BMCR 2007.12.35

An Introduction to Ancient Greek: A Literary Approach. Second edition, revised by C.A.E. Luschnig and Deborah Mitchell

, An introduction to ancient Greek : a literary approach. Indianapolis: Hackett, 2007. xiv, 374 pages : illustrations ; 26 cm. ISBN 9780872208896 $34.95.

Table of Contents

This volume represents a newly revised edition of C.A.E. Luschnig’s (L.) An Introduction to Ancient Greek: A Literary Approach from the 1970’s. In many ways, this is a remarkable volume, preserving the verve, knowledge, and perspective of a master teacher. Users of the original edition should be pleased with this new version, and those comfortable with the traditional approach of teaching Greek as an intensive course can seriously consider this book. Teachers who are looking for an alternative to the majority of textbooks available, however, will find little here in the way of a fresh approach to beginning Greek.

L. spreads the material across an introduction and fourteen lessons. The presentation of the grammatical concepts reflects a desire for students to get the big picture early and build on this broad foundation. Accordingly, Lesson 1 introduces verbs in both the active and middle/passive present indicative, nouns of both the first and second declensions along with the definite article, particles, prepositions, and elision. The next three lessons lay out forms derived from the first three principal parts (imperfect tense in Lesson 2, future in Lesson 3, and aorist in Lesson 4). Lessons 5 and 6 shift the focus to nouns and adjectives of the third declension. The next three lessons each cover one more principal part of the verb along with sections on other parts of speech (in Lesson 8, the perfect active along with τις / τι and related words; in Lesson 9, the perfect middle/passive and personal pronouns; in Lesson 10, numerals, comparison, and the aorist passive). The last four lessons cover the leftovers, mostly to do with verbs (contract verbs and nouns in Lesson 11, μι -verbs in Lesson 12; forms and uses of the subjunctive and optative in Lesson 13). Finally, Lesson 14 adds on the imperative mood and the vocative case.

Thus there is a logic to the presentation of material, but it is not always in the best interests of the beginning student. While it makes sense to marshal verb forms in order according to their principal parts, deferring the presentation of some material can distort the importance of certain high frequency items. Forms of contract verbs and μι -verbs, for example, not to mention imperatives, are far more common in most readings than forms from the last three principal parts (perfects and aorist passives). Students need earlier exposure to the more common items so that they have as much practice and exposure as possible when they begin encountering them regularly in the ancient authors. The delay in presenting some of these ideas seems especially odd in the context of other material in the book. L. regularly explains how vowel contraction and consonant combinations lead to the counterintuitive spellings of many forms. The rules for contraction which apply to nouns and verbs in Lesson 13 are no different from those she invokes in many earlier lessons, so that presenting these observations as general principles of contraction would help students see and understand their use throughout the language. The appearance of imperatives and vocatives at the tail end of the text is odd, too, given that L. has sections on conversation and greetings in the first three lessons, where such forms are likely to appear.

Reference material is gathered at the back of the book. One appendix gathers together paradigms and principal parts. Another gives an overview of syntax. Greek-English and English-Greek vocabularies follow. It would have been helpful for entries to indicate in what chapter each word is introduced. There is a quick list of “Authors of the Readings” and a “List of Sources for the Readings.” This last is quite helpful, since in the chapters a reading will list the source simply by author and work, whereas the appendix lists the more precise citation (e.g., where the Readings sections frequently say simply “Menander,” here we can find that it is actually “Menander, Monostichoi 523.”). An index of grammatical topics rounds out the volume.

The lessons themselves have a consistent structure: (1) presentation of grammatical topics (2) Exercises and (3) Readings. L. generally introduces material lucidly and thoroughly. Hackett has not always done a good job of displaying the material, however. Many pages appear crowded (especially, for example, pp. 234-35, where the paradigms of the μι -verbs are barely separate from the text). Sometimes paradigms are split across pages. Even at its best, the presentation does little to help the beginning student. Most lessons feature an onslaught of paradigms, and nothing in the graphics guides the novice reader to observe their patterns.

L. explains the principles of these patterns in the text, but in this age of digital design and sophisticated layout, it is hard to think of a reason not to have a more helpful page layout. In Lesson 5, for example, students and teachers face eight paradigms of third declension nouns on page 106 and eight more paradigms two pages later. In fact, of course, these sixteen paradigms vary in rather small ways, and the surrounding three pages of text do explain these details, but the lists of forms themselves are monotonous (no dashes, emphasis, separation, or any other marker). Moreover, there is no sense of which paradigms represent the majority of nouns in this declension. Beginning and intermediate students are unlikely to meet nouns that decline like ὄρνις, except for χάρις and maybe ἔρις. Nouns declining like κλώψ are rarer still. The declension of ἀνήρ is important for a beginning student, to be sure, but it is not a paradigm, since no other noun in Greek declines in quite the same way. As with the presentation of verb forms discussed above, there is much useful information here, but it is not geared to the needs of a beginning student who is encountering this wealth of data for the first time.

