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Classical Literature: An Epic Journey from…

Classical Literature: An Epic Journey from Homer to Virgil and Beyond (original 2015; edition 2016)

by Richard Jenkyns (Author)

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792245,685 (4)3
"The writings of the Greeks and Romans form the bedrock of Western culture. Inventing the molds for histories, tragedies, and philosophies, while pioneering radical new forms of epic and poetry, the Greeks and Romans created the literary world we still inhabit today. Writing with verve and insight, distinguished classicist Richard Jenkyns explores a thousand years of classical civilization, carrying readers from the depths of the Greek dark ages through the glittering heights of Rome's empire. Jenkyns begins with Homer and the birth of epic poetry before exploring the hypnotic poetry of Pindar, Sappho, and others from the Greek dark ages. Later, in Athens's classical age, Jenkyns shows the radical nature of Sophocles's choice to portray Ajax as a psychologically wounded warrior, how Aeschylus developed tragedy, and how Herodotus, in 'inventing history,' brought to narrative an epic and tragic quality. We meet the strikingly modern figure of Virgil, struggling to mirror epic art in an age of empire, and experience the love poems of Catullus, who imbued verse with obsessive passion as never before. Even St. Paul and other early Christian writers are artfully grounded here in their classical literary context. A dynamic and comprehensive introduction to Greek and Roman literature, Jenkyns's Classical Literature is essential reading for anyone seeking a deeper understanding of the classics and the extraordinary origins of Western culture."--Publisher website.… (more)
Title:Classical Literature: An Epic Journey from Homer to Virgil and Beyond
Authors:Richard Jenkyns (Author)
Info:Basic Books (2016), Edition: First Us ed., 288 pages
Collections:Your library

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Classical Literature: An Epic Journey from Homer to Virgil and Beyond by Richard Jenkyns (2015)



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Jenkyns is the ideal instructor: well-informed, enthusiastic, organized. He's able to convey the material to the reader who is a novice in this area without condescension; his references to people and events outside the area of classical literature are drawn from high culture (Wagner, Shakespeare, Wilde) rather than pop culture. This should not be taken to mean that Jenkyns is in any way uptight: he gives full attention to the bawdy, scurrilous, and polysexual elements of the works he discusses. (Typing that last list reminds me of one minor irritation with the book: this Oxford professor for some reason eschews the Oxford comma). The author gives his own assessment of the various works he discusses and, logically if perhaps somewhat controversially, includes the books of the New Testament among Graeco-Roman literature in the period he covers.

While Jenkyns discusses almost 1000 years of literature written in Greek and Latin, the book itself, like Jonson's Shakespeare, contains "little Latin and less Greek", with almost no quotations from the works in their original language. This is occasionally frustrating as, by Jenkyn's own description, the content and art of Greek and Latin verse was highly dependent on skilled use of meter, but examples of metrical conventions and inventiveness are described second hand without explicit examples. I can't quite mark this as a fault, as it's very possible that such detailed technical digression may well have served as a thorny obstacle on the otherwise clear and navigable path the author has prepared for the reader.

The book does have, however, a more serious failing related to the language issue. The purpose of this book is obviously to serve as an introduction to classical literature for the Anglophone reader with little or no Greek or Latin, but Jenkyns provides no discussion of translations nor any bibliography. Having been guided so expertly through the history of the first millennium of Western literature, the reader is left to their own devices as to going deeper into the subject.
Jenkyns, in fact, seems reluctant to mention other modern authors or works in the field under discussion. Although his endnotes carefully detail the sources of his quotations from the works of the Classical authors, no post-Classical works are cited in them. In introducing Aristotle he quotes two lengthy and contradictory assessments, neither of which is sourced. (These are the two quotations on pp. 95-96 beginning, "The history of western philosophy can be described as a series of footnotes to Plato (A. N. Whitehead)" and "Aristotle was the greatest intellect of the ancient world, and perhaps of any age.")


