Publishing the Classics: A Brief History. (Frontline)

By Wilcockson, Nigel | History Today, April 2003 | Go to article overview

Publishing the Classics: A Brief History. (Frontline)


Wilcockson, Nigel, History Today


`Classick N. An author of the first rank: usually taken for ancient authors.'

SAMUEL JOHNSON'S CHARACTERISTICALLY pithy definition neatly summarises `classic' literature as it was viewed two-and-a-half centuries ago. True to the roots of the word (the Latin scriptor classicus signified a first-rate writer), `classic' to Johnson and his contemporaries denoted literary excellence, but it was an excellence that was often thought to go hand in hand with the masters of Latin and Greek literature, who had left posterity with works to be admired, studied and imitated. Today, the emphasis is rather different. Latin and Greek works certainly still retain their status as classics, but as even a brief glance at the 850 rifles listed in the Penguin catalogue shows, they have been joined by a vast range of works from other languages and cultures. The world of the classics is now a very broad church indeed.

The history of classics publishing--at least in the narrower sense of books by Greek and Latin writers--is almost as old as printing itself. Within decades of the appearance of Gutenberg's forty-two-line Bible, it was possible to purchase works by authors as diverse as Caesar, Cicero and Horace, and the publishing of classic texts soon became the stock-in-trade of many printers. Perhaps the most successful of these--certainly the most enterprising--was Aldus Manutius, who set up a printing press in Venice in about 1490. His relatively cheap, compact editions of Greek and Latin authors, aimed at professional classicists and keen amateurs alike, rapidly became popular. At a time when a typical print-run was unlikely to be much more than 200, Aldus Manutius was regularly printing 1,000 copies at a time.

Alongside a burgeoning market for Greek and Latin texts in the original, translations became popular as well. Caxton, for example, now best remembered for his editions of Chaucer and Malory, also produced English translations of Aesop's Fables and parts of Virgil's Aeneid. In the following hundred years or so, works of writers such as Euripides, Horace, Ovid, Virgil and Plutarch found their way into English, and by the eighteenth century the steady trickle had become a flood. On occasion, a new translation could prove extremely lucrative for publisher and translator alike. Alexander Pope, for example, made the vast sum of 5,320 [pounds sterling] from his translation of The Iliad, which was issued between 1715 and 1720. Not surprisingly, he then engaged two assistants and set to work on The Odyssey.

In addition to the production of Latin and Greek texts, the eighteenth century also saw the appearance of libraries of other `great works'. Johnson's own publisher, Robert Dodsley, produced anthologies of plays and poems by `old authors', and in the latter part of the century John Bell, an astonishingly adventurous publisher and editor, issued his Poets of Great Britain Complete from Chaucer to Churchill in 109 volumes. …

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