Although I am interested in the Classical world – more Greece than Rome, I must admit – like many of my peers I went to a school where Latin and Greek were not taught and so if I wanted to learn them, I would have to teach myself. I have a little Latin and less Greek, certainly not enough to get through a Classics degree, so I went off to do something else instead and kept my interest as a hobby more than anything else.
A result of this is that I rely on translations of sources; I cannot read Homer and Herodotus in Greek and Virgil and Juvenal in Latin because my grasp of the languages simply isn’t up to it. Most of the time this isn’t a problem, as I’m not writing essays or building an entire historical theory around what I’m reading, but if you are – you really need to read them in the original, because sometimes the translations simply aren’t up to the job.
For example, any classicist worth their Homer would tell you that Thucydides wrote his History of the Peloponnesian War in the most convoluted Greek imaginable, to the point where none of the conventional translations really capture what it was he was trying to say. The best commentary on the History runs to five volumes and is a good twenty times the length of the original, such is the difficulty of the Greek. This means that any version I read – because I don’t speak Greek – is going to be flawed to a greater or lesser degree.
As I said, this isn’t really an issue for me as I only read for enjoyment. Perhaps it would be interesting to read different translations of Thucydides and see if it’s possible to read between the lines, as it were, and see if it’s possible to reconstruct his original text – but that’s a lifetime’s work and not one I have a taste for. However, if you are contemplating Classics for a degree, do make sure your Greek and Latin are as good as they can be – you’ll find them invaluable.