Antigone Readers & Writers
In March last year a band of Classics lovers decided to set up a website that would host articles on the Ancient Greeks, the Romans, the Ancient Mediterranean world and its wonderfully complex influence over the last two or so millennia. We had little idea about what to expect but were confident of two things: that there were lots of people who loved studying these cultures so much that they would write fresh and engaging pieces for free, and that there were very many more people who would enjoy reading and learning about all manner of Classics-related content. So off we set, and over the past twenty months we have managed to publish 250 articles. It has been a labour of love: however tiring and time-intensive it is for us to run the site with no funding (and little free time from our actual jobs and duties), we have a smile on our face and skip in our step. As (what we are told is) the most visited open-access Classics website, Antigone is very happy to know how much our essays interest and inspire readers from all around the world.
Yet you hear enough from us. So instead we thought we would celebrate this milestone by asking some of our friendly readers and writers, including a number of distinguished figures both in and outside the field, what their favourite Greek or Latin text is, whether ancient or perhaps rather more modern. We have selected forty of their answers below, which leap from book to book, ranging far and wide across space, time, and genre. And we are thrilled to have the author of our very first essay, Stephen Fry, round off the list with some rousing words indeed!
Dame Mary Beard, Newnham College, Cambridge
My desert island Classics book would be Homer’s Odyssey. It was the first work of classical literature I read in translation, and one of the first that I ever broached in the original Greek. More than half a century later, it is still INTERESTING me and I am still finding new things in it. I don’t know any better exploration of the uncertainties of ‘civilisation’ versus ‘barbarism’ than the Cyclops story in Book 9. And I had fun bringing in the moment when Telemachus shuts up his mother, Penelope (from Book 1) at the beginning of my book Women and Power. So much starts with the Odyssey.
Barry Strauss, Cornell University
Thucydides was my entry drug to the Classics. It was autumn 1970, the debate on the Vietnam War was raging, the campuses were rioting, and I read an Ancient Greek who seemed to have predicted it all. “War is a violent teacher,” Thucydides wrote. Wisdom born of suffering. I was too young to know much of either, but the words of the old exile stuck with me. They continue to echo with every outbreak, too many to count, of carnage and savagery on the world’s battlefields or against civilians. It would not have surprised the astute Athenian observer of what he called “the human thing”. We are still fighting the Peloponnesian War, call it what we will. I go back to Thucydides in gratitude and awe.
Daisy Dunn, Writer
There is only one Latin text that will teach you that the fastest animal on earth is the dolphin; that there are people in the Balkans who can kill with a look; and that smashed snails cure ulcers. The Natural History of Pliny the Elder may well be the least reliable encyclopaedia you ever consult. Isn’t it amazing, though, to be able to see the entire world through the eyes of someone living in the first century? Never write Pliny off. I will always return to his unexpected words of wisdom, such as, vita vigilia est: “to be alive is to be awake.”
Thomas Chatterton Williams, Bard College
When I stop to think about it, it is no exaggeration to say that I owe my life to Plato’s Dialogues. The figure of Socrates and his relentless mode of conversational examination of life’s most urgent and lasting questions delivered my father – when he happened upon the text by pure chance – from his difficult youth in the segregated South to some place far more nurturing. By first learning to listen – and later grasping how to respond – to Plato’s remarkable cast of interlocutors (shout out to Thrasymachus here), my father connected his own contemporary life to exemplary lives many thousands of years and miles removed, and in this way he defied the second-class image of himself his own society attempted to impose. He found inspiration and hope in these dialogues, and in so doing he modeled for me the life of the mind and the possibility of self-creation.
Lindsey Davis, Author
My old Latin teacher died this year. It’s a tribute to Elys that after 50 years I can still imagine her discoursing, especially on our Greek set book, Aristophanes’ The Birds. Why have I chosen this? It only won the second prize: story of my life. There happens to be an informer in it; Peisthetaerus and Euelpides tell him he ought to get a more respectable job. Ah Falco!… It’s political satire. Two ordinary people who are tired of fines, fees and litigation try to set up an ideal republic. “Cloud Cuckoo Land” has come to mean something crazily unobtainable, but let’s remember what they want is “a really comfortable city, warm and welcoming, like a soft warm, fleecy blanket.” They are in fact successful in their hope. The Birds ends with much cheering clucking, crowing and general rejoicing. We need this play.
