Perseus Digital Library
Gregory Cane, Editor in Chief
John Bert Lott
This site remains the premier site for accessing the literature and archaeology of ancient Greek culture and now Roman as well. The heart of Perseus’ Classics collection contains more than 400 primary texts of Greek and Roman literature. Indeed, the work of no major author regularly studied in secondary or undergraduate education is missing. Moreover, since its inception, Perseus has expanded well beyond its initial focus on ancient Greece to build an extensive, if idiosyncratic, collection of primary materials pertaining to Classical antiquity, the English Renaissance, Victorian London, and American history. This review focuses on resources available for studying Greek and Roman civilizations.
The collection presents texts in Greek, Latin, and/or English. All texts are based on editions that are out of copyright, ones where permission could be acquired (more rarely), or ones completed for Perseus (most rarely). This has three important repercussions. First, some texts are available in Latin or Greek but not in English translation and vice versa. Second, the editions available are often quite old. Although in general this poses no great problems for the use of a Greek or Latin text, the English translations can be problematic for students. Third, since Perseus relies on reproducing other editions, there is no inherent consistency across the texts presented, which is most troubling when working with English translations. Therefore despite Perseus’ relative completeness, one must check whether a particular text is available in the desired language and in a suitable edition.
In addition to the works of Classical literature, Perseus offers a large anthology of images from museum collections and archaeological sites. For some museum collections, only thumbnail images are available. Larger images are provided for other museum collections and materials from archaeological sites and ancient architecture. The ability to work with both Classical texts and images side by side is one of the most useful features of Perseus as a pedagogical tool. One might, for example, read the Iliad and view vases that portray episodes from the epic. Finally, Perseus offers a selection of secondary and reference works that support the study of Classics. These include commentaries on texts, dictionaries, and catalogs of material objects. As with other texts available, these must be used with some care due to the age of many of the editions.
Finally, Perseus offers a suite of tools to help integrate and contextualize primary materials. These include an atlas with discussions of important Classical sites, an art and archaeology search tool, and an index of all the English text in Perseus. The most important and complex tools, however, relate to Greek and Latin philology: Greek and Latin dictionaries, Greek to English and Latin to English lookup tools, and morphological analysis tools for both Greek and Latin. The tools can be accessed through individual words in texts. Clicking on a word in Greek, for example, provides a dictionary entry, a morphological analysis, cross references in the atlas of Classical sites or the image galleries, and commentary offered by Perseus when available. For English words, only cross references appear.
Given the scope and seeming authority of Perseus, it is tempting to simply let students use it as a general reference tool. However, it is not wholly surprising that the richness (and variability) of the information and tools available leads to an interface that can be confusing, especially for those with no prior exposure to Greek, Latin, or classical studies. The complete cross-referencing throughout can hide the underlying structure of the site and unexpectedly move users from one language to another. In my experience, students need significant time to become accustomed to using the various tools in sophisticated ways. Nevertheless, Perseus is a valuable resource for more general studies of history and historical methods both for the range of information it presents and for the tools it provides.1 Indeed the need to relate the varied information and approaches available is, in the end, a useful exercise in itself: one could ask students to identify the different kinds of information available about Athens, and then comment on their value, uses, and quality.
1 The most complete compendia of Greek and Latin texts in the original languages remain those of Thesaurus Linguae Graecae and the Packard Humanities Institute, both available on CD-ROM.