BMCR 2020.09.50

The Latin of science

, , The Latin of science. Mundelein, IL: Bolchazy-Carducci Publishers, 2019. xxxi, 395 p. ISBN 9780865168602 $29.00 (pb).

This collection of twenty-two science readings in Latin, spanning eighteen centuries, documents a subgenre of Latin literature that, with few exceptions, is virtually unknown to the cultivated general reader and is only slightly more familiar to specialists. A small number of the authors represented (e.g., Seneca the Younger, Pliny the Elder, and Vitruvius) are well known to Classicists; more names (e.g., Francis Bacon, Copernicus, and Newton) are recognizable for their notable contributions to science; and about half (e.g., Faventinus, Ibn Al-Haytham, de Soto) are obscure by any literary standard. A few selections (e.g., Maimonides, Euclid, and Ibn Al-Haytham) are actually translations into Latin. Epstein and Spivak’s book contains a brief introduction to each author and his work. The selections were chosen to include as many periods and “as many sciences as possible” (p. xii). Each excerpt is accompanied by a brief introduction, a facsimile of the text from an early modern edition, and copious notes; the notes are directed primarily to beginning students of Latin. The bulk of the book can be divided into three parts: 1) a nine-page introduction to Latin and Latin scientific literature through the ages; 2) the selections and notes, which are arranged by topic  an appendix entitled “Compendium of Latin Grammar,” and a glossary.

In the short preface, the editors explain the genesis of the book, “For over twenty years the University of Calgary has been offering a two-term course through the Department of Classics entitled The Latin of Science.” (p. xi) The authors express their surprise that there did not exist before this any Latin anthology of scientific writing that provided “a panoramic view for the beginner and expert alike.” This reviewer did not share in their surprise, given the difficulty of the task of creating such a resource for a wide audience. The editors have certainly attained their goal and have proffered a delightful vista and introduction to scientific Latin for undergraduates. Students enrolled in The Latin of Science course at the University of Calgary, who are “mostly science and engineering majors,” start from the basic elements of Latin grammar and read selections from the greatest Latin scientific literature of all time. This may be why the editors included the “Compendium of Latin Grammar” in the same volume. Although the appendix serves only as a compendium, it is surprisingly thorough and covers all aspects of the language, even if “some of the minutiae of Latin grammar” (p. xi) are avoided. It is unclear, however, why the general audience would require this compendium of 154 pages, since the average reader will not use this volume as a textbook for learning Latin but only as an anthology. To that same point, the compendium is rarely referenced in the notes nor is it in any way specifically designed for scientific or Post-Classical Latin.

The editors succeed masterfully at bringing together engaging and interesting selections from all periods of Latinity. Each selection or its author is of irrefutable significance in the history and development of science. In several pieces, the scientific material is far more challenging than the Latinity; in those sections Epstein and Spivak include an English summary of the problem under discussion and illustrations to aid the perplexed. This anthology not only offers an easy and inexpensive introduction to scientific and Post-Classical Latin, but also, by including facsimiles of early modern printed editions and by the editorial decisions of retaining the original punctuation and earlier printing conventions (e.g., p.14, “Pompeji”), the editors provide students with the opportunity to practice reading early modern printed materials. Tens of thousands of digitized early modern scientific texts are now available to students who only require the shortest instruction in the conventions of early printing in order to access them. This is a highly versatile volume. It is conceivable that the twenty-two selections could fill the majority of one semester of Intermediate Latin at the university. The book, by virtue of its notes and glossary, is approachable enough for high school students in their third or fourth year of Latin. It could also make an appropriate addition to a graduate survey course in Post-Classical Latin.

One could always quibble with the decision to include or exclude a particular text in an anthology, but it does seem strange that the field of biology or, more specifically, botany, is not represented given the wealth of botanical literature available. The editors decided to set a terminus at the end of the 18th century, but it would have been interesting to include a text or two from the 19th or 20th century, which the inclusion of botany would have allowed. Also strangely absent is any focused treatment of the linguistic nuances and stylistic peculiarities of the scientific genre. The notes are helpful, but they contain a fair amount of erroneous information.[1] In addition to these minor infelicities, the volume would have benefitted from closer proofreading.[2]

The collection as a whole brilliantly illustrates the range of Latin literature and the significant role that Latin played as a medium for scientific inquiry and publishing for nearly two millennia. In short, The Latin of Science is a joy to read and a valuable pedagogical resource for instructors and students of Latin who may be interested in exploring the Latin literature at the foundation of our contemporary technologically minded society.


[1] “Since, as the experts affirm, this verb derives from the Proto-Indo-European root med- which means to measure, it appears that Isidore’s derivation of medicina from modus is correct. (p.69)” It is likely the case that the words share a derivation from PIE *med-, but it is implausible that medicina derived from modus; Pokorny’s Indo-European Etymological Dictionary, which is cited, does not actually suggest that. On p.137 the editors identify “in praesentiarum” as a “solecism for in praesentarium” which cannot be correct; rather this is certainly an alternate form of impraesentiarum. A note on p.209 referring to a form subtilisati states, “The verb subtiliso, subtilisare does not quite exist.” This is perplexing because this verb does indeed exist in later Latin and is cited in the DMLBS and DuCange. “vaenire” on p.210 is not from venio but from veneo. While the claim that the “particle quin is a negative version of qui. (p.200)” might be defensible on an etymological basis, it is not helpful to students. There a few unfortunate omissions: A note is missing in relation to the spelling of “consyderabimus (p.62)” since the glossary only gives considero. The glossary entry for “pleuresis (p.376)” gives “pleurisy” as its only definition, which is unlikely to help many students. No note is attached to the phrase “ad determinandum veritatem (p.206)” which provided an opportunity to annotate the unusual appearance of an accusative gerund with a direct object.

[2] Typos include: prolaboribus for pro laboribus (p.41); The letter ‘a’ (which refers to a geometric point) should be italicized in line 29 of (p.119); “punctum -ī (n.) (p.380)” is given in the glossary but the text reads “sit punctus in circulo ab assignatus g. (p.117)”.  The glossary should give “punctus -ī/-ūs (m.)” or “pungō, pungere”; “línea” appears with an inexplicable acute accent (p.118); “sublimatione” for sublimationem (p.238); “restituted” for restored (p.343); “only the noun diēs is masculine in the fifth declension” (p.286) merīdiēs is also masculine; No edition or citation is given for the text of Adelard’s translation of Euclid’s Elements; The note “Veni, vidi, vici (attributed to Julius Caesar) (p. 283)” is correct, but the notes “Ars longa, vita brevis (Hippocrates) (p. 272)”, and “Delenda est Carthago (Cato the Elder) (p. 305)” lack the more necessary “a translation of” and “attributed to” respectively. Furthermore, the phrase traditionally attributed to Cato is “Carthago delenda est”.