Hillary Yip, Hong Kong (aged 17)
Despite being so unfashionably mainstream, the text that made me fall in love with Classics and Latin was Vergil’s Aeneid, which I have been fortunate enough to study in both Latin and English. What I love the most about the Aeneid is how the sheer beauty of the language truly stirs an emotional response to the text – a fact I discovered as early as Year 9 when my teacher read the end of Book 4 to me in Latin. Every time I read the Aeneid, there is something new that jumps out at me: whether it elicits a joke about Aeneas’ Dido-gifted glitter sword, or provokes a political echo from the striking similarities between Cicero and Drances. Vergil’s artistry and tight control over the story, creating such a magnificent world with a sense of purpose and destiny, awes me whenever I decide or am compelled to revisit it. It is out of true love for the Aeneid that I have been able to endure hours of translation, parsing, scansion, and so many exams on it, and still find myself cracking open a random book of the poem to enjoy, a mere few hours after putting down my pen.
John McWhorter, Columbia University
My favorite Classics text is one that I suspect most would not consider reading for the beach: Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. The text’s attempt to identify via careful reasoning something as elusive as what “The Good” consists of is, to me, a magisterial exercise even when not entirely convincing. I find the text especially useful when offering what can be taken as counsel for how to live, by people of any era.
This passage from Book 1, for example, can be interpreted as teaching us that doing whatever we do as best as we can is The Good – that virtue, as in excellence, is the highest good of all. It ties in with Kant’s later idea that one owes one’s talents to the polity, that sharing one’s gifts is a kind of moral imperative. (David Ross translation)
Now if the function of man is an activity of the soul which follows or implies a rational principle, and if we say ‘a so-and-so’ and ‘a good so-and-so’ have a function which is the same in kind, e.g. a lyre-player and a good lyre-player, and so without qualification in all cases, eminence in respect of goodness being added to the name of the function (for the function of a lyre player is to play the lyre, and that of a good lyre-player is to do so well): if this is the case and we state the function of man to be a certain kind of life, and this to be an activity or actions of the soul implying a rational principle, and the function of a good man to be the good and noble performance of these, and if any action is well performed when it is performed in accordance with the appropriate excellence: if this is the case, human good turns out to be activity of the soul exhibiting excellence.
Joyce Carol Oates, Author
It’s very difficult to choose a “favorite” Greek or Roman text amid such a treasure trove but if I had to choose just one, which has meant the most to me, and to which I often allude in my writing, it would be Robert Fagles’s translation of Homer’s Odyssey; this, I’d had the privilege to read in draft form as Bob Fagles, a dear friend and Princeton colleague, was translating it book by book. Quite an emotional experience which I remember with much gratitude and awe for Homer rendered into such dramatic, engaging, “poetic-vernacular” speech by this gifted translator of Greek texts.
Armand D’Angour, Jesus College, Oxford
Aristophanes’ comedy Frogs is both hilarious and full of historical, musical, and literary interest. I love the way there are two contests, the first between Dionysus and the frogs as he rows across the Underworld, the second between the deceased tragedians Aeschylus and Euripides. The significance of the first contest was not clear until recently: an elucidation of the metre shows that halfway through Dionysus snatches the double-pipe that is used to direct the music of the frog chorus, depriving them of their melody and their ability to insist on the speed of his rowing!
Alexander Andrée, University of Toronto
Frenetic, disgusting, and iconoclastic, Lucan’s Pharsalia has been a nail in the eye to Classicists of purist tastes. Mockingly dedicated to Nero and disguised in the tragedy of the Civil War between Caesar and Pompey, the amputated epic offers a twisted parody of Vergil’s Aeneid and the government it hails, the Principate. Through its morbid illustrations of power expressed in its most violent and perverted forms, Pharsalia works on every reader in the right mind as an effective inoculation against tyranny. A much neglected must-read.
Catharine Edwards, Birkbeck, University of London
The dark magnificence of Tacitus’ Annals, his account of Roman history under the emperors from the time of Tiberius to that of Nero (with some retrospective swipes at Tiberius’ predecessor Augustus), captivated me from my first encounter with his breath-taking prose. In this ironic masterpiece, Tacitus offers an unflinching analysis of the effects of an autocratic system on the behaviour of rulers – and the ruled. While a handful of individuals dare to speak truth to power, most people, in the Annals, are caught in the toils of second-guessing how the emperor might want them to behave and what he might want them to say. Tacitus’ hugely influential analysis of what power does to people make this a riveting, and still horribly relevant, read.
