Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Do Not Fear The Greeks, Or The Books They Bring

Alright, as titles go, that was a bit of a stretch, but since Laocoön was strangled by giant sea serpents just after delivering his famous line, he's in no position to object to its bowdlerization.

A reader writes:
I was hoping you could recommend a good read about the Greeks. I'm not picky, it could be a biography, an overall history, about a particular event, what have you. I've been pushing myself to read more, but finished up the last book on my (short) list, and feel I better get another one quick, or I'll lose what little progress I've made in my new habit.

I find myself curiously coming up short here, since although I've read a lot of things by ancient Greeks, I haven't actually read many books about them. Thus, I'll make a few suggestions and then ask readers with better ideas to chime in.

First, I have to at least make the case for a couple of primary sources.

If you have the patience to read a book-length work in verse, the Iliad and Odyssey really do remain some of the greatest works in Western culture. My personal preference is very much for the Iliad over the Odyssey -- I like the more novelistic structure and characterization. Many people prefer the Odyssey, which is more episodic and isn't as tightly focused on all the different ways that heroes with bronze age weapons can kill each other. A while back I wrote a piece with some notes on reading Homer the first time and on the different translations available, which might be helpful.

Perhaps a bit more readable, and also a more direct window into Classical Greek culture is Xenophon's Anabasis which is available from Penguin as The Persian Expedition (Penguin Classics) in a readable translation by Rex Warner. Xenophon was a noble Athenian and a student of Socrates, but this book is about an expedition he was on in which 10,000 Greeks were hired as mercenaries by a pretender to the Persian throne. They march deep into Persia and defeat the Persian emperor's army, but in the process the claimant to the throne they are working for is killed. The Greeks thus find themselves very far from home and in unfriendly country, and most of the book is about their efforts to make it back home.

Moving into modern works, I'd definitely recommend Edith Hamilton's Mythology, which covers all the major Greek myths and many minor ones as well. Her The Greek Way is in some ways a good cultural study of Ancient Greece via its greatest writers, but I think it's arguably showing it's age (and a little mid-century primness) at this point. For all of the ways in which the Greeks contributed to our culture they are also very alien in certain respects, and I'm not sure that a book in which Arisophanes' comedy is compared to Gilbert and Sullivan's light operas (even though Hamilton notes that Aristophanes was "more exuberantly Rabelaisian") quite captures the full flavor. That said, Hamilton is a good writer and classicist, and the book is good. I'm just not sure it's the best.

I've enjoyed some of Victor Davis Hanson's work on the Greeks, but his books are all somewhat specialized. My personal favorite is The Western Way of War, but it's a somewhat specialized work dealing with Classical Greek infantry warfare and how it both sprang from and contributed to the political structure of the Greek city states -- as well as the way these ideas have shaped Western concepts of war ever since. His The Other Greeks is also good, dealing with the agrarian side of Greek culture -- as opposed to the doings in the Agora that we normally read about. His A War Like No Other is probably his most readable book on Ancient Greece, but I think that in his effort to draw parallels between the Peloponnesian War and modern conflicts, he perhaps stretches the narrative a bit. It's a good, detailed discussion of the war which was one of the key influences on Classical Greek life and history, I just felt like some of the emphases and parallels were a bit off.

Finally, if you're willing to put up with "a pleasant evening's ultra violence" and are interested in a historical novel, you could try Gates of Fire, a novel about the Battle of Thermopylae.  Compared with the comic book 300, and the movie of the same name, (both of which drove me absolutely batty) this is actually a moderately good fictionalized depiction of the battle itself and of Spartan society.


Joseph M said...

Don't have any help on the 'about Greeks' front, but want to pitch for another source text - Herodotus' 'Histories'. He basically travels the ancient world and reports on what he finds with typical Greek curiosity, insight and skepticism. While 'Histories' may not be the greatest work of antiquity, it is among them, readable, and sheds entertaining light on how the Greeks thought about the world.

