should I learn Latin or Ancient Greek?
September 25, 2012 10:48 PM   Subscribe

Early next year, I will have a lot of down time in or near places that were visited by the ancient Romans and Greeks. I am a moderate history and language nerd. If I want to read ancient source material related to some of the places I will be visiting, what language should I learn - Latin or Ancient Greek?

I have always been a voracious reader (roughly a thousand pages a week for the last fifteen years). I use a Kindle app with my phone and various computers, as well as physical books. At any given time I am reading lots of different things - different environments require different inputs. Like a short essay when I'm waiting for a meeting to begin or a big hardbound book for when I'm eating a bowl of pho. I like to skip around on a general topic, expanding my understanding of it from various perspectives. I got burnt out on the news and contemporary fiction years ago, so I tend to read about history-related things. When history gets boring, I focus on a specific foreign language's fiction output. A long time ago that was Japanese, more recently that was Russian.

Five years ago, I combined topics, and learned Russian in order to read Russian fiction and classics. I took 3 months in a structured language 'school' and another two years with a private tutor twice a week. We worked our way through two volumes of a textbook series, translated a lot of short stories and Anna Ahkmatova, kept diaries in Russian, and had a lot of great conversations with our teacher. She came to our house and we would eat chocolates, drink tea, and read The Master and Margarita to each other in Russian - it was great. So now a few items on my reading list are Russian short stories. My language acquisition is such that I am great at reading comprehension and terrible at conversation.

In a few months, I will be doing a lot of business travel to Europe. Several consecutive months, lots of flying and boring corporate housing. Some places will be busy and interesting in their own right (London, Amsterdam), but extensive time will be spent places where it is not immediately so (East Anglia). I'd like to read about a topic that I can follow up or enhance with physical trips relative to what I'm reading about. This could mean something like reading Roman accounts of Britain and northern Europe, or something further afield to take advantages of proximity to more exotic places within a reasonable plane flight, like megalithic and bronze age sites in Malta and Greece.

I won't have time or a structured-enough schedule to do what I did with Russian, though, so I'd be learning the language on my own. I have pretty good study and practice habits from my Russian days in terms of translation and reading comprehension, but none for writing or speaking, which is great, because I'm not really interested in learning a language to speak (my work is conducted entirely in English, I don't anticipate being based anywhere for a long period where that isn't the case). Basically, I just want to gain moderate reading comprehension, enough to read ancient historical accounts of places I am visiting, like the relevant parts of Caesar's Conquest of Gaul while in Switzerland on a project.

I skimmed UC Berkeley's Ancient Greek tutorials and the alphabet/pronunciation are mostly familiar and non-intimidating. If ancient Greek's difficulty is due to the alphabet acquisition, that probably won't be much of a problem for me. It would give me an excuse to visit the Mediterranean to see things I've been reading about. I'm slightly most interested in learning more about Aegan bronze age stuff and visiting those sites.

Latin, however, would allow me to read Roman accounts of Britain, and the later Anglo-Saxon writings relative to the area of the UK I'll be spending the most in. I could also visit Italy or other Roman sites in Europe. There seem to be a lot more on- and offline resources for learning it solo and more easily-found texts to read. Is there a significant difference between Imperial-period Latin and Medieval Latin? I took two years of Latin in middle school, but I have forgotten all of it.

I have seen this and this about Latin resources for solo study, this about Ancient Greek, and this about study habits for Latin and Ancient Greek, none which really get at what I'm wondering but are very helpful in their own right. Also, they made both languages sound appealing!


- Should I learn Latin or Ancient Greek?
- Any suggestions for on- or offline resources for either language? Textbook series, online courses, apps, best small and large dictionary? Looks like Wheelock's is the standard Latin textbook and Wilding's Greek for Beginners are the standard text books.
- Cool topics that make knowing one of those languages relevant? Some overarching things I have considered are the migration period/fall of Rome, megalithic and bronze age, and Roman colonies in Europe. Anything that will utilize one of these languages by allowing me to read accounts from the period.
- Cool places to visit relative to that topic within a 4 hour or less flight from London or Amsterdam? (London-Malta appears to be two flights of three-ish hours. This is also fine. I also like overnight trains and ferries.)

thanks, mefi!
posted by par court to Writing & Language (19 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: This is going to heavily depend where you're going, where it fell on the Greek/Latin axis of linguistic/cultural influence, and what the major sources are.

