Home » Library



Typically for a library developing over the 16th to 18th centuries St John's special collections contain a fair number of classical editions from the entire span of the period. The earliest printed book in the Library is one of the very first printings of a classical text, Fust and Schoeffer's 1466 edition of Cicero's De officiis. There are over seventy other classical incunabula including the first printings of Julius Caesar (1469), Apuleius (1469), Lucan (1469), Boethius' De consolatione philosophiae (1473), the Historia Augusta (1475), Asconius Pedianus (1477), the Anthologia Graeca (1484), the Iliad and the Odyssey (edited by Demetrius Chalcondylas, and the first substantial work in Greek, 1488), Apollonius Rhodius (1496), Lucian (1496), Aristophanes' Comedies (1498), the collected works of Cicero (vols 3-4 only, 1498), and the Suda Lexicon (1499). As is often the case with incunabula, several of these have illuminated borders and initials, including a particularly finely decorated edition of Ovid (1474), which appears to have belonged to Lorenzo de Medici. There are numerous products of the press of Aldo Manuzio, the pioneering Venetian publisher of Greek and Latin classics, including the works of Aristotle (1495-98), as well as the first printings of Plato's works in Greek (1513) and Plutarch's Moralia (1509). Moving further into the 16th century, the first book printed in modern, as opposed to ancient, Greek (a medieval version of the Iliad printed in 1526), also appears in the collections. Amongst the later editions of note are several volumes published in France between 1670 and 1698 which bear the words "in usum serenissimi Delphini" on the title page. These are sanitized versions of the classics originally prepared for the education of the Dauphin. Over time the classics were re-worked and embellished with illustrations, commentaries and notes of various descriptions. A typical example from the collections would be Sir Clement Edmondes' English translation of Caesar from 1655, which boasts battle-plans and other illustrations, but another more notable specimen would be the editio princeps of Euclid (1482) by Erhard Ratdolt, which contains the first printed mathematical diagrams in its margins. Ratdolt also provided the illustrations to an early printing of Hyginus Astronomicon (1488). Other classical texts with notable additions include Servetus' editions of Ptolemy (1535 & 1541) which contain maps detailing all the latest geographical discoveries, including America, an illustrated version of Vitruvius De architectura (1567), with an extended commentary by Daniele Barbaro on its practical applications, and the 1670 edition of Diophantus that contains the first statement of Fermat's last theorem in a note. Amongst the notable translations held in the collections are the Library's oldest book in English - Caxton's translation of Cicero's De senectute (1481), the first English translation of Aristotle, his Politics (1598), which may have been undertaken by the College's own John Dee, polymath, astrologer and alchemist, and Alexander Pope's translations of the Iliad (1720) and the Odyssey (1725).


Amongst the classical dictionaries and thesauruses at St John's are several key texts from the classical revival that occurred in Paris in the early 16th century, under Francis I. Notable here is the major work of the major classical scholar of the moment, Commentarii linguae Graecae (1529) by Guillaume Bude, who also initiated the collection that would later form the nucleus of the Bibliotheque Nationale. Bude's work provided the background for the rise of one of the most successful French dynasties of printers, the Estiennes, and in 1532 Robert Estienne produced his seminal dictionary, Thesuarus linguae Latinae, of which St John's has the second expanded edition of 1543. Probably the most celebrated work of classical scholarship to feature among the collections is the Greek dictionary produced by his son, Henri, the Thesaurus linguae Graecae of 1572, which was to remain in print as the chief authority in this area into the 19th century.


Interest in all aspects of the classical civilizations remained high throughout the early modern period, and the Library possesses several nice examples of the variety of work being undertaken. In the field of literary studies it contains, amongst other items, J.A. Fabricius' fourteen volume work of classical bio-bibliography, the Bibliotheca Graeca (1705-1728), and Daniel Heinsius' De tragoediae constitutione liber (1611), which originally accompanied his edition of Aristotle's Poetics and was a major influence on French theatre in the 17th century. Two English works, which were to become textbooks for generations of students in the 18th and 19th centuries, were William King's Historical account of the heathen gods and heroes (1711), and Joseph Spence's illustrated Polymetis, which attempts to use classical arts to cast light on classical literature, and was a source for Keats' mythological imagery. Historical texts range from the broad sweep of a set of Gibbon's History of the decline and fall of the Roman empire, some volumes of which are the first edition, to the more specific focus of Marcus Meibom's De fabrica triremium (1671), which has an attractive plate showing cut-aways of ships and rowers.


One particularly fertile field of classics was the study of antiquities, and there are many landmark texts in the Library. These include the first corpus of classical inscriptions, Peter Apian's Inscriptiones sacrosanctae vetustatis (1534), a work funded by the Fugger banking dynasty, and heavily based on their collections. Giacomo Lauro's Antiquae urbis splendor (1612) provides many illustrations of the surviving structures around Rome, as well as reconstructions of how they would have looked. Perhaps one of the most important works in this field, and one that was important for the development as archaeology as a discipline, was Bernard de Montfaucon's L'antiquite expliquee et representee en figures, and St John's has the five volume supplement to this monumental illustrated work (1724). Amongst archaeological sites Pompeii and Herculaneum stand out as of signal importance in the history of classics, and Tommaso Piroli's vast Le antichita di Ercolano (1789), provided the first comprehensive documentation of these early excavations. Some of what was discovered about Roman social and sexual mores at these sites did not, however, fit with those of the time, and much of what was deemed unsuitable for the uneducated was sealed off in Naples Museum in the Museo Segreto. When Firmin Didot published their series on Herculanum et Pompei, Louis Barre produced volume eight on the contents of this room (1862), and this has subsequently become very rare as it was often hidden away due to its explcit content. Many sets of the series are missing this one volume, but in St John's case this work, which features in debates surrounding the 19th century genesis of pornography, is the only one the Library possesses.