Posts Tagged ‘Greek history


A Revisionist History of Ancient Greece: Moses Finley’s The World of Odysseus

The World of Odysseus (New York Review Books Classics Series)The World of Odysseus by Moses I. Finley

If you’ve read my reviews here for any length, you’ll know I’m a sucker for Ancient History. I’ve read everything from Aesop to Tacitus, histories to poetry. But if I had to choose one that I’ve enjoyed the most, it’d probably be the Fagles and Knox translation of The Odyssey: not only is it presented in a great translation with a ton of notes and context, but it’s just a blast to read.

But truthfully, part of that enjoyment came on a recent re-read, which I did on the urging of another book I recently picked up by the late Homeric scholar Moses Finley: The World of Odysseus, which was recently republished by The New York Review of Books with an introduction by Knox.

A clear, concise and fascinating look at the world of Ancient Greece,  Finley’s The World of Odysseus busts a myths about two of the most famous stories to emerge from the ancient world and lays out a clear vision of how Finley thinks things were nearly 3,000 years ago.

On the surface, it sounds like one of two things: dull, full of academic jargon and of little interest to the average person, or full of supposition and guesswork. Surprisingly, it’s neither of them. Finley supports his opinions with careful readings of Homer, opposing them against other Ancient Greeks (Hesiod, generally), and with the support of our knowledge of oral epics in other cultures and other ancient societies. And the way he does it, carefully laying out an opinion and explaining why how he reached it, never comes across as overly academic – or in a way that talks down to his readers.

In a nutshell, Finley lays out a thesis that neither The Iliad or The Odyssey have any real basis in fact: there may have been a Troy, but it certainly wasn’t subject to a ten-year siege, for example. And forget trying to chart Odysseus’ journey on a map: if Homer knew anything about geography, he didn’t leave it in his poem. He goes a step further, too, explaining customs between city-states (finally, a good explanation for the gift-giving!), between a king and his community and man and the gods.

Two examples to show the simple genius of Finley’s book. In one chapter, Finley points out the changing roles of Greek religion in Homer: the sun-god Helios, who you’d think would rank among the most powerful gods, has such little power he has to turn to  Zeus when Odysseus’ men eating his cattle. In another, he observes how oral histories of the Second World War have changed and been embellished in just a short period of time; based on that, how could one reasonably think a history told over hundreds of years, in many oral forms, could retain anything but a grain of truth?

Finley’s book is packed with interesting observations like that. It breaks down myths and misperceptions, trashes naive and lazy assumptions by historians and archaeologists. It came just as the Linear B tablets were discovered and just before they were decoded; once they were and the idea that one might find Ajax’s receipts was destroyed, Finley’s controversial takes were finally accepted. Looking back, it’s a wonder anyone thought otherwise.

Rating: 7/10. It’s a short read, but one that’s remarkably full of insight, lucidly presented. People who know The Odyssey in depth will have things to chew on here, but so will newcomers. It’s a scholarly text that reads like a popular history. Recommended!


From Solon to Alexander: Two Collections of Plutarch’s Greek Lives

The Age of Alexander: Nine Greek Lives The Rise and Fall of Athens: Nine Greek Lives
The Age of Alexander: Nine Greek Lives by Plutarch
The Rise and Fall of Athens: Nine Greek Lives by Plutarch

A while ago, I wrote a short piece about Plutarch, the Roman biographer whose Parallel Lives have been popular for centuries. There’s a reason why he’s survived so well when so many of his peers – Tacitus and Pliny the Elder come to mind – haven’t: his stuff is accessible and enjoyable reading for the layperson.

Plutarch lived in the second century AD, writing in Greek for primarily an affluent audience. His Lives were mostly concerned with comparing famous Romans to Greeks. One such was Alexander the Great to Julius Caesar or Demostenes to Cicero. Traditionally, they were kept in these pairs and sometimes there was a short essay comparing the two, although not all of these have come down to us (for reference, here’s a great compilation of his Lives).

These are presented a little bit differently: the first is a compilation of lives showing Athens rising as a power in Greece, through the Peloponnesian War and ends with Lysander razing the long walls of Athens. It starts with the legendary Theseus, the son of Poseidon, who did everything from slay a minotaur to found the city of Athens. It continues with figures like Solon, Themistocles to the most famous Athenian of all: Pericles, who was an orator, general and helped foster democracy. It ends with the life of Lysander, who led Sparta to a victory over Athens in the Peloponnesian War, ending the long-running war and leaving one city in power over the whole Greek empire.

The second covers the next period: Athenian orators like Demosthenes and Phocion, the Spartan king Agesilaus, Pelepidas, generals like Demetrius (the besieger of cities) or Pyrrhus and, it’s namesake, Alexander the Great. Taken as a whole, they’re a compact history of the Greek world’s rise and decline, taking you through the wars with Persia and amongst themselves and the successive rises of Athens, Sparta and Macedonia.

While they’re an interesting secondary source, they’re great fun on their own: they’re more concerned with showing the ideals of these famous men than they are in repeating history, so one often gets to see things overlap and covered from more than one way. And they’re packed with little flourishes and details too, like the famous tale of Diogenes and Alexander:

When he saw so many people approaching him, Diogenes raised himself a little on his elbow and fixed his gaze upon Alexander. The king greeted him and inquired weither he could do anything for him. “Yes,” replied the philosopher, “you can stand a little to one side out of the sun.” Alexander is said to have been greatly impressed by this answer… so much so that he remarked to his followers, who were laughing and mocking the philosopher as he went away, “You may say what you like, but were I not Alexander, I would be Diogenes.” (pg 266)

But there’s others too: Pericles leading the construction of Athens famous temples, including the Parthenon; Demosthenes trying to rally Athens to a revolt, getting arrested and committing suicide by sucking on his reed; Demetrius’ giant siege machines; Alexander trying to stump the ten leading philosophers of India.

It’s a fascinating look at this interesting time and a more colourful than Thucydides to boot; Plutarch was a favorite of everyone from Montagne to Shakespeare to. It might be best read in conjunction with some of the other Classical Greek historians, but by itself it’s a nice look at this period of history that’s never too obtuse or hard to follow: the translations here by Ian Scott-Kilvert are lucid and well-supplanted by notes and maps.

While I would’ve appreciated more of Plutarch’s connective essays being translated and included,  I also recognize why Penguin went this route. When they started translating Plutarch for a modern audience, they split the lives up by era. The first volume was Rex Warner’s collection of Roman lives, all centered around the civil wars: Cicero, Caesar, Sulla, Pompey and so forth. It omitted any of the connecting essays. Their reasoning for this was simple enough: interested readers were more likely to want to read about a period of time than a collection of biographies. Hey, Oxford University Press did the same thing.

Throughout the years, this has been Penguin’s MO: Scott-Kilvert translated several volumes and later, Richard J.A. Talbert rounded off the series. But more recently, Penguin’s editors have relented somewhat: volumes have been reissued with the connecting essays and some of the other lives have been collected in a volume called Rome in Crisis. I’ll visit that one in a later essay.

Rating: 8/10. If you’re interested in ancient history, there aren’t many more enjoyable primary sources, especially for this period. Recommended, especially in the new Penguin editions.


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.