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CLAS 199: Opening Classics (Ebbott): Working with Textual Sources

Spring 2024

Recommended for "Reference"

Ancient Sources


in the library...

At Holy Cross, we organize our books using a system called Library of Congress Classification or LCC. LCC is based on the subject of the books. Each letter represents a specific subject. Each subject is broken down into more specific letter sections, each of which is further broken down into number ranges for specific topics. Most call numbers have additional  numbers and letters on the end of them, which are used to give each book a unique spot on the library shelves. 

Here are the areas where you will find editions and translations of ancient Greek and Latin texts. These are also marked on the map attached this box: 

Greek authors in translation:  PA3601 to PA3681

Greek texts, by author: PA3818 to PA4505

Latin authors in translation: PA6155 to PA6191

Latin texts, by author: PA6202 to PA6971



Secondary sources like classical encyclopedias and dictionaries, as well as commentaries and other books, sometimes provide helpful references to ancient texts that you may want to follow. These could appear in the bibliography, OR they could be presented as part of the text (or both). For example, here is the Oxford Classical Dictionary entry for Cadmus (highlighting added to show references): 

You will need to decipher these abbreviations before you can determine which ancient text the encyclopedia is referencing. Fortunately, most reference books of this kind provide information about how they use abbreviations somewhere at the front of the book (note that if you are using a multi-volume series, this information may be at the front of each volume or may be limited to the first volume). 

If the list is standard enough, you may be able to find it in other sources. For example, Oxford makes their abbreviation list available online:

Some texts use additional terminology in Latin or Greek that may not be defined in the abbreviation list. You can look these up in your preferred Latin or Greek dictionary, in the Perseus Digital Library, or sometimes even in a reputable English dictionary like the Oxford English Dictionary. 

For example, the bibliography for the Oxford Classical Dictionary's article on Cadmus uses the term passim with several citations. 

Passim is Latin for "scattered," and is used to indicate that the article has used references from throughout the cited publication,  in lieu of providing exact page numbers (this is not, of course, a technique that you want to use on your own assignments!)


What is a Commentary?

Commentaries are designed to help both students and scholars of the classics work more effectively with ancient texts.  

Commentaries can take many different forms. Some commentaries are written as footnotes, under or around an edition of an ancient work. Others can be found at the back of the book containing an ancient text, or in a completely separate volume. You can find commentaries which walk you through an ancient text line-by-line, and others which take more of a narrative approach to describing important themes, characters or other ideas in a text. There are even ancient forms of commentaries found in manuscripts, known as scholia

Commentaries may also be very different in their focus. A commentary designed for students might provide translations or explanations for important vocabulary. Commentaries might also address topics related to the text such as word choice, grammar, literary devices, or meter; historical details; themes and ideas; manuscript sources for the text; and/or questions and problems that previous scholars have had about a certain part of the work. The ultimate goal of any commentary, though, is to help the reader to better understand and to engage more fully with, the ancient text. 

Why Use a Commentary?

If you are taking a Latin or Greek course, often your required textbooks will include some kind of commentary. But beyond assigned readings, it is often valuable to consult one (or more!) commentaries for a text that you are trying to read closely. A commentary will help you better understand what you are reading and ask questions about it. It will highlight important parts of the text which you should particularly pay attention to or ask questions about.  Commentaries are particularly useful if you are trying to compare different versions of the same text (or different versions of the same story told in multiple texts), or if you are doing a word study where you are looking at the use of specific Latin or Greek words. They can also be very helpful inspiration for reflection or research paper topics, or for other long-term projects! 

How Do I Find Commentaries? 

Most of the time, commentaries will be found with the texts they comment on. So, if you are looking for commentaries on the Odyssey, you should start by looking where the books on Homer are found. Check multiple editions of the text in question to see if they contain commentaries, or look for separate commentary volumes in the same areas. There are also some useful collections of commentaries on the web.


Have you ever wondered why a library might have so many different translations of the same ancient text? 

None of the texts we examine as classicists originate in English (and since we don't really have the single, original copies of any one of them). So we rely on editors and translators to compile the versions of the texts that we read today. If you've ever studied a language, ancient or otherwise, you know that there's often more than one way to translate a word or phrase into English! Each edition of a text represents a particular scholar's idea of the best way to convey the text's original meaning into English. 