If we're talking Western Europe and specifically Britain and Italy, you're going to want Latin. The Ancient Greeks didn't make it too far west, and places like Britain and Germany were never part of the Hellenic world. Furthermore, for Britain specifically you're looking at sources like Tacitus and Caesar, who wrote in Latin. Latin is also good for medieval stuff. And of course, ancient Roman ruins in Italy.

Ancient Greek might be useful in certain contexts if you're traveling in some parts of Southern Italy, which A) were Greek colonies in the pre-Roman period, and B) had a pretty diverse set of influences after the fall of the Roman Empire.

One subject area I find interesting, if you can travel pretty much wherever based only on the whims of being a history nerd, is the early Celtic church. There were significant differences between Irish Catholic and Roman Catholic traditions in late antiquity. It would be pretty cool to visit the Book of Kells in Dublin, and various Irish monastery sites throughout the British Isles, and be familiar with primary sources from the time. What's even better for you is that the Irish monks apparently had impeccable Latin, because the Romans had never colonized there and they all had to learn it as a foreign language.

I'm not too sure of specific primary sources, since you don't mention specifically where you'll be and what your interests are. But one recommendation I'd make is to learn to read local inscriptions. I have been to Rome three times and still kick myself that I need to rent the audioguide to figure out what the words carved into the side of the building say. Ditto for Istanbul and Greek.

As for resources for language learning, I have a copy of this, which is a cool beginner's guide that might refresh some of your middle school Latin. It should definitely set you straight for reading building inscriptions, grave markers, and the like.
posted by Sara C. at 11:14 PM on September 25, 2012 [4 favorites]

If ancient Greek's difficulty is due to the alphabet acquisition, that probably won't be much of a problem for me. It would give me an excuse to visit the Mediterranean to see things I've been reading about. I'm slightly most interested in learning more about Aegan bronze age stuff and visiting those sites.

1) The alphabet is probably the easiest thing about Greek. Most undergraduates learn it in an hour, and are expected to have thoroughly mastered it by the end of the first week. Cyrillic is a derivative alphabet anyway, so that probably wouldn't be a problem.

2) The earliest literary texts in Greek are from circa 750 BCE (if you count a hexameter on a pot sherd), about five hundred years after the end of the bronze age. There are Greek texts from the Bronze Age, but a) they're not written in the Greek alphabet and b) they're mostly warehouse inventories. If the Bronze Age is your primary interest as far as Greece is concerned, then Greek is not the language for you.

Sounds like Latin is the way to go. If you're interested in learning the language through the traditional method - memorizing the rules of grammar and practicing them on small snippets of text, slowly building up to paragraphs and whole works - then Wheelock's is the conventional choice, as you note.
posted by dd42 at 11:34 PM on September 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

Neither are particularly difficult, but Greek would require a little more effort. Not because of the alphabet (which is easily acquired), but because Greek vocabulary is less easily guessable. In Latin, by comparison, vocab building is a breeze because so many Latin roots have seeped into English. (Latin may also provide a more straightforward introduction to how synthetic languages work).

As dd42 said, ancient Greek is not a window into the Bronze Age. In my experience most people are drawn to it because they want to read the great literature/philosophy of 5th C Athens (Euripides, Herodotus, etc) + Homer + Plato in the original. Or the New Testament. If you're not interested in those, and it does not seem that you are (although Xenophon & Herodotus might appeal), I think Latin is a better starting point.
posted by dontjumplarry at 11:42 PM on September 25, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Apologies for the totally parenthesis-laden brain-dump which follows.

Were I in your position, I would learn Latin. I'm probably a little biased, though, as I've studied both but am much more experienced with Latin. For British history, you're going to find Latin much more relevant and useful than Greek (though Greek is fun, too).

If you want a physical dictionary, I like Langenscheidt's, but obviously everyone is different. I had the small version for ease of carrying around. It's been a few years since I did any Latin translation, but I seem to recall the Collins Gem dictionary being okay as well. Maybe read some Amazon reviews, or check out your library's suggestion before committing to a dictionary.

At university, I took classes in translating Tacitus, Horace, and Livy and found William Whitaker's Words to be a pretty useful site. Sometimes it's hard to tell which declension a noun belongs to, and dictionaries require that you're able to figure out the proper nominative in order to look up a word. Whitaker's Words allows you to enter the word in the declined or conjugated form and provides gender/case/number or person/number/tense/voice information in addition to the definition.

