A grown-up guide to the Classics

The Meeting of Dido and Aeneas, by Sir Nathaniel Dance-Holland (1735-1811)

Of Gods and Men: 100 Stories  from Ancient Greece and Rome 
Edited by Daisy Dunn
pollo, 640pp, £25/$35

The word “anthology” originally meant a collection of flowers; thus a literary anthology is a sort of greatest hits compilation, and springs from the surely  eternal desire to reduce a world to a single book. In this case, Daisy Dunn’s collection aims to put into the reader’s hand a hefty but portable volume that will give a panorama of the Classical world. That is in itself quite admirable. Anything that encourages us to expand our knowledge of the ancient Greeks and Romans is to be commended.  

This reviewer (and he cannot be alone in this) can remember, almost half a century ago, the delight he felt in the books of  Roger Lancelyn Green, namely his Tales  of the Greek Heroes and The Tale of Troy. Both came out in 1958 and were subtitled “Retold From the Ancient Authors”, for they homogenised the stories through the voice of a modern author.  

This was rather a good thing for children, but Dunn is dealing with adults and aims to give us the texts in translation without worrying that many of the translators are so different. Thus, we have Elizabeth I’s translation of Boethius, the figure who lingered in the shadows of the Classical world, which was done in the Queen’s old age when, no doubt, she was seeking the consolation of philosophy. And we have Oedipus Rex translated by  WB Yeats.  

These differences in approach are brought together in sharp relief by the choice of passages from Virgil. Book II of the Aeneid, the story of the wooden horse of Troy, comes to us through Dryden, which is an immortal translation, an epic poem in its own right. The tragedy of Dido, which is Book IV of the Aeneid, comes in a much more modern translation by Sarah Ruden, dating from 2008.

This is Virgil’s original text:

tandem his Aenean compellat vocibus ultro:

‘dissimulare etiam sperasti, perfide, tantum        

posse nefas tacitusque mea decedere terra?

Consider Ruden’s translation: 

She faced off with Aeneas and accused him:  

“You traitor, did you think you could hide 

Such a great crime, that you could sneak away?” 

Dryden’s version is as follows: 

At length she finds the dear perfidious man; 

Prevents his formed excuse and thus  began: 

“Base and ungrateful! Could you hope to fly 

And undiscovered ’scape a lover’s  eye?”  

Ruden’s translation has the economy of the original as well as its drama, and is also thoroughly modern.  

Much as I revere Dryden, I like Ruden too, and this is precisely the point. A Classic is that which is never exhausted of meaning. Centuries as diverse as Dryden’s and our own can find fresh significance in an ancient story. Dunn’s choice of translators gives ample proof of the way the Classics cannot age.  

However, this is not to say that the Classics cannot be boring. Some of the authors collected here, particularly those from the centuries after Augustus, are pretty dull. Procopius, in particular, who specialised in gossip from the court of the Emperor Justinian, is one of those authors whose treatment of his salacious material never fails to disappoint. But that is hardly Dunn’s fault. The Ancient eye for what was important is rather different from our own. And this is true throughout the period.  

Appian, according to Dunn, writes “bracing history”, and he is one of the sources for a Hollywood epic, but his account of Spartacus to my mind lacks human interest. Plutarch, who was a direct source for Shakespeare, hits all the right notes in writing about Anthony and Cleopatra. Like all anthologists, Dunn faces the dilemma of whether to give us a wide survey or instead to just concentrate on the good and already famous bits. She has tried to do both. Insofar as she has introduced me to Appian, she has succeeded.  

Augustine features too, though he is alone among the Fathers of the Church. The Fathers are not really Classical writers in the accepted sense and Augustine stands on the cusp between late antiquity and early modern times, though one wonders why Dunn did not include one of the splendidly bad-tempered letters of St Jerome.  

But that is the Classics for you: there is always more. This is an excellent collection. Everyone needs to know the Classics, and this volume is a good place not just to start but also to continue and deepen one’s love for the Ancients.