Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category

As with all historical fiction, Manfredi has the basic problem that the basic plot of his book is selected for him already- namely the final days of Julius Caesar until his assassination in the Senate House on 15 March 44 B.C.- so I was interested in how he was going to liven it up for someone who was already quite acquainted with the story. Manfredi wrote a very good series on Alexander the Great, which I read ages ago, and he’s had some commercial success with his books ‘Spartan‘ and ‘The Last Legion‘. In addition to this, he is a Professor of Classics in Italy, so he knows his stuff.

The story of Julius Caesar is exciting, but usually only when you’re hearing or seeing it for the first time- the portents in the sky, the mysterious soothsayer, the murder of the most powerful man in Rome- but after that it can get a bit flat. So to jazz up the storyline a bit, Manfredi invents a side story about a man racing to Rome to tell Caesar that his life is in danger. Meanwhile, back in the city, Caesar’s closest companion (invented, I believe, though there is a helpful glossary in the back to tell you which characters are real and which fake) is trying to find out Brutus’ plot before it’s too late, with the help of some useful Greek slaves. Oh, and Caesar’s epilepsy is playing up again, and he has to juggle his wife Calpurnia, his ex-mistress Servilia and current mistress Cleopatra, whom Antony’s been making eyes at, while preparing an attack on the East to avenge a lost legion and worrying about the Roman people thinking he wants to be king… phew!

All in all, I thought the book was quite good, though not stellar. In fact, the moment I found most exciting was the brief description of the opening ceremonies at Caesar’s funeral, which marked the close of the book. Still, I suppose it was nice to hint a bit at the new civil war to come, rather than finishing with Caesar’s crumpled body on the floor of the Senate. One criticism I have is that the tension was not quite as high as I would have liked, especially the moments where those investigating the plot think they might be about to be caught, though I was surprised at how engrossed I became in the final few scenes of Caesar’s life- will he go to the Senate? will he read the message in time?- despite knowing exactly what happens. I felt the death scene didn’t take long enough either. I like my deaths slow-mo, like in films- that way you can tell that they’re especially important and tragic. It wouldn’t necessarily have been that hard to do either for a writer of Manfredi’s expertise. A closer glimpse into Caesar’s mind would have been appreciated too. Does he want to be king? Does he just want to survive? What does he really think? Instead the lead roles in the story are given to other people, which seems a shame.

Enough wingeing! I did enjoy the revitalized role of Cleopatra in this book, as well as Antony’s slimyness. The relationship between Caesar and Calpurnia, his barren wife, was particularly poignant, as was that between Brutus and Porcia. He has a good eye for detail, and he really shed a bit of light on a few minor aspects of Roman life, like the little wayside inns on the road to Rome. I guess I would recommend this book to people who might not be very well-versed in Classics yet and/or want to put a human face on well-known events, but I doubt I would mention it to people who already know the story too well to be surprised by anything new.

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There was a  brief discussion on Radio 4’s Today programme this morning (start from 1 hour 24 minutes in) featuring Professor Beard talking about the comparisons between Roman Emperors and American Presidents, prompted by a new book by Nigel Hamilton coming out called ‘American Caesars’. Thankfully he’s just given the presidents “the Suetonius treatment”, which is much better than the tired trope of comparing presidents individually and directly to any particular emperor, though Prof. Beard seemed quite keen to compare JFK to Nero, which I had never thought of before…

I reviewed Suetonius’ ‘Twelve Caesars’ earlier on this blog, and I highly recommend it! Thankfully you can listen to the broadcast as well, courtesy of the BBC’s wonderful iPlayer system.

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I just moved into a new house! I’m living with some friends from university and I have a job in another city.  The commute (I estimate) is roughly 1 1/2 hours, so I have stocked up on rather a lot of books to keep me going on long train rides, and I thought I’d list some of them here:

Thomas Mann- Death in Venice and Other Stories

Aravind Adiga- The White Tiger

Sarah Vowell- Assassination Vacation

Cormac McCarthy- No Country For Old Men

e e cummings- Selected Poems 1923- 1958

Cullen Murphy- Are We Rome?

