Another everyday preoccupation of the ancients, a fascination with folklore and a reliance on folk remedies (the two arenas often intersected), is represented in the obscure and quirky Theriaca (On Poisonous Animals). Compiled by the herbalist Nicander around 170 B.C., the entries provide "unique insight into the herbal industry both of his own time and earlier antiquity." To this earnest chronicler we owe our knowledge of a charm for warding off snakes, addressed to any traveler stranded in a forest. "If you rub a caterpillar from the garden in a little vinegar, the dewy caterpillar with a green back, or if you anoint your limbs all about with the teeming fruit of the marsh mallow, then you will pass the night unscathed."
The celebration of virtue, another theme sounded from Homer onward, also reverberates throughout these texts. In the first century A.D., one Dio Chrysostomos, an aristocratic philosopher who traveled to the farthest reaches of the Roman Empire, constructs a riveting version of the Good Samaritan tale. In his Euboean Speech, a paean to the simple and generous peoples of that peninsula, he recounts the good deeds of an impoverished shepherd. Despite his straitened circumstances, the peasant offers what food he has, even a tunic from his daughter, to shipwrecked travelers cast up on his shore. "I knew the houses and tables of the rich . . . of vice-regents and kings," reports Chrysostomos. Yet, he avers, with a forcefulness and yearning that ring true, "I . . . thought their life blessed beyond any I knew."
The classical canon, in an even wider sense, is also the province of David Denby. In the autumn of 1991, 30 years after he had entered Columbia as a freshman, Denby returned to the lecture hall. His mission was to read the books required of all undergraduates in the university's Western civilization courses. The result of his foray into academia is an account of that year, set out in his highly entertaining and instructive Great Books.
Denby is a film critic; for the most part, he continues to work while attending Columbia: "the point," he observes, was "not to become a hermit" but "to see how the books fit into the preoccupations and trials of an American middle-class male."
He finds, despite misgivings that assail him at the outset, that he is able to recover a deep connection to writers from Homer onward. And he discovers that he is undergoing an exercise in humility as well. "When I took one of the exams, living every adult's anxiety dream," he writes, "I nearly had a nervous breakdown."
It is, altogether, a year of revelations. He opens the Odyssey, recalling "a tiresome masterpiece. . . . Penelope weaving, unweaving . . . all those years at the loom while Odysseus was out there at sea fornicating and pretending to get home." Instead, he finds himself ravished. "I read," he reports, "to my amazement, without stopping." The poem, he finds, "was an astonishing work, every bit as demanding, as crazy, as wildly beautiful and finally ungovernable as the Iliad. . . . [It was] an after-the-war poem, a plea for relief and gratification, and . . . a sensual, even carnal, celebration."
Odysseus himself, rising from the sea in Book VI, has taken on a stature that seems almost cinematic in its intensity: ". . . so Athene gilded with grace his head and his shoulders,/and he went a little aside and sat by himself on the seashore,/radiant in grace and good looks; and the girl admired him." Denby can't help but bestow the ultimate accolade: "MGM in its heyday could have done no more for Gable."
As the year unfolds, Denby ranges far beyond the classical world, into the terrain of Joseph Conrad and Virginia Woolf. But the territory he traverses begins in the sunlight, shadow and incantatory power of Homer.
Kathleen Burke is the book review editor of Smithsonian.