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How to Read and Study Classical Latin Texts: 10 Suggestions from a Latin Teacher

This article has been reviewed in accordance with our editorial policy.

For most stu­dents of Latin, learn­ing Latin means soon­er or lat­er read­ing clas­si­cal Latin lit­er­a­ture. How­ev­er, under­stand­ing this lit­er­a­ture, writ­ten by and for a high­ly edu­cat­ed elite in a for­eign cul­tur­al and his­tor­i­cal con­text, can be quite chal­leng­ing, even more so when writ­ten in a lan­guage with­out native speakers. 

Sug­gest­ed read­ing: Can Latin be spo­ken today?

It is, of course, best to first learn Latin well by study­ing lev­el-appro­pri­ate text­books instead of lit­er­a­ture, but if you are a stu­dent, you might not have the choice. I’ve spent over a decade learn­ing and teach­ing Latin, and, over the years, I’ve col­lect­ed sev­er­al tips and tech­niques for facil­i­tat­ing read­ing clas­si­cal works. Today, I’ll share some of them with you.

Let’s begin.

Know Latin

White marble bust of Cicero at the Trinity College Library, Dublin.
Bust of Cicero at the Trin­i­ty Col­lege Library, Dublin. Pho­to: Amelie Rosengren

This might seem strange but in order to read Cicero, you have to know Latin very, very well. So, if you can, defer read­ing Cicero and oth­er lit­er­ary works, read easy texts, read a lot, build your vocab­u­lary and intu­itive under­stand­ing of Latin.

Sug­gest­ed read­ing: Read­ing Plan for Learn­ing Latin: Beginners

Now, if you have to read Cicero right now because you have a burn­ing desire or because your teacher tells you to, here are some suggestions.

Note! Some of these sug­ges­tions might seem to require more effort and time than you want to spend. They range from easy-to-do sug­ges­tions, to quite dili­gent and con­sci­en­tious work. Use the ones you think will be suit­able for you. But don’t be too easy on yourself :).

Get a Good Commentary

Read­ing a clas­si­cal author is no easy task, even if you under­stand every sin­gle word and con­struc­tion of every sin­gle line. There is so much con­text, so many things that every read­er in antiq­ui­ty had. In every sin­gle speech of Cicero or the Sal­lust’s his­tor­i­cal works, there are so many ref­er­ences to laws,  gov­ern­ment offi­cials which every­one at the time under­stood. Fur­ther­more, the nuances of word order and reg­is­ter and sub­tle inter­tex­tu­al or his­tor­i­cal ref­er­ences would have been appar­ent to edu­cat­ed native speak­ers of the time.

We don’t have that con­cep­tu­al frame­work and con­tex­tu­al understanding.

How­ev­er, all hope is not lost. 

Over the cen­turies, through (too?) dili­gent philo­log­i­cal work, schol­ars have been able to recon­struct much of that frame­work and the nec­es­sary his­tor­i­cal, cul­tur­al and lin­guis­tic con­text nec­es­sary to bet­ter under­stand lit­er­ary works of ancient Rome. 

There­fore, if you are read­ing a clas­si­cal author, you should be using a com­men­tary or sev­er­al which will explain gram­mar, words, and cul­tur­al and his­tor­i­cal aspects of the text.

I sug­gest you get a mod­ern com­men­tary and one writ­ten in Latin. The first will give you the lat­est research on the text, where­as the oth­er will do much of the same thing but allow you to prac­tice and expand your Latin.

Thus you will hit two flies with one stone–or catch two wild­bores in a for­est-pas­ture, as the Romans said (duos apros in uno saltu capere).

Manuscript from late 12th cent.-early 14th cent. of Livy. 22.1 with. corrections by Petrarch and Valla
Livy 22.1, with cor­rec­tions by Petrar­ch (inter­lin­ear) and Loren­zo Val­la (mar­gin­a­lia). Harley MS 2493, f 105v. Italy and France (Avi­gnon), late 12th century‑c 1329. British Library.

Where do you find these Latin commentaries?

