Glories of Classicism

The Classical Tradition

edited by Anthony Grafton, Glenn W. Most, and Salvatore Settis
Belknap Press/ Harvard University Press, 1,067 pp., $49.95
National Gallery, London/Bridgeman Art Library
Diego Velázquez: The Rokeby Venus, circa 1648–1651


Over a thousand pages in length, with some five hundred articles surveying the survival, transmission, and reception of the cultures of Greek and Roman antiquity, The Classical Tradition is a low-cost Wunderkammer, a vast cabinet of curiosities. Take the entry on the asterisk: you learn that this ubiquitous critical sign, named from the Greek for “small star,” originated in Ptolemaic Alexandria, where the great textual scholar Aristophanes of Byzantium and his student Aristarchus of Samothrace used them to mark repeated lines in the Iliad and Odyssey. Several centuries later the prolific (and self-mutilated) Christian theologian Origen began to employ asterisks in a different way, to signal the omission of certain passages in the Greek translation of the Old Testament. This usage gradually spread as a sign of something missing or hidden, and hence—at the end of a complex trail that winds through classical editions, Bibles, and pornography—when you type your password on the computer, the letters and numbers often show up as a string of asterisks.

The next entry takes you to a namesake of the asterisk, the French cartoon character Astérix, and provides information about the popular comic books and all they have spawned (including a theme park and a line of potato chips), about Gaul in 50 BCE where the tales are set, and about certain characteristic interethnic and interlinguistic jokes (e.g., the repeated exclamation that the Romans are crazy—Ils sont fous ces romains!—translates in Italian as Sono pazzi questi romani! which conveniently abbreviates as SPQR, the time-honored Latin acronym for the Senate and People of Rome).

These entries, brimming with detail, are only tasty amuse-gueules, immediately surrounded as they are by massive servings of erudition on “Art History and Criticism” and “Astrology,” along with such rich, many-columned entries as “Aesthetics,” “Alexander the Great,” “Allegory,” “Architecture,” “Aristotle and Aristotelianism,” “Astronomy,” “Athens,” “Atoms and Atomism,” and “Avicenna.” And we have only been sampling the A’s. The work as a whole combines substantial essays on large-scale topics—“Humanism,” “Medicine,” “Philosophy,” “Renaissance,” “Rome,” “Sexuality,” and the like—with accounts of individual au- thors, artists, gods and heroes from myth, inventors, emperors, generals, founders of cities, priests, book hunters, philologists, translators, scholars, archaeologists, antiquarians, art historians, collectors, forgers, revolutionaries, in short, the vast ragtag host of those whose works and days reach us from the distant past, those who found their traces after long centuries, and those who devoted their lives to understanding, exploiting, dismantling, and adapting their legacy.

Are there omissions? Of course. It would be a predictable and somewhat tiresome reviewer’s game to assemble a list of these, individuals from Bartolomeo de Aragazzi to Federico Zuccaro, topics from dentistry to madness. There is a separate article on Anacreon but not Aesop; Dioscorides but not Democritus. Yet The Classical Tradition should rightly evoke not carping but gratitude. This is a book whose long, learned, and witty…

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