David Sedaris- When You Are Engulfed In Flames (this is one of the funniest books I have ever read)

Jon McGregor- if nobody speaks of remarkable things (simply beautiful- it makes you think in poetry)

Charlotte Roche- Wetlands (definitely NOT for the squeamish)

Alexandre Dumas- The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers

An Interrupted Life: The Diaries and Letters of Etty Hillesum 1941-43

Herman Melville- Moby Dick

Christopher Booker- The Seven Basic Plots

Richard Nelson Bolles- What Color Is Your Parachute?

Charles Elton- Mr Toppit

Philip Gourevitch- We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families

And, of course, a few classical ones:

Simon Goldhill- Love, Sex and Tragedy: Why Classics Matters

Ted Hughes- Tales From Ovid

Sophocles- The Theban Plays  and Electra and Other Plays

Aeschylus- Prometheus Bound and Other Plays

Suetonius- The Twelve Caesars

Apollonius of Rhodes- The Voyages of the Argo

Christopher Kelly- The Roman Empire: A Very Short Introduction (one of my professors wrote a very good VSI about Classics, and another wrote a great one on Classical mythology. Brilliant series!)

Homer- The Iliad and The Odyssey (because no Classicist’s room is complete without!)

Virgil- The Aeneid

Euripides- Medea and Other Plays

Aeschylus- The Oresteia

Peter Parsons- City of the Sharp-Nosed Fish (a great book about Oxyrynchus, a town in Egypt whose recently-discovered rubbish tip contained large sections from ancient texts, some of which we didn’t have before. Yay!)

And that’s only some of them! I have a few more books, mostly religious ones, such as some C. S. Lewis texts. Can anyone suggest any more I should look into?

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Three days ago, I graduated from university! It was an exciting, arcane ceremony involving holding someone’s finger (NB- not pulling it, like my father suggested) and then kneeling before the Chancellor’s representative and swearing silent fealty, all while wearing rather a lot more cloth than the hot day required (for more information, see the latest installment of Mary Beard’s blog). It was marvellous, and it was wonderful to have so many family members there from overseas to see me.

While leaving my place of learning for the past three years was strange, and I’m sure it will feel stranger in October when I suddenly find I’m not, in fact, going to the same room I’ve had for three years, I’m finding the break with no threat of reading lists and preparation for next year very liberating. For one thing, it means that I have time to read.

I rediscovered reading this Easter when I took a trip to Strasbourg as a research assistant for a Music PhD who can’t read Latin.  I bought two books to take with me on the trip and was pleasantly surprised by how much I had missed reading for pleasure and how hungry I was for it. I read ‘Persepolis’ in less than a day, and had finished ‘Revolutionary Road’ in only three or four. I should have been reading ‘Foucault’s Virginity’, but I wasn’t.  For once, I didn’t read text in order to glean tidbits to throw into my exam essays- I was reading because it is something I love, and have loved since I learned how to read in the first place.

Reading for pleasure also allows me to re-connect with the reasons why I started to study Classics in depth (as does watching Disney’s ‘Hercules’, but that’s not pertinent now). I’ve begun reading snatches of Ted Hughes’ reworking of Ovid’s ‘Metamorphoses’ to my Classics-deprived boyfriend, and it’s a wonderful book. For a start, though the sections share a common theme, they also stand alone as stories and can be dipped into and out of as I like. Hughes’ poetry also brings back Ovid’s own poetry- as I have commented before, many translations of ancient texts do not preserve the poetic format in which the texts were composed for the sake of accuracy, but in this case, as with Heaney’s ‘Beowulf’ or ‘Antigone’ or Christopher Logue’s ‘War Music’ (which I highly recommend), the poetry is returned.

Mind you, I’ve been reading non-Classical texts as well, and finished Zoe Heller’s ‘The Believers’ only an hour or so ago, and I strongly recommend it. I’ve bought a few more to take on a trip to Naples with me next week, so hopefully I should return with much to say about the city and about literature.

