Contributor Post Created with Sketch. My Month in Ancient Greece

 

Wanting to read more this year than last, I kicked off 2018 with a trio of classics: The Iliad and The Odyssey by Homer, and Anabasis by Xenophon. My better-educated friends are stunned I hadn’t read any of these classics before, but I had the typical public school education. My English teacher would assign hot garbage like The Great Gatsby and I’d go home and read my dog-eared copy of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

If memory serves, I was assigned Gatsby three times (Lord, I hate that book). Meanwhile, my 10th-grader is reading Rousseau and Solzhenitsyn in her charter school. Not only am I filling my many gaps in the Western canon, if I don’t read, she’ll end up being way smarter than me. (Is “me” right or should it be “I?” I’ll ask my daughter when she gets home.)

I read the trio in the order listed above and the reading got better with each title.

The Iliad is epically epic, rendered in a stiff dactylic hexameter with many, many, many repeating phrases. Between “rosy-fingered dawn” and “the wine-dark sea,” Homer’s epithets lull the reader into a trance, which I suppose was the point in oral storytelling. As a result, the myriad battles and names start blending together.

But, man, those battles are brutal. The semi-divine soldiers are walking Cuisinarts, leading to lovely vignettes like this:

Next Erymas was doom’d his fate to feel,
His open’d mouth received the Cretan steel:
Beneath the brain the point a passage tore,
Crash’d the thin bones, and drown’d the teeth in gore:
His mouth, his eyes, his nostrils, pour a flood;
He sobs his soul out in the gush of blood.

Spoiler alert: Erymas didn’t make it. As you can see, I read the older translations of these works; the above is Alexander Pope’s translation. I wanted the feel of the original, so I didn’t hunt down the modern versions. All three books are decidedly un-“woke.”

For The Odyssey, I chose the Harvard Classics version translated by Samuel Butler. This epic was far more interesting (and fun!) than the grim, brain-splattered Iliad. Ulysses slides into a Mediterranean port, feasts on great food, charms exotic women, grabs a pile of loot, and is off to the next isle.

Granted, the fellow gets in a few scrapes along the way, even being forced into love slavery by an eternally gorgeous nymph (poor guy), but returns home after 20 years to wreak vengeance on the cads trying to bed his wife. (Monogamy was pretty much a one-way street in ancient Hellas.)

After reading both of Homer’s works, I think The Iliad is geared toward young men, especially those of a military mindset. It’s all heroism, glory, and honor. I really should have tackled this in my Navy days.

The Odyssey is an even better adventure, but its themes of home, wisdom, fatherhood, and marriage are aimed squarely at those of us with more mileage on the drivetrain. The heroes still kill their share of monsters and men, but Ulysses always chooses brains before brawn.

The real revelation for me was Anabasis by Xenophon. How Hollywood hasn’t released a trilogy of this epic is beyond me. (No, The Warriors doesn’t count.) Here are the Cliffs Notes for this real-life tale:

Cyrus the Younger wants to topple his brother Artaxerxes II from the Persian throne, so he recruits 10,000 Greek mercenaries (including Xenophon) to help. They march 1,500 miles from the west coast of modern-day Turkey to the middle of modern-day Iraq and, in the first big battle, Cyrus is killed.

Uh-oh.

Now, the entire Persian army opposes the Greeks. The pro-Cyrus Persians say, “No actually, we were for Artaxerxes the whole time!” and turn against the Greeks. The Hellenic generals ask the King for safe passage … and he murders them.

Xenophon is more philosopher than soldier, but he gives an inspiring speech, the troops elect him leader, and they all hightail it due north while anyone, everyone, and everything tries to kill them.

They cross deserts and rivers and mountains through searing heat, waist-deep snow, and constant attacks from ahead and behind by an ever-hostile collection of bronze-age barbarians. Upon hitting Turkey’s north shore, they finally enter a Greek colony. Happy ending, right? Well, that’s when the soldiers start turning on each other.

Granted, Anabasis is an amazing war story, but it also serves as a history, an ancient travel guide, and a primer in leadership, group dynamics, and human nature.

If you haven’t read any of these three books, you should make up that deficit. But even if you have read Xenophon, I recommend picking it up again. You can get copies dirt cheap (or free) and many audiobook options are available.

I can also recommend a few excellent podcast discussions of these works:

  • National Review’s The Great Books podcast on Xenophon here.
  • BBC’s In Our Time on Xenophon here.
  • BBC’s In Our Time on The Odyssey here.
  • BBC’s In Our Time on The Iliad here.

Since the Ricochetti are more well-read than I (or me?), what are your impressions of these three Greek epics?

