Category Archives: Literature


The death of Pentheus on an Attic red figure kylix, c. 480 BC

This year, I taught pretty much nothing but poetry. In first semester, Latin class was the Latin verse epistle — Horace, Ovid, Ausonius, Sidonius. In English translation was Latin epic — Virgil, Ovid, Lucan, Claudian. In second semester, Greek class was Theocritus’ Idylls. In English translation was classical mythology — Hesiod’s Theogony and selections from his Works and Days; Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound and Agamemnon; Sophocles’ Oedipus the King and Antigone; Euripides’ Hippolytus; some Pindar; selections from Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey; some of Virgil’s Georgics and Aeneid; some of Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Heroides; several Homeric Hymns; a bit of Prudentius and Nonnus — the prose was largely from Apollodorus and Livy.

This is a lot of poetry. And teaching ancient poetry draws you not only to a given poet’s wider corpus (that is, those poems of Horace, Theocritus, Ovid, et al. not covered in class) but to the intertexts, one way and the other. Theocritus makes you cast you eye back to Homer but also forward to Moschus, Bion, and especially Virgil’s Eclogues. Teaching the story of Pentheus, whether from Ovid’s Metamorphoses or Apollodorus’ Library, brings the mind circling back to Euripides’ Bacchae. Reading about Polyphemus in Theocritus, Idylls 6 and 11, brings you not only to Homer but to Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Euripides’ Cyclops. Herakles and Hylas in Idyll 13 drives you inevitably to Apollonius’ Argonautica. Any reference to Peleus or Thetis makes me think of Catullus 64.

And on it goes.

Teaching epic makes me want to read more epic — not just, say, Statius’ Thebaid but the Mahabharata or Ramayana as well, besides rereading all of Homer.

So on it will continue to go.

Teaching poetry and reading poetry — there is no end.

And my mind now moves to research. I am currently examining two of Leo’s letters as sources for post-Roman social history. It is an interesting topic and has its own appeal. But all this poetry filling up my mind and heart — it makes me want to write about poetry! Maybe a study of Statius? Or perhaps start somewhere smaller — Ambrosian hymns? Rutilius?

Whatever the poetry is, it will have to be late antique. And, although Rutilius is great, probably Christian, since the intersection of later Latin literature and ancient Christianity is where my research strengths currently lie. Venantius Fortunatus, maybe? Arator? I could bring both philology and theology to bear on these texts, hopefully in a fruitful way.

But for now — Vandals in Africa.

The Numinous

Poussin: Apollo and the Muses

Today I gave my final lecture of Greek and Roman Mythology, ‘Myth Today’. I spent a lot of it talking about the use of classical mythology in popular culture — Wonder WomanStar Trek, Eric Shanowar’s Age of Bronze, the work of Neil Gaiman — and how harnessing a mythological framework enables one to tell a story with wide consequences that broaden the audience’s vision and challenge their assumptions, much as science fiction and fantasy do.

Indeed, this is one of the reasons we keep going back to classical mythology, whether it’s the retelling and reshaping them for our own era (Hercules: The Legendary Journeys or Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey) or drawing inspiration from them (possibly Battlestar Galactica, T S Eliot, The Wasteland).

Towards the end of the lecture, I moved into different territory about why the classical myths continue to draw us in — myths are bigger than true, to quote my friend Emily. To quote Northrop Frye (whom I badly paraphrased in class):

my general critical position … revolves around the identity of myth, along with those of folk tale, legend, and related genres, continue to form the structures of literature.


every human society possesses a mythology which is inherited, transmitted, and diversified by literature. –Words with Power, xii, xiii

Classical mythology, to an anglophone who grew up reading literature and watching TV and film and reading comic books that are part of an artistic heritage that constantly negotiates that past, is, along with the Bible, the basic grammar of story in the West.

Frye, of course, is pushing us farther than this, pushing us up into the transcendent.

This is certainly where Joseph Campbell wants us to go with The Hero with a Thousand Faces and The Power of Myth. Certain classical myths, as noted by C S Lewis in An Experiment in Criticism, hold a power beyond the poetry that clothes them — stories like Orpheus and Eurydice. These stories are the kind that people like Campbell see recurring throughout world cultures…

According to Frye, then, all literature is mythological — so all language is, perhaps, mystical? Owen Barfield (so I’m told) lays out the argument in Poetic Diction that in the poetic mode words come laden with meaning, more than just the simple diction of that given moment but all of their meanings. This is polysemy. The polysemous nature of poetic language drives us to symbol, turning words — mere utterations of vocal noise or squiggles on a page — into windows into other worlds. (Thus Coleridge, whom both Frye and Barfield read.)

