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December 25, 2017325Views


Henry Hopwood admires a book which attempts to show the enduring relevance of the Classics.

Two of the top authorities on the Classical world, Christopher Polling (Regius Professor of Greek, Oxford) and Maria Wyke (Professor of Latin, UCL), toss twelve of the most enigmatic figures antiquity has to offer under the spotlight in a remarkably slim volume called Twelve Voices From Greece and Rome: Ancient Ideas For Modem Times (Oxford University Press, November 2014).

Their aim is to encourage readers to act as sounding boards to the voices in the title. The introduction doesn’t add much to this, other than a backside covering note that the dozen ‘voices’ chosen represent a sample of greats, not the greats. This immediately makes things tricky, however, as the selection—Homer, Sappho, Herodotus, Thucydides, Euripides, Caesar, Cicero, Virgil, Horace, Tacitus, Juvenal and Lucian—is almost too canonical. Virgil is often included in these things more out of a historically conditioned sense of respect than any impression of merit; Caesar is integrated because of his political status rather than his literary worth; and Cicero rises to a podium, despite the fact (and I accept his contribution to rhetoric and the West’s lexicon) he is a bore.

Virgil included out of respect rather then
merit? (Batoni, Pompeo - Aeneas fleeing
from Troy - 1750 - Creative Commons)

Overall the selection is hit and miss. Homer (good as a foundation), Sappho (boring; half the questions ‘prompted’ here are attributable less to the curiosity of her verse than the dubious
context bestowed by a lack of source material), Herodotus (a fascinating explorer), Thucydides (a geopolitical genius), Euripides (a master of the emotions), Caesar (no, see above), Cicero (no, see above), Virgil (no, see above), Horace (OK— Ovid is usually more popular though, Catullus more provocative and Propertius gives them all a run for their money), Tacitus (what a mind), Juvenal (what a heart) and Lucian (a textbook choice to represent the Second Sophistic).

The book doesn’t extend past the conventional cut-off point of Marcus Aurelius, and so fails to acknowledge the period in which antiquity shook hands with Byzantium: the time that haloes the likes of Ammianus, Olympiodorus, Sozumen, Evagrius, Zosimus, Eusebius, Eunapius et al. Even within its bookends, the pantheon cannot be very haphazard if it contains zero entries from the ‘Silver Age’—men such as Persius, Lucan, Italicus, Quintilian, Statius and Flaccus. Then there’s the Neoplatonists (Plotinus, born in 204 AD, could have bracketed the end of the book). So, despite its contemporary content, the frame it hangs off seems somewhat conservative.

Tenth century manuscript of Thucydides'
Peloponnesian War

Could there not have been a bit more playfulness? Why, for instance, were the categories not tinkered with? The ribald Latin playwrights Plautus, Ennius and Terence could have kicked things off. If you want Virgil is often included in these things
more out of a historically conditioned
sense of respect
an epic, Livius Andronicus wrote one; Cato the Elder, who wrote extensively on agriculture (even at one point praising cabbage - he preferred it warm, not cooked, by the way) is far more interesting than Sappho moaning that she’s getting old; This could all have been washed down by a bunch of mellifluous Greeks flourishing in the imperial period.

In a book of this sort disagreements as to who the main characters should be are inevitable. The reader shouldn’t be put off, because once the book itself is underway, the tone is spot on, steering a steady course between concision and garrulousness. Its form (each chapter contains a mini bio, an examination of key excerpts, followed by contextualization, extrapolation and speculation) makes for light reading. And the choice of passages, though sometimes straying into safe territory (hard to avoid in what is essentially an introductory text) rarely fail to stir the soul.

Should Catullus have been included?
(Catullus at Lesbia's by Sir Laurence Alma
Tadema - Creative Commons)

Take Turnus’ death in the Aeneid. It could have been avoided had not Aeneas spotted his opponent’s belt, a trophy plundered from the corpse of Pallas, whose welfare Aeneas had promised to protect:

For when the sight came home to him
Aeneas raged at the relic of his anguish
Worn by this man as trophy. Blazing up
And terrible in his anger, he called out:
‘You in your plunder, torn from one of mine,
Shall I be robbed of you? This wound will come
From Pallas: Pallas makes this offering
And from your criminal blood exacts his due.’
He sank his blade in fury in Turnus’ chest. 
Then all the body slackened in death’s chill,
And with a groan for that indignity
His spirit fled into the gloom below.
(Aen. 12.944-52; trans. R. Fitzgerald)

Reflecting upon the fickleness of it all, on how justice and men so quickly switch grooves, it is hard not to be affected by these ancient words. The scrutiny Its form makes for light reading, and
the choice of passage rarely fail to stir
the soul
applied, however, can mediate the raw experience a little too much. Analysis is pat at points—it risks 'Classics as therapy’ too often for comfort. A worse sin, perhaps, is that sometimes the accurate commentary and the gaffes arc consecutive, for example Pelling’s chapter on Homer should conclude with the last lines of C. P. Cavafy’s Ithaka:

If then you find her poor, Ithaca has not deceived you.
As wise as you’ve become, with such experience, by now
You will have come to know what Ithacas really mean.
(C. P. Cavafy, Ithaka)

But instead the quote forms a coda to a glib observation, tacked on at the end, that homesickness afflicts us all (with no further digging on such a massive theme). Dead-ends like these make the reader feel patronised.

Niggles aside, it’s a book that provides, if not the heavy artillery, at least a heroic charge from the light cavalry into the no man’s land of modern indifference, to rescue a slice of humanity that first broached troubles of existence which still plague us today.

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