P.S.  I highly recommend reading Mary Beard’s book ‘Pompeii’– I have, and I know it’ll be in the forefront of my mind when I go travelling.

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I did something rather exciting this month- I met thirteen rulers of the world.

The first step in this process was going with a Classicist friend of mine to the British Museum’s Hadrian exhibition. I am a big fan of the BM (please give me a job!) and I really enjoyed all the information on display. It was obvious that they had gone to great lengths to give the visitors a feel of the cosmopolitan state of the Empire under Hadrian, displaying artifacts not only from other sections of the museum but even from different museums altogether- the piece I found most interesting was a papyrus written in the hand of Simon Bar-Kochba, the leader of the Jewish rebellion in ancient Judea in the Second Century. I must confess, I went to the museum knowing only three things about Hadrian: beard, boyfriend, Wall. But this exhibition pieced those external aspects into a rich portrait of Hadrian’s psyche- the beard was a sign of his self-consciousness and longing for the philosopher’s lifestyle of Greece, much the same for the beloved boy Antinoos (deified after his mysterious death by drowning in the Nile), and the Wall up in our frozen North was just one way in which Hadrian cut his losses by making the Roman Empire smaller, but certainly more stable. I also had no idea that Hadrian was so interested in architecture, particularly domes, an interest which made for an uncomfortable relationship with the court architect under Trajan, who told him go “go off and draw your pumpkins”.

Inspired by the exhibition, I bought a copy of Marguerite Yourcenar’s book ‘The Memoirs of Hadrian’, though my Classicist friend warned me that it might be a bit turgid. I finished it this morning and I have to say it is a work of singular beauty. Dense, yes- it has no direct speech at all- but also incredible in its deft turns of phrase, constructed by the translator working in close collaboration with Yourcenar herself. Like all really good authors, she manages to create scenes that we linger over not only as we read them but also for ages after. I’ve only just finished it, but already I can feel her fingers shaping my view of the world! Really, do try to read it if you can- you shall not be disappointed. In short, I now love Hadrian, and if possible I’m going to try to hike the wall sometime between leaving uni and having to get a real life.

After that, off I went to North Cyprus with my family. North Cyprus can be a terribly desolate place, and since lots of it was devastated in various sieges over time often there is not very much to do, especially if you’re at all sensitive to heat. I spent most of my time by the water reading a second-hand copy of Suetonius’ ‘The Twelve Caesars’, translated by Robert Graves (he of ‘I, Claudius’ fame). I often find history a little dry (Tacitus, I’m looking at you here) but Suetonius blew me away. I challenge anyone to read him and not come away with a deep affection for him, though this was evidently not the case in the Second Century when Hadrian allowed him access to the archives but then exiled him. His skill lies in not only telling us the events as they happened but also bringing us close to the emperors in his writing, particularly by including physical details to which sculpture and coinage bear no testimony. I know I’m going on a bit, but I just want to include certain bits which really brought the subjects to life for me, emperor by emperor.

Julius Caesar: A proto-Big Brother, preferring to “discourage rather than punish any plots against his life”, adept at forgiving but not forgetting, a man who tried to stab his attackers back as they made for him. Oddly, this man who had the audacity to march on Rome was to us perhaps not the symbol of virile power we expect now- Suetonius said he had a tendency to “sudden comas” (narcolepsy, perhaps?) and had a comb over- to quote, “… he used to comb the thin strands of hair forward from his poll” (J.C. 45), and would disguise his shiny dome with an honorific laurel wreath voted him by the Senate.

Augustus: We all love Augustus, despite any nasty parallels with Hitler. His image shaped portraiture for decades after, but in real life Augustus was perhaps a bit taken with himself: “… he liked to believe that [his eyes] shone with a sort of divine radiance: it gave him profound pleasure if anyone at whom he glanced keenly dropped his head as though dazzled by looking into the sun” (A. 79). His teeth were rotting out of his head, and he was so obsessed with continuity he tried to get his adopted sons (in actuality his grandsons by his exiled daughter) even to write like him. And he was only 5’7″.