You can find mod­ern com­men­taries for most of the famous clas­si­cal texts on Ama­zon; I sug­gest you get a two, as they tend to explain dif­fer­ent words and con­struc­tions. For Latin com­men­taries, there are ones on clas­si­cal texts dat­ing back to antiq­ui­ty (e.g. Dona­tus for Ter­ence and Servius for Vergil), but here I have two sets of lat­er com­men­taries in mind:

  • Bib­lio­the­ca Classica
  • Ad Usum Delphini

Both Biblio­the­ca clas­si­ca and Ad Usum Del­phi­ni are avail­able as free PDFs.

They each have their strengths and weak­ness­es, and it would be best to use a com­men­tat­ed edi­tion of a text of Cicero from both series. These com­men­taries vary in detail but gen­er­al­ly explain dif­fi­cult words and his­tor­i­cal ref­er­ences quite well, in a rather straight­for­ward style of Latin.

This brings me to the next point, which is sim­i­lar, only dif­fer­ent in scope and generality.

Read About the Historical Context

It is much eas­i­er to under­stand an ora­tion of Cicero if you under­stand the his­tor­i­cal con­text. If you know what led up to the speech, what its point was. Cicero’s speech­es are like a scene from a movie, but it is tough to under­stand what is hap­pen­ing in that par­tic­u­lar scene with­out watch­ing the rest of the movie.

So, if, for instance, you are to read the first ora­tion against Cati­line, make sure you read about the Catili­nar­i­an Con­spir­a­cy, what prompt­ed it and what the con­se­quences of it were. Under­stand what was hap­pen­ing in Rome, what the dif­fer­ent polit­i­cal par­ties, their ambi­tions, and goals were. Sim­i­lar­ly, if you are to read Ovid’s Meta­mor­phoses, you will have to read up on Greek mythol­o­gy as vir­tu­al­ly every page is replete with ref­er­ences to gods and heroes.

Comic depiction of Cicero denouncing Catiline, by John Leech , 1850s.
Cicero denounc­ing Cati­line, by John Leech from The Com­ic His­to­ry of Rome, 1850s. 

Get a Few Translations

Now, using trans­la­tions, some­one might say, is cheat­ing, it means that you don’t know the lan­guage.

This is false.

If you’re read­ing Vir­gil (and haven’t stud­ied the text before) and look up no words, well per­haps you don’t need a trans­la­tion, con­grat­u­la­tions, you are part of a very select club that silent­ly rules the world. 🙂

But most stu­dents who read Vir­gil will find the text of the Aeneid, for instance, quite dif­fi­cult (even though it is a plea­sure to read). If this is the case, you will learn much more Latin and get more plea­sure if you can get through more than a page per hour.

A trans­la­tion will help you with that.

You can use a trans­la­tion in many dif­fer­ent ways: you can read it only when in doubt, read one line from the trans­la­tion and then one in Latin, or vice ver­sa, or read para­graph by para­graph com­par­ing the Latin with the translation.

There is no wrong way, and there is no right way. There is only the way that gets you through as many texts as pos­si­ble with under­stand­ing and plea­sure.

One caveat: Do not become too depen­dent on the trans­la­tion. Instead, use them when you tru­ly need to. Seek to devel­op con­fi­dence in your own abil­i­ty and judgment.

There are two main types of trans­la­tions you can use, tra­di­tion­al par­al­lel trans­la­tions and inter­lin­ear trans­la­tions. In texts with par­al­lel trans­la­tions, you have the Latin text on the left hand and the trans­la­tion of the same page on the right hand. A great exam­ple of this is the Loeb series.

Inter­lin­ear trans­la­tions, on the oth­er hand, give you the Eng­lish equiv­a­lent under each word of Latin. The draw­back of these is that they are rare, and you can­not avoid look­ing at the trans­la­tion since it is just below the Latin text. 

I rec­om­mend par­al­lel trans­la­tions to my students.

Get a reading partner

Study­ing Latin can often be a very soli­tary project—even if you are tak­ing a course at university—since stu­dents have to do most of the work of under­stand­ing the texts out­side of the class­room. When I took Latin at col­lege many years ago, we’d all pre­pare the text for class at home and then in class go through it with the teacher. Then every­one would most­ly go home and study by themselves. 

