Help with Latin and Greek: Gobbets

If you are not Canadian (or maybe not Commonwealth? Let us know!), you are probably wondering what is a gobbet and why do I need help with it? Readers, I know, because once I had the exact same question. I had just begun graduate school and I was taking a class on Euripidean drama. When it came time for the midterm, the professor said, oh-so-casually, “it will be a translation plus gobbets.”

To my American ears, this sounded roughly like the world’s worst Thanksgiving dinner. I was soon to learn otherwise.

A gobbet is a brief commentary on a passage of Latin and Greek. You can think of it as an intro-level, student-produced commentary that’s designed to help you transition to a full-length explication of a passage. Let’s pause for a minute to clarify: this isn’t a grammatical commentary, like you’d get in a Brwn Mawr or Cambridge text (sorry, couldn’t resist that one). Instead, it’s a philological commentary: the aim is to pull out the significance of the specific words and word order chosen for the text. The more advanced the students are, the longer the gobbet is expected to be (and the shorter the passages get).

For example, first- and second-year language students are rarely expected to produce gobbets, because they spend their attention translating the passage and understanding what it says. Even third-year or fourth-year students might be expected to focus on refining a translation, rather than explaining those translation choices. But graduate-level students can be expected to do something more. In my first-year MA class, we got passages of approximately 10-12 lines and were expected to produce 1-2 paragraphs. By the time I got to my PhD exams, the passages could be shorter (6-12 lines of verse, a sentence or so of prose), and I wrote 1-2 pages for each.

This is easier to explain through example, so here goes. I’m using Thucydides 1.23.6 as an example, because it’s one that I’ve thought about quite frequently lately and one that I use to teach with precisely because of its dense significance. In other words, if I were going to assign a gobbet to fourth-year Greek students, this would be an excellent choice.

τὴν μὲν γὰρ ἀληθεστάτην πρόφασιν, ἀφανεστάτην δὲ λόγῳ, τοὺς Ἀθηναίους ἡγοῦμαι μεγάλους γιγνομένους καὶ φόβον παρέχοντας τοῖς Λακεδαιμονίοις ἀναγκάσαι ἐς τὸ πολεμεῖν: αἱ δ᾽ ἐς τὸ φανερὸν λεγόμεναι αἰτίαι αἵδ᾽ ἦσαν ἑκατέρων,…

It’s typical for a gobbet to start with a translation of the passage in question, so here is my translation:

I consider the truest (but least spoken) allegation to be that the Athenians were becoming a great power, which scared the Spartans and forced them to war. But the causes that were said in public by each were as follows…

The next step is to contextualize the passage. Some examiners will give you the citation (Thuc. 1.23.6), while others will expect you to recognize it as part of the text. Either way, understanding how the passage fits into the entirety of the work is more important than knowing the exact book and chapter.

This passage comes from the beginning of Thucydides’ History and explains the reasons for the outbreak of war between Athens and Sparta. As such, it offers an important framework for understanding Thucydides’ work as a whole. In later episodes, such as the Sicilian Expedition, Thucydides will repeat this division of true and alleged causes for action.

If you were only being asked to identify the passage, you might well be able to stop there. But a gobbet needs a little more detail. Once you’ve laid out the context, you can begin examining the language. The easiest way to do this is by focusing on individual words and/or phrases.

Thucydides inverts the expected (to later readers, at least) connotation of each word: the prophasis is the “real” reason, while the aitia is the alleged cause. In doing so, he echoes his later complaint (in the Stasis on Corcyra) that in periods of strife, words lose meaning.

An advanced student might elaborate on this theme, or even connect it to literary theory, such as Hayden White‘s description of ironic historiography.

You are also allowed to analyze more than one word or idea!

Thucydides also shows his sympathy for Athens by pointing out that the Athenians cleverly ‘forced’ the Spartans to fight when the Spartans themselves did not want to. By using ἀναγκάζω, Thucydides suggests that the clash was inevitable, but assigns blame to Sparta for beginning the conflict.

Since there has been considerable scholarship on Thucydides’ choice of phrasing with ἀναγκάσαι ἐς τὸ πολεμεῖν, a more advanced student would want to elaborate on some of the various interpretive options and defend his/her choice of translation.

He also echoes some characterizations of Athenians and Spartans found in Herodotus’ History. Thucydides’ Athenians are clever and tricky (think Themistocles in Herodotus), while his Spartans are cautious and want to stay in Sparta (as we see with Herodotus’ Marathon narrative). This similarity in two roughly contemporary historians may indicate stereotypes of Athenians and Spartans that were current in their day. Thucydides will even invert this stereotype to suggest the coming Athenian defeat: as the Athenian general Demosthenes begins to fight on Sphacteria, he loses his ‘Athenian’ cunning and takes on ‘Spartan’ characteristics of the last stand at Thermopylae.

Notice how it’s possible to connect a single passage to many other episodes in the same work, and even to other authors. These types of connections are one reason that gobbets are a helpful testing tool: you’re really given the opportunity to show off what you know, and you’re allowed to test out your own ideas in a mini-essay.

Usually gobbets do not require a formal conclusion, but I often preferred to tie mine up with a brief summary statement:

This passage from the beginning of Thucydides’ work therefore points forward to many themes that we will see later.

(Yes, it repeats the beginning, which I’ve said to avoid — but in an exam situation it’s more forgivable.)


You now should have the basic idea of a gobbet and how to go about writing one. I have a few more pieces of advice for those tense exam moments:

  • Gobbets are usually found in exams, and thus are designed to see what you already know. Don’t be afraid to both repeat what you’ve said about the passage and to introduce new interpretations from texts that you’ve read in class (or in other classes).
  • Often you’ll receive a choice of passage — two of three or three of four. Take your time to read each passage and choose carefully. The longest passage isn’t always the easiest to explicate! As we’ve seen in this post, a passage that’s only a fragment of a sentence can be rich in significance and a good choice for your analysis. In fact, this passage offers more meat for interpretation than all of 1.24.
  • If you aren’t given the passage ID, make sure you know what the context and author are! Pay attention to clues such as meter (for poetry), dialect (for Greek), and key words or phrases.

In other words, it’s unlikely that you’ll find yourself missing the mark too badly if you have a good understanding of what you’ve been reading. Your biggest mistake would be tripping up by mistaking the author, work, or context of your passage. If you’ve read through the entire thing and feel confident in your identification, you should be able to write at least a solid, if not necessarily a brilliant, gobbet.



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