Tiberius: Poor Tiberius. He definitely lost it at some point, retiring to his pleasure palace to indulge his carnal desires in the most aggressive way possible, but what I think sets him apart is that he knew it was coming. He stopped the Senate from swearing an oath to agree with all his decisions in case he became incredibly hateful. Oh, and he rubbed a man’s face raw with a fish the man had brought him as a present (T. 60). Lovely.

Caligula: Now, almost everyone knows something about Caligula. He was incestuous, thought himself a god, and made his horse consul of Rome. He also, it turns out, had a daughter named Julia Drusilla, a nasty piece of work even in infancy, who proved her paternity by trying to scratch out the eyes of her playmates (G.C. 25). This sentence has particularly stuck with me as an image of his desire to control: “He never kissed the neck of his wife or mistress without saying: ‘And this beautiful throat shall be cut whenever I please.'” (G.C. 33). I think Commodus’ character in the film ‘Gladiator’ owes something to this image of Caligula.

Claudius: It may be because I’ve read ‘I, Claudius’ and ‘Claudius the God’, but the over-all picture I get of Claudius is of a man incredibly reluctant to be emperor, tired of patterns and routines. What a relief after Caligula! This story is my favourite: “… when the gladiators shouted: ‘Hail Caesar, we salute you, we who are about to die!’ he answered sarcastically: ‘Or not, as the case may be.'” (C. 21). The gladiators then claim that he has, effectively, freed them and refuse to fight until he begs them to do so. He could be pretty creepy too, though- he had pocket knives made of the swords used by particular gladiators in making mortal wounds (C. 34)

Nero: Oh boy, Nero. He thought himself to be the greatest musician ever, and “won” every prize in Greece just to prove it. He would force the audience to endure his performances, and no one was allowed to leave, so “we read of women in the audience giving birth, and of men being so bored… that they shammed dead and were carried away for burial.” (N. 23). He (allegedly) slept with his mother, and then (definitely) had her killed. Suetonius describes his body as “pustular and malodorous” (N. 51).

Galba: The first emperor in the Year of Four Emperors. A sturdy man, allegedly gay, and so badly deformed by arthritis that he couldn’t even wear shoes or hold paper.

Otho: I feel bad for Otho, he seems nice enough. Nero took his wife and then sent him into exile (he killed the wife by jumping on her when she was pregnant). He also had a toupee, and covered his face in “moist bread” (O. 12) to prevent his beard growing. What an odd solution.

Vitellius: I’m rather glad that Vitellius didn’t last too long, he seems decidedly unpleasant. He apparently was so infatuated with a certain freedwoman that he would mix her spit with honey “and use [it] everyday, quite openly, as a lotion for his neck and throat” (V. 2). A bit of a lad’s lad, fond of belching loudly. What a bore.

Vespasian: Yay, Vespasian! Greedy, yes, but at least he was witty in his greed. At one point, before he was emperor, he was pelted with turnips by some people rioting. I think my favourite aspect is that the Alexandrians called him ‘Cybiosactes’, which apparently means ‘a dealer in small cubes of fish’ because he was so stingy. Apparently he also looked permanently constipated, which is a bit of a disadvantage when you’re supposed to be the face of civilisation.

Titus: Suetonius seems to like Titus, though he does come across as a bit sentimental and weepy. Sadly he only reigned for two years so there’s not too much to say about him.

Domitian: Mad, simply mad. By the end he was so paranoid that he had his court made of highly reflective stone so that he could see behind his back (D. 14). I don’t like him very much, and his death by stabbing in the groin seems an apt punishment for how he treated his niece, Julia Titi- he refused to marry her, but once she was married he had an affair with her. He had her husband killed on some ridiculous trumped-up charge, and she died giving herself an abortion which he was forcing on her(D. 22). His ashes were eventually mixed with hers. He also wrote a manual called ‘Care of the Hair’, which is quite amusing given that he was also bald. Apparently likelihood of ruling the earth is inversely proportional to the amount of hair left on your head. Someone should tell John Edwards.

