Handbooks of ancient literature

Regular readers will recall that I found reference to a possible pagan festival, supposedly in Antiochus of Athens.  I tracked down the text and made a translation, as part of the annual struggle against those headbangers who every year celebrate Christmas by jeering “Christmas is really a pagan festival” at the nearest Christian.  My knowledge of ancient literature is rather decent, yet I had never heard of this author, so I have spent quite a few posts exploring who and what exists in this field of ancient Greek and Roman astrological writers.

It’s a strange sensation doing this, in a way.  Surely there should be a handbook, which lists all the authors, gives us a brief biography of what facts are known, when they lived, and then lists their works with a reference to the printed text and whatever translations exist? 

When we study the early Christians, we are so fortunate.  We have Quasten’s Patrology in 4 volumes (plus the extra volume by Angelo Di Berardino, translated Adrian Walford), which gives us just this.  It’s getting a little elderly now, and I could wish that someone would bring it up to date.  But it is possible to gain so much knowledge of  the field, just by reading through it constantly.

Likewise when I took an interest in Arabic Christian studies, I found Georg Graf’s Geschichte der christlichen arabischen Literatur, in 5 volumes.  Of course a book of that kind in German is of limited use to most of us, but persistence pays off, and by purchasing a copy and reading and scribbling in the margins, I’ve been able to get something.  We need this text in English, in truth.  I did enquire through an intermediary whether the Vatican library, who own the copyright, would permit me to sell a translation, but got a refusal.  In truth the cost of translation would have been something like $10,000, for each of two volumes, which is a bit rich for my slender resources.  But until it is made, Arabic Christian studies in English will always be a cinderella subject.

While looking at the scholia on Aristophanes, I encountered Eleanor Dickey’s book Ancient Greek Scholarship, which gives us the information we need on ancient Greek commentaries on classical works.  I was impressed enough to buy a copy, and indeed I am sitting here this morning awaiting a courier from Amazon with it.

But … when it comes to classical literature outside of Christian studies, what is there?  Where is the equivalent sort of work for Greek literature?  For Latin literature?  For specialised technical works such as ancient medical literature?  Or, in this case, for astrological literature?  Unless I am mistaken — and I could be — it does not seem to exist.

I toyed, indeed, with creating such a thing for the astrological literature.  But in truth I am simply not interested enough.  I don’t particularly want to learn how ancient astrology was done, the various elements and jargon of that discipline.  My mind is on other things.  I can’t imagine how such a work can be written without that knowledge.  In fact I get the impression that the field of study is largely left to historically-minded modern practitioners of astrology.  Isn’t that a curious thing to do?

It is a pity that scholars like David Pingree, whose excellent article on Antiochus and Rhetorius I discussed yesterday, have not compiled the necessary overview text for that area of knowledge.  I find that he died a few years ago, otherwise I should write and ask him to create one.

6 Responses to “Handbooks of ancient literature”


  1. Walter Dunphy

    Pity the 1st Italian trans. of Quasten put 1-2 into 1; thus Patrologia III (Ital.) became IV in English. Patrol.IV (Ital.) = Padri latini (sec. V-VIII); Patrol.V (Ital.) = East (Chalcedon to John Damascene). 4yrs ago at Oxford, Angelo Di B. was trying to sort out possibilities for translations. He also spoke of “prospects” for a complete update – also of the 2vol(=3 in Ital.)dictionary – but didn’t sound too hopeful.

  2. Roger Pearse

    I’ve never managed to meet Angelo Di B., despite being at that conference.

    And yes, I agree about the Italian volumes. But at least they DID them. There’s one still untranslated. I think Adrian Walford would have done it, but he died.

    Those later volumes are not nearly so good, tho.

    The dictionary is a distraction, in my view — Quasten holds the field, because of its structure, but it is getting terribly out of date. And if vol. 1 was updated, and vol. 2 was updated, each would be much bigger than they are, and the Italian volume would have to be split.

  3. Bill Thayer

    Graf died in 1955; everything he wrote falls into the public domain on January 1, 2026. That’s not that far off (ay you live that long) — and nothing prevents you from starting the monumental translation earlier than that, so as to have it ready for immediate release on that date.

  4. Roger Pearse

    It’s an interesting idea, and I certainly wasn’t aware of those dates, for which I thank you.

    But … in 15 years, a lot can happen. Will either of us still be alive then, even?

  5. Stephen

    Hi Roger,
    I’m not a regular here, so you may well have knowledge of the following ‘handbooks’ for classical literature. Please forgive me if I’m stating the obvious here: the OCD (Oxford Classical Dictionary) lists nearly every author with extant literature and gives at least a rudimentary bibliography for each. You can even look up ‘astrology’ there and find a beginning bibliography. Albin Lesky’s History of Greek Literature is closer to the handbook format of Quasten, but with longer and more interpretive discussion. Gian Biagio Conte’s Latin Literture: A History is a favorite for Latin lit. Then there is the CHCL (Cambridge History of Classical Literature) in two volumes, one for Greek, one for Latin with extensive essays and bibliographies. Thanks for a great blog!

  6. Roger Pearse

    Thank you very much for these suggestions. I’ve found the CHCL online. I’ll look for the others. The OCD might be useful, although I do prefer the Quasten format.