The Guardian's chief arts writer, Charlotte Higgins, believes that the contemporary value of the Classics is incalculable – here, she tells us why, via her selection of the great and good of classical literature.
Under Another Sky: Journeys in Roman Britain by Charlotte Higgins
There are lots of books of Greek myths and legends. Why have you chosen Children of the Gods?
The most famous is probably Robert Graves and I feel slightly guilty for not choosing that. But, I think there’s something about the first book of myths you ever read: I had Children of the Gods as a child and loved it. Alas, it’s not in print and I think it should be, but there are lots of second-hand copies online.
It’s a beautiful book, illustrated with line drawings by Elisabeth Frink. I love the way Kenneth McLeish doesn’t sweeten the pill. A lot of these stories are quite gruesome and unpleasant, involving humans – and indeed immortals – coming to grisly ends. I remember when I was at school being asked to write a creation story in RE and, budding classicist that I was at age 11, I trotted off to my book of Greek myths and wrote up the story of how Zeus defeated his father Kronos right at the beginning of the world. He lopped off his genitals and threw them in the sea and out of the semen that leaked out of them sprang Aphrodite. This was the subject of concerned conference between my RE teacher and my Latin teacher. Of course, all that dark stuff is absolutely gripping and I loved it, as I think most children do.
Is there a moral message in these stories?
The rather brutal thing about so many of these Greek stories is that the power of the gods is absolute and arbitrary. A famous example is Oedipus, essentially rather a good man, but he did one bad thing in his life: he killed a man in a sort of road-rage incident. Later he became king of Thebes, a respected, loved and just ruler of the city, but then it transpired over the course of a terrible detective-story working-out that the person he killed at the crossroads was his own father and he’d married his own mother. And so he blinded himself, stabbing his eyes with his wife’s brooch pins, and was sent in exile from the city. So, actually, it’s quite a good lesson for life: life isn’t fair and the good don’t always prosper.
So we can be as bad as we like?
Not at all: the really bad end up with unpleasant fates in the Underworld – like Sisyphus, who attempted to cheat the gods, and even cheat death. His punishment was to roll a boulder up a mountainside, but he is never quite able to manage it: it rolls back down and he must start again. And Tantalos, whose fate is to stand in a lovely glassy pool but he can never reach the water to drink or reach the fruit on the overhanging trees.
Let’s move on to Homer’s Iliad. People say that it’s the greatest war story of all time. Is this true?
Yes it is. What’s interesting is that The Iliad is the first book, and it’s about war. Why is that? I’ve got a funny feeling that war and narrative are tightly bound together. Both narrative and conflict are the products of civilisations. Once you start building cities, having private property, creating hierarchies, etc, then the inescapable fact is that conflict will occur. And conflict is the stuff of drama, of stories.
I think The Iliad has much to say to politicians now – it’s completely clear-eyed about collateral damage, about problems of post-conflict and about the ghastly things that happen to women and children in war.
Was Homer anti-war?
I think every generation reads The Iliad slightly differently and there are plenty of people who read it as anti-war because it’s so full of pity and sorrow for the victims of war, and for the young soldiers whose lives are cut short by war. And it has characters, notably Achilles, who clearly articulate the complete uselessness of war. At one point in the poem he says that he has two choices: he can go back home and live peacefully to old age or he can continue to fight and be killed as a young man. Whatever you choose you’re going to the same place, you’ll still end up dead: so what’s the point? Paradoxically, though, massive tracts of the poem are beautifully described battle scenes. And, like it or not, the poem does take a certain sort of pleasure in the glory of battle, which can be a bit unpalatable for modern readers.
Is it the Trojan War we’re talking about?
Yes. It’s the ten-year siege of Troy and The Iliad is set during a 40-day period in the tenth year of the war. It tells how Achilles is insulted and dishonoured by his commander-in-chief, Agamemnon, which is immediately a dramatic moment because Achilles is the best fighter and the most distinguished warrior. So you’ve got this tension between two competing alpha males. Then Achilles refuses to fight, he’s so angry with Agamemnon, and this means the Greeks start suffering terrible losses and things begin to go very badly for them. Finally, Achilles allows his beloved comrade Patroclus to go into the fighting and he is killed by Hector, prince of the Trojans. Achilles then, in redoubled and unspeakable fury, goes into battle and slaughters tens and tens of Trojans – it’s a blood-drenched series of poetic imaginings, ending when he downs Hector and drags his mutilated body around the walls of Troy. Then Priam, Hector’s old father, comes into the Greek camp and persuades Achilles to ransom the body. It’s an extraordinary scene – by no means a reconciliation but it’s a recognition of shared humanity. And there the poem ends. It’s very powerful.
It sounds amazing. Is there a film?
Troy. Terrible film.
Is Robert Fagles’s translation the best?
Purists might prefer Chapman, the 17th-century first English translation, and there’s the Robert Fitzgerald, which many people love. But I am fond of the Robert Fagles version partly because it has a wonderful power when spoken aloud. For me, one of the great pleasures in life is finding someone who will be persuaded to read The Iliad aloud to you.
Have you found someone who’ll do that?
What about The Odyssey? Can you actually read it for fun and get involved in it?
