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A Little Latin, A Little History

Book Review:
Columbus' First Voyage
Latin Selections from Peter Martyr's De Orbe Novo

Constance Iacona and Edward George
Bolchazy-Carducci Publishers

Every junior Latinist knows that Gaul is divided in three parts. And every junior historian knows (we hope!) that "In 1492 / Columbus sailed the ocean blue." But there might be more to learn.

In the typical Latin class, one learns the Latin of the Golden Age - Ovid, Vergil, Cicero... What isn't so widely realized is that at different times, the language of that age was taken up again by men of learning and sophistication (or at least those who wanted to appear as such). This means that from time you'll find a writer from another era whose prose won't be that different from Caesar's. One such man is Peter Martyr, who just happened to be hanging around the Spanish court when Columbus went on his first expeditions. Martyr wrote back home to former senior associates and the letters were such a hit that they were distributed all over.

Were Martyr famous, it would be for the phrase "The New World." His "De Orbe Novo" is probably the first reference to the idea. But Martyr was not a starstruck fan of Columbus. He called 'em as he saw 'em, making for interesting reading as an intelligent observer gives one man's view of the living, breathing Cristopher Columbus, both from personal observation and based on chats with the Columbus' crew and numerous others.

In Columbus' First Voyage, the authors take a handful of excerpts from Martyr's writing, put in extensive glosses to help the beginning student along and include copious notes on what others were writing, as well as what the historical literature has turned up. What results is not quite a Latin primer and not quite histori(ographi)cal scholarship, but a mix of the two that should remind high school and college students - and other readers of Latin - that they have special tools for approaching and understanding the past that others might lack and that are worth developing.

Columbus' First Voyage is not a comprehensive look at Martyr, Columbus or the implications of the discovery of "A New World." But it is an excellent starting point for those seeking an often overlooked perspective about the explorer - that of the people of his own time. In Columbus' First Voyage, less advanced students have a relatively authentic bit of prose to work through with interesting subject matter. But more than that, general readers with some Latin have a nicely assembled source book dealing with a historical matter often debated in 20th/21st century terms but rarely considered from the vantage point of those who lived through the period.