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  1. Basil Fawlty Member
    Basil FawltyJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    It’s all Greek to me.

    • #1
    • January 23, 2018, at 5:03 PM PST
    • 7 likes
  2. Titus Techera Contributor

    Ok, wait a minute. Xenophon may have been the greatest Greek general & a commander almost unrivaled.

    He was a private man from Athens–after Athens was beaten by Sparta–among 10,000 Greeks, two thirds of whom were from around Sparta (Laconians). He had no officers commission or even a standing as soldier among them. They had three generals who were decapitated; they were panicking; & they were surrounded by the vast armies of a newly successful Persian emperor in the middle of his empire.

    & he managed to get more than two thirds of initial numbers back alive to Greece.

    Just think about what that.

    That is Xenophon’s autobiography, which with his usual diffidence & irony, he wrote in the third person. & it is also his correspondent to Plato’s Republic, for someone who wants to see how the fundamental questions of justice appear in practice, if in extreme circumstances.

    • #2
    • January 23, 2018, at 5:15 PM PST
    • 10 likes
  3. James Madison Member

    Just starting to appreciate you in a whole new way. You married? Busy Friday night?

    Great post. Very true to life. I suffered Gatsby (a bit overdone) and read the Greeks in college. Was taken.

    • #3
    • January 23, 2018, at 5:16 PM PST
    • 5 likes
  4. Titus Techera Contributor

    Titus Techera (View Comment):
    Ok, wait a minute. Xenophon may have been the greatest Greek general & a commander almost unrivaled.

    He was a private man from Athens–after Athens was beaten by Sparta–among 10,000 Greeks, two thirds of whom were from around Sparta (Laconians). He had no officers commission or even a standing as soldier among them. They had three generals who were decapitated; they were panicking; & they were surrounded by the vast armies of a newly successful Persian emperor in the middle of his empire.

    & he managed to get more than two thirds of initial numbers back alive to Greece.

    Just think about what that.

    That is Xenophon’s autobiography, which with his usual diffidence & irony, he wrote in the third person. & it is also his correspondent to Plato’s Republic, for someone who wants to see how the fundamental questions of justice appear in practice, if in extreme circumstances.

    Also, he had never held command before. He had no war experience, either. He was barely thirty, or almost.

    What he did have is, he was a student of Socrates.

    That, kids, is why you should learn political philosophy!

    • #4
    • January 23, 2018, at 5:22 PM PST
    • 9 likes
  5. Percival Thatcher
    PercivalJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    They made me read The Odyssey in high school. Of all the required reading, it was the least objectionable. I read The Illiad on my own some time in college. I didn’t get to Anabasis until after Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War, which I also recommend.

    My favorite part of The Odyssey is when Odysseus gets home and goes Rambo on the suitors.

    • #5
    • January 23, 2018, at 5:25 PM PST
    • 9 likes
  6. Brady Allen Member

    Speaking of mayhem – which one of these classics is where Agrajag gets it?

    • #6
    • January 23, 2018, at 5:26 PM PST
    • 2 likes
  7. Skyler Coolidge

    Next try to read Thucydides’ “Peloponnesian War.” You’ll really appreciate Landmark as they have maps every other page and extensive side notes on every page to remind you who is who and how some point relates to another. It’s very difficult to follow without those aids for context, as most of us aren’t as aware of the context he relied on.

    Of course, Landmark’s version of Herodotus’ “History” is well worth reading too.

    I prefer the Iliad to the Odyssey, but I like them both.

    Landmark has a version of the Anabasis as well.

    The important thing to remember about Xenophon is that he was a minor general, kept in the rear of the army, and he had a feud with the new leader of the army. His account, while very entertaining and certainly worth reading, is self-serving to say the least. Despite his version, he was not the amazing super hero he makes himself out to be. I’ll leave it to others to debate how well he was really regarded by most of the men.

    • #7
    • January 23, 2018, at 5:31 PM PST
    • 9 likes
  8. Ontheleftcoast Member

    Xenophon has been ripped off by inspired modern authors:

    • Harold Coyle’s The Ten Thousand
    • John Ringo’s The Last Centurion
    • David Drake’s The Forlorn Hope
    • David Weber and John Ringo, March Upcountry and its sequels.

    David Drake also adapted The Odyssey in Cross the Stars.

    If you’re enjoying Xenophon, you might also like Archilochus, or at any rate what people have done with the fragments left to us. Guy Davenport tells us

    Archilochos is the second poet of the West. Before him the archpoet Homer had written the two poems of Europe; never again would one imagination find the power to move two epics to completion and perfection. The clear minds of these archaic, island-dwelling Greeks survive in a few details only, fragment by fragment, a temple, a statue of Apollo with a poem engraved down the thighs, generous vases with designs abstract and geometric.