I used the Ecce Romani series for seventh through ninth grade Latin (red, green, purple books), then moved on to original sources (starting with Ovid's Metamorphoses, then the Aeneid and finally collected works of Cicero). We supplemented with Wheelock, but I actually really like the format of Ecce Romani. Sure, the stories are dumb and the characters spend pretty much an entire semester stuck in a ditch, but it prepares you for reading original sources in a way that I don't think Wheelock does, and I prefer the sequence in which the information is provided.

I like (love?) Gildersleeve's Latin Grammar. Grammar is super important for comprehension in Latin: Gildersleeve himself said, "No study of literature can yield its highest result without the close study of language, and consequently the close study of grammar." You may not find Gildersleeve that interesting, but I'm a linguist so, for me, the appeal of Latin (or any language) is the underlying structure more than reading texts. Plus you really just have to trust a pair named "Basil Lanneau Gildersleeve" and "Gonzalez Lodge."

Also, in addition to looking at books, if you really want to learn, I suggest FLASH CARDS. I color coded mine because I'm like that. Sounds archaic, but I found them very useful for both Latin and Greek. Make cards for all the noun and verb endings. Make sure you can answer both ways (e.g. "What verb ending is -eo?" as well as "What is the second conjugation first person singular ending for the present tense?" and "What is the meaning of puer?" as well as "What is the Latin for "boy"?). Also, we always did significant memorization work, which may or may not be useful. Two passages we used at different times were the first story from the red book of Ecce Romani (the one which beings with "Ecce! In pictura est puella, nomine Cornelia..." not that I'll remember it for the rest of my life) and the first 25 lines of the Aeneid.

Once you pick a textbook, do consider checking out others just to see how they present stuff. Jenney's series is okay and the structure and content of the Cambridge Latin Course is similar to Ecce Romani but struck me as a little less juvenile in plot.

I started Latin in a public junior high school and was enormously fortunate to have the most capable and rigorous instructor I have ever had for a class. I credit him with directing me to my eventual profession.

If you do decide that you'd rather learn Greek, I recommend the Athenaze texts, though you can probably find someone more qualified than I to make suggestions.
posted by easy, lucky, free at 11:47 PM on September 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Sara C. - Sorry, I should have clarified. I'll be living in the greater London area and spending the majority of my time there, East England (Ipswich), and regular week-long or more trips to Amsterdam, Zurich, and Paris. I would prefer to visit the Ancient Greek sphere, but most of my time will be closer to the Roman areas. My work is kind of erratic and hectic and I will have better luck with shorter-length trips no more than four or five days.

dd42 - I think perhaps I was thinking the early Greeks wrote about prior ages, but thanks for the info about the earliest literary texts, very useful. thanks!
posted by par court at 11:47 PM on September 25, 2012

Best answer: If you're in Ipswich and you want Roman Britain, get the train to Colchester (Camulodunum), about thirty minutes or so away. It's the oldest Roman town in the country and there's a museum at the castle. Latin texts dealing with Roman Britain include Caesar's Gallic Wars (Books 4 and 5), and Tacitus in the Annals (Boudica's revolt is in book 14) and, most obviously, his Agricola.

More generally, I grew up in East Anglia and know the region very well - if you want any help do feel free to memail.
posted by bebrogued at 12:07 AM on September 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I think you should bone up on your Etruscan History before you venture out, as there is compelling evidence they had a HUGE influence on the Romans, and many things that were considered "Roman innovations" are just wholesale rip-offs (and misinterpretations of the history) of established Etruscan Culture.

A quick google says the Etruscans borrowed written language from the Greeks, or their written language was heavily influenced by the Greeks once their culture was already well established.

Not so much a recommendation for language, so much as a recommendation for learning the architecture and other cultural markers of the Etruscans as you evaluate Roman sites.

There are a few researchers and acedemics pursuing this angle. Memail me if you can't find them on your own, it's been a year or two since this opinion first crossed my path, I'll see if I can find it in my notes or bookmarks.

Not what you asked for exactly, but it is a deeper reading of the history you are looking to evaluate, so it's in the ballpark of your question.

Enjoy your study!
posted by jbenben at 12:15 AM on September 26, 2012 [3 favorites]

Best answer: If ancient Greek's difficulty is due to the alphabet acquisition, that probably won't be much of a problem for me.

Sadly no. It's actually relatively easy to learn basic Greek, but reading the literary texts can be tough going. Homer is the easiest Greek text and has very good commentaries to help you out (and if you use Pharr's textbook, you'll have read the first book of the Iliad). But what you'd really want to read is Pausanias' description of Greece, a travel guide from the Roman empire (it's really quite fabulous and integral for understanding for the art and architecture of Greece). However, reading it is a little tougher than just knowing Greek as I don't think it has a good commentary. Or a good English one, at any rate.