Also, while it is a little more work, reading the Greeks rather than reading about the Greeks is very much worth it. Homer, for sure, but much of Plato, Thucydides, and the playwrights are also pretty accessible with a little patience.

Donald R. McClarey said...

The Landmark series on great ancient Greek historians cannot be overpraised: lavish maps, useful footnotes, essays accompanying the texts, these are a classics scholar's dream:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the post, Mr. Darwin (I'm the questioning reader who wrote). I'd forgotten that I wanted to read Xenophon, so I think I'll start with that, and keep the others on the list.

Now, if you have a good book about the Crimean War that's appropriate for a 10 yo...


The Opinionated Homeschooler said...

Not to be confused with Mr. McClarey's recommendation, the Landmark history series (for children) included an excellent version of the Anabasis, under the title The Exploits of Xenophon. That, with Alfred Church's Iliad for Boys and Girls, Odyssey for Boys and Girls, Aeneid for Boys and Girls, and Stories from the Greek Tragedians, and F. J. Gould's The Children's Plutarch, form a nice basis in the classics for young people.

On the Crimean War: My girls liked We Were There With Florence Nightingale in the Crimea, and Florence Nightingale's Nuns (from the Vision series of Catholic books for children).

Donald R. McClarey said...

The Landmark Book on Florence Nightingale is a first rate suggestion. I would also recommend this novel by G. A. Henty, Jack Archer, A Tale of the Crimea

I will use this as an excuse to repeat one of my favorite Rudyard Kipling poems:

There were thirty million English who talked of England's might,
There were twenty broken troopers who lacked a bed for the night.
They had neither food nor money, they had neither service nor trade;
They were only shiftless soldiers, the last of the Light Brigade.

They felt that life was fleeting; they knew not that art was long,
That though they were dying of famine, they lived in deathless song.
They asked for a little money to keep the wolf from the door;
And the thirty million English sent twenty pounds and four !

They laid their heads together that were scarred and lined and grey;
Keen were the Russian sabres, but want was keener than they;
And an old Troop-Sergeant muttered, "Let us go to the man who writes
The things on Balaclava the kiddies at school recites."

They went without bands or colours, a regiment ten-file strong,
To look for the Master-singer who had crowned them all in his song;
And, waiting his servant's order, by the garden gate they stayed,
A desolate little cluster, the last of the Light Brigade.

They strove to stand to attention, to straighen the toil-bowed back;
They drilled on an empty stomach, the loose-knit files fell slack;
With stooping of weary shoulders, in garments tattered and frayed,
They shambled into his presence, the last of the Light Brigade.

The old Troop-Sergeant was spokesman, and "Beggin' your pardon," he said,
"You wrote o' the Light Brigade, sir. Here's all that isn't dead.
An' it's all come true what you wrote, sir, regardin' the mouth of hell;
For we're all of us nigh to the workhouse, an' we thought we'd call an' tell.

"No, thank you, we don't want food, sir; but couldn't you take an' write
A sort of 'to be continued' and 'see next page' o' the fight?
We think that someone has blundered, an' couldn't you tell 'em how?
You wrote we were heroes once, sir. Please, write we are starving now."

The poor little army departed, limping and lean and forlorn.
And the heart of the Master-singer grew hot with "the scorn of scorn."
And he wrote for them wonderful verses that swept the land like flame,
Till the fatted souls of the English were scourged with the thing called Shame.

They sent a cheque to the felon that sprang from an Irish bog;
They healed the spavined cab-horse; they housed the homeless dog;
And they sent (you may call me a liar), when felon and beast were paid,
A cheque, for enough to live on, to the last of the Light Brigade.

O thirty million English that babble of England's might,
Behold there are twenty heroes who lack their food to-night;
Our children's children are lisping to "honour the charge they made - "
And we leave to the streets and the workhouse the charge of the Light Brigade!