    They decorated their houses and ships like Florentines and Japanese; they wrote poems like Englishmen of the court of Henry, Elizabeth and James. They dressed like Samurai; all was bronze, terra cota, painted marble, dyed wool, and banquets. Of the Arcadian Greece of Winckelmann and Walter Pater they were as ignorant as we of the ebony cities of Yoruba and Benin. The scholar poets of the Renaissance, Ambrogio Poliziano and Christopher Marlowe, whose vision of antiquity we have inherited, would have rejected as indecorous this seventh-century world half oriental, half Viking. Archilochos was both poet and mercenary [his pen name means “First Sergeant.”] As a poet he was both satirist and lyricist. Iambic verse is his invention. He wrote the first beast fable known to us. He wrote marching songs, love lyrics of frail tenderness, elegies. But most of all he was what Meleager calls him, “a thistle with graceful leaves.” There is a tradition that wasps hover around his grave. To the ancients, both Greek and Roman, he was The Satirist.

    A famous fragment translated by Richmond Lattimore:

    By spear is kneaded the bread I eat, by spear my Ismaric
    wine is won, which I drink, leaning upon my spear.

    I like Guy Davenport’s working better:

    My ash spear is my barley bread,
    My ash spear is my Ismarian wine.
    I lean on my spear and drink.

    If you like Davenport’s take, try his Carmina Archilochi.

    • #8
    • January 23, 2018, at 5:52 PM PST
    • 5 likes
  9. Titus Techera Contributor

    By the way, you should read Wayne Ambler’s translations of Xenophon’s Persian stories. They’re about the best in English.

    Next, Xenophon wrote not only the Anabasis of Cyrus (about a prince he knew personally), but also the Education of Cyrus (about the founder of the Persian Achaemenid empire, about an hundred fifty years before the other one), which is also a great book, also a great historical novel, as we would say today, & also a book with remarkable philosophical insights.

    • #9
    • January 23, 2018, at 6:22 PM PST
    • 5 likes
  10. David March Thatcher

    Do the Aenied next.

    • #10
    • January 23, 2018, at 6:39 PM PST
    • 4 likes
  11. Jon Gabriel, Ed. King
    Jon Gabriel, Ed.

    ToryWarWriter (View Comment):
    Do the Aenied next.

    I think I’m moving to light reading for the near future, but that is definitely on my list.

    • #11
    • January 23, 2018, at 6:43 PM PST
    • 3 likes
  12. Ontheleftcoast Member

    Jon Gabriel, Ed. (View Comment):
    I think I’m moving to light reading for the near future, but that is definitely on my list.

    Paradise Lost, for example?

    • #12
    • January 23, 2018, at 6:57 PM PST
    • 3 likes
  13. Gumby Mark (R-Meth Lab of Demo… Thatcher

    Ontheleftcoast (View Comment):

    Jon Gabriel, Ed. (View Comment):
    I think I’m moving to light reading for the near future, but that is definitely on my list.

    Paradise Lost, for example?

    I think Jon should tackle Pilgrims Progress.

    • #13
    • January 23, 2018, at 7:05 PM PST
    • 5 likes
  14. Jerry Giordano (Arizona Patrio… Member

    Thanks for this one, Jon. I happen to have reread both the Iliad and Odyssey about 2-3 months ago. Excellent stories, and I got much more out of them as an adult.

    The part where Odysseus’ beloved dog is a mangy, neglected mutt lying on a heap of dung is an example. For those who don’t know, the dog rouses itself when it recognizes him, gone 20 years. Odysseus is hiding his identity, and can’t respond. Having seen the return of his master, the dog dies. Odysseus must stifle his outrage and grief. A small point, but heartbreaking and nicely symbolic.

    There’s better stuff in there than the dog story, though Penelope seemed weaker than I remembered.

    So you were a Hitchhiker guy? I was more LOTR and Dune. And in my junior high years, John Carter (but maybe that was just for those covers).

    • #14
    • January 23, 2018, at 7:14 PM PST
    • 11 likes
  15. Jon Gabriel, Ed. King
    Jon Gabriel, Ed.

    Arizona Patriot (View Comment):
    The part where Odysseus’ beloved dog is a mangy, neglected mutt lying on a heap of dung is an example. For those who don’t know, the dog rouses itself when it recognizes him, gone 20 years. Odysseus is hiding his identity, and can’t respond. Having seen the return of his master, the dog dies. Odysseus must stifle his outrage and grief. A small point, but heartbreaking and nicely symbolic.

