Ancient Greek literature: it's really rather good

Wed, Mar 7, 2018

I’m a longtime fan of the Iliad – I think one of my old primary school teachers must have read a version to my class when I was an infant because I seem to have known the stories forever. The judgement of Paris, the elopement of Helen, the becalming of the Greek ships and the sacrifice of Iphignia, and so on. I have listened, rapt, to an hour-long lecture devoted to the very first line:

μῆνιν ἄειδε θεὰ Πηληϊάδεω Ἀχιλῆος – menin aeide thea peliadeu achilleos

Which was actually very interesting. Quite a lot of the problem of translation has to do with Greek being an inflected language and so word order being much freer. Hence the line above in the original can begin with the word ‘Fate’ and end with the name ‘Achilles’, the two principle themes of the whole epic – and you just can’t produce an English translation that does the same trick.

The 'Warrior Vase', found by Schliemann at Mycenae, dates from the 13th Century BC

The 'Warrior Vase', found by Schliemann at Mycenae, dates from the 13th Century BC

But I haven’t ever read much else from Ancient Greece. I saw a performance of ‘Atigone at Oxford when Helen was a postgrad there – we were dragged along a bit reluctantly because we knew someone involved in the production – and to my amazement it was very good. It seems a daft thing to say: Sophocles was a very good playwright. But he was.

I also read a bit of what remains of Sappho and - again to my surprise - thought it was good. Sappho 31, the one Catullus repurposed:

That man seems to me to be equal to the gods

who is sitting opposite you

and hears you nearby

speaking sweetly

So last year I took a deep breath and read The Oresteia. Aeschylus – the oldest of the three great tredgedians of Classical-era Greece – wrote the three plays as a complete trilogy to be presented at the annual competitive Dionysia. It’s the only example of a trilogy still in existence and it won first prize in 458 BC.

I was immediately hooked. The first play, The Agamemnon, describes how Agamemnon returns from the destruction of Troy with Cassandra in tow, and is immediately killed by his wife, Clytemnestra, in revenge for Agamemnon’s sacrifice of their daughter, Iphigenia, at the very start of the Trojan War.

It’s bloody stuff. The subsequent unfolding of fate across the other two plays is as grimly inexorable as a car plunging off a cliff. The bloodletting continues - Orestes, the son, murders his mother in revenge and is pursued by the Furies, the Erinyes, hideous ancient forces born from the blood of the castrated Cronos, until they all end up in Athens for a trial. Athena casts the deciding vote and Orestes escapes his fate as a matricide – and the goddess pacifies the Erinyes by offering them a permanent home in the city. Thereafter they’re referred to as the Eumenides- the kindly ones - to keep them sweet.

Of course I don’t read Ancient Greek and have to rely on translations. Even so…

Zeus, whose will has marked for man

The sole way where wisdom lies;

Ordered one eternal plan:

Man must suffer to be wise.

And Bobby Kennedy quoted Aeschylus on the death of Martin Luther King. His slight misquotation is below. A misquotation; but what politican today do you think can recite Aeschylus from memory.

Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget

falls drop by drop upon the heart,

until, in our own despair,

against our will,

comes wisdom

through the awful grace of God.

Actually, one politician who’s a classicist springs to mind: Boris Johnson. But I suspect his preferences might lie more with Aristophanes.


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