‘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 expressing personal opinions when they diverge from accepted dogma. Nor is he shy of condemning shoddy work across a broad range of subjects, as he did memorably a few years ago in a fierce review, worthy of A.E. Housman, of a book on art, opera, and fiction in the nineteenth century.3

His new book appears on the surface to be no more than a roughly chronological survey of classical literature from the poems of Homer down to Apuleius’s novel The Golden Ass, written during the mid-second century AD, in the Antonine Age, precisely when Gibbon’s Decline and Fall begins. But it is far from being a textbook or even a “companion,” which is now the preferred packaging for publishers of surveys of humanistic subjects. In this short book, written in artfully uncomplicated prose, Jenkyns not only informs his readers about all the major authors of Greek and Roman antiquity but invariably delivers fresh, arresting, and by no means uncontroversial opinions on most of them. His book will certainly instruct those in search of information about classical literature, but it will also give profit and pleasure to those who already know something about it. There is scarcely anything on which he does not offer an original aperçu, sometimes illuminating, sometimes simply provocative, but always worth reading.

In just a few pages on the Iliad Jenkyns begins his book with observations on Achilles that draw out of that titanic poem the human dimensions that counterbalance its fierce and bloody narrative. Although the best of the Achaeans in battle, Achilles turns out to be an aesthete (Jenkyns’s word): when ambassadors approach, “they find him singing about the famous deeds of men, accompanying himself on the lyre. That makes him,” according to Jenkyns, “the Iliad’s only poet and only musician.” He amplifies this interpretation of the great warrior by emphasizing the affecting moment near the end when the Trojan king Priam goes to Achilles to ask for the return of the body of his son Hector. He and Achilles fall into weeping together, weeping that fills the house, as Priam bewails the death of Hector, and Achilles the absence of his aged father and the death of his comrade Patroclus. “An essential loneliness abides.”


The perceptiveness of Jenkyns’s observations on a work as often discussed as the Iliad can now be appreciated in the impressive new translation by Caroline Alexander, whose renderings of the scenes with Achilles playing the lyre (Book 9) and the tears of Priam and Achilles (Book 24) are an ideal complement to Jenkyns’s analysis.4 When Jenkyns moves on to the Odyssey, he deliberately subverts the view that this poem “inhabits a different moral universe from the Iliad.” Everyone from antiquity to the present has sensed that the Odyssey is a different kind of poem, and Virgil seemed to agree in casting the first six books of his Aeneid in an Odyssean mode and the last six in an Iliadic mode. But for Jenkyns both poems are “experiments in feeling.” I’m not sure that his quotation of Oscar Wilde’s Miss Prism proves his point: “The good ended happily and the bad unhappily. That is what fiction means.” But his treatment of Homer is richer for it.

Jenkyns moves inexorably but briskly from Homer through the early Greek poets. He calls Archilochus “Europe’s first pain in the neck” for abandoning his shield on the battlefield because he knew he would find another one just as good. He may perhaps be forgiven, in writing about Sappho, for saying, “The best Greek love poetry is homosexual,” even though this hardly does justice to the many celebrations of Aphrodite in heterosexual settings. Even so Jenkyns gives a good perspective on lyric poetry in introducing the metrical virtuosity and complex imagery of Pindar (“What is anyone?… The dream of a shadow”). From Pindar’s difficult verse he glides easily into still more difficult texts, which he dissects with a quiet panache that illuminates without trivializing them.

Jenkyns’s account of Greek tragedy includes a brief commentary on Aeschylus’s Agamemnon that stresses its profundity, which no one could deny (this is where we discover pathei mathos, “learning by suffering”). But more surprisingly he manages to find something to like in Agamemnon’s murderous wife Clytemnestra, who made the king walk, against his will, on a purple carpet straight into a death trap. He quotes her chilling words about the abundance of purple dye: “The sea is there, and who shall drain it? It breeds an ever-renewed ooze of abundant purple, precious as silver.” He then observes startlingly, “After some fashion, you have to love this woman.” Perhaps not, but there is something undeniably majestic about her and certainly strong. Jenkyns’s insouciant remark helps us to grasp that. It could be applied equally well to Clytemnestra’s magnificent sisters in infamy, Medea and Lady Macbeth.

The summary treatment of Sophocles and Euripides inevitably contributes little that is new to such familiar works as Oedipus Rex and The Bacchae, although Jenkyns rightly stresses the audacity of Euripides in the plots of some of his later works. He invokes the play Helen, which is built upon a bizarre tradition that the famous beauty never went to Troy at all but spent the ten years of the Trojan War quietly in Egypt. He recognizes that some of Euripides’ most experimental plays, of which the Ion is a good example, were more like comedy than tragedy. They were closer, as he puts it felicitously, to The Winter’s Tale than to Hamlet.

