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:
In 491 B.C. King Darius I of Persia sent out his envoys to the various Greek city states, demanding of them earth and water – in those times, a sign of submission, the acceptance of, in this case, Persian rule. Some city states were cowed into complying while others refused; but the demand went down particularly badly in Athens and in Sparta:
…the Athenians cast these heralds, when they made their request, down into a pit, and the Spartans had thrown theirs into a well; and the heralds were told to take their earth and water to the King from there!
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.
I first heard this evocative phrase in a history class at university many years ago but in certain countries (the English and the Spanish can raise their hands here) it’s pretty well-known. And I don’t know about you but it makes me think of ships ploughing the oceans, armies marching and merchants haggling over exotic goods. I think of kings whose word was law over diverse lands, of gold and glory and of a confusion of languages to equal that of Babel. In fact, in my mind I can see the big globe in the library of the Escorial, turning slowly….
He oído esta frase evocador en una clase de historia en la universidad hace muchos años pero en ciertas países (los españoles y los ingleses pueden levantar las manos aquí) es bastante bien conocida. No sé nada de ti, pero me hace pensar en barcos cruzando el mar, ejercitos en marcha y comerciantes regateando mercancías exóticos. Pienso en reyes cuyos palabras eran la ley en tierras distintas, en oro y gloria, y además en una confusión de idiomas igual que la de Babel. De hecho, mentalmente veo el gran globo en la biblioteca de El Escorial, girando despacio…
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. 🙂
Let’s start today’s post with the one thing we should never start a piece of writing with: a cliché. Today’s cliché is that life is full of choices. None of us can avoid them, although some people make a damn good effort to as they’re painfully aware that by choosing something, they will miss out on something else. To these people the most of awful thing about choice is the very fact that they have to make one; that maybe none of the alternatives are any good only comes distant second.
To these people then the most fateful word in the world is:
When it comes to choices in literature, Antigone by Sophocles of course offers itself up for examples of moral choices on a positively indecent scale but I wouldn’t want to spoil your enjoyment in reading it. Besides, you haven’t heard from Herodotus for a while (this is where you all stop reading!) and he too loaded his Histories with plenty of fateful choices. There was, for example, the juicy case of Gyges, the favourite bodyguard of King Candaules and the king’s wife… but we’ll leave that for another time. Instead we’ll read the very end of The Histories, the last chapter of Book Nine, in which…
Most people who took any notice of the Persian wars in their history class would know about the battle of Marathon in the first Persian war and the battles of Thermopylae and Salamis in the second; maybe, if you were really into it, you’d be aware that in fact there were a couple more battles, that of Plataea and Mycale the year after, that marked the genuine end of the Persian invasion of Greece. But the battle that almost everybody invariably forgets is the battle Artemisium, a sea battle fought simultaneously with the battle of Thermopylae. Yet without holding the Persian navy up at Artemisium there would have been no battle of Thermopylae – nothing would have prevented Xerxes to simply sail his troops round the wretched pass, making its defence wholly pointless. It’s hardly surprising, however, that in the end the battle of Artemisium got entirely overshadowed by the fame of Thermopylae.
So what happened in the forgotten battle at Cape Artemisium?
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.