Classical Knowledge?

So, my mind was wandering the other day, or more accurately, fleeing the truly obnoxious and depressing “morning show” blaring in the waiting area of the eye doctor’s office, and I started thinking about a book that I didn’t buy. I was in line at a very, very unusual bookstore, and they had a shelf of Loeb Classics editions, all ten percent off. One of them was Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy. This was a book I’d been wanting for a while, mostly because of the connection between it and King Alfred of Wessex, Alfred the Great. However, even at ten percent off it was a little spendy, so I didn’t get it.

Those thoughts led me to recall a story in Roy Bedichek’s Adventures of a Texas Naturalist where he was at a cocktail party and referred to “Thalassa, thalassa!” one associate caught the reference instantly, but a young woman did not. She had never heard of the Anabasis, could not discuss Xenophon’s prose style, was not familiar with the Greek classics in translation or in Greek. Bedichek wondered what had become of the schools. This was in the 1950s.

So, I started going through my mental list. Which of the Classical classics have I read, either in the original or in translation?

Illiad and Odyssey of Homer, both in translation (Landmark Edition)

Peloponnesian War Thucydides, in two translations.

Histories Herodotus (Landmark edition)

Oedipus Rex, Oedipus at Colonus, Antigone, all in translation

Greek mythology – Hamilton, Dublairs, Bullfinch

The Republic – Plato (in translation)

Physics, Nicomachean Ethics – Aristotle (translation, although I managed a few pages of the Ethics in Greek.)

Anabasis and On Horsemanship – Xenophon (in translation)

De Gallico Belli Julius Caesar – Latin

Aeneid and Georgics Virgil (both in Latin)

Ars Amatoria and Metamorphosis (first one in Latin, second in English)

Lives of the Caesars Suetonius (English)

Epigrams Martial (Latin and English)

Annals Tacitus (part in Latin, all in English)

The Golden Book Epictetus (English)

Meditations Marcus Aurelius (in Latin and English)

Odes Horace (in Latin)

Keep in mind, I had three years of Latin in high school, a semester in in college, plus a lot of reading on my own. And I’m missing a lot of works, especially the Greek dramas and philosophical writings. All of which brings us back to Boethius. He was either the last Classical author, or the first non-church writer of Late Antiquity, depending on how you look at his work. And Alfred the Great translated his writings into Anglo Saxon, with Alfred’s own observations, glosses, and commentaries. Alfred copied the Carolingian Renaissance of the mainland, re-starting education and scholarship in the Saxon kingdoms of England. While fighting off the Vikings, and founding a navy, and suffering from a chronic disease.

27 thoughts on “Classical Knowledge?

  1. I’ve read a couple on that list in translations. Think I have the copy of the “Iliad and Aenied” That I read when I was younger. Plato’s Republic took me awhile to wade through. Of course Greek Mythology which was covered in High School English (grade 9 I think). Some of the others are stacked on my physical TBR pile though.

    • I’ll be the barbarian here. 🙂 We also covered mythology (Greek and Norse) a bit in 9th grade English. I think it was the Bullfinch version for Greek, but it’s been over half a century.

      Some of my classmates took Latin in HS; I took 3 years of German, and got a semester’s credit at the university level. I was closer to point-and-pay at the market in Wasserburg, however.

      • If you have any kids you want to inflict really enjoyable mythology on, D’Aulaires. Gorgeous illustrations, comes in Norse and Greek.

        It is mild enough that I didn’t get nightmares, but explicit enough that I started snickering in junior high when our mangled Bullfinch’s was, ah, glossing over some aspects of the Greek myths.

  2. The Iliad, Odyssey and Aenied back around high school and Anabasis twice in the last fifteen years. All in translation, while I can speak/read a bit of spanish I am your typical monolingual American.

    • I took high school Latin because that was where the cool troublemakers hung out. As opposed to the real troublemakers.

