Help with ancient texts: Where to find a (free, English) translation?

A series of recent discussions with colleagues reminded me of the many different ways people go about their research. I come from a science family, and their methods are pretty simple: Google it. Because most science work is well-indexed, this is enough to get basic research done. I’ve adopted this basic method, even though it doesn’t always work well in classics. While I often don’t get academic hits, I have found a wide variety of translated sources. I always thought everyone else knew about them, too.

Dear readers, I was wrong. And I am about to share the sites, pros, and cons of the places I visit most frequently. Please comment with any other resources you know about, and I will update this list with the information. 

I’ll begin with some of the more obvious places.

  • Harvard’s Loeb Classical Library has been brought into the digital age with the Loeb Online website, offering full access to all existing Loebs. You can choose to read just the Latin/Greek text, just the English translation, or a full-page spread.

Pros: lots of texts and updated to reflect the print Library; reputable translations; attractive design; ability to save/bookmark material

Cons: subscription-only (and quite pricey: about $200 for year 1 and $65 for renewals for an individual account; institutional access may vary); limited to texts in the Loeb collection (depending on your field, this may not be a problem at all)

  • The pioneer in digital classics is the Perseus Project, which also features Loeb translations. Although the link I’ve given takes you straight to the “Greek and Roman” collection, the site also features sources for reception, such as Humanist poetry, and a limited collection of art (limited more due to the thumbnail size of the images than the number of entries).

Pros: lots of texts; reliable translations; the (in?)famous “word parsing tool”; some commentaries with hyperlinks to the text involved

Cons: because they use out-of-copyright Loebs, some of the translations are really archaic (I’m looking at you, Aeschylus); not all texts have a translation; the search tool can be frustrating (why does Livy appear alphabetically by translator, not numerically by book?)

  • For out-of-copyright Loebs, you can also search for reading online or download.

Pros: just like the book!

Cons: just like the book! (Also, don’t even think about trying to read Greek text-only…)

  • There is also the older-but-useful Livius site, which is undergoing a facelift at the time of writing. Livius is focused primarily on history and acts mainly as an encyclopedia. But it has some sources that can be hard to find, like the Periochae.

Pros: includes material that may be otherwise hard to access in translation; links to encyclopedia articles and maps fill in the background for unfamiliar events/people

Cons: original text is not always included (for Latin, it usually is; for Greek, it usually isn’t); site is difficult to search (I’ve linked to the index page, but note that right now there is no homepage entry to the sources, and there is no index to the index — e.g. a hyperlinked alphabet that takes you to the top of that entry). In other words, you’d be better off Googling and clicking than searching the site itself.

  • Similar is the Lacus Curtius website, which brings back good memories of Web 1.0. There are a ton of Loeb translations here, painstakingly retyped, with the original Loeb footnotes and sometimes also original commentary. The site also features some archaeological material and some American material as well (but I admit to never having examined the latter).

Pros: includes hyperlinked Latin/English text and a good variety of material; some Latin-only text; footnotes/commentary (with links to relevant texts off- and onsite); summaries of most texts by book (very useful!!); good archaeological teaching material, including the full Platner-Ashby

Cons: often new material opens in a new browser window, making it not very phone/tablet friendly (even my older laptop struggles); pagination of Loeb is included, which makes it hard to copy-and-paste for powerpoint slides or other teaching materials

  • The Lex Undria website is, I think, an attempt to recreate Lacus Curtius in Web 2.0. It features a clean layout and a limited variety of texts, organized by author. Most of these are Loeb/Loeb equivalent translations.

Pros: easy to navigate and relatively easy to search; gives dates for authors

Cons: limited texts; no commentary or link to originals

  • Loebolus includes downloadable PDFs of all out-of-copyright Loeb volumes. It is a pretty basic download site.

Pros: if you have an ereader, the PDF books are perfect; easier to locate material than; includes both Greek and Latin

Cons: except for size, the same caveats as a regular old-fashioned Loeb — some translations are better than others; because of the format, it can be hard to trace back translations (if, for example, the Greek/Latin text continues on to the next page several words before the English).

  • Complete texts of Livy, Caesar, Herodotus, some of Plutarch’s Lives, and Tacitus (Annals and Histories only) at the McAdams site. The translation is identified for all cases; they are usually not the Loeb. These sites are text-only, so if you are looking for something very basic, it’s a good option.

Pros: easy to copy/paste to other programs (no formatting to remove); relatively clear translations

Cons: limited selection; slightly crazy logo; can be hard to navigate because an entire book is on each page (so, Livy 1.46 requires a lot of scrolling)

  • The Internet Classics Archive houses texts of more than 50 Greek and Roman authors. They are arranged alphabetically and provide a date; all translations are out-of-copyright, often not from the Loeb.

Pros: large selection; dates provided; texts can be read online or downloaded as text files. There is allegedly a discussion forum/comment option, but I have never managed to make it work.

Cons: old-fashioned, clunky website (this comes from MIT?); no commentary (but see above)

  • Sacred Texts is a folklore repository that offers a variety of ancient texts that deal with the gods. They use out-of-copyright translations, often from the Loeb.

Pros: in contrast to many of the sites above, this one includes epic and drama rather than solely historians; easy to navigate because broken down by section

Cons: old translations (but at least they provide the date, so you can make an informed decision); the ads can be a little distracting (and, depending on where you are, potentially NSFW due to cultic content)

  • Theoi is similar to Sacred Texts, but focuses on ancient Greek religion only. They provide imagery as well as out-of-copyright Loeb translations.

Pros: good collection (including rare(r) works like Diodorus and Apollonius); easily searchable and well-organized; short bio of each author

Cons: old translations (out-of-copyright Loebs); some of the side hyperlinks can be hard to click on (you can only use the number, not the title)

Pros: huge variety of texts, including medieval and early modern, as well as inscriptions; mostly translated; sometimes includes varying editions; links to online commentaries where available

Cons: As you can see from the title, only Latin writers are included; no clear indication of which have translations and which are only Latin; many “secondary” materials are not online

Pros: Nicely organized list, with links to purchase if you want

Cons: not all free; no actual texts (this is just a list)

  • Johnstonia is a personal translation website run out of Victoria, BC.

Pros: modern translations, often more palatable to students; easy to use and well-organized; includes line numbers for ancient and modern text (a plus if you want to check the translation; can be a con for assigning reading!)

Cons: limited material; no notes; see comment on line numbers above. In general, I have found that students prefer the translations by Ian Johnston (the site’s owner) himself.

Pros: snazzy new website; large number of texts, especially in Latin; the Fasti and Met in particular are well-indexed; downloads available; easy to search

Cons: sometimes the translations are a bit questionable; TK is not a classicist and it is not always clear what his methods or training are.

  • UPDATE May 2015: see our post on the Classics Index wiki.

Whew! So, chances are, you’ll be able to find what you’re looking for — if it hasn’t been translated recently for the first time. Again, please let us know if we’ve forgotten something!


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