Michael Grant Presents: The Classical World’s Greatest Hits

Greek Literature: An Anthology: Translations from Greek Prose and Poetry

Latin Literature: An Anthology  Latin Literature: An Anthology and 
Greek Literature: An Anthology: Translations from Greek Prose and Poetry, both edited by Michael Grant

Two compact compilations of Greek and Roman heavy hitters, Penguin Classic’s twin anthologies Latin Literature and Greek Literature are the kind of thing that really should still be in print.

Together, they cover almost the entirety of the classical literary age, from the eighth century BC to the fourth century AD. They don’t just have all the big names you’ve heard of who lived centuries ago, but they have them in different translations from over the years. It’s interesting not only to see how literature evolved from oral traditions, but how translation has too.

Greek literature starts with Homer, who opens the Greek anthology. He’s represented here by a range of translations, going as far back as Alexander Pope and going as recent as Richard Lattimore. While his introduction isn’t as detailed as it could’ve been, he includes ample selections from both The Iliad and The Odyssey, plus some Homeric Hymns. Hesiod is also represented, although not to the same degree.

From there, editor Michael Grant runs the gamut, includes a little bit of everything. There’s selections from the dramas of Sophocles and Euripides, the comedies of Aristophanes and Menander, histories of Thucydides,  Xenophon and Herodotus, philosophic work of Plato (who get the largest share of anyone in the collection), Epicurus and Aristotle. And the poetry! He goes all out, including a huge selection of poets, including several anonymous works. It’s a great sampler of Greek heavy hitters, enough for anyone with an interest in the Greeks.

The Latin collection is a bit more focused. He opens with the comedies of Plautus, who lived in the second century AD. From there, he quickly gets to the glory days of Rome, c. the first century BC, and some of it’s biggest names: Catullus, Lucretius, Cicero and Caesar. There isn’t quick the same literary history to the Romans as the Greeks have (indeed, the Romans more or less adopted the Greek’s history, tying their nation to Homer in the Aeneid), but they quickly made up for it.

As the Roman Republic became the Roman Empire, it’s output changed a bit: there’s less surviving drama and plays, but more poetry and prose works.  Grant includes Horace’s satires, odes and epistles,    Virgil’s epic Aeneid and pastoral Georgics, Livy’s voluminous history of Rome and Ovid’s vast Metamorphoses. These four are arguably the core of this book, as all have been vastly influential throughout history. Horace, for example, was admired by the bulk of English authors in the past few centuries and is represented here in translations by Sir Phillip Sidney, John Milton, Jonathan Swift, Dr. Johnson and Lord Byron. The others are similarly represented.

In this sense alone, it’s interesting to see how many famous authors weren’t just influenced by them, but put them in their own words; there’s a world of difference in the translations of Milton and Byron, for instance.

The middle years of the empire are also represented in both collections. The Latin one includes some of the broadsides of Juvinal, the epigrams of Martial, the surviving prose works of Apuleius and Petronius, plus the  histories  of Tacitus and Suetonius. Meanwhile in Greek, Lucian was writing satirical prose works, Plutarch was writing his vast Parallel Lives (previously covered here) and the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius wrote his Meditations.

Both collections end around the first sack of Rome, the Latin with the early Christian writers Tertullian and St. Augustine, who lived shortly after Plotinus, who finishes his Greek collection.

Together, these two anthologies provide a through look at the Ancient World’s literary legacy: not only how it’s literature  evolved through the ages, but also how influential it’s been through the centuries: different eras bring different translations, with different interpretations of the same themes. There are several pieces repeated here between different eras and seeing how the art of their translation has changed helps put the translator’s task in context. As Grant writes in his introduction, two translations are four times as good as one. One example of many: does Ovid, a poet, translate better when forced into verse? Or is a more literal translation, albiet in prose, a better way to read him? Here Grant picks from both, allowing readers to decide for themselves.

There are a couple of things I didn’t like here. For one, the Latin anthology has less authors, but it has great capsule biographies of each writer, showing their history and how they’ve influenced over the ages. These are missing from his other anthology, which dispenses with the author in a couple lines . For example, try to guess who this belongs to:

“Athenian philosopher, scientist and polymath, 384-322 BC. Founder of the Peripatetic School.”

That’s all we get on Aristotle, one of the most influential Greeks. I can understand little on the lesser-known about authors, but to me, it feels odd to devote attention to one set of writers and not to the other.

And there’s a few omissions, too: Arrian’s Ababasis isn’t here, nor are Pausanias’ descriptions of Ancient Greek or the Alexander Romance. When a collection skips them yet includes a collection of imitations of Greek epigrams, I think it missed a good opportunity. On the Roman side, we’re missing the poetry of Tibullus, the histories of Ammianus Marcellinus and the Vigil of Venus. To be fair, Grant notes the latter as “scarcely translatable,” but that honestly makes me miss it’s inclusion all the more.

Rating 8/10. On their own, each of these are a nice collection that covers a wide range of time, styles and personalities. Together, they show more or less the foundation of our literature and Western thought. I don’t think either replaces reading any of the included authors in full, but they’re a good way to try a bit of each, in different translations, and see what you like and where to go.  While it would’ve been nice to get more context and supporting information, I don’t think there’s an easier (or cheaper, as each can be picked up easily on the used market) way to get into ancient literature.

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