How the Greek and Latin classics have been imitated, adulated and misunderstood over the centuries.
For the ancient Romans, the word “classicus” originally designated somebody belonging to the highest tax bracket. To be “classical” was to be in the upper crust. By the fifth century A.D., the term had taken on wider meanings; the classical was distinguished not only by its excellence but by belonging to the past, and the past was by definition superior to the present. Today it’s now almost axiomatic that the older and more venerable the classic, the younger and fresher it may seem. The French poet Charles Péguy wrote that “Homer is new this morning and perhaps nothing is as old as today’s newspaper.” Even Chanel’s “little black dress” is a classic because, like Homer’s “Iliad,” it never goes out of date. The classical in all its forms continues to exhibit an astonishing resilience.
“The Classical Tradition” is a guidebook of great erudition that is notably well written and unexpectedly compelling. It definitely is not another of those solemn introductions to “the glory that was Greece and the grandeur that was Rome.” Instead it is a lively compendium of the manifold ways in which the enduring creations of the classical tradition, and the Greek and Latin classics, have been imitated, adulated, denounced and misunderstood—or understood all too well—over the past two millennia.
In their introduction, the editors—a triumvirate, as is only fitting (Anthony Grafton, Glenn W. Most and Salvatore Settis)—state that they aim to strike a balance between “an unwavering commitment” to the truth and “an undogmatic appreciation of the endless resourcefulness and inventiveness of human error.” Accordingly, the tradition in question isn’t simply the preserved legacy of Greece and Rome in art and literature, philosophy and statecraft; it comprises the centuries of commentary and interpretation that have elaborated and embellished that legacy.
The Classical Tradition,” boasting some 563 articles (as well as 150 beautiful color plates), has an extraordinarily wide range. There are the topics you expect to find, such as classical architecture or education or philosophy, all clearly and expertly presented. The many biographical entries are especially rich, presenting figures from the classical period and the many others who drew on the classical inheritance for their own achievements over the centuries: architects and painters and sculptors, poets and philosophers and scholars, as well as gods and heroes.
Here we find Picasso—for whom the myth of the Minotaur was so important—rubbing shoulders with Plutarch, whose famous “Lives” of classical figures, among much else, served as a source for Shakespeare. Here Galileo, who drew on Seneca and other classical authors for his “most speculative arguments,” appears not far from Ganymede, the beautiful mortal boy whom the gods transported to heaven. We are told that Ganymede’s story—in various forms and with various moral purposes—appears in Homer and Plato, in a painting by Michelangelo, and on a column capital at the 12th-century cathedral in Vézelay, France, “which shows the boy terrified, upside-down in the beak of an eagle, and menaced by a hellish demon.”
There are superb shorter articles on the persistence of classical themes in comic books (“Asterix,” “Wonder Woman”) and cinema (think only of “Last Days of Pompeii” and “Ben-Hur,” among dozens of other films). The physical permutations of the tradition are traced not only in urban design but in such structures as catacombs and sewers. Each article brings some unexpected insight or little known fact into the discussion, to illuminating effect. In the article on Julius Caesar, the author cites Karl Marx’s enthusiastic praise of Caesar’s military prowess, while in the article on Achilles we are reminded of how savagely Shakespeare portrays that ancient hero, in “Troilus and Cressida,” as a cowardly egomaniac.
In the classical tradition as presented here nobody stands still; and sometimes the posthumous tribulations of ancient figures seem worse than what they experienced while alive. In the article on “Cicero and Ciceronianism” we learn that the reputation of that ancient orator and statesman was badly damaged by the great historian Theodor Mommsen (1817-1903), who denounced the hapless Cicero as a “bombastic” public speaker and a “sleazy politician.”
One has the impression that the editors of “The Classical Tradition” asked their contributors to write in as entertaining a way as they could. The scholarship is impeccable, but there is a donnish drollery in many of the articles. Thus in the entry on “Pronunciation of Greek and Latin,” not a subject normally rich in laughs, we learn that ancient Greek sheep said “bay bay,” not “baa baa,” and that in the 19th century “educated English people knew that the answer to the question ‘Why were Roman sailors wicked?’ was ‘Because they were nautae.’ ” The contributors, all 339 of them, seem to have had some fun in carrying out their assignments, and this communicates itself to the reader.
The Roman poet Ovid, who died in exile around 17 A.D., described “The Metamorphoses,” his masterpiece, as “a continuous song.” As the author of the article on Ovid notes, the poet was describing the seamless way in which his tales of transformation flowed one into the other, but the phrase also describes the long afterlife that his poem has enjoyed. It has been translated and imitated repeatedly, inspiring poems, novels, plays, films and operas, as well as sculptures and paintings.
The classical tradition of which the “Metamorphoses” forms so central a part might also be described as just such a “continuous song,” with all the variations that so fabulous a melody inspires. Ovid sang of “bodies changed into new forms.” That is what the classical tradition itself has been doing for centuries. It is a maze of transformations. At last, in this marvelous guide, it has found its Ariadne, whose thread (we are prompted to remember) helped to guide her lover out of a labyrinth.
Mr. Ormsby is a writer in London
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