But if you want to learn Greek I recommend Hanson and Quinn: quick going and gives you the essentials without bogging you down. (Avoid Athenaze at all costs if you want to go fast.)

Latin is the easier language, but the problem is the text that you'd probably want to read, Tacitus (because he does a lot of ethnographic stuff), is incredibly tough going. I think the key at some point becomes less about the inherent difficulty of the text than finding good commentaries and aids to the text you want to read.

Wheelock is a good, clean Latin textbook and also has the advantage of a lot of help online; I highly recommend it. Reading Latin and Reading Greek also have self-study companion volumes, so they're also good options.
posted by lesbiassparrow at 12:16 AM on September 26, 2012 [3 favorites]

Oh, then definitely Latin. The Ancient Greeks didn't get anywhere near any of the places where you have concrete travel plans, and it seems sort of pointless to spend months learning Ancient Greek because you're contemplating perhaps spending a long weekend in Athens.

Unless you're the kind of person who enjoys language study just for the hell of it, I guess. But even then, the benefits of Latin are much more obvious. Even in Amsterdam and Zurich, which I think would have been mostly outside the Roman World, Latin was a lingua franca for centuries after the fall of the empire.
posted by Sara C. at 12:17 AM on September 26, 2012

Response by poster: So many great answers - thank you for the info so far. Definitely keep weighing in!

I will work on being more succinct in future questions - this is my first! - but answers like jbenben's are totally awesome and definitely in line with the general direction I was going.
posted by par court at 12:31 AM on September 26, 2012

Best answer: Oh, and I also recommend getting a little handbook on how to read inscriptions, as reading one is a different thing than reading regular Latin text. It also allows you a fast start on knowing the language as the texts are easy.
posted by lesbiassparrow at 12:59 AM on September 26, 2012 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I can endorse Wilding's Greek for Beginners, if you do decide to learn Ancient Greek. I love it's minimalist simplicity, and found it much easier to work with than Athenaze. I found the book's English to Greek translation exercises to be the best way to really get the grammar down.

I did the Cambridge Latin Course through to the end, too, and it's very enjoyable but relatively slow going I would say.

The Perseus Digital Library is also a wonderful online resource. It has a vast array of primary and secondary sources in Latin, Ancient Greek and English. All the major texts and commentaries are there. In the original Latin and Greek texts, every word is clickable, revealing its case, tense and gender, with a link to its lexicon entry (often there are multiple lexicon links). Invaluable.
posted by guessthis at 1:18 AM on September 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: You should probably learn Latin if it's going to be a geographical thing. You should probably also go with the Cambridge Latin Course as after a brief sojourn in Pompeii that spends an awful lot of time in Roman Britain, and you will be able to visit the remains of some of the places depicted which is quite cool.

Do bear in mind, though, that if you want to get into it there is a bit of a 'culture thing' about the differences between Latinists and Hellenists. Greek is definitely flashier and sexier, though in my experience it tends to attract two very different crowds: intense, slightly unstable queers and Evangelical Christians*. Oh, the heated arguments at those summer schools! Happy days. Latin is a lot stodgier but also draws the kind of people who like intense focus on detail and talking a lot about reception and intertextuality and webs of interrelatedness. These are, like, the most sweeping generalisations I have ever made in my life, so take them with a pinch or two of salt, please.

*Guess which camp I fall into
posted by Acheman at 3:09 AM on September 26, 2012 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Hi, I study Roman history. I agree with everyone that Latin is a better idea, although there are plenty of meaty Greek texts that deal with the West (Polybius, a historian, and Strabo, a geographer, come to mind).

The Etruscans, as mentioned by jbenben are really fascinating, but keep in mind that the places you'll definitely be in were primarily military outposts dating to (at the earliest) the Late Republican period, when "Etruscan culture" barely existed outside the religious sphere. Military castra in the Classical period were Roman all the way in structure.

What kinds of texts are you interested in reading? Folks like Tacitus just followed the emperor around-- is that something you're interested in? Caesar is all military strategy and diplomacy (but very easy Latin). If you want to get a sense of who the Romans who physically went to places like Britain and the Netherlands were, I'd recommend checking out the Vindolanda Tablets, a corpus of personal letters written to and by the soldiers (and their wives) stationed at Hadrian's Wall. And yes, learn how to read an inscription.
posted by oinopaponton at 5:24 AM on September 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: You'll also be in a great position to possibly join up with a study group or two; England has some fantastic classics departments, so you'll be in the right place for picking up materials and maybe a study friend or tutor. I would heartily agree with the Latin recommendations, and with the Etruscan recommendation, because I love the Etruscans and think they deserve much more acclaim. (However, we have scant Etruscan languages examples, comparatively, mostly religious/grave contexts.) If you enjoy learning the somewhat hidden history of places, if you're in southern France and southern Italy, you should not only look into the boundaries of Magna Grecia, the Greek colonies, but also the Punic colonies and trading ports.

