The Cure At Troy: A Version of Sophocles’ PhiloctetesSeamus Heany
I learned about this initially from Bill Clinton’s contribution to “By the Book” in the New York Times, a place where I’ve found scores of books to read, though none perhaps as powerful as this one. Here, Heaney retells the story of Philoctetes, who on the way to war suffers an injury and is abandoned by his fellow Greeks. He’s left to live along on a island until the Greeks return, first to trick him, and then to beg him, to returning with them to Troy to finish the war.
Will Philoctetes wallow in his righteous anger or will he mitigate his hatred for the good of his country? These are the issues Heaney struggles with in this short, deeply moving play about what it means to forgive, atone, and move on, and whether any of those things are really possible. Beautifully written and with so much to think about in such a short work, why wouldn’t you pick it up?
The World of Odysseus
A stunning work of social history which uses what we know about the historical time period which produced the Iliad and the Odyssey to help understand these two classics. We need to remember that even to homer, the events of the Iliad and Odyssey were ancient history. His codification of these myths tells us then about his time times, as well as about how his peers viewed their ancestors.
Like all literature, the Homeric myths are not just stories to pass the time, they are the means by which a culture explains itself: its morals, its family structure, its economy. Read closely, and literature reveals the world.
Finley uses archeology and anthropology, philology and the history of ideas to inform his thoughts on the world of Odysseus, but in the end, this is a book of hyper close reading. Nothing gets past his eye, not a variant in god description, nor telling bit of dialogue. All if informs is understanding of who the ancient Greeks were, why they wrote these stories, and what they’re trying to tell us. If only I were half the reader Finley was, these books reviews would be much more worth illuminating.
Very, very glad I read this right after finishing a re-read of the two classics. Finely gave nuance and new meaning to what I just read, making me think more than once, “why didn’t I see that?”
The Greek Way
This is a really bad book. Like, really bad. Well, perhaps bad isn’t the right word. Hopelessly dated and irrelevant might be better. Hamilton (author of the excellent introduction to Mythology) attempts to explain the unique and superior nature of ancient Greece through a review of its culture and comparison to the uncultured “east”, ruled by dictators, or the culture of today. Hamilton is obsessed with placing national cultures in boxes (if you’re western, if you’re “eastern”, its all the same shit to her).
The “east” care not for the individual soul, as Buddhism is a religion of personal renunciation. The French are our times great thinkers, while the British are our great poets.
Seriously, she talks like this.
I almost feel bad for her, so myopic is her view of the world. There is Greece in its democratic glory, the flower of all that is good in our world. And then there is everyone else, easily placed in buckets by nationality or region, and dismissed as inferior. Its embarrassing to read and frankly I wish I’d stopped after the first fifty pages. The only reason I can think this would be worth your time is if you’re a scholar of outdated modes of relating to the classical world.
Otherwise, not recommended.
Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes
When I asked for a quick and dirty overview of the major Greek and Roman myths, everyone recommending this. I’m glad they did. When I started Mythology I was already half way through Hamilton’s the Greek Way, which is pretty bad, and I did not have high expectations for this one.
I was genuinely surprised with how good this was. All of the major (and minor) myths are explained here, clearly and logically with helpful introductions describing the major sources for the stories. You’ve got the interplay between the gods, the Trojan war, and the myths of the legendary houses and heroes of Ancient Greece. Its one stop shopping for classical stories.
It isn’t a scholarly work. It’s for the lay reader. But it’s exactly what you need if, say, you’re about to embark on a deep dive Homer and want to make sure you remember the lay of the land.
Confronting the Classics: Traditions, Adventures, and Innovations
This is a collection of Beard’s reviews and essays from a number of publications, including many from the New York Review of Books. Organized in rough chronological order from Greece to the present, it is a bit of a hodgepodge. But what a wonderful hodgepodge it is.
Beard is my favorite classicist (if I can be so bold as to name someone my favorite classicist). She is a delightful writer, brilliant, and unafraid to bring call it like she sees it (Circeo, perhaps not the hero you thought?). She’s also excellent at bringing progressive political ideas to the study of the ancient world without having it come off as hackneyed or forced. If you care about classics in the contemporary world, you should care about the works of Mary Beard. This isn’t a major work by Beard, but it is a great way to dip her thoughts many aspects of Greek and Roman life and thought while also discovery scores of other books that are worth your time. If, like me, you’re early in your journey into understanding classic thought and history, this is well worth your time.
Recommended for the enthusiast.