[Humanist] 27.810 digital classics

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Thu Feb 20 07:30:24 CET 2014

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 27, No. 810.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Wed, 19 Feb 2014 11:44:01 +0000
        From: Alexander Hay <a.hay at software.ac.uk>
        Subject: Re: Introducing digital classics.
        In-Reply-To: <20140214050904.F13756223 at digitalhumanities.org>

*Introducing digital classics*

By Giacomo Peru.

As a member of the Software Sustainability Institute and classicist, I 
could not write my first blog post on anything but the relationship 
between Classics and IT. [1]

For those who are not familiar with the subject, Classics is the study 
of the Greek and Roman world in the period that spans between, roughly, 
the start of the 1st millennium BC until around the 6th century AD. At 
the core of this field is the study of ancient Greek and Latin, the main 
languages of that world, of Classical Archaeology, which collects and 
study its material artefacts, and of Ancient History, which reconstructs 
ancient Mediterranean and Near-Eastern history by the means of texts and 
archaeological evidence. Beyond this tripartite division, the field has 
bred a number of ancillary disciplines, which can be regarded as 
disciplines in their own right, such as philology, linguistics, 
palaeography, philosophy, history of art, and others.

We are all aware that IT has revolutionised all fields of knowledge and 
the traditional practices within them, and most of us are aware that the 
Humanities have a well-established digital branch. Yet some might still 
be surprised at how eagerly Classicists have endorsed the 
computerisation of their traditional scholarly tools. Digital Classics 
are then how classicists strive to integrate current digital tools with 
their traditional practices and needs.

In future posts I will investigate the other directions taken by digital 
classicists. Yet for the sake of simplicity, I will keep the focus of 
this post on how the study of ancient Greek and Latin texts, a 
discipline named Classical Philology, has developed in the digital era.

As it happens, the study of classical texts has always been highly 
data-intensive. Since the time of the great libraries at Pergamon and 
Alexandria in the 4th century BCE, scholars [2] have collected, 
catalogued, parsed, analysed, and commented on texts, and, based on the 
primary sources available to them, developed scholarly resources such as 
lexica, encyclopaedias, commentaries, and critical editions. [3] This 
work has been handed down from one generation to the next through the 
centuries, having survived the many wars, plagues, calamities, cultural 
and political upheavals and simple bad luck that have happened in the 

In the digital age, classicists now face a daunting amount of scholarly 
material, formed from primary sources and a very large body of 
scholarship. [4] This has been laboriously produced and preserved by a 
class of extremely disciplined and skilled scholars. Indeed the work of 
classical philologists has always been inherently best suited to a 
digital environment, rather than to a paper one as it grants them an 
ease of access and versatility that printed texts could never provide.

Therefore, it is no surprise that classicists were among the first 
humanists to exploit the potential of computers in their work. Roberto 
Busa's Index Thomisticus, which began on IBM computers in the 1950s, and 
D. W. Packard's Concordance to Livy, which dates back to the late 60s, 
are notable cases in point. Since then, digital classics have evolved 
through several stages as can be seen in the work of one of its leading 
lights, Gregory Crane, co-founder and editor-in-chief of the Perseus 
Digital Library. [5] Yet for the sake of brevity, let us look at the 
three main stages of this history.

The first stage involved the Digital Incunabula. Originally, incunubula 
was a term first applied to the earliest printed books, but DI refers to 
digital collections of non-machine-actionable texts. Google Books and 
the Open Content Alliance (OCA) can be considered examples of these. 
More relevant to the field of Classics are the Thesaurus Linguae Graecae 
(TLG), JSTOR and the Bryn Mawr Classical Review (BMCR).

The TLG, started in 1972, is a digital library of texts that runs to 
over 100 million words. It is one of the most important resources of the 
field and is under copyright. This means you have to pay substantial 
subscription costs to access it. The texts contained in it mirror 
printed editions and can be searched in various ways to generate 
excerpts of those print sources.

Other features of the TLG are the accuracy of the transcriptions and the 
encoded citation scheme through which scholars cite these sources. JSTOR 
is an archive of digitised publications, also protected by copyright and 
subscription costs, and BMCR, founded in 1990, is an online open access 
journal that publishes reviews of current works in the field. All these 
resources make access to the material much quicker and easier.

Then there are machine-actionable knowledge bases, such as the 
aforementioned Perseus Digital Library, which was founded in 1987. 
Perseus is a resource to which I'm personally indebted because it helped 
me significantly with my dissertation thesis. [6] It was launched in the 
80s with the aim of advancing far beyond the horizon of a semi-static 
digital resource such as the TLG and others.

Instead, it is an environment that embraces both the textual and the 
material data of the classical world, and exposes this database to new 
forms of dynamic inquiry. Semantic text mark-up is the characteristic 
feature of projects like Perseus, and this introduces a whole new stream 
of revolutionary possibilities, whereby what for centuries has been 
dependent on the rigorous intellectual exertions of scholars can now 
carried out quite trivially by digital computation.

Finally, Suda On Line (SOL) is a successful collaborative project 
started in 1997 as an online digital community that aimed to create the 
first comprehensive translation of a Byzantine encyclopedia called The 
Suda. This massive work of 625,000 words spread was across over 30,000 
entries, the scale of which posed all manner of challenges to 
traditional scholars. Yet as of this month, nearly all of the entries 
have been translated by the SOL community. In addition, the resources 
provided by SOL share all the features already present in Perseus, such 
as all the text being fully XML encoded.

In conclusion, these examples all have lessons for both digital 
classicists and the digital humanities overall. The challenge has been 
in each case how to digitise what are, after all, very large corpora of 
texts and to make them machine-actionable, so that they can be subject 
to the widest possible range of inquiries. How this has been achieved 
shows the way for future work, and also demonstrates the need for well 
developed methodologies and the possibilities of digital technology 
being exploited to the full.


 1. This blog post draws significantly on the work of Prof. Gregory
    Crane (see n. 6 below).
 2. Throughout the Middle Ages, being a scholar meant being a Classicist
    by default.
 3. Critical editions are crucial tools in Classical Studies. Their
    methodology also draws interesting parallels to the software
    development process.
 4. OCLC, for example, refers to over 20,500 works, all by or about Homer.
 5. Professor Crane is now Open Access Officer for the University of
    Leipzig, responsible for developing its Open Philology Project which
    will eventually cover every academic program, from Biology and
    Chemistry to Greek and Latin.
 6. Which was a sample of a commentary on Lysias' fouth oration, of
    which I disgracefully lost the master digital copy in the
    pre-cloud-computing era...


Alexander Hay PhD
Policy & Communications Consultant
Electronics & Computer Science
Faculty of Physical & Applied Sciences
Building 32 Room 4067
University of Southampton

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