It has always been difficult to say exactly who the Loeb Classical Library, founded in 1911 by James Loeb, is meant for. The series—the 500th volume of which has recently been published with some fanfare by Harvard University Press—is set apart from other, often more reputable sets of classical editions (such as the Oxford Classical Texts or Teubners) by the inclusion of a translation on facing pages. Virginia Woolf celebrated the series soon after it began on the grounds that it offered "the gift of freedom" to "the ordinary amateur," whose existence was, through the Loeb Library, both acknowledged and "to a great extent made respectable." Yet from the start, people disagreed violently about the extent to which amateurish approaches to classical literature could ever, or should ever, be "made respectable." When James Loeb first approached publisher George Macmillan, he was summarily rebuffed: "I am sorry to say that we cannot form a favourable opinion of it from any point of view."
Indeed, the Loebs for many decades seemed fated to fall between two stools. Their versions of Greek and Latin texts were often not accurate or informative enough to be usable by scholars, plenty of whom considered the series the death-knell for true classical scholarship, an endorsement of the schoolboy habit of using "cribs" to get through Latin class. Meanwhile, those who turned to the right-hand, English page of the old Loebs encountered a text that could be next to impenetrable. Notorious for their bowdlerized translations of the more risqué classical authors, the volumes lapsed into Latin to handle the dirty bits of Greek authors or Italian when dealing with the ribald Romans. Even perfectly decent texts, like the Odyssey, were consistently translated into a stilted language that only very rarely resembled contemporary English.
The series surivived, despite these shortfalls, because it was the only thing of its kind, and because many authors have been hard to find in any other current English translation. (I believe that the Loeb Plutarch offers the only complete translation into modern English of this essential classical author.) But where have the "ordinary amateurs" gone, you might well wonder? One could argue that they have taken over the academy. Just as scholars once feared, there has been a steady decline in hard-core classical philology—and thanks in part to that, the Loeb Library has lately thrived. Figures like the Oxbridge don in Robert Browning's "A Grammarian's Funeral"—who devotes his whole life to parsing the minutiae of ancient Greek while proclaiming, "What's time? Leave Now for dogs and apes!/ Man has Forever"—are ever rarer in modern classics departments. We no longer feel we have forever: The tenure clock stops for nobody. Increasingly alive to the fact that ancient literature is about something, not mere grammar, even professional classicists want to hurry ahead to the gist and skip the boring stuff. Many of us turn to Loebs because there just isn't time to study every particle of classical literature in the detail it might deserve. (That Browning's shuffling, dusty don would be unlikely to find a job today perhaps shouldn't make the profession entirely proud.)