And so in poetry, and in mythology, we find ourselves drawn further up and further in to something different and bigger than a simple materialistic world where A always = A, but can also = alpha or even be transmuted into something completely different.

Is this, therefore, a means by which the very act of storytelling, or the labour of versification, is itself a means of communicating with the numinous?

The numinous is where I find myself at the end of my myth course. What did the Greeks and Romans get out of their common stock of stories, from Homer through Ovid to Nonnus of Panopolis and Fulgentius the Mythographer? What is it that is intrinsic to these stories that drives us to them again and again, compelling us to read them? Is it because they give us a brush with Something Bigger?

I had two minutes, so these were things that were left unsaid. But I do still want to push these boundaries.

Coming to grips with late antique Christianity

Fifth-century mosaic from San Paolo fuori le Mura, Rome

I once heard an anecdote about a colleague who (I think) said that Constantine’s revisions of the imperial postal system were more significant than his conversion to Christianity. This may, in fact, be true, depending on how you define your terms. However, it is the case that, overall, coming to grips with Christianity will help you understand late antiquity better than knowing the imperial postal system.

If you begin with the Tetrarchy and Diocletian, you will need to have some grasp of who Christians are and why the Roman government disliked them for understanding the persecution.

If you begin earlier with the Third Century Crisis and are interested in Latin literature, the fact that we have so little Latin literature from the second century will throw you into the arms of Cyprian of Carthage and his letters.

Beginning with Constantine there is a conversion of the upper classes, and these are the people who produce or for whom are produced most of the stuff that survives from antiquity — fancy houses, poems, philosophical treatises. Their religion is thus not inconsequential. And they eventually do become Christians — we can learn about the last pagans of Rome (to cite the title of a book by Alan Cameron)

And if you are interested in Later Latin Literature, Christianity is all over the place. Some of the greatest poets of Late Antiquity write explicitly religious poetry. It would be a shame to study the world of late antiquity (to cite the title of a Peter Brown book) and miss out on Prudentius and the other Christian epicists. Likewise the Greek verse of Gregory of Nazianzus, or the sublime Syriac poetry of Ephrem and his luminous eye (to cite a Sebastian Brock title).

While the rise of western Christendom (to cite Peter Brown again) is a major feature of the study of the Mediterranean world in Late Antiquity (Averil Cameron this time), I admit one should be perspicacious. There is a lot to grapple with.

Consider the realm of texts: Augustine of Hippo is the ancient Latin author with the largest surviving corpus, for one thing. We have more Christian letter collections from Late Antiquity than the non-Christian ones from preceding centuries. Indeed, Christians love books — sermons, letters, poems, long theological tractates, canon law documents, apologies, polemics, biographies, hagiographies, liturgies, and so forth, flow forth in abundance in Late Antiquity in Latin, Greek, Syriac, and Coptic.

Material culture is also a big realm, from Spain and even Britain in the West to Mesopotamia in the East, the Roman Empire and its Persian neighbour has its fair share of physical remains, some of them the large, mosaic-encrusted churches of Ravenna, others the foundations of churches in Salamis on Cyprus. This is not to mention the myriad smaller objects of Christian origin — ivories, icons, Bibles, Bible covers, communion vessels, etc.

Moreover, Christianity is a complex phenomenon. Are we looking at the beliefs and writings and practices of the educated elite? What about the urban poor? What about different modes of belief amongst different Christian bodies? Bishops? Laypeople? Rome? Antioch? Nisibis?

In fact, there’s so much, whether you like Christianity or not, how could you help but take an interest in it if you’re interested in Late Antiquity?

The Aesthetics of Greek and Latin

Chancellor Gorkon

Chancellor Gorkon famously said, “You have not experienced Shakespeare until you have read him in the original Klingon,” in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. It is a trope that is expressed about basically all literature — you cannot appreciate something in a translation. Something is always lost in translation, even if a translator is capable of conveying the same, precise meaning as the original text.

One of the elements lost is the original aesthetic of the text. The sheer pleasure of reading well-wrought verbal artistry is entirely untranslatable. Anaphora, anacolouthon, assonance, alliteration, not to mention other devices that don’t begin with A are rarely, if ever, capable of reproduction in a translation. Puns are well-nigh impossible. Poetic meter and prose rhythm are almost inevitably sacrificed.