What is missing here, even within the constraints of brevity, is Euripides’ highly innovative use of song at moments when a character breaks out in what can only be called an aria. The most conspicuous of these is Creusa’s emotional revelation in the Ion in which she describes how Apollo with his golden hair had raped her. Euripides’ cultivation of solo song, and occasionally a duet, went together with a corresponding reduction in choral singing, which had been prominent in Greek tragedy from the beginning. He was always innovating and experimenting, and the latest of his innovations was the savagery of The Bacchae. As Jenkyns knows well, an accident in the transmission of Euripides’ canon means that we can see its range in a way that we cannot for the works of the other dramatists. The oeuvres of Aeschylus and Sophocles were excerpted at some point for survival in a small selection of masterpieces. In the case of Euripides we have at least part of a set of his complete plays.

When Jenkyns turns from poetry to prose, he passes valiantly from Herodotus all the way to Demosthenes in a handful of pages on historical, philosophical, and rhetorical authors. Although what he says would hardly be sufficient to instruct a reader on more than the basic facts about these authors, he is still able to make interesting and persuasive observations. His Herodotus is rightly far more than the good storyteller that he undeniably was. Jenkyns sees him as a prototype of the modern interest in mentalités and the longue durée. He could even have added that Herodotus was an anthropologist before anthropology, whose scrupulous documentation of local practices and traditions was pathbreaking. The childish arguments with which Plutarch, many centuries afterward, tried to denigrate him tell us more about the authority of Thucydides in the Roman Empire, in which Plutarch flourished, than they do about Herodotus. Jenkyns fully appreciates the genius of Thucydides as a historian and an analyst of empire, but he knows that Herodotus, too, made “a great leap forward.”


Another of the major Greek prose writers, Plato, receives a proper, if highly condensed, treatment. Since he is writing about literature, Jenkyns makes no attempt to survey the philosophy of either Plato or Aristotle, and so he concentrates on Plato, whom he describes incontestably as “a literary artist of a high order.” No one could possibly say this of Aristotle, and Jenkyns does not even try. I have often thought that Plato, the author of so many powerful dialogues, in which he wrote the script not only for Socrates but for his many interlocutors, could have been a superb dramatist. If he had been, the world would now be a very different place.

When Jenkyns moves into the Hellenistic age, which comprises roughly the time from Alexander the Great at the end of the fourth century BC to Augustus at the end of the first century BC, he seems visibly uncomfortable. He can find little good to say of the poet Callimachus or the historian Polybius, and at one point he brushes aside an extraordinary extant poem of almost 1,500 lines by calling it “a work of wilful and rebarbative obscurity.” This goes too far. The poem in question is the Alexandra ascribed to a certain Lycophron, and it is largely an immense monologue spoken by the prophetess Cassandra after she rushes out of a roofless cell in Priam’s Troy. Among the many wonders of her speech is an account of how the Trojans will go to Italy and found Rome, and this is the earliest story of Aeneas in Italy. Lycophron was clearly writing when the Romans were securely in control, and perhaps even when they had already established their influence in Greece.

The poem refers to Cassandra as Alexandra, meaning “averter of men,” a name we know to have been given to her in Sparta, and this is the sole name that Lycophron uses for her. His poem is undoubtedly difficult to read, but more for the rare vocabulary with which it bristles than for the Greek meter and syntax in which it was composed. Although the Alexandra has long been recognized for its account of the Trojans in Italy approximately two centuries before Virgil’s Aeneid, it has not been much studied or appreciated until very recently. But Hellenists of today are fortunate that Simon Hornblower has just published Lycophron’s poem in a magisterial edition, with detailed commentary and English translation, which demonstrates that classical scholarship of the old school—uncompromisingly learned and consistently judicious—is living still.5 Fortified with Hornblower’s commentary, Jenkyns might conceivably want to revise his opinion of Lycophron, or at least one hopes he might.

From the Greek writers of the Hellenistic period it is an easy transition to the Latin writers of the same period, which for Roman history is the age of the Republic, when Latin literature began. Jenkyns offers two contrasting versions of what happened. In one version, Latin epic (Ennius, above all) and comedy (Plautus and Terence) during the Republic “became far superior to anything that the Greeks were doing at the time.” Or, from a different perspective, “the whole of Roman civilization was a subspecies of a greater Hellenism.” This illustrates perfectly the interconnectedness of the two cultures, and Jenkyns reasonably introduces his treatment of Roman literature by saying, “Both accounts are in their way true.”

