Tag Archives: classics

What makes a classic?

1957 Ford Thunderbird – a classic!

I once flew from Cyprus to Egypt and was stuck in Larnaca airport during a very long delay with a somewhat paranoid guy who does security for missionary organisations. One of the topics that briefly surfaced in our strange conversation was what I studied for undergrad. When I said Classics, I got a variation of one of the annoying answers. This guy said that if I were Chinese, for me Classics would be the Five Classics (I think — it was something like that; definitely Chinese).*

The subtext, clear from his tone, was that I’m closed-minded, and maybe too western, probably a bit imperialist.

But I’m certainly not Chinese. If I were Chinese, I’d likely have studied the Five Classics. But I’m not Chinese, so why imply that studying my own culture’s origins are a problem? Is it closed-minded for a Chinese person to study the Five Classics? Or is it only closed-minded to study Classical Greece and Rome?

And what makes a classic, anyway?

This is a question that drifts through my mind on occasion — like in Larnaca.

It also came up in relation to ancient Mesopotamia vs Mediterranean about a year or so ago. The New Testament students in Edinburgh sagely decided to bone up on their Classical (Greek and Roman) literature to be better able to see the cultural context for the New Testament and all that. So they organised a Classics Reading Group. Some of the Old Testament students thought a similar group for Mesopotamian literature would also be of use to them, which I’m sure is also true. The Old Testament students included the phrase ‘more classic than the classics’ in their e-mail.

Obviously this is a very different case from the China vs. Rome conversation in the airport. But it still raises the question about what on earth a classic is.

The jokey reference to Mesopotamian literature being ‘more classic than the classics’ possibly has behind it the assumption that a classic is old. So, the older, the classicker. That’s probably part of it. But that’s not all, by far.

Etymologically, a classic is something that has (high) class. Here’s some of the entry from the OED:

The word was used in post-classical Latin from 1512 with reference to highly-regarded authors who wrote in Greek or Latin, both pagan and Christian: Gregory of Nyssa (by Beatus Rhenanus, 1512); Plutarch (by Melanchthon, 1519); Porphyry and Aristotle (by Gerardus Listrius, 1520); Cyril of Alexandria (by Andreas Cratander, 1528); Augustine of Hippo (by Alfonso Fonseca, 1528); and so on.

A classic author, in that early sense, then, is someone who enjoys wide esteem, someone with a reputation for good style or penetrating content — often, both.

These authors tend to also have widespread influence upon later literature and thought. Thus, Virgil is classic because he has good style, penetrating content, and is the most influential poet of the Latin world. Plato is classic because he has good style, penetrating content, and is the most influential philosopher of the Greek world. And so forth.

These Greek and Roman authors were read and taught and imitated and analysed throughout antiquity and the Middle Ages — indeed, were part of standard education right into the twentieth century. The result is that they have a very strong, direct impact upon western culture. They are not only good poets and philosophers and historians, they are foundational to our culture’s ways of thinking and writing and producing art.

When we move out from literature, this pervasion of Graeco-Roman ideas of philosophy, politics, beauty, and so forth runs throughout western culture all over the place — architecture, art, so many ideals with which we deal every day, whether in acceptance or rejection. The impact of the Greeks and Romans upon subsequent European history is well-nigh incalculable. And the impact of Europe, thanks to colonisation, the Industrial Revolution, and globalisation, is now worldwide.

Before this becomes apologetic for the discipline of Classical Studies, let us see how this narrow use of classic has spread out since its inception. As early as 1548, classique was used of mediaeval vernacular authors of high esteem. Indeed, we could easily reckon up several mediaeval authors of very wide appeal, esteem, and impact — Dante Alighieri, Chrétien de Troyes, Thomas Aquinas, Gottfried von Strasbourg, Geoffrey Chaucer, Hildegard von Bingen.

The term spreads out chronologically from there — Shakespeare, Spenser, Milton, Donne are classic not just because they’re old but because they were and are widely regarded to have good style as well as broad impact upon subsequent literature.

But what about authors and texts who disappear for a while? Can they be counted as classic? Perhaps not immediately. But they can regain that lost status, as has done Gilgamesh or Beowulf. Both of these texts were popular in their own day (well, we can certainly confirm that Gilgamesh — poor Beowulf exists in one manuscript), but then were almost lost to time due to shifts and changes in politics and culture. But modern antiquarians have resurrected them, and they are regarded for all the same reasons as other classics, with a growing influence that is currently making up for their centuries-long disappearance.

Sadly, The Tale of Sinuhe has not had such luck, despite being a classic in ancient Egypt for centuries. Perhaps it’s too different for our culture to assimilate it as with Gilgamesh and Beowulf. Perhaps its press isn’t good enough. I recommend it, though. 😉

With the temporal and geographical widening of classic comes, again, its movement to other media. I am currently listening to classical music — Beethoven, Symphony No 2. I enjoy a piece of classic cinema, such as Vertigo or Forbidden Planet, every once in a while. The Beatles are ‘classic’ rock.