I was reminded of this recently while teaching Theocritus. It has been a few years since I last read Theocritus in the original Greek, and I find myself enjoying him much more in Greek than I had in my more recent reading of him in English translation. The aesthetic pleasures of Theocritus are in some ways, of course, those of any poet. Reading dactylic hexameters aloud, for example, has an aural significance that nothing else provides (even things equally pleasant are simply different). And then you meet his use of literary devices — playing with words, repeating various sounds across several lines of poetry as a means of tying together the concepts in a poem in a way that English, with a different vocabulary, cannot do with the same meanings.

There is also the pleasure of reading Doric Greek. Ancient Greek, if you were not aware, exists in multiple dialects. The dialect of Theocritus is primarily Doric. This means that he has certain versions of common words that different from other dialects — poti for pros, for instance. He also frequently uses long alpha where the Greek you learn in class uses eta. Some of his pronouns are different, etc. This use of a different dialect provides both an aesthetic and philological pleasure. His Greek ‘sounds’ different from Homer’s, although he does use some Homeric vocabulary and forms; it sounds different from Plato’s, as well.

Finally, part of the pleasure of reading verse written in inflected languages is the fact that word order matters a lot less than in English. As one of my students calls it, every once in a while Theocritus gives us a ‘Happy Grammar Fun Time’ — he will delay a crucial word in a sentence through enjambment so that it is both the final word of the sentence and the first word of a line of poetry. Not only this, in one of the occasions he does this, that final word of the sentence is separated from the rest of the sentence by a refrain. Without the word, as you would read the sentence naturally, it has one meaning. Suddenly, a new meaning appears after the refrain.

You cannot do this in English.

It is hard to explain the sheer pleasure that comes from reading literature in its original language, but it is a truly pleasurable aesthetic experience to read Theocritus in Greek, or Virgil in Latin, or any author in the language he or she originally used.

Teaching Later Latin

Nothing says ‘Later Roman Empire’ like giving the Tetrarchs a hug

Before I get going on this post, I feel obliged to state that I have loved teaching the “core” canon of Classics this year — in Latin: Horace and Ovid, in Greek: Theocritus, in English translation: Virgil, Ovid, Lucan, and a variety of Greek authors for Greek and Roman Myth (Hesiod, the tragedians, Homer, the Homeric Hymns, Apollodorus, et al, et al.). Nevertheless, teaching one’s own narrower focus brings with it a special pleasure all its own.

Last term, I got to teach, as literature, a selection of Ausonius’ verse epistles to Paulinus in Latin class, and Claudian’s De Raptu Proserpinae in English in Latin Epic. For one week, all I taught was “later” Latin literature. I put “later” in quotation marks because very often, what we mean by “later Latin literature” ends in the Early Middle Ages, at which point Latin was still really only in middle age (ha). Anyway, it was an exciting week.

First of all, Late Antiquity is where I have been most thoroughly invested for many years now. My research may range as late as the 1400s, and my background has certainly prepared me for teaching Aeschylus or the world of Augustan Rome, but the world, history, culture, and authors of Late Antiquity are where I am most comfortable. It is a pleasure to teach from a position of being comfortable with the context and the material in a deep way.

Second, I can bring my research to bear on the texts. I can say that ‘such and such’ is a feature of later Latin without recourse to grammars or histories of Latin. I know it is because I have seen it with frequency in a number of different authors from the fourth through sixth centuries. I can comment on the piling up of superlatives, for example, as being part of contemporary courtesy. Amongst bishops, even your worst enemy is dilectissimus frater — ‘most beloved brother’.

The third point is likewise related: I got to share with people the things I have learned, and that itself is a great delight. So I talked about how the quotation from Paulinus in Ausonius, about the names of different kings, is itself an example of the jewelled style (and pointed them to Michael Roberts, The Jeweled Style). I talked about how allusion works in these authors, and the kind of learned game they are playing with their readers, especially Ausonius (referencing Aaron Pelttari, The Space that Remains). Teaching Claudian, I got to talk about the prefaces and what they mean poetically and metapoetically, and this was great. There was a certain amount of allusion and intertextuality throughout it all (says my wife, ‘Don’t you lecture on that all the time?).

The fourth point is pedagogical: I got to expand their idea of Latin literature. For the Latin students, they saw that grammar and vocabulary can remain ‘classical’ while style goes in new directions. They were thus given a window in both the difference and similarity of later Latin with its classical forebears. Most Latin students never read much of anything later than Apuleius (if that). Thus, they were exposed to a greater breadth of Latin than is usually on offer, and I think this will only help them, even if the rest of their lives they read nothing but ‘classical’ Latin authors.