The writer of the Republican age who clearly excites Jenkyns more than any other is Lucretius, and anyone who has read Lucretius’s great poem, On the Nature of Things, in its sonorous and pulsating Latin hexameters is bound to agree. The six books of this work are nothing less than a vigorous exposition of Epicurean doctrines of atoms and their swerve and the unchangeable detachment of gods from human affairs. Lucretius wrote with passion and soaring, if sometimes rough, eloquence. No other Latin poetry is like it. To his austere doctrines Lucretius brought an artistic sensibility that seems at times almost to undermine what he is saying. His work begins with an extraordinary invocation to Venus, who is described with Mars in her lap, overcome by longing, lying gaping and helpless. This is a kind of pagan pietà, which was famously caught in Botticelli’s painting of the Lucretian scene. Jenkyns is absolutely right when he says, “It is a surprise…that Lucretius begins with the most glorious act of worship in Latin literature, a great hymn to Venus.”

Lucretius was deeply interested in sex, but this emerges not in those opening lines of the first book but only in the fourth book, which is almost entirely devoted to it. There with clinical precision but in powerful language he goes into details that even include one of the rare ancient references to nocturnal emissions. What is so overwhelming about Lucretius is his ability to display passion at the same time as he is being dispassionate. This characteristic is brilliantly on show in the third book, which is devoted to showing the folly of the fear of death. With a thumping beat he declares triumphantly, nil igitur mors est ad nos (“Therefore death is nothing to us”). Yet he well knows what grief and anxiety it can bring, because in another unforgettable line he describes the endless weeping of the bereaved. He does this by deploying three heavy polysyllabic words to make up an entire hexameter line, which then cannot end because of an enjambment that forces the reader into the line that follows: Insatiabiliter deflevimus, aeternumque/nulla dies nobis maerorem e pectore demet (“We wept insatiably, and no day will take away the everlasting grief from our breast”). It would be hard to devise a more gripping and poetic evocation of unremitting sorrow.

After doing justice to Lucretian hexameters, Jenkyns moves on to Virgil, whose mastery of Latin verse produced lines more mellifluous and sophisticated than his predecessor’s, and whose writing shows an evolution from pastoral eclogues, inspired by the Hellenistic Greek poet Theocritus, to four books of a poem of the earth (Georgics), of which Jenkyns says arrestingly, “No other long poem aspires to the condition of music as much as the Georgics.” But it is in the Aeneid, indisputably Virgil’s masterpiece, that Jenkyns detects a sense of struggle, not least because the poet died with some lines left incomplete. This mighty epic of the founding of Rome, which has justly taken its place alongside the Homeric epics, “wears a classic authority,” as Jenkyns observes, but he goes on to say, “no epic poem seems more personal.” This is Jenkyns at his best.

Latin literature after Virgil fares less well in Jenkyns’s account because he has little patience for the rhetorical flourishes that became increasingly fashionable at Rome. He holds up to ridicule the relentless parade of sonorous epigrammatic phrases in the plays of Seneca: “When Thyestes discovers that he has eaten his children…he finds all sorts of clever, paradoxical things to say—everything except what someone might actually say after realizing that he was digesting his progeny.” Of the highly rhetorical and epigrammatic epic poem on the Roman civil war by Seneca’s nephew, Lucan, Jenkyns observes grumpily, “No classical author of comparable talent is so often and so massively bad.”

He reserves a place of honor for the subtle but still rhetorical satirist Juvenal. He fully appreciates the greatness of Juvenal’s contemporary the historian Tacitus, whose clipped and epigrammatic prose enhanced rather than diminished the dark portrait he gives of the emperor Tiberius. The overthrow of Tiberius’s closest ally Sejanus became notorious and figures prominently in a satire by Juvenal, and it is a pity that Tacitus’s account of this episode was lost in the transmission of his work. Yet even without it, one can readily agree with Jenkyns’s opinion: “Tacitus loathes Tiberius, but he is half in love with him too.”

Classical literature never really came to an end, although it passed through several metamorphoses, with some of which Jenkyns brings his survey to a close. He finds space for ancient fiction with Petronius and Apuleius, and for a few Greek authors, like Plutarch, who wrote in the Roman Empire. He even imports the New Testament into classical literature, to which it would not normally be assigned. But Saint Paul’s clarity in Greek makes this less of a stretch than it might seem. Jenkyns’s view of ancient literature is Olympian. He sees it from a great height, with a sharp eye and broad vision, and what he sees is never clouded or obscure. His success comes from an unusual conjunction of distance with a deep knowledge and love of the literature about which he writes.