If you’re learn­ing Latin as an auto­di­dact, soli­tary study is almost a given–and for some an allure of Latin. 

How­ev­er, work­ing through com­plex lit­er­ary texts, such as Cicero’s ora­tions, takes much work if you are not advanced. Hav­ing a study bud­dy to dis­cuss dif­fi­cul­ties, inter­est­ing expres­sions, or ref­er­ences makes learn­ing Latin much more pleasant.

So, I would sug­gest that you find some­one, either in school or online, and decide on what you are going to read. Then dis­cuss it togeth­er over a cup of cof­fee or a beer. I’ve spent many nights with friends in a Latin cir­cle dis­cussing Horace, Eras­mus, and oth­er authors. 

Fur­ther­more, we all bring dif­fer­ent expe­ri­ences and per­spec­tives to a text, and shar­ing oth­ers’ inter­pre­ta­tions of the text can enrich our under­stand­ing and appre­ci­a­tion of it. 

Make Notes in the Book

In the clas­sic guide to read­ing, How to read a book, by Mor­timer Adler, the author tells the read­er to read with a pen­cil and to make notes in the book, cir­cling inter­est­ing or dif­fi­cult pas­sages, writ­ing ques­tions or sum­maries of argu­ments in the mar­gins, and in essence, enter­ing into dia­logue with the author of the book.

Manuscipt of Terentius' Enunchus from the 16th or 17th century with notes from the previous owners.
Man­u­s­cipt of Ter­en­tius’ Enunchus from the 16th or 17th cen­tu­ry with notes from the pre­vi­ous own­ers. Pho­to: Christies.

At first, I was reluc­tant to write in my books, but I decid­ed I’d give it a try–and indeed, read­ing in this active man­ner made the read­ing not only more engag­ing but much more fruit­ful. Of course, Adler talks about read­ing in a lan­guage that you already know, but read­ing with a pen in hand is a potent tech­nique for learn­ing a lan­guage. Indeed, Eras­mus of Rot­ter­dam, the great Dutch human­ist and teacher, sug­gest­ed we mark inter­est­ing, rare, or dif­fi­cult words and expressions.

If you don’t want to write in your invalu­able edi­tio prin­ceps from 1557, I under­stand, nor should you do that. Instead, go on Abe­books or eBay and get a cheap, used copy of the text you are read­ing. You can get most clas­si­cal works for a few dollars.

Read­ing with a pen in this way pre­pares the way for the next pow­er­ful technique.

Keep a Commonplace Book 

Erasmus–and vir­tu­al­ly all his contemporaries–suggested learn­ers copy out phras­es and expres­sions, and indeed, whole pas­sages that they found inter­est­ing. This way, you build up a per­son­al dic­tio­nary of words and phras­es that you can cat­e­go­rize accord­ing to your own incli­na­tions, the­mat­i­cal­ly or by author.

By keep­ing such a book, you’ll not only read very atten­tive­ly and have a source of expres­sions for Latin prose com­po­si­tion, but you’ll also have a record of your read­ing through the years. 

Use a Dictionary of Synonyms

We can learn a lot from using trans­la­tions and com­men­taries, but when read­ing, we might come across sev­er­al words trans­lat­ed with the same word in English.

Of course, there are dif­fer­ences in nuance and usage between the Latin “syn­onyms,” but how do you get at them? 

Reg­u­lar Latin dic­tio­nar­ies might help some­what, but usu­al­ly, they are lim­it­ed to offer­ing many pos­si­ble trans­la­tions of a par­tic­u­lar word. Luck­i­ly, there are good dic­tio­nar­ies of Latin syn­onyms, which treat the dif­fer­ences between syn­onyms. You can find the best syn­onym dic­tio­nar­ies here.

Note, how­ev­er, that there are no native speak­ers of Latin who can tell us about the exact nuances of each word, so philol­o­gists have had to work hard to deter­mine the mean­ing from usage and com­ments on usage. You’ll notice that dif­fer­ent dic­tio­nar­ies of syn­onyms make dif­fer­ent dis­tinc­tions between Latin syn­onyms. Like all Latin dic­tio­nar­ies, they are guides, not laws writ­ten in stone.

