in the humanities, a background in Latin or Greek will make you stand out.  My Buddhism professor, who knows Tibetan, Sanskrit, Chinese, and Pali, tells me he wishes he could read Greek.  My Islam professor actually began grad school in classics before switching to Arabic!  And I can’t tell you how often in class a professor asks me how to pronounce a Greek word correctly.  Those moments make me proud.

Classics students are crazy about their major.  At both community college and university, I noticed that small departments tended to have really dedicated majors.  This applies to classics — but also to many other underpopulated disciplines that students have likely never heard of before college.  The truth is that I have met scores of English, history, and political science majors who seem lukewarm to their major.  But the anthropology, religious studies, womens’ studies, and classics majors I have met were all crazy about their major.  Most had existential questions and life discernments impelling them toward their chosen field of study.  I’m curious if other people have observed the same correlation between major obscurity and major devotion.

Anyway, I hope you found my apologia convincing.  What did/do you love about your college major?

Jerome on the “firmamentum” in Genesis 1:6.

When translating the start of the Vulgate I came across this verse:

Dixit quoque Deus: Fiat firmamentum in medio aquarum: et dividat aquas ab aquis.

The Latin here is very simple and can be rendered: “And God also said: Let there be a firmament in the middle of the waters: and may it divide waters from waters.”

The word firmamentum, famously rendered in the KJV as “firmament,” is translated from the Hebrew word רָקִיעַ (rāqîaʿ).  In English it is rendered as “vault” (NIV) or “dome” (NRSV, NAB) in contemporary translations.  What is going on here?


From G. L. Robinson’s Leaders of Israel (New York: Association Press, 1913), p. 2.

When ancient Israel wrote of the “dome” separating the lower waters from the upper waters, it seems they took it quite seriously.  And there is some sense to it, especially for a culture that hasn’t flown airplanes above the clouds.  Why else would the sky be blue like the waters below?  Why else would water come from the sky?

In classical Latin, “firmamentum” referred to a support or prop (often architectural) or the main point of an argument.  So it seems to me that Jerome expanded the meaning of the word.  Since Greco-Roman cosmology did not involve a dome, he had to adapt a Latin word to fit this Hebrew concept.

Jerome, a contemporary of Augustine, was one of the last Latin-writing Church Fathers to get a classical education.  He spent much of his career as an ascetic teacher and biblical scholar emphasizing how he left pagan culture behind.  He advised patrons to only have their children read Christian thinkers, even as the literary forms and linguistic styles he wrote in were undeniably of pagan Rome.  So (it seems to me) he is uniquely positioned on the cusp of medieval Latin.  He wrote as a scholar of the pagan classics, but in translating the bulk of the Vulgate he created the turns of phrase that would infuse the Western medieval church’s liturgy and theology.  This use of firmamentum might just be one example of such a turn of phrase.

What do you think?  To what extent did Jerome shape the course of medieval Latin in his creative translation effort?

EDIT: For the curious, Scribalishness has a great post explaining the dome and Genesis 1’s cosmology.

Book review: A Natural History of Latin

9780191622656_p0_v1_s260x420When describing Pliny’s Naturalis historia, Janson admits:

The title of the book you are reading is of course adapted from Pliny’s famous work, in the hope that it will provide a suitable blend of useful information and entertaining anecdote, just as his volumes do. (65)

Janson’s short (176 p.) succeeds at that task rather admirably.  He charts the history of the Latin language from the first inscription 2500 to its present survival in etymology, medicine, and all European languages.  He does so by anecdote and story rather than analysis.

The saga of Latin is difficult to date, but one plausible beginning is the Lapis Niger, a fifth-century inscription in archaic letters dedicating a shrine to the king and cursing anyone who defiles it.


 One thing I always like knowing about an ancient language is what sorts of texts we have in it.  Janson describes different genres and their famous writers in Classical Latin: the histories of Livy and Tacitus, the drama of Plautus, the oratory of Cicero, the philosophy of Lucretius and Seneca, the poetry and myth of Horace, Virgil, and Ovid.  These descriptions would be a useful guide to a beginning Latin student seeking a goal.  Personally I’d want to read Ovid and Virgil.

Although Classical Latin gets the most attention, far more manuscripts are from the medieval church, one of the few institutions that still uses Latin.  Janson describes the Christianization of Latin:

The word confiteri means ‘confess’ and is in origin a term used in court, but among the Christians it acquires the meaning ‘to confess one’s faith in,’ and the related noun confessio in turn comes to mean ‘a confession of one’s faith.’ … The Latin language did not have any terms for the core Christian concepts, so they had to be created either by giving old words new meanings, as in the example we have just seen, or else simply by borrowing words from Greek. (79)

Medieval Latin flourished and diminished at various times and in various places, following the fortunes of Christian rulers who promoted Latin (Charlemagne) or energetic clergy (Alcuin, Cassiodorus).  Much of it is bible commentary, not very interesting today.  But other genres and authors enjoy more popularity: hagiographies, hymns, histories, sermons, theological treatises, and decidedly non-Church works such as the Carmina Burana and the love letters of Abelard and Heloise.  I began Latin seeking to read these works, and in my quest for resources I have run up against what Janson describes:

Thanks to the work of many generations of paleographers and textual critics we now have all the ancient texts in printed editions which are both easy to read and more correct than any of the surviving manuscripts. This is not, however, the case with texts from the Middle Ages, since there are many more of them and they have attracted much less interest from Latin specialists. … Many more texts have not been published at all, but are waiting in libraries for someone to read them and prepare an edition. There is a limitless amount of valuable work waiting to be done by those who would like to devote themselves to Latin and the Middle Ages. (122)

In our time we often make fun of the middle ages as a backward and ignorant time, but Janson is sympathetic to its literary giants.

7th-century English Book of Durrow: the Gospel of Mark.  Source:

7th-century English Book of Durrow: the Gospel of Mark. Source:

Latin is often deemed a ‘dead’ language.  Janson (and I) take exception to this; Latin is very much alive!  That said, Janson describes several points at which Latin fell out of particular uses. If Latin died, when did it happen?  Perhaps it was when Latin died out as a spoken language in late antiquity.  Or was it at some point in Latin’s transformation into French, Spanish, and Italian?  Perhaps it was in the sixteenth century when theologians and poets (e.g. Luther, Milton) began writing in their vernacular.  Or in the seventeenth century when scientists began shedding Latin, most notably Galileo.  Or in the twentieth century, when Latin was dropped as a prerequisite for high culture and university degrees.  Latin’s decline has been gradual, in stages, not a one-time event.

Still, the lingua latina lives on, whether in classics departments or medical and biological taxonomy.  My favorite part of this book is the appendix of famous aphorisms.  Caveat lector (let the reader beware), this is an engrossing book for anyone interested in Latin.

My journey into Latin.

After my first year of Greek, my next step became clear.  I wanted to learn Latin.  But I didn’t want to sit through another year of grammar-parsing.

“I’ll teach you!” exclaimed my professor.  I had mentioned to him that I was considering learning Latin.  As a medievalist in a religious studies department, I was his first Latin student in three decades of teaching.  We duly began working through Collins’ Ecclesiastical Latin.  My Greek – and two years of long-forgotten high school Spanish – has made Latin go by quickly.  Word order still plagues me.


Many would claim I am learning the wrong kind of Latin, or that I should learn Classical Latin first.  But I prefer to read that which holds my interest.  I can always pick up Virgil at another time.

This fall Dr. Macy and I are examining Jerome’s translation of the Hebrew Bible.  Did he get things right?  In the spring we hope to read some Bonaventure.  I am beginning to see the beauty of the Roman tongue.