It’s a very easy read, and a completely different world from The Iliad. Whereas The Iliad depicts a militaristic and war-wrecked world, The Odyssey is like a fairy tale and it’s fascinatingly complex. It’s told in flashbacks, it has time that’s extended and time that’s compressed, and it’s told from different viewpoints. We think of it as Odysseus’s story – his ten-year journey from Troy back to his home in Ithaca – but also a large part of it, which a lot of people forget, or don’t know, is about his son Telemachus, growing up in Ithaca and becoming a man: recognising, both literally and metaphorically, that he is the true son of his father.
The Odyssey has monsters, witches, beautiful maidens, hilarious flirtations between Odysseus and various wise and wily women, and then in the second half of the poem he’s back in Ithaca trying to reassert himself, to find a place for himself in his homeland which has been completely taken over by his wife Penelope’s suitors. The moment when Penelope recognises Odysseus is extraordinarily moving. There’s a wonderful simile that compares her relief to the relief a sailor must feel when, shipwrecked, he grapples his way back on to dry land. And that is, of course, just what Odysseus has been doing. What I love about it is that Penelope and Odysseus are made to be equal characters. Penelope is Odysseus’s true partner. Part of me wonders why he didn’t just turn up rather than wafting around Ithaca in disguise for an awful lot of the poem, hanging out and living with his old swineherd. Why all the cloak and dagger stuff?
Well, the interesting thing is that throughout the poem we are constantly being reminded of what happens when you get that bit wrong. When Agamemnon goes back to Mycenae his wife Clytemnestra, who’s been living it up with her lover, kills him. That’s what happens if you don’t play it right.
The women in The Odyssey are great. Samuel Butler wrote a hilarious book called The Authoress of the Odyssey, claiming that it had to have been written by a woman because all the female characters are so fabulous and all the men so drippy. I think his argument sucks but it does say something about how great the female characters are.
Let’s talk about Sappho, another great female character. She lived about 100 years after Homer, didn’t she?
The general consensus is that she was born in the second half of the seventh century BC. We know almost nothing about her life. The only hard evidence is in the poems themselves. In classical antiquity and later she was massively valued as a poet. In the Great Library in Alexandria there were nine volumes of her poems. We now have 200 tiny fragments and only two complete poems. So it’s a minuscule proportion of what she produced.
Tell me about her poetry.
Well, she was admired in antiquity for the delicacy and elegance of her verse, and this is quite right – it’s just pitch-perfect. She talks about love as being bittersweet – such a cliché but she was almost certainly the first person to coin this expression that everyone can understand.
Are they all love poems?
Some of them are wedding hymns, so they do have a heterosexual context, some are the most extraordinary personal poems of desire for women. There’s a wonderful poem that Catullus translated into Latin…she’s describing the experience of sitting in one part of a room and in another part of the room the woman that she desires is talking to a man. It’s a vivid description not only of jealousy, of being a voyeur, but of the pathology of being in love. She talks of a ‘flame running under her skin’ and she turns the ‘colour of pale grass’. She’s probably one of the very first poets of the personal.
What about the translation?
Stanley Lombardo is a wonderful Kansas-based poet and professor of classics and he takes the modernist view that the fragments are what they are – he doesn’t pretend they’re anything other than scraps and bits – and so they look very broken up and fragile on the page. Some of the fragments are incredibly short. Fragment 16 in Lombardo’s translation is just: I long and yearn. And number 46 is: A child, very soft, picking flowers.
The reason they are like this is that for a very long time the Sappho we knew was the Sappho quoted by later writers. Quite often they’d quote just a couple of lines to give an example of a particular spelling or a metrical trope. Then in the late 19th century archaeologists in Oxyrhynchus in Egypt started finding papyrus with little bits of Sappho written on it. One poem found in the 1930s was written on a pot shard – it could be attributed to Sappho confidently because one of its lines had been quoted by another author.
Tell me about the poems of Catullus.
Catullus was a Roman poet who lived from about 84 to 54 BC, so he was a younger contemporary of Julius Caesar. There are poems that are funny and obscene, there are poems that are astonishingly beautiful and delicate, there are angry, hot, throbbing poems about loss, there are charming poems about his home and family, there are poems that are incredibly learned – almost T S Eliot-like in their dense construction.
I remember reading Catullus at school when I was 17 and 18, and I was particularly taken with the love poems. There’s a whole series in honour of his lover, Lesbia – a pseudonym that is also a homage to Sappho, who was born and lived on Lesbos, and who wrote so extraordinarily about desire. Most scholars now think that the real Lesbia was an aristocratic Roman woman called Clodia Metelli who is known from other sources as a powerful, sophisticated and somewhat scandalous woman.
In this series of poems to Lesbia we have for the first time in literature the sense of the arc of a relationship. In Sappho we have poems about desire but in Catullus we can see a whole love affair developing. There’s the tingling sense of desire, and then the gloriously happy, loved-up phase. And then there are poems that put a knife through your heart when she’s been unfaithful to him. And angry, brutal poems about his sense of loss, descriptions of how he doesn’t believe he can ever love again, or even go on living at all. Unforgettable poems.
Is Catullus the most accessible of the ancient poets to a modern reader?
Yes. There’s something very powerful in Catullus’s emotional directness. Certainly that was my experience when I first read these poems as a teenager. You read them and you think, God, that’s just how I feel.
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