1. Homer - The Iliad and The Odyssey
2. Archaic Greece (excursus on how ancient literature survived)
Hesiod - Theogony, Works and Days
Presocratics: Thales, Empedocles
'Homeric hymns'
Elegies - Solon, Theognis, Xenophanes, Mimnermus, Archilochus, Semonides of Amorgos
Lyrics - Alcman, Sappho, Alcaeus, Stesichorus, Anacreon
Choral - Simonides, Bacchylides, Pindar
3. The Rise of Tragedy and History
Aeschylus (not the author of Prometheus Bound?)
Herodotus and Thucydides
4. The Later Fifth Century
Euripides - Medea, Bacchae, Trojan Women, Suppliants, Children of Heracles, Helen, Ion, Hippolytus
Aristophanes - Clouds, Birds, Frogs, Peace, Lysistrata, Acharians, Thesmoporia Ladies, Assemblywomen, Waps, Knights, Wealth
5. The Fourth Century
Xenophon - Education of Cyrus, Anabasis
Rhetoric - Gorgias, Lysias, Isocrates, Aeschines, Demosthenes
Philosophy - Plato, Aristotle, Epicurus, Zeno of Citium (Stoicism)
6. The Hellenistic Age
Callimachus, Apollonius of Rhodes, Theocritus - Idylls
Herondas, Aratus, Lycophron - Alexandra
Nicander, Moschus, Bion, "Wisdom of Solomon"
Historian - Polybius (subject was Rome)
7. The Roman Republic
Terence (Brothers, Girl from Andros), Plautus (The Braggart Soldier, Captives)
Pacuvius, Accius, Lucilius (satura), Varro
Cicero (The Nature of the Gods, For Caelius, Philippics, Republic, Laws, De Finibus, Against Piso, For Murena)
Lucretius - The Nature of Things
8. Virgil
Georgics introduces story of Orpheus and Eurydice
9. The Augustan Age
Tibullus, Propertius, Horace, Ovid
Manilius (Astronomy)
Historians - Julius Caesar, Sallust, Pollio, Livy
10. After the Augustans
Lucan - Civil Wars unfinished epic
Paul of Tarsus, Mark, Luke, Matthew, John
Statius, Martial, Pliny the Younger (letters)
Greek - Dio Chrysostom, Plutarch
Tacitus, Juvenal
11. Two Novels
Greek: Longus - Pastoral Tale of Daphnis and Chloe, John of Patmos
Petronius - Satyrica, Apuleius - Metapmorphoses (The Golden Ass)
12. Epilogue
A short meditation on the meaning of "classical" and the heritage of the Greeks and Romans. Mentions Augustines Confessions as first "confessional memoir".

The full NYRB Bowersock review. ( )
  BillPA | Nov 4, 2017 |
Classical Literature is a good, readable overview of the history of Greek and Latin literature from Homer through the AD 100s. He touches on all of the major authors: Homer, Hesiod, Herodotus, Thucydides, Vergil, Ovid, Horace, inter alios. There's an entire chapter dedicated to Greek drama. But at the same time he also remembers the writers who are less well known, mostly because their work has not come down to us, but were key to the development of literature at the time. I, for one, appreciate that. I also really enjoyed his section on the Apostle Paul and his place as a classical writer. All too often, I think we forget that the New Testament was not written in a vacuum and that it has a place in literature as well as religion. So if you're at all interested in classical literature, this a book worth picking up. Highly recommended for anyone with an interest in Greek or Latin literature, the Classics, or the history of literature. ( )
  inge87 | Oct 28, 2016 |
Showing 2 of 2
Se il titolo “Classical Literature” è chiaro ma generico, il sottotitolo del libro di Richard Jenkyns potrebbe ingannare: l’aggettivo “epic” riferito a un ideale “viaggio” nel mondo letterario fa pensare all’epos, a cui rimanda ugualmente il richiamo a Omero e Virgilio. Si tratta invece di una breve storia della letteratura greca e latina, che va dalle origini al II secolo d.C. (l’ultimo autore trattato è Apuleio), concentrandosi sulla maggior parte degli esponenti di rilievo, ma non su tutti, tralasciando quelli meno noti e quelli giudicati meno interessanti.
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Wrath! – European literature begins not with the whimper of infancy, but with a bang.
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