By Harry Mount
Bloomsbury (2015) h/b 264pp £18.99 (ISBN 9781472904678)
Despite the pretentious title, this book is both modest and entertaining, if a little self—indulgent. Mount is a journalist, writer (Amo, Amas, Amat and All That) and classical scholar in the British tradition—Westminster and Oxford—and the book records the author’s journey round sites of ancient Greece loosely following the trail of Odysseus. Its inspiration, Mount asserts, is his rejection in love and the need for cathartic refuge in travel—almost mythically he parted from his girl friend in Naxos. It is light-hearted but not lightweight, including erudite references and creating a coherent structure on to which he can tag his own comments and experiences. He has the happy knack of relating ancient sites and practices to modern life. But throughout it all his respect and love of Homer shines through.
The book is not completely faithful to Odysseus’s post Troy trek—which does not matter as the best bits are probably his visits to Sparta and Athens where he is able to meet current political figures (contrastingly un-Periclean) and comment on Greece’s modern predicament. Indeed at times he treats the Odyssey more as a marketable entity than as an inspiration and seems almost utilitarian when he writes ‘the Odyssey brand was beginning its extremely slow journey towards domination of world literature.’
Amid the solipsistic narrative there are some real gems. His explanations of the development of Greek sculpture and architecture as well as his analysis of the Greek dialects and the eventual ascendancy of Attic (although Homer’s language was Ionic) are clear and authoritative. The origin of asterisks and punctuation itself is a particularly fine passage. But the book never becomes didactic—except perhaps for the continual insistence on analysing almost every Greek word with its modern derivation—and it is full of bon mots: the Gods of Olympus are described as a ‘celestial soap opera’.
As seems customary for all contemporary books about the classical world, there is an abundance of commentary on ancient Greeks’ liberal attitude to sex. Perhaps this is a reaction to the prudish editing and absurd euphemisms that dampened the pages of schoolboy texts in previous generations; or perhaps simply to spice up the story. This is fun, but over-egged.
Mount’s bond with Odysseus is a touch contrived, loosely comparing his emotional down-draft ‘post jilt’ with the traumatic stress of Troy’s ten year battlefield. He reveals little that is new, so the professional reader will not benefit intellectually. But it is an excellent book for the general reader—and it is a lot more than just a scholarly scamper round the Med.