Nicolson’s Why Homer Matters

Why Homer Matters: A History
Adam Nicolson

This one hit all my sweet spots. A book about Homer that is part travelogue / memoir, part meditation on deep engagement with a text, and part ancient history primer. A must read for the ancient history enthusiast.

Nicolson’s easy erudition and his deep emotional connection to the works of the great bard lead to a book that is really very special.  Much of the historical and linguistic knowledge here is well known, but Nicolson’s application of it, to his travels, and to his life, resonated with me and helped deepen my own understanding of why Homer remains so important. Nicolson travels to the main sights of the texts, and engages with them as he sorts through his own complex and fraught life. Through these experiences, he brings us a little closer, I think, to answering why these stories of marauding and duplicitous Greeks, plagued by desires and loves which lead some to ruin, and some home again, still resonate.


If you haven’t read Homer, I suggest you do (probably the Fagel’s translation), and I suggest you pair it with this book.




*But if you haven’t this is as good a place as any to start.

Ann Yearsley – Poet, Mother, Abolitionist, Classicist

Ann Yearsley was an 18th century milk woman, farmer’s wife and the mother of six children. She was also a poet, an auto-didactic classicists, and a fierce abolitionist.  She was, in other words, completely amazing.

Yearley was born in a poor family in the Bristol and taught to read and write by her parents. While between her work as a milk woman and mother, she also found time to compose extensive amounts of poetry, poetry which eventually gained her the attention of well know abolitionist and social activist Hannah Moore who saw to the publication of many of her works. Yearley became a bit of a cause celebre for a while, while she eventually had a falling out with Moore over money, she was able to greatly improve her economic standing. Along the way she composes a number of poems with extensive classical references, most famously,  “Addressed to Ignorance, Occasioned by a Gentleman’s desiring the Author never to assume a Knowledge of the Ancients” which re-imagines the classical heroes as working class men, and remains surprisingly witty over two hundred years later.

Stout Ajax, the form of a butcher now takes,

But the last he past thro’ was a calf;

Yet no revolution his spirit awakes,

For no Troy is remember’d by Ralph.

I addition to her personal studies in classical literature, Yearsley was also an abolitionist and produced one of the  classic poems from the era of British abolitionism, “A Poem on the Inhumanity of the Slave Trade”.

What an incredible life, what an incredible woman.

Alfred Williams – Poet, Factory Worker, Classicist

Alfred Williams (1877-1930)

Author of Life in a Railway Factory, Williams taught himself Greek and Latin while working full time in a factory.

William’s left school at 11 to work at a farm laborer, before becoming a steamhammer operator at age 14. He worked in that factory for the next twenty four years and also found time to translate Ovid, Pindar, Sappho, Plato and Horace, as well as write Life in a Railway Factory, and scores of poetry.


Here’s Mary Beard on this amazing gentleman:

[Williams] taught himself Greek and Latin partly by chalking up his irregular verbs on the casing of his forge.

Needless to say, this was a little trick which (however innocent) didn’t appeal to the foreman. To stop Williams using the side of his forge as an aide memoire, he had it covered with oil. Even this didn’t stop Williams. As his first biographer explained, “With characteristic determination Alf. dared to clean off the oil thoroughly – in his own time of course, for he was always careful to avoid placing a weapon in the hand of his oppressor – and rewrote the Greek.

Williams remains a bit of a cult figure. There’s a website devoted to him and Life in a Railway Factory is available for free.