Niall Ferguson, Hoover Institution, Stanford University
I still remember being thunderstruck when, on my first visit to the Fitzwilliam Museum, in Cambridge, I read the words: Conceptio culpa, Nasci pena, Labor vita, Necesse mori, “Conception is sin, birth is pain, life is toil, death is inevitable.” They appear on a painting by the 17th-century Neapolitan artist Salvator Rosa that is entitled simply L’Umana fragilità (Human Frailty). It was inspired by an outbreak of bubonic plague that had struck his native Naples in 1655, claiming the life of his infant son, Rosalvo, as well as carrying off Salvator’s brother, his sister, her husband, and five of their children. Grinning hideously, a winged skeleton reaches out of the darkness behind Rosa’s mistress, Lucrezia, to claim their son, even as he makes his first attempt to write. I have always thought those eight words of Latin summed up the human condition more concisely than anything ever written in any other language. I think of them almost every day of my own – thus far – happier life.
Anika Prather, Howard University
Aristotle’s Poetics has been one of the most influential texts in my life because of how it shaped how I approached the arts as a tool for touching the hearts of people. Some feel its description of how Greek Tragedy should be is outdated, but its simple formula shapes the basis for most things I have written or created. Using that formula, which leads to some type of climactic catharsis, infuses my teaching, dramatic presentation, performance and overall way of interacting with the world. Not for the sake of just being dramatic, but this writing revealed to me the importance of touching a person’s soul when you share your heart and passion with them. People desire to be touched or moved in some way, and I strongly feel that my work is meant to somehow touch a person’s life. I have always implemented what I learned from the Poetics, whether I am writing a play, a poem, preparing a lecture or musical performance, and this formula has never failed to guide me in touching the hearts of people, in some way, in the work that I do.
Peter Wiseman, University of Exeter
Catullus’ fourth poem presents a garrulous old boat, the one that has just brought the poet back from the Black Sea and is now in retirement at Sirmione on Lake Garda. I love it not just for its wit and its bouncy iambic metre, but also for its verbal music: it gives us an idea of what spoken Latin could have sounded like.
1. Go through the text, carefully marking the double consonants (phaselus ille, ait fuisse, etc).
2. Compare and contrast (a) an uptight English person saying ‘belladonna’ (deadly nightshade), and (b) an exuberant Italian saying bella donna (beautiful woman), dwelling on both l’s and both n’s.
3. Remember that Catullus was an exuberant Italian (and knew some beautiful women).
4. Now read the text aloud, as the poet might have read it.
Ideally, this exercise should be carried out on the tip of the Sirmione peninsula, at the spot marked ‘88’:
Lynn Roller, University of California, Davis
With 19,000 lines of poetry and a huge cast of characters, human and divine, Homer’s Iliad can be confusing, even intimidating to a reader. Yet behind its complex façade is a poem that is unsurpassed in its ability to describe human emotion and human behavior under stress. The Iliad deals with war and peace, love and anger, revenge and pity. The quarrel between two selfish egos, the deep bonds of affection between husband and wife, the agony of parents who have to watch their children die are vividly portrayed, forming parts of the human experience that are still with us today.
Adrienne Mayor, Stanford University
I have too many favorites among ancient writings to select just one. Instead I offer a wish to recover a lost text, the two-volume treatise On Petrifactions by Aristotle’s friend, the natural philosopher Theophrastus. Theophrastus was from Lesbos, known for its petrified trees and other prehistoric fossils. From the titles of his surviving books, On Stones and Enquiry into Plants, and hints by Pliny the Elder, it seems likely that On Petrifactions described and explained how plants and animal remains were transformed into stone. If so, this unique work would reveal some of the earliest inklings of scientific paleontology. It has vanished into the abyss of time, but I hold out hope that a papyrus copy will come to light someday, perhaps wadded up as stuffing in an Egyptian mummy or tucked into a clay jar in Pompeii.
Marie Daouda, Oriel College, Oxford
In Franciscae Meae Laudes and the note that accompanies it, published in Les Fleurs du mal in 1857, Charles Baudelaire dismisses Catullus in favor of the Latin spoken by a recently subdued Gaul singing the praises of his Roman mistress.
For Baudelaire, decadent Latin transcends the superficial criticism of clear, classical 1st-century language. Far from being corrupted by its contact with newly conquered regions, Latin as a foreign, collapsing language gains in plasticity. Words and stanzas espouse more closely the shape of what they describe.
