The Classics: A Subtle New View

‘Achilles and Ajax playing dice’; Attic black-figure amphora by Exekias, from Vulci, Italy, circa 540–530 BCE
Vatican Museums/De Agostini Picture Library/Bridgeman Images
‘Achilles and Ajax playing dice’; Attic black-figure amphora by Exekias, from Vulci, Italy, circa 540–530 BCE

The literature of the ancient Greeks and Romans is not so central in contemporary culture as it once was, when Western civilization traditionally traced its roots to the Jews, Greeks, and Romans. In today’s global and multicultural world the Iliad and the Aeneid have taken their place alongside the Confucian Analects and the Mahabharata. Nowadays the word “classic” can be applied to almost anything that was not created yesterday but has some claim to value or at least notoriety. Richard Jenkyns, in his engaging new book on Greek and Roman literature, has provided a title, Classical Literature, that identifies its subject in the old-fashioned way by invoking a once-familiar phrase that has now lost much of its specificity. This disarmingly straightforward title tells us a great deal about both the author and his material. It reflects his independent spirit as well as his profound knowledge of literature and culture from antiquity to the present.

Jenkyns began his career as what we may still call a classical scholar, with a book of exceptional range, The Victorians and Ancient Greece, in which he exposed the tangled roots of Victorian literature and art in ancient Greek culture.1 That culture was, of course, infinitely better known in the nineteenth century than the twenty-first. His account of British Hellenism in the Victorian era is still the best there is and deeply informed by knowledge of the Victorian world. Jenkyns’s command of Greek and Latin texts is all that one would expect of a product of Balliol College in Oxford and a former fellow of All Souls. But as his first book revealed, he is no less interested in the impact of ancient literature in modern times than he is in the texts themselves. His two final posts in Oxford, as Public Orator and as Professor of the Classical Tradition, reflect both his philological precision and his broad cultural tastes.

As Oxford’s Public Orator, Jenkyns was charged with composing in classical Latin the tributes to honorary degree recipients, in which the bravura of his Latinity joined with a sharp wit to entertain all those who listened to him as he declaimed in white tie, cap, and gown, with a red hood draped over his shoulder. As Professor of the Classical Tradition he explored in books and articles the inexhaustible traces of Greek and Roman culture in Western literature as well as art of all kinds, including music. His recent book God, Space, and City in the Roman Imagination is, among other things, an account of the ancient city of Rome.2 Jenkyns is a stylish polymath who wears his learning lightly, but he is never shy about…

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