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‘Tis the season for reading lists. Yes, summer is fast approaching and with it comes lists from newspapers (and universities, of course, but those tend to be a little more formal and don’t tend to include the latest bestsellers) of books which we simply must read over the holidays. Rarely however, do those lists include any Classical texts. Naturally, I think this is a travesty, so I have put together my own required reading list, suitable for taking on holiday, whether you’re going to the Lake District, the beach or the mountains. I’m quite skewed in favour of Greek authors, but that is because I do love them so and because I think they wrote some of the best literature on the face of the planet. Incidentally, ‘encyclopedia’ comes from the Greek egkuklios paideia which means ‘circle of learning’, so essentially a syllabus or curriculum. Ah, etymology. It’s excellent.

The Iliad, by Homer. This should top the Desert Island Books of any self-respecting Classicist. Yes, the dialogue can be stilted and drawn out; yes, the genealogies can be dull (unless you’re like my friend S, who weeps over every death because of how Homer describes the deceased’s home life); yes, you should really skip out the Catalogue of Ships in Book 2 if you want to stay sane, but what about the high drama of a man forced to choose between life and glory, the violence of rape by proxy, the humour of swapping gold armour for bronze or an ugly guy getting beaten with a big stick? The seeds of many crucial ideas are contained in the Iliad, depending on what scholar you speak to: democracy, tragedy, women’s rights, individualism vs collectivism, and so on. Read it- everyone comes away with something different. And no, watching ‘Troy’ is no replacement.

The Odyssey, by Homer. If you’re less into battles and more into adventure, this is the book to beat all books. Sex, questionable paternity, witches, monsters, death, lies- this book has inspired cinematic and literary classics like ‘Cold Mountain’ and ‘O Brother Where Art Thou?’ Plus, unlike many ancient books, there’s a clever woman in it! Penelope, Mrs. Odysseus, was the archetype for many Classical ideas of a good woman (if such a thing could exist, of course), but she’s also devious and an excellent match for her devious husband Odysseus. Plus, this would be particularly good reading for anyone stuck in an airport on the way home- we’ve all known an air hostess who resembled Scylla haven’t we? Just thank your lucky stars it isn’t taking you 10 years to get across the Mediterranean…

The Oresteia, by Aeschylus A collection of three plays by Greece’s first tragedian (who wasn’t Homer), all about the downfall of one particularly dysfunctional family. Agamemnon, King of Mycenae, comes home from Troy to the arms of his wife Clytemnaestra, who is Helen’s sister and hates Agamemnon more than anything else because he sacrificed their daughter to allow him to sail to Troy ten years previous. Now, with her lover, Agamemnon’s cousin Aegisthus, she takes her revenge. Agamemnon’s children are none too pleased by this, but their vengeance has its own problems… Well, what do you expect from a family with a history of cannibalism and incest? Another plus- plays are quite short and punchy, so they’re a quick read.

The Theban Plays, by Sophocles
“There once was a man called Oedipus Rex
You may have heard of his odd complex
His name is found in Freud’s index
‘Cause he loved his mother”
So the Tom Lehrer song goes. These three plays, chronicling the rise and fall of King Oedipus, who killed his father and married his mother, are one of the cornerstones of Western civilization, without a doubt. The first, ‘Oedipus the King’, was chosen by Aristotle as the archetypal tragedy for its ability to inspire fear and pity in its audience, and is a beautiful additon to the philosophy of Milan Kundera’s ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being’. The trilogy is a beautiful piece of writing, with the added bonus of gore (he does tear his eyes out, after all).

A True History, by Lucian Lucian, what a guy. Condemned by the Catholic Church, but the text for students of Ancient Greek for generations, his huge output makes my head spin (particularly because he was central to one of my units this year). This is a story of his bizarre journey around the universe, ranging from the Moon to the Underworld. This might just be the origin of the legend of the Moon’s high cheese content, and even if it isn’t, it’s still hilarious. Naturally, it’s also a subtle comment on education, imperialism, travelogues, the Roman Empire and the nature of truth, but it reads like the best Bill Bryson exploration ever. If you read this after The Odyssey, you’re more likely to get the jokes, but it’s wonderful on its own as well.