Decide on a Reading Plan

How much do you want, or have to read a day?

As we all know, learn­ing a lan­guage takes time and patience. It is always bet­ter to spread out your learn­ing so that you, for instance, read 20 min­utes every day rather than 3 hours on Saturday.

So, decide how much you can do every day, e.g., read for 20 min­utes or read two pages. Try mak­ing it a dai­ly habit by doing it at the same time and in the same place every day. Also, try to facil­i­tate per­form­ing the habit by putting your books next to where you are going to be read­ing. Thus, all you have to do is sit down and start read­ing. Fur­ther­more, the books lying on a table next to a chair will act as a reminder.

If you are like me and enjoy check­ing things off lists, you could place a cal­en­dar on the wall and make a cross over each day you’ve kept your habit. That sounds like turn­ing read­ing into a chore, dixerit quispi­am (“some­one might say”), but I found it actu­al­ly adds a lev­el of plea­sure and sense of accom­plish­ment to the read­ing ses­sion. Also, the cal­en­dar works as a sec­ondary reminder.

Sug­gest­ed read­ing: How to Learn Latin: Moti­va­tion, Goals, and Habits


We now come to the final, but per­haps most impor­tant tip: re-read­ing the text. As you know by now, read­ing and under­stand­ing a lit­er­ary text from antiq­ui­ty, be it prose or poet­ry, is much more dif­fi­cult than it might seem at first: Beyond the lan­guage bar­ri­er, there is a sort of veil woven of his­tor­i­cal con­text, ref­er­ences, and inter­tex­tu­al­i­ty that keeps us from ful­ly per­ceiv­ing the lit­er­ary works as the Romans did. 

This is where re-read­ing comes in.

Augustinus' Confessiones in an open book on an old pulpet.
Aure­lius Augusti­nus’ Con­fes­siones. Pho­to: Amelie Rosengren.

You have worked through the text, under­stood the his­tor­i­cal con­text, the ref­er­ences, and per­haps even the inter­tex­tu­al allu­sions. It’s per­haps been a long road.

First, well done! Few take the time to read Latin lit­er­a­ture in this way. But it can be enor­mous­ly reward­ing, rather than just blaz­ing through a book to say that you have “read it.” 

Read­ing Latin is not a sport, it’s about lit­er­a­ture and what we can learn and enjoy from it. 

Now that you have pierced that veil and come close to the text, it would be a shame to set the book aside. Now, you have ren­dered the text or pas­sage of text ful­ly com­pre­hen­si­ble to you. Read­ing it a sec­ond time will be much eas­i­er, and you will be able to under­stand the nuances much bet­ter and thus get much more from the text.

So, how should you reread the text? There are two prin­ci­pal ways to do this. I sug­gest you do both. First, before start­ing a new study ses­sion, read the pre­vi­ous day’s pas­sage or pages, con­sult­ing your notes and trans­la­tion if nec­es­sary. After you’ve gone through the text in this man­ner and thus re-read every part, it’s time to read through the whole text from start to finish–preferably in one glo­ri­ous sit­ting. I would sug­gest re-read­ing the book until you can read it with ease. Here is a guide on how you can tru­ly mas­ter the con­tents of a Latin text.     

Bonus Tip

After you’ve fin­ished read­ing and reread­ing your text or pas­sages of text, take your note­book, and write down your thoughts on the work. What are your impres­sions? Do you find it stands the test of time? Is it over­rat­ed? Was it difficult?

If you do this, you’ll have a per­son­al record of your thoughts and your read­ing expe­ri­ence. And lat­er, if you want to re-read that par­tic­u­lar work, you can do the same thing and see if your thoughts and views on the work have changed over the years. 

Good luck, and let me know how it goes!

Daniel Pettersson

Daniel Pettersson

Teacher and author Daniel Pettersson, M.A., is co-founder of Latinitium and is currently teaching Latin at Stockholm University, where he is also working on his Ph.D. dissertation on Humanist Colloquia. Daniel believes in the importance of Latin literature in the modern world and that you can teach yourself Latin with the right motivation, method, and material.
Written by Daniel Pettersson

Written by Daniel Pettersson

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