Review of 'The Classical Greek Reader', 'Great Books: My Adventures with Homer, Rousseau, Woolf and Other Indestructible Writers of the Western World'

Review of 'The Classical Greek Reader', 'Great Books: My Adventures with Homer, Rousseau, Woolf and Other Indestructible Writers of the Western World'

Smithsonian Magazine | Subscribe

The Classical Greek Reader
edited by Kenneth J. Atchity
with associate editor Rosemary McKenna
Henry Holt, $37.50

Great Books: My Adventures with Homer, Rousseau, Woolf and Other Indestructible Writers of the Western World
David Denby
Simon & Schuster, $30

At 3 o'clock one summer morning, a young classics scholar was crashing around in the underbrush, making his way up a winding trail on the Cycladic island of Naxos. Kenneth Atchity was in pursuit of nothing less than Homer's dawn. "It was very dark," he recalls, "but somehow I made it up the twisted path, hampered from time to time by the undergrowth and by my vivid imagination of unpropitiated Harpies rooting in the eerie darkness."

Suddenly, from the summit of the island's highest hill, he spied the "rosy-fingered dawn": "I fixed my gaze on the eastern horizon," he writes, "and saw the first glimpse of light, which indeed illuminated in pink a hand-like spread of perpendicular cirrus clouds."

Atchity's passionate connection to a lost and compelling world underlies every entry in his page-turning Classical Greek Reader. In a refreshing departure from the standard anthology format, he draws us into the realm not only of Plato and Aeschylus but of lesser-known figures who chronicled the ancient world in vivid and unexpected ways. Across the centuries, ranging from the Homeric poets to Graeco-Roman writers of the third century A.D., we find ourselves in the company of physicians and storytellers, herbalists and romance writers--and women.

Atchity is mining a tradition of inexhaustible riches: the voices we encounter here offer passage to the literary, artistic, social, political, religious, scientific and philosophical texts that underlie Western intellectual tradition.

Certainly, one can return with the pleasure of renewed acquaintance to the forceful, brooding eloquence of Socrates or Thucydides. The historian's masterful meditation on the folly of war bears reading a thousand times over. And the deathbed oration of the doomed philosopher remains eternally transfixing: "The difficulty," Socrates reminds his companions, "is not to avoid death, but to avoid unrighteousness; for that runs faster than death. I am old and move slowly, and the slower runner has overtaken me, and my accusers are keen and quick, and the faster runner, who is unrighteousness, has overtaken them. And now I depart hence condemned by you to suffer the penalty of death; they too go their ways condemned by the truth to suffer the penalty of villainy and wrong."

Under Atchity's tutelage, we can turn, also, to a source as remote and yet familiar as Euclid, marveling at the spare contemporaneity of his defined terms: "A line is length without breadth"; "A triangle is a rectilinear figure included by three sides." The Elements of Geometry, "still in use today," as Atchity reminds us, dates from 300 B.C.

Rewarding as these encounters with the undisputed luminaries may be, it is Atchity's introduction to minor, yet memorable, characters that lends a distinctive poignancy and charm to this survey. Take, for example, the lyric poet Archilochos, cantankerous, impecunious and often forced to make ends meet as a mercenary, writing around 650 B.C. There was, as he saw it, no glory in war: "Well, what if some barbaric Thracian glories/in the perfect shield I left under a bush?/I was sorry to leave it--but I saved my skin./Does it matter? Oh hell, I'll buy a better one." Or one Alcaeus (590 B.C.), a fellow bard who devised the ideal formula for weathering a bone-chilling night: "Damn the winter cold! Pile up the burning logs/and water the great flagons of red wine;/place feather pillows by your head, and drink."

From the pen of the distinguished Theophrastus, student of Plato and protégé of Aristotle, we possess a sharp and satirical portrait of late-classical Athens' citizenry. In The Characters, Theophrastus attempted to provide a systematic (according to his perceptions, anyway) description of the various types one might meet in the street, singling out his particular objects of derision. There is, for instance, "the boor"; he's "the sort of man who drinks barley-brew before going to the Assembly; who asserts that garlic smells as sweet as any perfume; wears shoes too big for his feet; and can't talk without bellowing." Inevitably, too, one will cross the path of "the skinflint," the fellow who "would never let you eat a fig out of his garden, or walk through his land, or pick up one of his windfall olives or dates. . . . He forbids his wife to lend salt, or lamp-wick, or herbs, or barley-grains, or garlands, or holy-cakes." Theophrastus' text in fact became a reference much sought out by playwrights, who drew heavily on his material, especially in the creation of believable buffoons.


Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus