Thursday, May 05, 2016

Reading classics of ancient Greece and Rome

Héctor Leroux: Pericles and Aspasia visit Phidias' studio (ca 1870). Phidias is at work with the sculpture of Pallas Athena for the Parthenon. Please double click to enlarge. (Pericles and Aspasia are featured in the first books of Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War).
Much of my last Christmas holiday I spent organizing our home library, incorporating holdings of recently inherited family libraries, our parents now in corpore having moved to happier hunting grounds. During the holiday I only managed to cover fiction (and such writers of great non-fiction that belong to Weltliteratur). I detected things like that we miss one volume of In Search of Lost Time (there are ten volumes in the Finnish edition), but more seriously, the exercise was a special and personal journey of exploration into the history of literature, mixing classics with special interests, our own and our parents', including cherished local collections.

I also became aware of many books that we do not have and that I have not read, starting with key Greek and Roman classics. Thus I placed an order at Kimmo Välkesalmi Antiquarian Book Store to complete a series called Antiikin klassikot [Classics of Ancient Greece and Rome] to start with, buying one title every week. I even planned to read one book from the series every week but soon realized that these books are too good to read that fast.

These stories have inspired art from the beginning, and film-wise these stories have been avidly filmed since the early days, especially since the Film d'Art movement 110 years ago, and with the emergence of the historical epic in Italy. High quality examples include Rudolph Maté's taut The 300 Spartans and Manfred Noa's magnificent Helena: Der Untergang Trojas. There seem to have been no unforgettable film interpretations of Pericles, Aspasia, and Alcibiades. Most importantly, these classics have influenced and inspired storytelling in general, including in films.

I am impressed by the tragic grandeur of Herodotus and Thucydides. Although they seem to believe in destiny, they repeatedly introduce turning-points with fundamentally different strategic alternatives. Experienced leaders propose the road of wisdom, which is, alas, not followed, and instead we are taken to a road that leads to disaster. Greatness is within their reach, and it is not some supernatural force but all too human weaknesses that make them fail utterly.

Herodotus and Thucydides are partial but proud to pursue objectivity. There is a direct line from them to the grand war stories of Tolstoy (The Sevastopol Tales, War and Peace). In all of them "there is but one hero: the truth". I believe this expression appears both in Thucydides and Tolstoy. These three all share a brave, laconic, unflinching awareness of mortality, a fearless attitude to danger, and an irresistible feeling of the life force. There is a sense of fairness in Herodotus' account of Persians, Egyptians, and Ethiopians; here we can deeply comprehend and admire the immense debt of Greece to the older civilizations in the East and the South. There is a true professional military spirit in General Thucydides' respect towards the achievements of the Spartans. War academies have been learning from these books ever since they were written. The most important lesson is already here: in war there are no winners.

Wilhelm Kaulbach: Die Seeschlacht von Salamis, 1868. Please click to enlarge.
Herodotus: The Histories
Ἡρόδοτος: Ἱστορίαι / Herodotos: Historíai. First published in Athens. Year of publication: ca 450-420 BC. Herodotus left his work unfinished when he died in ca 425 BC. Written in the Ionic dialect of classical Greek. Divided posthumously into nine books. Originally published in the scroll format (in tomes / volumines). Read in Finnish:
Herodotos: Historiateos 1-2. Translated into Finnish by Edvard Rein 1907-1910. Introduction by Edvard Rein. Read in the edition published in the series Antiikin klassikot. 763 p. Helsinki / Porvoo: WSOY, 1964
    A history of the world as Herodotus knew it covers Continental Europe (mostly the Southern part), Egypt, Middle East, India, and Northern Africa including Libya and Ethiopia. During the book we have excursions into many histories of the territories. But there is a single epic storyline in the magnificent work: the story of the rise of the Persian Empire into the greatest superpower so far. The book climaxes with an account of the second Persian invasion of Greece which took place around the time of Herodotus' birth. The Persian army was ten times bigger than that of Hellas, and Xerxes I conquered Boeotia and Attica and burned Athens. But the allied Hellas persisted, and we have here accounts of the battle of the Thermopylae pass (the 300 Spartans), the world's biggest sea battle so far at Salamis (led by admiral Themistocles), the crushing battle of Plataea, and the final sea battle of Mycale. There is a philosophical vision in all this: an alliance of free men can resist an overwhelming army of a tyranny of enslaved warriors. Thanks to this spiritual message Herodotus's book is still modern and valid. Herodotus is a born storyteller. He can never resist a good story, and sometimes he gives three different accounts of the same event, all hard to believe. Herodotus was the father of history but hardly the father of source criticism, yet he is careful to add qualifications to his accounts. He saw as his mission to put on record the stories he had heard even when he himself did not believe in them (relata refero, "reporting what I was told", is the Latin expression for that). The work is full of instances of oracle predictions which are important for us to be aware of since the warlords themselves took them seriously. A sense of humour and a frank sensuality belong to Herodotus' qualities. A joy of storytelling makes this a living classic of world literature. There are many anthology pieces here, including the full story of King Croesus, complete with his final role as a counselor for Cyrus and Cambyses.

