Jasper Griffin is Emeritus Professor of Classical Literature and a Fellow of Balliol College, Oxford. His books include Homer on Life and Death.

Under the Volcano

A painting in the Chaste Lovers bakery, Pompeii; from Mary Beard’s <i>The Fires of Vesuvius</i>. ‘At first sight an elegant scene,’ Beard writes, ‘with comfortable cushions and drapes, and glass vessels set out neatly on the table. But the woman behind is
The Mediterranean Sea is an area subject both to earthquakes and to volcanic eruptions. Usually of no great significance, they are occasionally shattering. In the year 79 AD, Vesuvius erupted to terrific effect, and with a force reckoned as equal to that of many atomic bombs. There had been warning …

Virgil Lives!

T.S. Eliot, contemplating in lordly style the whole of Western literature, found only one author who fully deserved the title of classic: the Roman poet Virgil. His poems, written in the generation immediately before the birth of Christ, were fully mature in style; they were also central in position, poised …

Mad About the Boy

A choice few characters in history have earned, or at least have acquired and retained, the title of “The Great.” Peter the Great, of Russia; Charles the Great, who is Charlemagne, Emperor of the West; Louis le Grand, fourteenth of that name, King of France: we are familiar, more or …

East vs. West: The First Round

The early history of Europe is a history of constant invasions from the East. The peoples which think of themselves nowadays as quintessentially European—the French, the Germans, the Anglo-Saxons—all came into what we now call Europe, originally, from what we now call Asia. It was only later that invasion and …

The Hero’s Wife Speaks

The Odyssey of Homer—far more than the darker and more comfortless Iliad—has been a book with great appeal. Readers, followers, and imitators have abounded. James Joyce’s Ulysses is only one of the more elaborate and fantastic of its variants, along with the enormous and yet more fantastic Odyssey: A Modern …

‘The True Epic Vision’

There were two ancient languages and literatures: Greek and Hebrew. One of them, probably Hebrew, was the original language, from which (after the Fall) all the others arose as degenerate and distorted descendants. That was, roughly, how things looked to educated Westerners until, in the early nineteenth century, there began …

The Myth of the Olympics

In Athens it is all over. The Olympic flame is extinguished for another two years. The tumult and the shouting dies; the trainers and the fans depart. Questions still linger about the Olympic Games. They “returned,” we were ecstatically told, to Greece. What does that mean? What were those ancient …

It’s All Greek!

We look into history from motives of two kinds. There is curiosity about the past, what happened, who did what, and why; and there is the hope to understand the present, how to place and interpret our own times, experiences, and hopes for the future. The world of classical antiquity …

That Old Black Magic

In some ways the classical world of Greece and Rome seems very remote from ours: there were no automobiles, no planes, no television, no weapons (in the modern sense) of mass destruction. There was even no America. In other ways it seems surprisingly close. That is so in part because …

The Comedy Murder Case

Erich Segal is a remarkable man. Sometime professor of classics at Yale and other universities, and an expert on the Roman comic poets, he is perhaps better known as the author of Love Story. He now has written an erudite and entertaining history of comedy, from the beginnings to what …

The Unkindest Cut

It is a truth generally acknowledged about sacred books that they are liable to contain utterances which cause difficulties to believers and bafflement, or merriment, to the profane. One of the more difficult texts in the New Testament is the saying of Jesus recorded at Matthew 19:12. He has just …

From Abakainon to Zygris

The ancient primacy of the Greeks and Romans in the educational system of the West was still flourishing, in many elite educational establishments, in the 1950s, and indeed in the 1960s and beyond. It was a special and privileged position, but of a very curious kind. In literature, Greece and …

The Invented Man

Nature, we know, abhors a vacuum. That is a general truth about the nonhuman world. But human nature abhors it at least as much; and, like inanimate nature, it has its own ways of filling it up. It is a sad fact, for instance, that our historical sources are niggardly …

Bizarre New World

Just in time for what has been insistently declared, despite the resistance of the pedants, to be the new millennium, a handsome and informative book appears, to enlighten us about that long, difficult, and often neglected period, the postclassical world. It runs, the editors declare, roughly from 250 to 800 …

The Myth of Myths

Why do we continue to find myths so fascinating? The ascendancy of science and the triumphs of modern Western thought leave a large gap, an unsatisfied need, which we attempt to meet with beliefs of very different kinds and very different origins. The Hubble telescope has not killed astrology; antibiotics …

Plato’s Grand Design

“Saint Socrates, pray for us”; so wrote Erasmus at the end of his Religious Symposium, comparing the pagan philosopher to Saint Paul. The comparison can be extended in curious ways. Both Plato and Paul had a Master, condemned to death by law, but posthumously triumphant; each was the highly literate …

Chopping Off the Golden Bough

The theme of magic is one which the modern mind finds surprisingly attractive. In the West it might seem that science has achieved a definitive ascendancy; the old assumption that the real causes of events were to be sought on the religious plane is visibly fading away. Nowadays few churches …

Fun City

Christian Habicht is Professor of Ancient History at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton. His early works were published in German; this book, too, appeared in that language and has now been translated into English, very well, by Deborah Lucas Schneider. Habicht has for years been established as probably the …

Their Jewish Problem

It would have come as a surprise to the imperial peoples of antiquity—the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Medes and Persians, the Macedonians, the Romans—if they could have been induced to believe that they would all pass away into extinction, leaving in unbroken existence only an inconsiderable people, never even mentioned …

Show Us You Care, Ma’am

No one in Britain had ever witnessed scenes like those evoked by the death and funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales (to give her for once her correct title); of Princess Diana, as we all incorrectly called her. It was not merely the extraordinary display of public emotion, the mountains …

Bringing Homer Home

It is a cliché that Western literature begins with the poems of Homer. The well-informed know that the truth is rather more complex: the Iliad and Odyssey have indeed been at the root of the literature and the culture of Europe and the West, but their roots are in what …

Gifts of the Greeks

What is it that we all know, and yet we don’t know at all? A good candidate for the answer to the riddle might be Greece and the Greeks. On the one hand there is Ancient Greece. Everyone has a repertoire of images which that idea calls up: stone columns, …

Anxieties of Influence

Among the junk mail that arrives through our doors we find letters, sometimes impressively produced, promising to trace our name and ancestry back through the generations. We, too, can be entitled, for a fee, to claim kin with eminent or at least socially presentable ancestors; to have a pedigree drawn …

Vases or Pots?

The legacy of Greece and Rome to the modern world is far from consisting only of literature. The Renaissance began in Italy, where the physical remains of antiquity were everywhere visible. Enormous ruins, temples and aqueducts and theaters, dominated Rome and many other cities. In an outpost of Empire like …

Cosmic Leg-Pull

The Roman poet Ovid fascinated the Middle Ages, influenced Shakespeare, inspired Bernini and Titian and Handel, was loved by Dryden and Pope, and shocked the nineteenth century (by which I mean the real nineteenth century, the hundred years from, say, 1835 to 1935). Our age is turning again to the …

New Heaven, New Earth

We live in an apocalyptic age. All around us, and not only in the West, groups of people are huddling together, rejecting the outside world, and awaiting an imminent Last Day, when the elect (themselves) shall be justified, rewarded, and avenged on their enemies and on unbelievers. A time of …

The Long Latin Line

Histories of literature are a curious form of history. When we consider most histories we have no difficulty distinguishing them from their subject matter. On the one hand there are clothes and shoes and jewelry; on the other, histories of fashion. On the one hand there are armies, equipment, and …