Anyway, I like this stripped down Latin dictionary online. Find a dictionary you like and that works with your research-- mine is pocket-sized, has a good grammatical index, and helpful declension and conjugation charts in the front. (I wish I could find it right now!) You might be interested in certain volumes from the Loeb Classical Series, which publishes Greek and Roman texts with side-by-side translations. Caveat: some of the translations are decided relics of their time, depending on the edition. And I wouldn't suggest trying to translate just using a Loeb text, since you'll want notes and emendations, which the Loebs aren't really going for. But I've taken them on trips when I just wanted the Latin and a basic translation; they're small and easy to use. You also might be interested in sourcebooks, the kind of books that provide a collection of texts relevant to a specific area or topic. These chapters come from one on ancient technology, but there are others on Pompeii, Roman Britain, and other topics. While most of those only provide English translations, they can be a good source to find texts that you will be interested in to translate and go through properly (and in some cases, good complementary texts from sources like tombstones or altars that are a little harder to track down.) One very nice set is Rome Alive: A Source-Guide to the Ancient City. The first volume is all in translations, but volume II provides the original Latin and Greek behind them. (It also has some maps and some geographical pointers, if you're using it while in Rome.)
posted by jetlagaddict at 5:29 AM on September 26, 2012 [3 favorites]

Best answer: If you have Russian then some of the usual challenges to new students of inflected languages should be easier for you. I would nth focusing on epigraphy - the reading of inscriptions - because these are going to be the texts you will actually see at sites and museums, and it is really a great experience to be able to stand there and read them yourself - especially, eg, the altars and grave markers put up by soldiers on the Roman frontier, who are by and large a different set than the authors of the literary texts that survive. These inscriptions are often simple Latin and Greek, depend on formulae and abbreviations, but are sometimes powerful and always interesting. You could master these much more quickly than Tacitus.

The study of these places as cultural sites is not just a literary matter. If things like Etruscan influence on early Rome in Italy push your buttons, you might want to read up on roman art history and archaeology. Once you start learning about types of temples, structure of military camps, etc, places like the British frontier become really fascinating.

Also nth that a lot of those literary sources are going to be a challenge to read for a newcomer. One thing to consider would be the Loeb Classical Library editions, which are facing-page translations with the original; this is not really kindle-friendly, though, unless the texts you want are available in the loebolus collection of older public domain editions. If you want to know about tourism in the Greek world during the Roman era, you might look into the Greek writer Pausanias. But you might also consider looking into some readable authors who don't specifically talk about the sites you are visiting but give you an insight into the Roman experience or mindset - I would recommend Catullus, who is often used to teach beginning Latin students but writes very powerful poetry, at least a little of it about the experience of travel (most of it about sexy times though, to be fair).
posted by Theophylactic at 5:56 AM on September 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

Forgot to mention this-- along the lines of the really cool Vindolanda tablets are the curse tablets from a number of sites. Although a bit dated, there's a lot of information from the Roman Inscriptions of Britain online, including transcriptions. (See also this very useful site which has some good introductory material and links to other online collections.) Of course, Latin is also useful for the later medieval (and through to the 19th and 20th centuries, honestly) inscriptions!
posted by jetlagaddict at 7:02 AM on September 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

Caesar is comparatively easy to read and writes about Britain. I would steer away from poetry for a while - all the nice word-order stuff that makes Latin prose so clear and architectural goes a bit to hell when there's a metre at stake.
posted by Acheman at 7:18 AM on September 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: As someone who lived in the UK and took both Latin and Greek at the university level, I would definitely recommend Latin for you. (I also used Ecci Romani in the middle school years and used Wheelock at the higher levels. I'd have to hunt for my Greek textbooks to tell you which ones I used, but we were initially working with Biblical-era Greek, not classical. cf Acheman's caution.)

Also, on your question about medieval Latin vs classical Latin, there are some differences but the readability of medieval Latin is higher for a modern English-language reader than classical, in general. For instance, sentence order will be more like modern English sentence order.
posted by immlass at 7:48 AM on September 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

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