Medea, by Euripides This was the play which really put the fire in my heart to study Classics, and it tends to inspire similarly strong reactions in everyone who reads it. Medea, brought from her home by the dreamy hero Jason, is suddenly abandoned by him with her two children so that he can make a more advantageous marriage. After having helped Jason become a hero in the first place, having stolen her dowry and run away from home with him, killing her brother to slow down her pursuing father, Medea is naturally infuriated, and her rage takes a gruesome and murderous form. I dare you not to cringe at the description of a human melting. Is she a feminist? Is she insane? Is she right? This was the most recent Cambridge Greek Play, and an excellent opportunity for us to assess our views on women, the family, citizenship, infanticide, everything. Please, please read it. It’s amazing.

The Metamorphoses, by Ovid My first Latin entry, and a very Ronseal kind of title- exactly what it says on the tin. This is a poem (though now mostly translated into prose) all about various alterations- human to god, human to animal, human to plant, two people into one. There are some clear links with ‘Just So’ stories, since Ovid enjoys including explanations of the origins of flower names and other natural phenomena, like amber. I think one of my favourites has to be the story of the king struck with eternal hunger, whose daughter transforms herself into different animals every day to be sold at market to feed his habit. Reminds me a bit of prostitutes, really. The poem is very entertaining, never slow or stuck, and is very good as a grounding in lots of basic ancient myths. There’s also a beautiful translation of some passages from the Metamorphoses by Ted Hughes, which I highly recommend. Oh, and did I mention, it has the story of Echo and Narcissus? How convenient.

The Aeneid, by Virgil Possibly the greatest Roman epic, ‘The Aeneid’ is the story of the journey of Aeneas, a Trojan prince, from his destroyed home in Asia Minor to his promised land of Italy, where he is destined to become the father of the Roman race. Conveniently, he’s also the son of the goddess Venus. Written for the Emperor Augustus, who claimed descent from Aeneas, it’s a subtle satire of the Imperial family, but also a very exciting story of love, violence and destiny. Try reading it with an eye to the current conflict in Israel/Palestine, or while listening to Purcell’s opera ‘Dido and Aeneas’.

The Satyricon, by Petronius This book is simply hilarious. The archetype of crazy excess, allegedly written by one of the sharpest satirists from the reign of the Emperor Nero, it was made into a very strange film by Fellini in 1969. It tells the story of three wandering layabouts, spending their time in orgies, weird voyages and surreal dinner parties. Perhaps the most famous section is the Dinner Party of Trimalchio, whose eccentric central host was the inspiration for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s ‘Great Gatsby’– in fact, the working title was “Trimalchio in East Egg”. Few people have read the Satyricon and regretted it.

The Twelve Caesars, by Suetonius This history chronicles the first twelve Emperors (or Caesars) from Julius to Domitian. It was one of the key sources for Robert Graves’ ‘I Claudius’, and even after so long it is still great reading- crazy emperors like Caligula, who made his horse consul and had extended incestuous love affairs, cold, manipulating emperors like Domitian, who would squash flies, pretending they were his enemies, exist alongside relatively “good” emperors like Augustus, who brought a certain amount of stability to the Empire but who has been compared to Hitler. It’s a tale of successive perversions and weirdnesses, poisonings, incest, rape and murder- just the thing for a beach holiday.

There are, of course, many other titles I’d like to include- Herodotus’ ‘Histories’ (perfect for all readers because of its bizarre blend of history, ethnography and plain fiction), Achilles Tatius’ ‘Leucippe and Clitophon’ (an early novel wrapped up in concerns about virginity, marriage, true love and bad dreams), and Apuleius’ ‘The Golden Ass’ (a man peers into the forbidden, only to be transformed into a donkey and then stolen by bandits), to name but a few. They’re all wonderful- not only because they’re the root of many other works which we take for granted in the modern world, but also because they’re just plain interesting. Summer reading need not be restricted to Jeremy Clarkson or Patricia Cornwell- try reading something by an author with just one name.

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