    Such a beautiful scene. Definitely a favorite.

    I know in school I read the highlights of The Odyssey, but you really need to read the whole thing and bathe in it for a while.

    I’ve always favored comedy above all, but I also read Zelazny, Bradbury, and whatever pulp fiction had a cool looking cover.

    • #15
    • January 23, 2018, at 7:27 PM PST
    • 5 likes
  16. Skyler Coolidge

    I have the Iliad on CD and I like to listen to it too. It goes by surprisingly fast, and I think it’s one of the few things I like listening to over reading.

    • #16
    • January 23, 2018, at 7:31 PM PST
    • 4 likes
  17. Ontheleftcoast Member

    Gumby Mark (View Comment):
    I think Jon should tackle Pilgrims Progress.

    Great idea. John Buchan’s Mr. Standfast is a great adventure story pivoting around Pilgrim’s Progress. It’s a sequel to The 39 Steps and is available on Project Gutenberg. It might make a good introduction. Buchan was a wonderful writer.

    • #17
    • January 23, 2018, at 7:40 PM PST
    • 1 like
  18. D.A. Venters Member

    What I’ve always wondered about translated works like the Iliad is how they preserve the rhyme. How much, if anything, is lost in translation in order to make it ryhme in English? I presume not much of the meaning is altered but it must take a tremendous amount of work.

    • #18
    • January 23, 2018, at 7:41 PM PST
    • 5 likes
  19. Seawriter Contributor

    You can get audio versions of all three – free – on Librivox.

    I have listened to Anabasis, and enjoyed it.

    • #19
    • January 23, 2018, at 7:42 PM PST
    • 4 likes
  20. Postmodern Hoplite Member

    I can recommend Stephen Mitchell’s 2011 translation of The Iliad. Very enjoyable read by itself, and as a set with The Odyssey and Anabasis, a great combination.

    Of late I have delving into Job, from the Old Testament, reading it as an example of lyric and poetic literature contemporary with the earliest written forms of the Iliad. The more I read Job, the more gob-smacked I am with its depth and complexity. Both works (The Iliad and Job) fundamentally deal with man’s relationship to the divine, and come to very different conclusions.

    BTW – The Great Gatsby sucks. Always has. As a high school boy, I never understood why it (and Fitzgerald) were so well regarded by others.

    • #20
    • January 23, 2018, at 7:46 PM PST
    • 7 likes
  21. Ontheleftcoast Member

    Postmodern Hoplite (View Comment):
    Of late I have delving into Job, from the Old Testament, reading it as an example of lyric and poetic literature contemporary with the earliest written forms of the Iliad. The more I read Job, the more gob-smacked I am with its depth and complexity.

    If you’re not using it already, you might want to look at Robert Alter’s translation. He’s very sensitive to the language and his translations are good and thought provoking. He’s an academic, but very worthwhile.

    • #21
    • January 23, 2018, at 8:10 PM PST
    • 2 likes
  22. Jon Gabriel, Ed. King
    Jon Gabriel, Ed.

    Postmodern Hoplite (View Comment):

    BTW – The Great Gatsby sucks. Always has. As a high school boy, I never understood why it (and Fitzgerald) were so well regarded by others.

    I’ve read it thrice and kept wondering what genius I was missing.

    • #22
    • January 23, 2018, at 8:39 PM PST
    • 2 likes
  23. Clifford A. Brown Contributor

    I recommend adventures on another sea: Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf. This tale arose from a culture of adventurers who eventually met the descendants of the ancient Greeks as Varangian bodyguards of the Byzantine emperors (who considered themselves eastern Romans but were hellenized) and in reciprocal trade via river routes through what is now Ukraine, Russia and Belarus.

    • #23
    • January 23, 2018, at 8:47 PM PST
    • 8 likes
  24. Polyphemus Inactive

    Grrr! Odysseus. Makes my eye hurt just hearing that name.

    • #24
    • January 23, 2018, at 8:54 PM PST
    • 9 likes
  25. EJHill Podcaster
    EJHillJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    So, do you like gladiator movies?

    • #25
    • January 23, 2018, at 9:11 PM PST
    • 15 likes
  26. Ontheleftcoast Member

    Clifford A. Brown (View Comment):
    I recommend adventures on another sea: Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf. This tale arose from a culture of adventurers who eventually met the descendants of the ancient Greeks as Varangian bodyguards of the Byzantine emperors (who considered themselves eastern Romans but were hellenized) and in reciprocal trade via river routes through what is now Ukraine, Russia and Belarus.