Why did Baudelaire compose this poem in Latin rather than in French? Franciscae Meae Laudes, dedicated to an unknown “devout and learned milliner”, merges heavily rhyming puns and explicit echoes to the Latin liturgy with an erotic worship of the soul. Striking and delicate at once, this effect can only be achieved through the grace and the density of Decadent Latin, when language, aware of its precariousness, becomes its own work of art.
J.S. Ubhi, Teacher
Amongst the Indians there is a saying that the Mahabharata and Ramayana are drunk down with mother’s milk; nobody comes to the texts for the first time. It is similar with Homer in the West. I have no idea why it took me so long to get to the Iliad. It was only when someone described the friendly Wednesday afternoon beat-downs between my own and a rival school as “Iliadic” that I finally went to the source.
For two decades the Iliad has been a source of unfailing delight, comfort, and consternation. Who has not strained under a feckless chief? We see Achilles restless in his tent; Helen forlorn amidst the Trojan throng; each carefully eulogised death (“and dark death covered his eyes”) reminds us of and, in failing to prepare us, prepares us for our own: “such was the burial of horse-taming Hector.”
It is not surprising that Alexander the Great slept with a copy under his pillow. It is a surprise that more don’t.
Carole Raddato, Travelling Scholar @Following Hadrian
As an Hadrianophile wandering in the footsteps of the peripatetic Emperor, one of my favourite ancient texts is Pausanias’ Description of Greece, the first travel guidebook in history. Unusual and unique within the body of ancient literature, Pausanias’ account of mainland Greece provides us with our most detailed surviving description of Ancient Greek sites, customs and myths. I find it particularly engaging and fascinating because Pausanias is not simply recording what he sees but considering the significance of each place he visits within its local historical context. I also love his aesthetic sensibility, describing everything in loving detail. The Description of Greece will be very useful and relevant to me when I travel back to Greece in 2023 and follow Hadrian’s 1900-year-old itinerary through the Hellenic lands that so fascinated him.
Yuval Levin, American Enterprise Institute
Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics is not, on its face, a beautiful classical text. It is dry, abstract, and systematic. Aristotle even opens it by warning us that it is not intended for inexperienced readers or for those who have been brought up badly. But as we discover soon enough, even that warning is a sly invitation. What reader would want to admit that he has found unappealing a book meant only for those who have been well brought up? Little by little, through modes of coaxing that start out shrewd but end up utterly sublime, the book draws us into a transformative ideal of the moral life. It is impossible to encounter its vision of happiness achieved by the activity of shaping your soul toward virtue without finding yourself changed by it, and tempted to become better. I don’t think I will ever put it down.
Gareth Harney, Historian @OptimoPrincipi
The Meditations of the philosopher-emperor Marcus Aurelius, a collection of gentle and humane notes-to-self written amidst bloody wars on the Germanic frontier, continue to offer comfort to millions; yet at numerous points in his text, the most powerful man in the known world professes his gratitude to an earlier Stoic.
Where Marcus was born into palaces and privilege, Epictetus was born into slavery. He walked with a limp after being disabled by a cruel master – even his name Epictetus simply means “acquired”. Surviving the snake-pit of the court of Nero, Epictetus would gain his freedom and make a name for himself as a celebrated philosopher. His inspirational Discourses, written down for us by a diligent student, remain one of the clearest distillations of the empowering Stoic worldview.
Some philosophies are rightly criticised for their seeming lack of any practical application; after he was shot down and captured in Vietnam, the fighter-pilot James Stockdale directly credited the works of Epictetus with helping him endure seven years of captivity and torture. There is surely no better recommendation than that.
A.E. Stallings, Poet
While I probably spend more time rereading and thinking about Homer, I think for a favorite or most thought-provoking text I would pick Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura (which I’ve translated). I can think of no poem with wider scope – from the atomic make-up of physical objects, to the perception of flavors and colors, to weather and climate, to the infinite universe and multiple worlds – while often disarming us with the charm of his every-day examples to demonstrate complicated abstractions. Consider dust motes in a sun beam, the spinning vision of dizzy children, colorful shadows under bright awnings, a sleeping dog whose twitching paws prove animals dream. His wonder at the natural world is a forerunner of the awe felt by Charles Darwin and Carl Sagan, and much in need in our current moment, when we regularly fail to appreciate (and to protect) the miracle that is our earth.