Textual Criticism

Textual criticism is one word for a kind of scholarship that involves tracing the history of a particular version of a text. For example, say you are a scholar working with the Venetus A, one of the most famous copies of Homer's Iliad. Records tell us that a scribe created the Venetus A sometime in the 900s AD, but most scholars think the story we know as the Iliad was created in the 800s BC -- so that's not the original copy! 

One way to study the Iliad, then, is to try to figure out -- based on notes on the copy, based on the way the language is used, based on other copies we have of pieces of the Iliad -- when different parts of this version of the Iliad were actually written, and which ones we think might be original. Think of it like a textual multiverse! 

Critical Editions

In literary studies we often use what are called critical editions --a version of a text like the Iliad or Aeneid that is based on a carefully-chosen combination of sources. Usually, these editions are accompanied by information designed to help us understand (1) which sources were used and (2) why the scholar chose the combination of sources they did -- a commentary, notes, or even a critical apparatus:

To learn more about critical editions, check out the following resources: 

Secondary Research


Books and ebooks can provide basic facts, context and vocabulary to help you conduct more detailed research. They often provide a "big-picture" overview of a particular topic, which can help you identify the more specific topics that you want to pursue and understand the context surrounding those topics.  You may also encounter books that are edited collections. These usually contain essays by a number of scholars on different topics surrounding a central theme, and are a great way to quickly gain multiple, reliable perspectives. 

Articles tend to be good sources for detailed information on a very specific topic, or thoughtful analysis of issues or a particular text or artifact. Because they are usually published more quickly than books, they may have more current information than books on the same topic (check the publication date!

Books tend to be more helpful towards the beginning of a research project or of a new phase of your research. Articles tend to be more helpful once you've engaged with a book or two, or at least have a solid grounding in the basics of the topic. 


CrossSearch is the Libraries' multi-search "discovery" tool. CrossSearch searches a cross-section of journal articles, newspapers, CDs, images, and many other types of resources available through the libraries. It is also our main library catalog -- the tool you use to find books, journals, films, and other items physically located in the library, as well electronic versions of those items. 

To leave out individual articles and focus on things like books and films, you can use the Catalog Only limit in CrossSearch. 

Watch our video tutorial 📺 to learn more about CrossSearch. If you're not a CrossSearch fan, you can also use the Library Catalog to find books. 

Try searching for books using a very basic keyword search. Books tend to be on broad topics, so the terms you search with should be broad, too! Once you've found a few books that look interesting to you, you can use clues from the books to help you find other books. For example.... 

  • Call Numbers. Books on similar subjects are in similar areas of the library. For example, if you search for books about Piranesi, you would see pretty quickly that many books have call numbers starting with NE2052 (or nearby). This means you can easily go to that section of the library and look through the books in person! 

  • Vocabulary. Check the records in the library catalog for vocabulary in the tables of contents, titles, descriptions or other information that you might use for future searches. 
  • Subjects. Every book in our catalog is marked with at least 1 "tag" that tells you what the book is mostly about, and links together other books on that same topic. You can click on the tags to find a list of all other books using that tag.


At Holy Cross, we organize our books using a system called Library of Congress Classification or LCC. LCC is based on the subject of the books. Each letter represents a specific subject. Each subject is broken down into more specific letter sections, each of which is further broken down into number ranges for specific topics. Most call numbers have additional  numbers and letters on the end of them, which are used to give each book a unique spot on the library shelves. 


  • Reference Books are in the Main Reading Room. These books must stay in the library.
  • Books whose numbers begin with letters A through G are on the Mezzanine level (1 floor down from the Main Reading Room).
  • Books whose numbers begin with N or TR are in the Visual Arts Wing on the main level. 
  • Books whose numbers begin with letters H through Z are mostly on the Ground (bottom) level.
  • Books whose numbers begin with are in the Music Library in Brooks Hall.
  • Books whose numbers begin with Q, R, S or are in the Science Library in Swords Hall.

The Stacks Guide handout attached below has more information about how the stacks are organized, and the best places for you to look. 

You can also watch our video tutorial  to learn more about how call numbers work. Or, check out the Library of Congress Classification Outline for a detailed breakdown of our call number system. 

Here are some of the general sections you might visit in your study of ancient textual sources:

D, for history
P, for literature


Research Databases are tools designed to help you search the scholarly (and other) articles and resources available to you through the Holy Cross Libraries.  Article databases are like very long bibliographies of articles that might interest you -- some that are available physically at Holy Cross, some available online, and some that we have to borrow from other libraries. 

We have access to over 300 databases!

Here are the ones you might find most helpful for researching ancient textual sources: