Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2007.03.22
Holt N. Parker (trans.), Censorinus. The Birthday Book. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2007. Pp. xiv, 102. ISBN 0-226-09974-1. $25.00.
Reviewed by Benjamin Stevens, Bard College (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Word count: 776 words
Table of Contents
In the Preface to his translation of Censorinus' (C) De die natali, Holt N. Parker (P) writes that he "tried to reflect something of Censorinus's range of styles while keeping within idiomatic English" (xiii). From this modest aim has come a great achievement, not to say an astonishing one: this translation, the first translation of C into English, is both exacting and elegant. It richly deserves to succeed at making "Censorinus available to English readers" (xiii). It would make a natural addition to courses on ancient culture, history, or science; paired with the original Latin, it would also make for a fascinating and thematically adventurous upper-level Latin course.
Although the book, like the aim, is small in size, there are valuable extras, all judiciously chosen and extremely helpful. The Preface presents what is known of C, highlights the scholarly value of his gift to Caerellius, and briefly discusses scholarship and manuscript tradition; at every stage P's enthusiasm is evident and infectious. What P describes as "a basic glossary", listing the people and places mentioned in the text, is comprehensive, brisk, and clarifying.
Even more helpful are the Notes. These "few, brief notes" (xiii), actually almost thirty pages' worth (to be compared to not quite sixty for the text), are keyed to chapter and section by lemma from P's translation. Written with economy and enviable clarity, and often including suggestions for further readings, they go a long way towards making more comprehensible the wide range of topics to which C refers. The reader thus learns about such things as ancient theories of embryology (a special interest of P's), Eratosthenes' calculation of the circumference of the earth, and, of course, the various units of time employed by various peoples in antiquity (the Secular Games are discussed especially fully). Students will enjoy learning that Hercules "had extra big feet" (83), discussing the significance of the times of day (ch. 23), and committing to memory a "handy rhyme" about the Nones and Ides (98): "In March, July, October, May, / The Ides are on the fifteenth day, / The Nones on the seventh, all months besides / Have two less days for Nones and Ides".
These are only examples; more could be adduced of the light touch and generosity of learning that characterize P's work. It is to P's credit, and to our immeasurable gain, that C has at last spoken in English, after something like 1,770 years. No doubt he would be pleased, for he had the tools to calculate that daunting figure of years and would have thought its various subsections significant. For those of us whose time-keeping tools are rusty, or who last read C a decade ago for a B.A. thesis on the Roman calendar, P has given a great gift indeed. It is hard to imagine that C could have spoken more lucidly or enjoyably than he is made to in this marvelous edition.
The book itself is charming: cut small and with sweet design and colors by Matt Avery, it would make a lovely gift. The text is clean; I noticed only one typo (p.101, "(mag-ios) and is therefore is connected with maiores"). I have only praise for the translation, which is exemplary in sticking to representing C's Latin, with explanation and interpretation of the content reserved for the Notes. I have one minor quibble about the Notes and only a few about some entries in the glossary:
-- The Note to 3.2 Lar refers the reader to entries in the CIL but, so far as I can tell, does not explain what it is (as he does the other standard works cited). Non-classicists may not know that it means Corpus inscriptionum Latinarum, and may not know that that means the standard collection of Latin inscriptions.
-- In the glossary there are two entries for Aemilii Lepidi, Marci: one "Roman consul in 126 BC", another "Roman consul in 46 BC". The reader looking up the name from its appearance in the text will not know which is which.
-- Antony is described somewhat tendentiously as "Lover of Cleopatra and opponent of the future emperor Augustus."
-- Epicurus is described tendentiously as holding "that ethical action should be guided by pleasure." This is likely to be misinterpreted by readers not already aware that for Epicurus 'pleasure' means 'absence of pain or disturbance'.
-- Tarquin is described as "[e]xpelled from Rome for the rape of Lucretia." This is likely to be misinterpreted by readers not already aware that Tarquin's son was the rapist.
Finally, Virgil is described as the "[g]reatest Roman poet". Am I perverse for wondering whether it can be so clear?