Fleur Macdonald, Journalist
The gory death of Actaeon is one of the most iconic moments of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. But it is Ovid’s description (3.155–9) of the serene woodland grove in which the innocent youth is ripped apart that has stuck with me these past few months.
A few salacious details serve as a tantalising introduction to the myth: the horns sprouting from a human forehead and hounds gorging on their master’s blood. But Ovid then intervenes with an unexpected description of serenity: a valley of pines and cypress trees shroud a woodland cave and the limpid pool in which the goddess Diana bathes. Though natural, it looks as pruned and well-kept as if attacked by an army of gardeners: simulaverat artem ingenio natura suo (Nature had imitated art with its own skill).
I live in my own valley of densely packed pines and looming cypress trees in Provence, France. It is nature at its most idyllic. But this summer it was ravaged by forest fires, propelled by some unruly divine force. That is why this odd little interlude comes back to me. In Ovid, nature can turn to destruction without warning. It is a mistake to think we can tame it.
Robin Butler, Baron Butler of Brockwell, Civil Servant
Out of many favourite Classical texts, the one I choose is Horace Book 2, Ode 14, which starts
Eheu, fugaces, Postume, Postume,
Perhaps it is a symptom of my advancing years but I love the sense of patient resignation at the passing of time and the philosophical acceptance that life must eventually end. I also love the Alcaic metre and the phrase “fugaces… labuntur anni” – “the fleeing years slip by” – so true of my experience.
Lindsay Johns, Writer and Broadcaster
My pick, from the Golden Age of Latin literature, is Ovid’s Ars Amatoria – a salacious, ebullient and perennially relevant mock-didactic poem written during the reign of Augustus about how men can find love (and pick up women) in Ancient Rome. Its blithe insouciance, witty badinage and jocular iconoclasm towards contemporary social and sexual mores reveal on closer reading a nuanced and startlingly modern take on dating, mating and the eternal, agonistic attraction between the sexes.
The trenchant amorous psychology with which Ovid imbues the poem’s three books ably demonstrates that the human condition has not changed one iota in over 2,000 years. Quintilian famously said of its author that he was “nimium amator ingenii sui” (“a man too much in love with his own genius”), yet I beg to disagree. Ovid’s dazzling verbal pyrotechnics are wholly in keeping with his literary and philosophical aims.
Whenever I watch Eddie Murphy’s stand up tour de force Raw (1987), couched in his trademark Oedipodal expletives, I close my eyes and hear Ovid eloquently discoursing on the battle of the sexes in Ebonics. Moreover, I often think that if only Andrew Crocker-Harris, the curmudgeonly protagonist of Terence Rattigan’s magisterial play The Browning Version (1948) – a once brilliant Oxford Classical scholar, now an emotionally desiccated, uxorious Classics teacher in a provincial minor public school – had imbibed the wisdom of the Ars Amatoria, and not Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, he would have saved himself myriad torments in his choice of wife!
Ovid’s true genius in the Ars Amatoria is to unashamedly celebrate love – one of the most primal, powerful and ennobling of all human emotions – with peerless psychological veracity, linguistic felicity and acuity of vision. Humane, urbane and with a surfeit of lexical panache, the Ars Amatoria is for then, for now and for all time.
Dame Averil Cameron, Keble College, Oxford
I’d like to go back to my days of reading Mods and Greats at Somerville in 1958 to 1962, when my favourite works were Horace’s Odes and Tacitus’ Annals. I was guided through the Odes by Fraenkel’s book on Horace (1957), loved the way Horace had adapted Greek lyric metres for Latin and thought the Roman Odes a work of genius. I read the Annals for Greats and knew even without Syme’s Tacitus (1958) that this was a masterpiece. I am forever grateful to Fraenkel and Syme for opening my eyes to these two magnificent works when I was young and green, but I am even more grateful to Horace and Tacitus for writing them.
Peter Hulse, University of Nottingham
Ever since I’ve been able to read Ancient Greek with any degree of fluency, my favourite piece of ancient literature has been the Seventh Idyll of the Hellenistic Greek poet Theocritus. It gives me pure unalloyed pleasure to read it, and I must have read it hundreds of times. It starts on a summer’s day as three friends set out to walk across the countryside of Kos to Demeter’s festival of the Thalysia: Ἦς χρόνος ἁνίκ᾽ ἐγώ τε καὶ Εὔκριτος ἐς τὸν ῞Αλεντα / εἵρπομες ἐκ πόλιος σὺν καὶ τρίτος ἁμὶν ᾿Αμύντας (“Time was when Eucritus and I were going from the town to the Haleis and Amyntas made a third with us.”)
