Twelve Voices from Greece and Rome: Ancient Ideas for Modern Times, by Christopher Pelling and Maria Wyke

Despite a quibble over guides, a personal tour of classical literature delights Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones

November 13, 2014

We classicists are party people. And what’s a party without games? Our favourite game is “Which surviving ancient author would you dump if you could swap his work for someone else’s?” My usual trump card is this: I would willingly obliterate every word of Cicero – that dull, pompous, snobbish proto-Tory – for just one book (out of an original 23) of Ctesias’ lost Persian Things, a rich compendium of history, fantasy, gossip and travelogue focused on the exotic orient. Surviving ancient testimonies laud its enargeia (vividness) and the hedonē (pleasure) derived from reading it. The Persica was the world’s first page-turner, and it was everything Cicero is not.

Cicero is one of 12 voices Christopher Pelling and Maria Wyke have chosen to “speak” in this lovely little anthology of writings from the Graeco-Roman past. He wouldn’t have made the cut if I’d been in charge, but these choices are personal, aren’t they? Pelling and Wyke draw up their list of classical greats, opting for Homer (duh! Of course!), Sappho (nice), Herodotus (cool), Thucydides (weighty but worthy), Euripides (something for everyone), Caesar (really?), Cicero (see above), Virgil (of course), Horace (oh, OK), Tacitus (solid, sometimes sexy), Juvenal (lots of in-jokes) and Lucian (comic genius).

Already I hear cries of “Wot!? No Xenophon, no Sophocles, Plato, Aristophanes, Plutarch? No Greek author after 420 BC? No Suetonius? No Plautus, no Ovid?” I don’t envy Pelling and Wyke; theirs was an impossible task – to whittle down to a dozen authors and to explore, succinctly and sharply, their works and their legacy. But this they do supremely well – not surprisingly, as they are two classicists at the top of their game. They also allow us to see these 12 classical greats through more personal eyes; Pelling and Wyke introduce themselves as “the Welsh grammar-school boy on his caravan holiday and the London convent-school girl reading furtively during break”, and these personas weave their charms throughout this nostalgic book.

In fact, I got a lot of hedonē from this small, polite volume, and (as in real life) I find Pelling and Wyke good company, steering me through the works of (some of) antiquity’s foremost figures, reflecting on what impact these authors have had on them personally and on society at large. Herodotus is introduced via perceptive comments on the relationship between the US and the Islamic Republic of Iran, and we are reminded of how the Nazis read (or misread) Tacitus’ history of Germania. Euripides, that master of emotions, is very well encountered in these short pages, and Homer’s deep cultural legacy is introduced to us in the handwritten poem scribbled into a soldier’s copy of the Iliad dating to the last days of the Second World War.

Within the limitations of a work on this miniature scale, Pelling and Wyke offer an engaging approach to ancient literature. It can be read by those just starting out on an exploration of the past or by those already oh-so-knowledgeable about the literature of classical antiquity. Of course, I’d still like to hear more of the forgotten voices of the past, and I’d like space to be given to the “lost” texts that continue to tantalise scholars: Agrippina’s diaries; the memoirs of Olympos, Cleopatra’s physician; the Indian Things of Ctesias. Oh yes, you see, Ctesias wrote a sequel…

Twelve Voices from Greece and Rome: Ancient Ideas for Modern Times

By Christopher Pelling and Maria Wyke
Oxford University Press, 288pp, £18.99
ISBN 9780199597369
Published 30 October 2014

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Reader's comments (2)

As a Ctesias specialist, Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones may be forgiven for his playful comment that he "would willingly obliterate every word of Cicero" for just one book of Ctesias's lost Persian Things. A little bit of online research, however, suggests that it would be a high price to pay. According to various sources, it appears that all the following words have come down to us via Cicero's neologistic translations from the Greek: definition, difference, image, individual, induction, infinity, notion, quality, quantity, species and vacuum. Oh, and the humanities, liberal arts, morality and science. Indeed, according to Gian Bagio Conte in his Latin Literature: A History, Cicero "laid the foundation for the abstract vocabulary that was to become the inheritance of the European cultural tradition". Not for nothing did Michael Grant once write that "the influence of Cicero upon the history of European literature and ideas greatly exceeds that of any other prose writer in any language".
'No Greek author after 420 BC?' There is one: Lucian. Was the reviewer thinking of Lucan?

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