Hellenic Tours

Jonathan Barnes

  • The Cambridge History of Classical Literature. Vol. I: Greek Literature edited by P.E. Easterling and B.M.W. Knox
    Cambridge, 936 pp, £47.50, May 1985, ISBN 0 521 21042 9
  • A History of Greek Literature by Peter Levi
    Viking, 511 pp, £14.95, February 1985, ISBN 0 670 80100 3

Greek, Sir, said he, is like lace; every man gets as much of it as he can.’ So Johnson in 1780. An early editor punctiliously observed that ‘this was said twenty-five or thirty years ago, when lace was very generally worn.’ Two centuries later lace is quite out of fashion.

Lovers of lace – and what civilised man is not a lace-lover? – sometimes despond, and sackcloth is generally worn when Classicists congress. Publishers, however, a race of men not famous for their optimism, are not yet printing the funeral service. On the contrary, Classical texts and Classical commentaries appear in ever greater numbers, works of haute vulgarisation or low learning pour from the presses, translations – good translations – multiply and sell. And it is immensely cheering to welcome the publication of two new and substantial histories of Greek literature.

The Cambridge History is a formidable tome: nine hundred learned pages by 19 learned scholars. It begins with Homer and proceeds at a steady pace to the third century AD. Most significant figures receive thorough discussion; in addition, the editors have justly defended the rights of minor characters, and they have called particular attention to the most recent enlargements in our knowledge of Greek literature. The text and the ample appendixes convey all the information – biographical, literary, bibliographical – which a serious reader could want: the history is a handbook, something to be consulted rather than read, and it will certainly become a standard work of reference. But it is also much more than a catalogue of ascertained fact and scholarly conjecture. Its various chapters contain criticism and assessment, and they are generously illustrated with quotations, many of them in Greek.

Peter Levi’s history purposes to give ‘a short lucid description in easy, continuous prose of most of ancient Greek literature’. The description is again accompanied by critical reflections and illustrated by frequent quotations (all in English translation). But this history is not a handbook. It is described as a ‘one-man tour d’horizon’, and its scope and range are determined by its author’s predilections.

Mr Levi covers the poets pretty thoroughly, and he neglects none of the best-known prose-writers. But his survey is not complete. Philosophers will regret the absence of Epictetus (the most translated of ancient philosophers) and of Sextus Empiricus (who perfected philosophical prose). Others will properly lament the fact that Greek scientific prose – Hippocrates, Euclid, Archimedes, Ptolemy, Galen – is ignored. But Mr Levi does not pretend to be comprehensive, and a reader who wants detailed accounts of Ptolemy’s Syntaxis or Epictetus’s Manual may find them elsewhere.

Not, however, in the Cambridge History. And here a critic may find room to carp. In at least two respects the book is conservative. Literary scholars prefer poetry to prose, and they prefer the well-worn to the less familiar. The History shares these preferences. Poetry is better treated than prose – thus Callimachus is allotted more space than Plato, Aristotle gets fewer pages than ‘minor Hellenistic poets’. Unfamiliar prose-writers are largely shunned: Epictetus is briefly discussed, Galen extends to a page, Archimedes, Ptolemy and Hippocrates earn each an aside, Euclid (unless I have missed something) is not mentioned.

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