What a deliciously simple beginning written in Theocritus’ Doric dialect! The wonderful sensuous sound of the broad vowels that mark Doric continue throughout the poem: πᾶσα λίθος πταίοισα ποτ᾽ ἀρβυλίδεσσιν ἀείδει (“each pebble spins singing from your shoes”).
The party meet a mysterious goatherd on the way called Lycidas, who may or may not be Apollo in disguise. There is a singing contest, as often among Theocritus’ country people, and Lycidas graciously and humorously concedes defeat to Simichidas, the main character of the Idyll.
When the pilgrims finally arrive at their destination, the poem ends in a glorious evocation of nature and fertility: “Larks and finches sang, the dove made moan, and bees flitted humming about the springs. All things were fragrant of rich harvest and of fruit-time”: πάντ᾽ ὦσδεν θέρεος μάλα πίονος, ὦσδε δ᾽ ὀπώρας.
Do read this poem, if you get a chance. It is a true gift of the Muses!
Anne Hardy, University College London
My name is Anne and I am a Horatian. Why? Because the Odes are so clever; so technically accomplished and, above all, so human. Horace undeniably promotes the Princeps’ interests; however he rigidly maintains his artistic, political, and personal independence.
The Cleopatra Ode (1.37) is a case in point. It starts with a rousing call for celebration (Horace rarely needs an excuse for wine, feasting, and dancing). The reason for revelry is eventually revealed in line 6 – a “drunken” enemy and her “pox-ridden” henchmen have been defeated; chased down, like animals, by Augustus. However, as the poem progresses, the tone of contempt dissipates, as Horace describes the vanquished queen’s nobility in death, with a very human empathy. The poem is a masterpiece of tact and discretion, always “on message”, but no less beautiful because of it.
Nicholas Stone, Harris Manchester College, Oxford
What do you want a poet for? To save the city, of course! I feel very lucky to have read Aristophanes’ Frogs. This is not just because of the ancient (even then) fart jokes in the opening scene, or the way that the same pun can work in English and Greek (see line 26) – though it is easy to be pleased by both. Nor is it just because the play has one of the greatest walk-on (or carry-on) appearances of all time, by a commercially-minded corpse, nor even because of the very musical frogs themselves, and the worlds of metrical play to which they open a door. It is also because people in search of a guide might set out on a quest among the dead, and find their answer in art.
Patrick Kidd, The Times
We say that we love Classical literature because of the epic poetry, the drama, the rhetoric and the philosophy and we are quite right to do so – they are, after all, the building blocks of civilisation – but let us be honest: what many of us most enjoy about dabbling in the ancient world is something that appeals to the very essence of humanity: gloriously over-the-top filth. If I forget all my Cicero and my Euripides, I will still be able to recite to you the things that Catullus wanted to do (at both ends) to his sternest critics, or that Aristophanes gave us the very useful verb for to thrust a radish up, as the school dictionary put it, “the fundament”. It may get you kicked off Masterchef, but it goes down a storm in best man’s speeches, having once played that role for a fellow Classicist. And the purest filth is found in Ovid, specifically Amores 1.5. “Aestus erat,” he begins, a phrase that oozes sweaty sex, before going on to describe in appreciative detail the arrival of Corinna and her exquisite form. How perfect the shape of her breasts, how flat her stomach, how beautiful her hips, how youthful her thighs. Cetera quis nescit? (“Who doesn’t know the rest?”) As Ovid concludes, may all our lunchtimes be so profitable.
Froma Zeitlin, Princeton University
Aeschylus’ Oresteia: reading the watchman’s speech at the opening of the Agamemnon blew me away. It turned me into an avid Hellenist, especially of Greek tragedy, a passion that even today after so many years remains a source of inspiration for my current work.
Spencer Klavan, Writer and Broadcaster
Solon was a great statesman because he brokered a compromise between the rich and the poor in Athens. But he was a wise man because, immediately upon doing so, he got the hell out of Dodge. Knowing that a good compromise is one that makes absolutely everyone unhappy, Solon journeyed abroad in search of knowledge and investment opportunities.
He would have known where to find both: some said he already had connections in Egypt, where a venerable clerisy kept charge over vast storehouses of wisdom and wealth alike. One of these priests, “well acquainted with matters of antiquity,” had once told Solon with an indulgent smile that for all their ingenious politicking, “you Greeks are mere children in your souls.”