    Frans Gunnar Bengtsson’s The Long Ships. It’s a wonderful book. I loved it as a kid and have reread it several times. I’d put it on a level above Patrick O’Brian. Bengtsson dug deep in the Norse sagas for background and flavor. Michael Chabon likes it but read it anyway.

    • #26
    • January 23, 2018, at 10:14 PM PST
    • 3 likes
  27. J. D. Fitzpatrick Member
    J. D. FitzpatrickJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    I’ll make my usual plugs:

    Stanley Lombardo’s translations of the Iliad and Odyssey, along with his readings of the same on Audible.

    The characters are timeless. Lombardo makes you feel like they were speaking to you yesterday.

    And since there’s no disputing matters of taste, just put me down as a fan of Gatsby. There are subtle experiences that we just misunderstand, cover up, or instantly forget. Fitzgerald catches them like feathers in amber.

    Daisy put her arm through his abruptly but he seemed absorbed in what he had just said. Possibly it had occurred to him that the colossal significance of that light had now vanished forever. Compared to the great distance that had separated him from Daisy it had seemed very near to her, almost touching her. It had seemed as close as a star to the moon. Now it was again a green light on a dock. His count of enchanted objects had diminished by one.

    Through all he said, even through his appalling sentimentality, I was reminded of something–an elusive rhythm, a fragment of lost words, that I had heard somewhere a long time ago. For a moment a phrase tried to take shape in my mouth and my lips parted like a dumb man’s, as though there was more struggling upon them than a wisp of startled air. But they made no sound and what I had almost remembered was uncommunicable forever.

    I think it’s brilliant, lyrical writing; to each his own.

    • #27
    • January 24, 2018, at 12:31 AM PST
    • 6 likes
  28. Titus Techera Contributor

    D.A. Venters (View Comment):
    What I’ve always wondered about translated works like the Iliad is how they preserve the rhyme. How much, if anything, is lost in translation in order to make it ryhme in English? I presume not much of the meaning is altered but it must take a tremendous amount of work.

    The Iliad doesn’t rhyme. Neither does the Odyssey, nor really most of famous Greek poetry. There’s always rhythm–in the epics, it’s dactylic hexameter. (BAM – bam – bam, rarely used in English, but famously there in Tennyson’s Charge of the light brigade: HO -nor the LIGHT brigade, HO-nor the CHARGE they made…) There are interior rhymes & such. Greek language has long & short vowels (big O, that’s O-mega, & little o, O-micron; a long e, eta, & a plain e, e-psilon; & so also with iota & plain i, i-psilon). So the syllables are long & short rather than stressed & unstressed. This makes for somewhat different play with the sounds of words to achieve poetic effects.

    It’s hard to see what a translator can do when putting it in English except to be deadly faithful to the strange ideas Homer has about description & give some of the feel of the phrases, intonations, & moods. It cannot sound natural in English & it cannot read quite like poetry in English. But as an elaborate form of story-telling, it goes over well.

    This post comes serendipitously on the heels of my own post on the Iliad. I’ve a friend reading it & I figured I’d help out people who need an introduction with a lecture on the opening of the poem. You might be interested.

    • #28
    • January 24, 2018, at 2:15 AM PST
    • 6 likes
  29. Hypatia Inactive

    Is everybody decent? Can I come into the locker room? I lvve this thread; I’ve never been privy to a buncha guys discussing reading fiction! It look like our last mutually beloved works were LOTR and O YES: Hitchhikers’ Guide. (I do like Gatsby,  but never as much as Paradise Lost, Tender is the Night, etc.)

    Have you gents read The Naked and the Dead? I think that is a man’s book; I like Mailer, but I could t get through that.

    But the real reason I’m horning in is to beseech the OP’er to try Tennyson’s great poems on the subject of the Greek classics: The Lotus Eaters, Ulysses.

    And if you do–if any  of you do, or already know them–I’d like to hear your take!

    • #29
    • January 24, 2018, at 3:05 AM PST
    • 7 likes
  30. Bryan G. Stephens Thatcher
    Bryan G. StephensJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Jon Gabriel, Ed. (View Comment):

    Postmodern Hoplite (View Comment):

    BTW – The Great Gatsby sucks. Always has. As a high school boy, I never understood why it (and Fitzgerald) were so well regarded by others.

    I’ve read it thrice and kept wondering what genius I was missing.

    Oh Lord in heaven this is true. Can I hate Catcher while I am at it?

    • #30
    • January 24, 2018, at 3:46 AM PST
    • 7 likes

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