More classic lines

March 8, 1996

John Davies discovers in these culturally relative times that even the canon in Greek and Latin is not immune to revision.

There has been much debate in recent years over the worth and composition of the canon, with Harold Bloom self-consciously defending what he believes is the classically derived western variety from incursions by assorted feminists and lit-crit guerrillas. But the canon in classical studies, though "pretty stable", is not a static affair. Or as Peter Jones, professor of classics at Newcastle, puts it: "It is far broader than when I was an undergraduate, at Cambridge in the early 1960s, but any undergraduate now studying classics would certainly be confronted with the canon - in Latin, Virgil, Cicero, Livy, Horace; and in Greek Homer, the tragedians, Thucydides and so on".

"Our notion of classical literature - and indeed classical civilisation and society - has changed a lot", says Patricia Easterling, Cambridge's regius professor of Greek. "The balance has tilted away from that sense of very classical correctness to something much more diversified."

So where are these diversified areas? The genre variously described as the Greek novel or romance "is the biggest growth area", according to Richard Stoneman, classical studies editor at Routledge. Chariton's Callirhoe (claimed as "our first European novel"), Longus's Daphnis and Chloe, and works by other authors such as Lucien, Heliodorus and Achilles Tatius may be on few undergraduate classics syllabuses, but they are "important and entertaining", according to Simon Goldhill, fellow in classics at King's College, Cambridge. "With the rise of gender and cultural studies approaches, it turns out these novelists have more to say," says Stoneman, who has translated the anonymous Alexander Romance for Penguin Classics.

But are the Greek novelists as good as, say, Sophocles or Euripides? Jones is doubtful. "They're very arty but they haven't got a lot of bottom, to use a public school term. They're what I would call a perfectly agreeable read, but it's a bit like Bach and someone like Vivaldi. Both terrific stuff, but you wouldn't put them in the same league."

Simon Goldhill disagrees. "The Greek novel fell out of fashion in the Victorian era, which found its sexiness and self-consciousness unsympathetic. But they're extremely sophisticated," he observes.

Other classical authors whose stock appears to be rising include later Latin writers such as Apuleius or the Christian poet Prudentius: Artemidorus, who wrote on the interpretation of dreams ("which used to be considered nothing but ancient mumbo-jumbo and is now taken as a slice of life under the Roman empire", according to Jeffrey Henderson, professor of classics at Boston University) and the Alexandrian Greek Callimachus. "Anthony Bullock of Berkeley says Callimachus's poetry is the most important thing in Greek literature after Homer - a fairly strange thing to say in my opinion", declares Jasper Griffin, fellow of Balliol College, Oxford. But as Simon Goldhill says, "If a sign of postmodernism is a self-conscious application of literary techniques, then the Hellenistic poets are the most postmodern there are".

John Betts, who in his dual role as head of classics at Bristol and editor of Bristol Classical Press, is well placed to observe trends notes that "there are people doing less well-known authors because of their research interests . . .But as a publisher I'm not bursting to publish Philostratus, who seems to be one of the research flavours of the month".

Who else is in favour? "Xenophon has gone up in popularity after a period of neglect," says Michael Whitby, professor of classics at Warwick. "Texts (such as Xenophon's Economics) that illustrate social life, history and politics are much more in fashion than before". Elsewhere, Ovid is more foregrounded than before, thinks Peter Jones, while for Jeffery Henderson, "it's a golden age for Aristophanes translations". At least three books are coming out this year about Sappho; "the invention of gender studies . . . means that she and all other female poets of antiquity have been shoved forwards" is how Edith Hall of Somerville College, Oxford, puts it.

As some authors are on the way up, are others on the way down? Liverpool University classics head Fred Jones says: "Most students find Pliny really boring, and I think he is". Others note a decline in interest in Greek oratory, notably Demosthenes. But as Edith Hall notes, what is studied will always reflect contemporary concerns: "The Roman love elegy was banned in the former Soviet Union, where the study of Hesiod (who wrote about farming) and other didactic texts was encouraged."

But there is still a canon that should not, in Fred Jones's view, be disturbed by "artificially induced change". As teachers, he says, "we've read Catullus and Virgil over and over. They may have grown stale for us, but not for the students. They enjoy them. So it would not be fair to take them out of the canon." Or as Boston's Henderson says: "I would be very sad if my students had read Daphnis and Chloe but had not read the Iliad."

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