This story introduces Plato’s Timaeus, in which the title character intimates that there might be powers older and more real than even the Greek gods themselves. Behind the many forces of nature there is one master architect, a “demiurge” who shaped the cosmos in an approximation of his own perfect image. Timaeus sketches out for his enraptured companions an ordered universe, in which “time imitates eternity.” Made to embody this cosmic harmony in our own souls as far as possible, we humans too can tap into the mathematical music that keeps the planets spinning.
Today, when digital and political atomization have left us casting about for ways to make everything cohere, the Timaeus is more than mere mythmaking: it is a picture of what binds the world together, a whisper in our ears that form, not matter, can make us whole.
Paul Lay, Historian and Writer
Just before Lockdown, I managed to attend three different productions of the Romanian composer George Enescu’s Oedipe – first performed in 1936 – an operatic setting of Sophocles’ Oedipus the King. Sophocles’ original text has long been considered a masterpiece of construction, in which the very act of avoiding doom becomes the means of its accomplishment. Crushingly pre-Christian in its utter lack of redemption, Sophocles – made even more intense by Enescu – reminds us that, ultimately, ‘None among mortals is able to bear my woes but I.’ It is a painful truth I became familiar with in the past, and have been reacquainted with since.
T. Corey Brennan, Rutgers University
As a native of once-prosperous Scranton, Pennsylvania, I’ve long had a fascination with themes of decay, reversal and ruin. Here I find Thucydides’ account of the ill-fated Athenian expedition against Sicily (Books 6-7) hard to beat. For me, the most poignant moment in this saga always had been toward the end (7.82), when in 413 BCE one of Athens’ generals sees 6,000 of his troops taken as prisoners of war. Thucydides tells how the POWs had to fork over all their coins, “which filled the hollows of four shields”; once collected, the money was immediately hauled to nearby Syracuse. On the face of things, it is a pathetic scene, especially given that Thucydides earlier was insistent that the Athenians first set off on their expedition enjoying silver in mind-boggling amounts.
However, decades after first reading this passage, I found fresh takes on it from the perspective of material culture: I am thinking here especially of Lisa Kallet, Mirko Canevaro and Keith Rutter. Four upturned shields, it turns out, could hold perhaps 10 to 12 talents worth of silver coins, and there is every sign that the Syracusans recycled this loot to create a famous series of tetradrachm coins, many signed by the engravers, that represents one of the absolute high points of ancient numismatic fine art. Takeaways? Here are two. In this instance, as so often, neither the text nor the object tells the full story. And the fact that we can still handle one of those Syracusan tetradrachms made from Athenian shield-silver reminds us that the ancients and their experiences – here, a combination of tragedy and triumph – are not all that distant.
Pia Shah, UK (aged 16)
My favourite Roman text is Poem 85 by Catullus: odi et amo. quare id faciam fortasse requiris./ nescio, sed fieri sentio et excrucior. This poem, ever since I was introduced to it, has spoken out to me, and has left me thinking about how the two most powerful emotions can conflict with each other so intensely. I think Catullus has crafted this poem with brilliance, taking us on the unstable journey of his turbulent love affair in only two lines. He enables us to see how he is a victim of his emotions particularly by means of his constant use of six present-tense first-person verbs. The final intensified verb excrucior makes the poem even more grittily experiential. That it is written in one elegiac couplet means it is both hard-hitting and unforgettable.
Rev. Joseph Simmons, SJ, Campion Hall, Oxford
“Perhaps it will help to have remembered this some day.”
After the Trojans lost to the Greeks and were forced to abandon their very home, sea travels proved equally daunting. Once on land, A0eneas gives a ferverino to his dispirited companions:
- forsan et haec olim meminisse iuvabit (Virgil Aeneid 1.203).
As a Catholic priest, I encounter souls who have faced incredible difficulties in life. I used to joke that “healing of memories” sounded trite, until I witnessed these souls find Christ’s redemption by passing through their suffering and loss. We humans are a resilient lot, extracting meaning from even the most trying moments in life.
