by Christopher Pelling and Maria Wyke
OUP (2014) h/b 274pp £18.99 (ISBN 9780199597369)
In 2008 Chris Pelling, Regius Professor of Greek at Oxford, and Maria Wyke, Professor of Latin at UCL, worked with the BBC and the Open University to produce The Essay: Greek and Latin Voices. They invited many of the great and good to make a 15-minute contribution expressing their response to individual writers from the ancient world. This book constitutes another series of essays, written not broadcast, in which the authors take up their own invitation. There are six 20-page essays on Latin and six on Greek writers, set out in chronological order from Homer, author of epics (c. 700 BC), to Lucian, man of universal culture of the 2nd C AD. Before each essay is an introductory paragraph summarising the career of the author. At the end of the book is a very useful assembly of suggestions for further reading. The object of the essays is not to elicit ‘eternal truths’ from them but to have a ‘conversation’ with them—‘the ways in which texts speak to us and invite us to respond’.
‘Conversation’ is perhaps not an apt word in the same way throughout. It works relatively well with Virgil, whose different ‘voices’ are so familiar (‘Tell us, Virgil, who is your Aeneas: he of the shield in book 8 or the murderous conqueror of the end of book 12?’) With Thucydides it is more like chuntering to one’s neighbour in a lecture hall while the speaker pontificates. And with Sappho the conversation is not so much with Sappho as with all the different moderns who have tried to tell us what Sappho Really Liked. I have a slight regret that all the Greek authors are covered by Pelling and all the Latin by Wyke: one could have had a little more evidence of conversation between them, especially on a subject like Sappho, where Wyke’s experience on gender studies might have been valuable. But: these are delightful essays by very intelligent and approachable scholars, capable of looking at ancient authors through modern eyes and of appreciating the risks of doing just that. Well worth reading, whether you think you know something about Homer or know you know nothing.