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December 26, 20174618Views


Harry Mount's latest attempt to update the classics causes pleasure and pain to Henry Hopwood Phillips.

Harry Mount studied Ancient and Modern History and Classics at Magdalen College, Oxford, where he got a first. This information is provided not only on the book jacket but, for the benefit of those who may have overlooked those twenty words, it’s repeated twice in each chapter.

The son of The Specie’s Ferdinand, and a “second cousin to David Cameron”, the journo cum scholar was also at “Westminster in the late 1980s” and name drops—or should that be name bombs—every other sentence with "old Etonian friends”, Greek ministers, descendants of Byron and the like.

Normally the tongue-in- cheek show-off antics would be par for the course in the well-trodden Boris-esque nose-tweaking manner. And Mount almost gets away with it. Almost. The theme is, as the title would suggest, Mount retreading the footsteps of Greece’s most cunning son, Odysseus. A strong subject, and yet one that manages to feel overstretched when pulled over this unstable miscellany of facts, stories and tangents—a fact the author seems aware of, and seeks to offset by falling back on an overly schmaltzy tone.

A tone matched by a peculiarly tin-car for jokes: “Just like Tony Blair ancient Greece was the future once”, one sentence runs. Another refers to “Cleopatra - no, not that one” in a style that seeks to imitate the Horrible Histories franchise. And it gets worse; nereids are referred to as forming part of “the first wet t-shirt competition.” This is the sort of thing Mary Beard might feel obliged to chortle at because it’s updating the spirit of dusty, fusty, patrician-padded Classics, but it’s just not that funny.

That’s not to say the content isn’t compelling. Any student with a love for antiquity will find him or herself nodding along to the observation that the period is “just far enough ago that you can make stuff up. And near enough that you know certain things did happen.” Or gasping at the fact Caesar never said “Et tu, Brute?” But rather "Kai su, teknon, which translates as “You, too, my child?” And Constantine didn’t sec “In hoc signo vinces” burning above the sun, no, it was “En toutoi nika. Or perhaps humming with approval when the author notes that the “Greek” appellation was a Roman coinage after a tribe from Epirus, and that the Mycenaean name for themselves was actually “Achaeans”.

But even these erudite trills cannot make good the fact sometimes Mount just gets it plain wrong or patronises the reader by treating the complex and ambiguous as simple and settled. So he takes the crude Tacitean school of thought on literature (that the masterpieces burgeon when the state is small) as given; he incorrectly describes the soldier who accidentally sent a mortar into the bowels of the Parthenon as ‘Venetian’ when he was simply in Venetian pay; apparently there’s “very little anti-Greek feeling in Latin literature... apart from the Aeneid, Book 2”, which will come as news to anybody familiar with Cato the Elder’s views or Juvenal’s Satires; and Tertullian too is allegedly “the most read classical author in sixteenth century Europe”—above Virgil? Above Cicero? Above Quintilian? Above Augustine? And says who?

The result is a book that, like a mechanism, fails to become more than the sum of its (admittedly sparkly) parts. It’s a frustratingly thin gruel of etymological musings and literary digressions splashed all over the broken back of semi-ironic boasts and discombobulated gobbets. In short, it’s a good read—but that’s not quite the same thing as a great book.

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