Alice Case, Classics for All
Obviously Greek, obviously tragedy, obviously Euripides‘… Medea. This is such an emotionally powerful play which evokes so many conflicting emotions. Sympathy for Medea suffering the pain of betrayal, but absolute horror for the punishment she inflicts on Jason. Medea’s pain is so heartfelt, her emotions so relatable, her actions so manipulative and calculated. We feel her pain, but the revenge she takes is truly awful. Yet there is no sense she is mad, and even the gods appear to have some sympathy as Helios takes her away unpunished. The killing of her children is her punishment as much as her husband’s. I love the emotion and passion of Greek Tragedy but Medea is, for me, the most powerful. I feel for her every step of the way as a woman but as a mother am horrified by her conclusion, and yet… I remember trying as an undergrad to translate the play and really being drawn into the language, trying to find exactly the right words to evoke the nuance of language and emotion.
(I also have a soft spot for Herodotus and Homer as the first texts that school students usually encounter, where they discover the joy of translating original texts.)
Damian Entwistle, Retired Learning Disability Nurse, UK
My favourite is an easy one: the Priene calendar inscription about Augustus; that names him Son of a God, and “Saviour”, starts the calendar on his birthday, and describes him as the bringer of “Good News” for all peoples. It is absolutely glorious that these phrases – which had been closely (and almost exclusively) linked to Christian belief – are now known to antedate such usage.
As we approach Christmas, this knowledge reinforces the points made by Luke in his nativity story. It can be no accident that he has angels proclaim a message of good news for all people, that a Saviour, Son of God, has been born. His aim is to dislodge the Imperial claim, and establish Jesus’. The reverberations of that assertion are muted in the 21st century, but Luke’s 1st-century hearers would have been deafened by the clamour.
Great writing, great significance, deepening our understanding of Augustus and Christianity.
Fábio de Oliveira Ribeiro, Lawyer, Brazil
When very young I had the opportunity to read some books by Roman authors that belonged to my father (including Sallust and Lucretius). Later, having graduated in Law, I acquired several other Classical books, of which my favorite by far is Livy’s History. What catches my attention most in his narrative is the way he makes his choices. When he narrates the scandal of the patricians who defrauded the insurance of naval cargoes during the Second Punic War, for example, Livy does not mention the names of the people involved. If a Roman commander is killed naked while bathing, he narrates another version, that he died in combat with the enemy, saying that this is the most plausible version. Cato’s deeds are narrated, but it is not until many chapters later that Livy clarifies that he was a prominent plebeian and not a patrician. Rome’s enemies are always perfidious and cruel, but when the Romans commit atrocities in a city that voluntarily opened its doors, what happened is treated as a regrettable exception. Livy is a sophisticated narrator, but his work is extremely ideological, ranking the world in a rigid way: Rome above other cities, patricians above plebeians, Roman virtues above barbaric vices, etc. He can be considered a patron of the political abuse of history that systematically took place in Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Betsy K. Brown, Writer and Educator
Last year my eleventh-grade students and I read and discussed Herodotus’ Histories. Now I am teaching the same students as seniors, and with every new book we read, they find a reason to quote Solon again: “count no man happy until he is dead.” Students have connected this quote to scenes from the Aeneid, Paul’s Letters to the Romans, Augustine’s Confessions, and Dante’s Inferno. As we follow the characters in these texts from the woods of their lives to the precipice of the afterlife (and sometimes beyond), we again and again are confronted with the beautiful and terrifying gift of free will. As my seniors quote Solon, they often smile with a mixture of gratitude and sobriety – gratitude for seeing how the oldest of histories still speaks to them, and sobriety as they prepare to step out of their little classical school and into the world.
Stephen Fry, Classics Lover
Sam Bankman-Fried, the “Crypto King”, was worth $16 billion on Monday morning of the week I am writing this, and by Thursday – following the collapse of his company FTX – he found himself worth a cool zero. $0.00. The excellent site lithub.com came across this revealing snippet from an interview the great man had given not many weeks earlier. The interviewer, Adam Fisher, mentions his own love of reading.
“Oh, yeah?” says SBF. “I would never read a book… I’m very skeptical of books. I don’t want to say no book is ever worth reading, but I actually do believe something pretty close to that. I think, if you wrote a book, you f***ed up, and it should have been a six-paragraph blog post.”
This same week Elon Musk seems to have mismanaged his purchase of Twitter catastrophically. Both of these impetuous heroes might have considered a subscription to Antigone. The classical past is filled with stories of egoism squashed, hubris punished, vanity vanquished. Icarus, Phaethon and Bellerophon come to mind in the mythical sphere. The historical world of tyrants, generals, consuls and emperors offers examples too. Every startup, every great corporation that believes it will last forever, and every entrepreneur who thinks that pausing, reading and reflecting are for losers, should sign up for that weekly Antigone email.