Map of the Peloponnesian War from Wikipedia. Please click to enlarge.

Thucydides: History of the Peloponnesian War
Θουκυδίδης: Ιστορία του Πελοποννησιακού Πολέμου / Thoukudides: Istoriai / Istoria tou Peloponnisiakou Polemou. Written in Athens and Thrace. Year of publication: Thucydides left his work unfinished when he died in ca 396 BC. Written in classical Greek. Divided posthumously into eight books. Originally published in the scroll format (in tomes / volumines). Read in Finnish:
Thukydides: Peloponnesolaissota 1-2. Translated into Finnish by J. A. Hollo. Introduction by Holger Thesleff. Series: Antiikin klassikot. 591 p. Helsinki / Porvoo: WSOY, 1964
    Thucydides had his reservations with Herodotus but started his work where Herodotus ended. Thucydides was himself a contemporary and a participant in the 30 year war between Athens and Sparta he covers in his book. The approach is different from the affable, humoristic, and sensual Herodotus. Thucydides is all business, matter-of-fact, aiming at objectivity although he was himself an Athenian general. There is a consistently sober appreciation of the strengths and weaknesses of both sides. Yet it becomes clear for the reader that in the first book we meet one of the greatest statesmen in history: Pericles, a democrat, a patron of the arts, and a warlord of the first two years of the Peloponnesian war. In the second book a central figure is Alcibiades, one of the most amazing turncoats ever: from Athens he fled to Sparta, from there he defected to Persia, then again led the Athenian navy, and after a defeat at sea went to exile in Thrace. The History of the Peloponnesian War is devastating to read. After the heroic victory over the Persian Empire the Greeks massacred each other for thirty years. It is a men's world in the books by Herodotus and Thucydides, but we also meet distinguished women: Semiramis and Artemisia with Herodotus, and Aspasia with Thucydides. An effective narrative device perhaps invented by Herodotus and applied by Thucydides is that turning-points are dramatized via dialogue. We have long engrossing speeches by Themistocles, Pericles, and others, probably invented by the authors, unless they had access to actual records written by scribes. (We learn that there were scorekeepers in historical battles, for instance). Thucydides' style is still a model for today: crisp, uncluttered, dynamic, always moving forward. Well written is well thought.

Pierre-Narcisse Guérin: Énée racontant à Didon les malheurs de la ville de Troie, 1815. Huile sur toile. 2,92 x 3,90. Louvre Purchase 1818. The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei, dvd-rom 2002. DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH. From Wikipedia. Please click to enlarge.

Virgil: Aeneid
Vergilius: Aeneis. Written in  Rome. Year of publication: Virgil left his work unfinished when he died in 19 BC. Written in dactylic hexameter in Latin. Divided into 12 books. Originally published in the scroll format (in tomes / volumines). Read in Finnish:
Vergilius: Aeneis, kirjat I-IV: Aeneas ja Dido. Translated into Finnish by Päivö Oksala. Introduction and explanations by Päivö Oksala. Series: Antiikin klassikot. 112 p. Helsinki / Porvoo: WSOY, 1972
    Virgil's Aeneid is a mythical epic poem which takes us back to the Trojan War, some 800 years before the Second Persian Invasion and the Peloponnesian War. Aeneid is an official foundation myth written by Virgil for Augustus, the founder of the Roman Empire and its first Emperor. After the fall of Troy the defeated Trojan Aeneas sails away towards Italy where he becomes an ancestor to the Roman Empire. The edition I read covers only the first four books of the twelve, covering the story of Aeneas and Dido (Queen and founder of Carthage), one of the greatest tragic love stories ever written. In flashbacks we learn much about the Trojan War. As we know, Homer's Iliad only covers passages from the the ninth year of the Trojan war, starting with the decision of Achilleus to withdraw and ending with Hector's funeral. It is from Virgil that we learn about the Trojan horse, the tragedy of Laocoon, and Hector's appearance in a dream to alert Aeneas. Although passionately in love with Dido, Aeneas must follow his divine destiny to seek out the land of Italy.  Book Four ends with Dido stabbing herself with Aeneas's sword upon a funeral pyre. Written in an elevated and eloquent style this has been required reading for millennia, and it still works magnificently also in this ambitious translation with an indispensable glossary and explanations.

William Etty: Candaules, King of Lydia, Shews his Wife by Stealth to Gyges, One of his Ministers, As She Goes to Bed, 1830. From Wikipedia. Please click to enlarge. (The story of Candaules is included in Herodotus' Histories).

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