Anyway, here’s what makes a classic, then. It’s not simply age but impact and wide esteem. Something can lose classicness, like poor Sinuhe, or (re)gain it, like Beowulf. That said, if you’re into your own culture, don’t be ashamed to be caught reading Cicero or Dante on the bus while listening to Mozart, Monteverdi, or Beethoven.

*That is: the Classic of Poetry, Classic of History, Classic of Changes (Yijing), Record of Rites, and Chronicles of the Spring and Autumn Period. Ancient books have such riveting titles.

Discover Late Antiquity

Justinian I

I promise my brother, Michael, that I have a couple of fantasy-related posts up my sleeve, hopefully to appear in the next week. But first, I thought I would give you this post, the first in what I plan to be an ongoing series on the historical period of Late Antiquity. I wish to do this for two main reasons:

  1. I am on the way to being a scholar of Late Antiquity, and I think it’s a fascinating period of history, so blogging about it so that normal people can follow such discussions is a good way for me to get my mind around the various issues in the era and learn how to make history/art/culture accessible.
  2. When I asked what people wanted to read, Michael said Sci-fi/Fantasy or Other because then he would be able to understand what’s going on. Since I’m not going to turn this into a devoted SF blog, why not write posts that will help people understand the other posts that will inevitably drift through, about Ammianus or Augustine or the Fall of Rome?


Although I still sort of favour old-fashioned ‘Later Roman Empire’ definitions of the period of Late Antiquity (as discussed here), I see the value of following a story for a long time. And I think the story of the Roman world to Justinian and then beyond is an interesting story, so I’ll be thinking of ‘Late Antiquity’ here as it is increasingly thought of, as running from the succession crisis of 235 to the death of the Eastern Emperor Heraclius in 641.

In terms of geographical markers, I take the Mediterranean world and western Europe to be the world of Late Antiquity, considering Persia only insofar as it impinges upon Roman imperial history. This choice arises not because the non-classical ancient world isn’t interesting but because there is too much of it, and the story of Late Antiquity becomes unwieldy otherwise.

But why should you join me to discover Late Antiquity?

First and foremost, because these four centuries of history are intrinsically interesting. People did interesting things that are fun to know and learn about. Late Antiquity includes art and poetry, war and politics, religion and philosophy, all of which are interesting in their own right regardless of when they happened to occur. Constantine built this in Rome, for example:

The Arch of Constantine, Rome

Second, from the removed perspective of 2013, ‘important’ or ‘major’ things happened in Late Antiquity. Not only did Constantine build a big, fancy arch, he also converted to Christianity, the long-term effects of which still go on today. Augustine penned some of Latin philosophy’s great masterpieces; other great Christian thinkers lived in this age, including amongst the Latins Cyprian of Carthage, Ambrose of Milan, Jerome, Pope Leo the Great, Pope Gregory the Great, Hilary of Poitiers, Boethius, Isidore of Seville; amongst the Greeks, Origen of Alexandria, Athanasius of Alexandria, Cyril of Alexandria, Gregory of Nazianzus, Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa, John Philoponus. Important pagan thinkers of the period include Diogenes Laertius, Plotinus, Libanius, Damascius, Claudian and Symmachus. Calcidius made his translation of Plato’s Timaeus, which was influential on much western mediaeval philosophy.

Five of seven Ecumenical Church Councils occurred in this time-span. The last were in 681 and 787 (not counting mediaeval, western ones for obvious concerns of ecumenicity).

Constantinople was founded as an imperial capital. Theodosius II put together one of the earliest surviving codes of Roman law; under Justinian the greatest such project ever made occurred. Under Justinian ‘Byzantine’ architecture is truly born with Hagia Sophia, to dominate the architecture of church and mosque in the eastern Mediterranean for centuries to come. The western Empire ceased to function and exist as a political unit. The codex (books as we know them) came to dominate book production (as opposed to scrolls); in fact, the basic method of book production remained unchanged from the 300s to the invention of ‘perfect binding’ in the twentieth century, although different stages were mechanised along the way.

New polities arose in the West following the Empire’s accidental suicide, and modern nation-states like to trace their descent to these (but that’s really the story of the Early Middle Ages).

I do hope you’ll join me and discover Late Antiquity!

Mythology through literature

The title of this post is the name of a course my wife, Jennifer, was able to take in her fourth year of undergrad at the University of Ottawa. I, sadly, was only there part-time at that stage, taking naught but Latin and Greek. Unlike U of O’s very good, very popular Greek Mythology course which went through the standard versions of the myths with H J Rose to hand, or the equally good Homer and Vergil which focussed on the epics as literature, this course took a different approach — reading the ancient literature as sources for our knowledge and understanding of ancient mythology.

