Harvard University

Tradition and Innovation in the Loeb Classical Library

After years of growing step by step, the Loeb Classical Library takes a leap this month. As General Editor Jeffrey Henderson explains below, the publication of the nine-volume Early Greek Philosophy collection is a significant advance for both the Library and the field.


For the 2016 fall season, and at the start of its third year online, the Loeb Classical Library welcomes an edition extraordinary in size, scope, and ambition. Early Greek Philosophy by Glenn Most and André Laks—at nine volumes our largest anthology, our first multi-volume series to be published all together, and our only edition consisting entirely of fragments and testimonia—is not merely a translation and a reference collection but a bold and innovative work of scholarship that greatly enhances our understanding of the earliest stages of the Western intellectual tradition. EGP represents a wholesale advance on Diels-Kranz (unrevised since 1952) and all other editions.

Early Greek PhilosophyFinally retiring the conventional but misleading label “Presocratics,” EGP updates and significantly broadens the scope of an already vast corpus by including recent finds (notably the Strasburg papyrus of Empedocles and the Derveni Papyrus) as well as a selection of what can be called the pre-philosophical representations of the world and of human beings, not only from Homer and Hesiod but also from other archaic texts, classical drama both tragic and comic, notionally “sophistic” thinkers, and early medicine, especially the Hippocratic corpus, whose relations with the contemporary discipline of philosophy are particularly close. The whole freshened corpus is reorganized so as to clarify as never before its principal themes and trends, with authors grouped by P (personal information), D (doctrine), and R (reception), and corpora by the thematic organization that best showcases each. Finally, EGP presents an overview of the reception of these thinkers until the end of antiquity.

There are also noteworthy technical features. For the first time, translations from lost Greek writings are reproduced in the original Syriac, Arabic, Hebrew, and Armenian; boldface text clearly distinguishes what there is good reason to attribute directly to the original work, as distinct from paraphrases or reports; there is a descriptive index of the potentially unfamiliar “other persons” who cite the passages or are mentioned in the entries; and there is a glossary that explains those of the most significant Greek and Latin terms that seem to require a special explanation. These features, together with well-judged textual and explanatory annotation and cross-references, keep the interconnectedness of the whole constantly in view, so that all nine volumes are made to be used, and thus published, together.

The publication of EGP prompts reflection on the recent evolution of both the Library and its readership. James Loeb’s original promise in 1912 was to make generally available “all that is of value and of interest in Greek and Latin literature,” and for a long time that meant extant and more or less mainstream authors. George Goold, my predecessor as General Editor, once compared the Library to the public exhibition area of a great museum: in the storerooms are many more artifacts for specialists to study and enjoy, but in the public areas are placed only the most important and most meaningful pieces. But over time what counts as important and meaningful to scholars and general readers does change. In recent years, alongside revisions or replacements of works by familiar authors such as Caesar and Plato have been added works by the likes of Macrobius and Philostratus as well as many volumes of fragments, both to complete our editions of extant authors and to add authors whose work does not survive intact.

Loeb designed our volumes to be trim and portable, elegant, legible, easy to use, unconfusing, and unintimidating, so that it is easy to overlook just how much information can be packed into their small facing pages. The unfamiliarity of authors like Macrobius and the complexity of editions like EGP present unusual challenges of presentation and format, but the constraints of Loeb’s design continue to prove workable, and well worth the effort to accommodate when they inspire editions such as John Ramsey’s fragmentary Histories of Sallust, with its remarkably resourceful and efficient system for rendering a voluminous and hugely complex tradition both accessible and authoritative, and such as EGP, with its clear shaping and mapping of an otherwise intimidating terrain.

And so, five years after our centenary and two years after the launch of loebclassics.com, Loeb’s dual spirit of tradition and innovation—in material, in medium, in mode of presentation—continues to grow and thrive. Who knows what the next hundred years will bring?

Follow us