Sunday 09 February 1997
That's the voice of Perseus 2.0: Interactive Sources and Studies on Ancient Greece. The offspring of several American universities and several million dollars, this Yale University Press CD-ROM aims to do for classical studies what the pocket calculator did for long division. It isn't quite civilisation on a CD, but it does contain two-thirds of surviving Greek literature up to the time of Alexander: 3,400,000 words and 24,000 images, mostly vases. The full version, four disks, is about the size of the Spice Girls' discography, though at pounds 235 plus VAT it's somewhat more expensive; but there is a concise edition on one disk (pounds 100 plus VAT) with all the words and 6,000 pictures.
Perseus does, however, require the patience that studying the classics is supposed to inculcate. The paperback manual looks like an art catalogue; the interface is from the classical antiquity of computing. Perseus was born in 1985, when the only graphic interface was that of the Apple Macintosh. It still only runs on Macs, though the Project is working on a version to run on Windows, the system whose style and fortunes are to Macintosh what Rome was to Greece. However, the Perseus database, and other classical sites, can be reached at www.perseus.tufts.edu.
Navigating through Perseus, I sometimes found the word "labyrinth" springing to mind, and felt a sharp desire for a ball of string. After the fiddly business of determining the distance from Athens to Corinth, I turned with relief to the modern route-planning program Route 66, which does the job a lot quicker, and tells you to take the E94 into the bargain. For serious scholarly inquiry, though, Perseus does things beyond the reach of any other program, or of pen and paper. Julian Morgan, of the Joint Association of Classical Teachers, has used it to determine that Aristophanes used the word for "man" twice as often as the word for "woman". By contrast, Euripides referred to "woman" more than "man". This kind of text-crunching was impractically laborious before computers, says Morgan, and had only been practised on a limited body of work, mostly Homeric.
While he doesn't mince his words about minor shortcomings, Morgan has described Perseus as "the most capable, interesting and far-reaching piece of software available for the Classics teacher today". He recently presented his evaluation of Perseus 2.0 at St Anne's College, Oxford, to an audience featuring representatives from Eton, Harrow and the rest of the top scholastic drawer.
In the "Computanda" column on his Web site (www.source.co.uk/ users/jprogs/jact/), where Morgan discusses classics software of his own and others' devising, one wonders whether classics might now be a more attractive proposition to students at state schools these days. As well as multimedia CD-ROMs like Microsoft's Ancient Lands, the character-building side of the classics is now handled by programs with names like Latin Flash Drill. If tradition means anything, the pupils will have found a way to turn "Latin" into "Eating".
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