For the epic students, it was much the same. They got to see that Latin literature doesn’t just suddenly stop. Indeed, one  of my wider aims throughout the course was tying together disparate strands of Latin and world literature. Not only did they read Virgil, Ovid, Lucan, and Claudian, they also had lectures talking about Livius Andronicus, Ennius, Statius, et al., and I tied in not only Latin epic’s relationship with Greek epic but also with themes in Gilgamesh and Mahabharata. In terms of reception, I brought Virgil to the early moderns. So Claudian was actually central to part of my wider pedagogy, which is: (although) Virgil is amazing (and you should know him), and these other epics area part of the same poetic tradition or human experience.

The back of my Oxford Classical Text of Ausonius boasts that there are over 100 volumes in the series. Later Latin literature, even when restricted to the later 100s to 800s, encompasses far more Literature than that. It’s worth introducing students to it.

Looking back at books of 2018

In 2018, I finished reading 56 books that were not picture/story books or board books. I do not know how many picture/story books and board books I read. My son owns 49 board books; I have read all of them multiple times this year. Of the non-board book picture/story books, I read 36, but we have more that I did not read. And there are the library books, books at other people’s houses, books at churches that I read along the way.

As usual, a book that I completed means that I finished the entirety of that which is bound between two covers. Some are books that I started before 2018. And many texts and books were read that were not read in toto. For example, none of Leo the Great’s letters are here because I did not read any of them bound together as a single volume. And many articles, poems, and other non-books were read.

The first book I completed was The Fragmentary Classicising Historians of the Later Roman Empire, Vol. 1 by R. C. Blockley. This is the introductory volume, not the texts with translation.

The final book I completed was volume one of the Loeb Classical Library edition of Claudian, ed. and trans. Maurice Platnauer.

Of the 56 books of 2018, here are the stats by category/genre:

  • Ancient texts in translation: 11, of which 3 were ‘patristic’
  • Ancient texts in the original: 1 — Horace, Epistles, Book 1, with commentary by Roland Mayer
  • Medieval texts in translation: 3, unless we count Pseudo-Dionysius and Justinian as medieval, then subtract two from ‘ancient’ and ‘patristic’, then add them to medieval.
  • Scholarly works about ancient subjects: 5
  • Scholarly works about medieval subjects: 6
  • Other history: 2 (The Mammoth Book of Pirates and Brand Luther by Andrew Pettegree)
  • Works about Christian theology/spirituality not already counted: 9
  • Memoirs: 1 (Eastern Approaches by Fitzroy MacLean)
  • Novels: 10 (this includes The Silmarillion to make life easier)
  • Young-adult novels (already counted in the 10): 3
  • Historical Fiction: 1 adult (Vindolanda by Adrian Goldsworthy), 2 YA
  • Books of non-ancient, non-medieval poetry: 1 (Goblin Market by Christina Rossetti)
  • Graphic Novels: 1 (Infinity War by Jim Starlin)
  • Souvenir guide books: 3 (+ a book about the Mildenhall Treasure already classed as ‘scholarly works about ancient subjects)
  • Books in German: 1 (Patzold, Steffen. 2015. Gefälschtes Recht aus dem Frühmittelalter: Untersuchungen zur Herstellung und Überlieferung der pseudoisidorischen Dekretalen. Heidelberg.)
  • Plays: 2 (Euripides’ Bacchae and Harry Potter and the Cursed Child)
  • Books that defy my classifications; 1 (Pieces from a Broken Land by Victoria Fifield; memoir? art? both.)
  • Books written by friends: 4 (including the above, 2 books by another friend, one of which is not yet in print, the other of which is Dayspring MacLeod, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Spoke in the Wheel, and Aaron Pelttari, The Space that Remains: Reading Latin Poetry in Late Antiquity)

I turned 35 this year. The 35th book I finished was Mayer’s commentary on Horace, Epistles, Book I.

There are fifty-two weeks in a year. The fifty-second book I finished was The World of Medieval Monasticism by Gert Melville. I read another history of monasticism, The Story of Monasticism by Greg Peters. Melville’s is better in my opinion, but Peters’ is probably better for normal people.

Half of 56 is 28. The 28th book was Seamus Heaney’s translation of Aeneid, Book VI — I really, really liked it.

The rereads were The Lord of the Rings, read as three volumes (so counted as three books) and A. D. Melville’s translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. I also reread the Aeneid, but this was my first time reading Frederick Ahl’s translation and Seamus Heaney’s translation of Book VI.

The most-read author was J. R. R. Tolkien (4) followed by Andrew Louth (2) and Dayspring MacLeod (2).

This was the year I finally read The Silmarillion and Pride and Prejudice.