This is the sort of thing I like. I grew up reading Mary Pope Osborne’s tellings of Greek mythology or The Usborne Book of Greek Myths, and today I enjoy such items as Eric Shanower’s Age of Bronze (on which I’ve blogged here). But where do we get these myths? From the writings of the ancients themselves, of course! Finding the ‘originals’ of the myths has been a pleasure of mine since my first year of undergrad.

From Europe, our only two complete mythological systems, so I’m told in The Oxford Illustrated History of the Vikings, are Greek mythology and Norse mythology. Of course, other myths and strands of folklore abound; I’m not well-versed in those at all. If we cast our eyes to other Mediterranean shores, myths of interest (to me, at least) are to be found in Mesopotamia and Egypt. Here are a few translations of the ancients themselves to go and find the ancient tales for yourselves!* The links are to Amazon, but I urge you to frequent local bookstores and libraries!!


  • Myths from Mesopotamia: Creation, The Flood, Gilgamesh, and Others trans. Stephanie Dalley, Oxford World’s Classics. Many of our texts from Mesopotamia are fragmentary, and it is a great skill to recompose the stories. My favourites from this volume are: Atrahasis (flood story), Epic of Gilgamesh, Etana (incl. folk-tale-esque story of eagle and snake, and Etana’s ascent to the heavens), Epic of Creation (the world is created through murder and war, fashioned from the body parts and blood of slain divinites).
  • The Epic of Gilgamesh, trans. Andrew George, Penguin Classics. Dalley’s translation above is good, but so is this one, which also goes into great detail regarding piecing the epic back together. This was my first Gilgamesh, and I still like it very much. This epic includes a flood story and a variety of other interesting stories worth reading.

Ancient Egypt

I have to confess that I’ve not read any Egyptian religious/mythological literature except for a description of the contents of the Book of the Dead in the possession of the Royal Ontario Museum when it went on display. Nonetheless, I want to read more, and have learnt today about this three-volume set:

Ancient Greece and Rome

As the footnote from above shows, we have an overabundance of sources for Graeco-Roman mythology! So I shall give you two, both of which tell many tales, both of which I have read:

  • The Metamorphoses by Ovid, trans. A D Melville, Oxford World’s Classics. Here you will find many of the usual, expected tales of Greek mythology, as told by an Augustan Latin poet in unexpected ways. Melville’s English blank verse is lively and playful, just like Ovid. I highly recommend it, but not the old, prose translation for Penguin Classics by Mary M. Innes (I cannot speak on the other Penguin translations).
  • Theogony by Hesiod, trans. M L West, Oxford World’s Classics. M L West is one of the giants of Greek and Latin translation and textual criticism. I highly recommend his translation of this work, paired with Hesiod’s other poem Works and Days. Here you will find the stories of the births of gods and monsters from Ouranos to Zeus, with all the parricide you can stomach.

Norse Mythology

  • The Poetic Edda, trans. Carolyne Larrington, Oxford World’s Classics. I have to warn you that The Poetic Edda is not the easiest collection of texts. This is an anthology of (possibly) ‘Viking-age’ poetry telling the old tales of the gods and heroes, varying in levels of comprehensibility. Nonetheless, those that make good sense are well worth reading, for here we find Ragnarók and the tales of Thor and the Aesir in bold detail.
  • The Prose Edda by Snorri Sturluson. This is our other major source for pre-Christian Norse mythology, dating to the thirteenth century and giving us all of our tales from creation to Ragnarók. I haven’t read it, but just today got my own copy of Jesse L Byock’s Penguin Classics translation; I liked Byock’s translation of the heroic and mythical Saga of the Volsungs; here’s hoping Snorri doesn’t live up to his name!

These are not the only world mythologies and bits of European-Mediterranean folklore worth reading. I have heard good things about The Táin, and the Hindu Vedas and Ramayana sound interesting; but I haven’t read them, so I cannot really recommend anything. I only recommended ancient Egypt because I’m really interested in learning more!

*For the full panoply of Greek (& Roman) myths, you need to read, amongst others, Pindar’s Odes, the tragedies of Euripides, Sophocles, and Aeschylus, Apollodorus’ Library, Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, the ‘Homeric’ hymns, Vergil’s Aeneid, Apollonius of Rhodes’ Argonautica, Catullus’ 64th poem, the various mythological poems of the archaic Greek lyric poets, bits of Plato, the many fragmentary Hellenistic poets, Callimachus’ hymns, Apuleius’ The Golden Ass, Statius’ Thebaid and Achilleid, Seneca’s tragedies, Claudian’s Gigantomachy and Rape of Proserpina, the Orphic Hymns and so on and on and on. Reading the primary sources for Graeco-Roman mythology is basically an entire career’s worth of reading! Use the above for some quick samplers. Then move on to the epics (Homer, Virgil, Apollonius) and tragedians.