The Exercises are plentiful and varied. They regularly include twenty or more sentences to translate into English and about ten to translate from English into Greek. L. provides a useful range of other types of practice, too (changing tenses, manipulating indirect statement, parsing, and the like). Teachers will want to select from the sometimes shocking abundance of exercises (in Lesson 12, there are a full hundred forms to parse and eighty sentences to translate into English), but choice in such material is welcome.

Each lesson then features a Readings section, consisting of quotations from classical authors. Mostly these are gnomic utterances from Menander, philosophers, or the tragedians. There are a few extended readings: a section of the Meno, a few myths from Apollodorus and Diodorus Siculus, and several sections of the Apology. Philosophy and tragedy dominate the readings, with some taste of lyric poetry. L. in the preface states that she finds the traditional use of Xenophon’s Anabasis in beginning books “an unfortunate pick” (p. ix) and Xenophon is all but banished from this book. Indeed, history, oratory, and epic are almost entirely absent. The first lesson includes several sentences from Christian writers, but there are few authors later than Menander in other lessons.

The highlights of the book are found in the additional material. Each lesson ends with a brief section on some cultural item, including a few sections on conversational Greek, essays on colors, flowers, theater, and so on. Full vocabulary notes, virtually brief essays on key terms in Greek, also enrich each lesson. In these sections, L.’s gift for enlivening the classroom with charming and rich information comes through. At a number of other points, too, L. provides historical perspective on idiosyncratic features of the grammar and orthography of Greek. This is a window into and a legacy of her long, successful career as a Greek teacher.

Overall, however, this will be a difficult book to use. I have suggested already that L. has a tendency to provide much background information but few guidelines about how to organize and prioritize it all. L. seems to subscribe to the underlying principle that students must master a staggering amount of detail and variation in order to comprehend Greek. In a somewhat tongue-in-cheek section in Lesson 1 titled “Learning by Rote,” she writes, “Learning a new language necessitates taxing your memory to the utmost, because you cannot know the language in the abstract. You must know its forms and structure (i.e., its grammar) and its vocabulary” (p. 26). L. certainly does not shrink from taxing a student’s memory, to judge from the many paradigms and vocabulary lists, of which she seems to expect mastery in detail. I fear for students who are perhaps simultaneously taking classes in addition to Greek or who might reserve some of their memory for other aspects of their lives. Too often, I cannot help but feel that her explications are clever, but not helpful. I like that she provides the Greek terms for various parts of speech and other grammatical terms, but do not see where it gives students an advantage in their reading skills. Does it benefit students meeting the Greek alphabet for the first time to learn the three obsolete letters (p.7)? Should they also, at this same stage, learn the numbers, not just the words for the numbers, but the symbols for them (p.10)?1 In Lesson 3, introducing the future tense, the vocabulary contains eleven verbs, only three of which form the future regularly. In the next lesson, after presenting the aorist, L. reviews thirty-three verbs and marks twenty of them as irregular. A certain degree of carelessness is also evident.2

Every Greek textbook has errors and infelicities, so I do not find such problems fatal in themselves. What I cannot determine, however, is the need for this book. Several Greek textbooks already on the market take basically the same approach.3 Teachers can choose from such books according to their individual preferences in readings and fondness for the presentation of certain topics. By contrast, on the basis of my experience in recent years at roundtables and workshops on teaching Greek, plenty of teachers are yearning for something substantially different from the books currently available. Most teachers can state immediately what drives students away from Greek: endless memorization, confusing variations, opaque readings. This book offers no improvement in any of these areas. Developing new textbooks and resources will not be easy, but L.’s book, for all its finer qualities, indicates there is little to be gained by repackaging the same material with the same approach.4


1. Unsurprisingly, the numbers barely appear in the readings, but numbers are presented again in Lesson 10 (pp. 198-99).

2. For example, some terms in the Introduction are glossed, but others, like “Byzantine,” are not. The reading at Lesson 3 no. 14 is repeated at Lesson 5 no. 3. The introduction to Compound Verbs in Lesson 4 uses several μι -verbs, which students will not meet until eight lessons later, and even some verbs which, near as I can tell, never appear again in the book.

3. In alphabetical order by author, the most popular such books are: Maurice Balme and Gilbert Lawall, Athenaze: An Introduction to Ancient Greek 2 vols., rev. ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), ISBN 9780195149562 & 9780195056228. Anne H. Groton, From Alpha to Omega: An Introduction to Classical Greek, 3rd ed. (Newburyport, MA: Focus, 2003) ISBN 9781585100347. Hardy Hansen and Gerald Quinn, Greek: An Intensive Course, rev. ed. (New York: Fordham University Press, 1992), ISBN 9780823216635. Donald J. Mastronarde, Introduction to Attic Greek (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), ISBN 9780520078444. In the interest of disclosure, I use Cynthia Shelmerdine’s L.A. Wilding’s Greek for Beginners (Newburyport, MA: Focus, 2001). ISBN 9781585100101, because I find it succinct and flexible. For a different assessment, see BMCR 2005.05.14.

4. I have recently addressed this issue more broadly, with some suggestions for re-thinking instruction in beginning Greek, in “On Not Teaching Greek,” ( Classical Journal 103 [2007] 93-98).