In 1981, the Italian writer Italo Calvino wrote an essay titled Why Read the Classics?. It’s less than ten entertaining pages, so I recommend you read it if you can lay your hands on it. (It’s been published in a book form, in a collection of his essays, bearing the same title.)
What follows here is the 14 definitions of what classics are as put forward in the essay – 14 definitions worth thinking about:
O children of the Greeks, go,
free your homeland, free also
your children, your wives, the temples of your fathers’ gods,
and the tombs of your ancestors: now the struggle is for all things.
Aeschylus: The Persians
The Battle of Salamis According to Aeschylus
Can you imagine telling a story, with your audience hanging upon your every word, breathless with excitement or moved to tears – although they had heard the story many times before and know the final outcome? Because that’s exactly what Ancient Greek playwrights had to do; and Aeschylus pulled it off beautifully with The Persians.
There is a line by Pindar, a fifth-century-B.C. Greek poet, in which he describes the island of Delos, one of the most barren and inhospitable of all Greek islands, as ‘the dark earth’s far-seen star’:
Hail, god-reared daughter of the sea,
earth-shoot most dear to bright-haired Leto’s children,
wide earth’s immoveable marvel,
who of mortals art called Delos,
but of the blessed gods in Olympus the dark earth’s far-seen star…
Dark earth’s far-seen star – the island as seen from above by the gods, glowing with light in the dark sea – is one of those memorable phrases that turned the famous Roman poet Horace into one of Pindar’s life-long fans. Sadly, not much else of this Procession Song survives today (you’ve just read half of what there’s left).
Delphi is just a small town built into the hillside under Mount Parnassus – home to the Muses – and overlooking the Gulf of Corinth. It’s three hours drive from Athens and even at the height of the tourist season you can escape the crowds here.
Halicarnassus, the birth place of Herodotus (nowadays Bodrum, Turkey) was home to one of the seven wonders of the ancient world: the Mausoleum, a colossal tomb of Mausolus, a Persian satrap and a ruler of Caria (377-353 B.C.). The word mausoleum as used today originates precisely in the name of Mausolus and his tomb.
“Halicarnassus, the royal residence of the dynasts of Caria,” wrote the Greek geographer Strabo two thousand years ago. “Here is the tomb of Mausolus, one of the Seven Wonders, a monument erected by Artemisia in honour of her husband.” (Strabo: Geography, XIV.2)
Mausolus made Halicarnassus his capital and spent a huge amount of money on improving the harbour, fortifying the town and embellishing it with temples, palaces and statues.
About halfway up the curving slope… a broad wide street was laid out, in the middle of which was built the Mausoleum, a work so remarkable that it is classed among the Seven Wonders of the World. (Vitruvius: The Ten Books on Architecture, II.8)
In the Archeological Museum in Athens there’s a golden funeral mask that was found by Heinrich Schliemann in 1876 when he was excavating Mycenae. It goes by the name of the mask of Agamemnon. Needless to say, it’s probably not the mask of Agamemnon but I, like Schliemann, find the idea that it depicts Agamemnon, rather than somebody we never heard of, much more interesting… and easier to remember. 🙂
Recently I wrote about how a young Royal Navy sailor in 1941 sauntered into a Greek bar in Alexandria and came out with his head full of the Odyssey. Well, those of you who haven’t read that piece, go and read it now, but I’m willing to remind the rest who have merely forgotten who this sailor was: Ernle Bradford.
Or What Do Half-Drunk Hungarian Peasants and French Day-Trippers Share with Homer?
A few years ago we went on a week’s holiday in Dinan in Brittany where one day we took a short boat trip on the River Rance. The trip itself was quite unremarkable, but at some point our jolly skipper decided to lead us all in a song. Within seconds, to the utter delight of my children and myself, two dozen French tourists were heartily bellowing out Santy Anno, a song from the 2008 Jefferson Starship album Tree of Liberty. To our skipper and fellow tourists, however, this was not a song from an American record but a traditional French song, liked by and known to all.
When I was ten, I read Swallows and Amazons and in the course of that, Arthur Ransome introduced me to English poetry. One of the characters, Titty (I still wonder what sort of a name is that for a girl), was much given to recalling random lines of poetry that they had taught her at school.
The boy stood on the burning deck
Whence all but he had fled;
The flame that lit the battle’s wreck
Shone round him o’er the dead.
These lines spoke about adventure and unknown worlds in pulsating rhyme. I’m not surprised that they stuck in Titty’s head; they certainly stuck in mine. Ransome – and not my literature teachers – made me read Keats; and Keats made me pick up Homer again, many years after I left school.