  3. I thought Metamorphosis was Kafka.

    I actually didn’t do too badly… (But only due to the grading curve.)
    I’ve read a bit over half, and another quarter are in my “to be read” stack (which unfortunately, approaches infinity)..
    All in English translation, obviously. I’m not a barbarian!

    I didn’t pick up on the Anabasis reference. I got that it referenced the sea, because etymology.

    • Barbarian here. When I read Kafka’s Metamorphosis in HS, it seemed clear that it was about breaking away from your family as you grow up. Nothing like that was mentioned in class and I kept my mouth shut.
      The Ethics and the Anabasis in translation, fragments of others, some audio courses on Plato/Socrates and Aristotle.
      When I read parts of the Ethics in a college Humanities class, it seemed very hard. I picked it up a few years later and found it very readable, allowing for the translation.
      Some years later I read von Clausewitz and found a certain similarity in how they build huge fabrics of reasoning from simple statements

      Barbarians … I followed links off Instapundit and found a Telegraph article on Boris Johnson. They commented on Johnson’s command of grammar and quoted his description of some of Churchill’s tools. But Johnson was not peaking of grammar, he was speaking of rhetoric. (Barbarians–I saw a photo of Johnson and got the impression that if you took away the suit and gave him a sword, he’d make a very creditable Conan. That seems appropriate somehow.)

      • Barbarians–I saw a photo of Johnson and got the impression that if you took away the suit and gave him a sword, he’d make a very creditable Conan. That seems appropriate somehow.

        I keep seeing him in story-book basic armor as Sir Neighboring Lord, who is totally OK with being under-estimated and probably does something that shows he’s a lot smarter than you think at an important point in the plot.

        Like Colombo as a knight.

  4. I think I sampled most of them through a classics survey course in college, plus having read versions of the Iliad and Odyssey as a kid. I wish that my HS did offer Latin, but I think I was about three decades too late for that.
    The most useful thing I took away from that class was being able now to pick up on classical references in English lit of a certain period without having to refer to the footnotes… 😉

    • Latin manages to survive in the public schools out here because it is sold as “Good for building vocabulary for the AP and SAT tests.” Plus it has really neat contests. That you read Caesar and/or works like the Roman guide to “How to Pick Up Women” is, of course, not mentioned. 😉

  5. Very impressive list.

    re the classics, Tom Watson Jr of IBM had a friend who had worked himself up to executive ranks from a rough coal-mining background. When Tom asked him how he had done it, the man said there were 3 main points to his success plan:

    –read the classics
    –listen to classical music
    –buy suits at Brooks Brother

    This would have been in the 1940s or early 1950s. I hate to think what the equivalent list might look like today.

  6. I got D’Aulaires Book of Greek Myths as a kid, and like a dozen different Greek and Roman mythologies.

    The Oedipus trilogy in my high school English teacher’s hobby class.

    I know I read the Art of War, but danged if any of it stuck.

    Chunks of a lot of the rest, but generally found no use for them– it’s like Casablanca, the downside of a truly revolutionary and awesome book is that people will pull the gold out of it and repackage it!

    • “he downside of a truly revolutionary and awesome book is that people will pull the gold out of it and repackage it!”

      This, you can get the gist of the classics from any number of sources and much of the gold is either quoted or paraphrased in all sorts of likely and unlikely places. (sometimes you have read and/or heard something many times and don’t realize where it came from unless you read the classic it originated in).

      I read parts of Sun Tzu and have often wished for a copy to read front to back, but likely would find I’ve already found most of the gold in other sources.

      • Ditto Machiavelli.

        Doesn’t mean it’s a reason to NOT read the classics if you’ve the time and inclination, just don’t expect some kind of a life changing experience from it. More like taking your diamond wedding ring and tilting it in the sunlight, admiring the may facets.
        (double-checkes homophone*

  7. Mhfff… I’m sucking hind tit here. I’ve read the Iliad, Odyssey, Plato, and the Aeneid.

  8. This list makes me want to go back to college and study the classics….there’s several on yours that I haven’t read, and would love the chance to read, study, and discuss.

    • When I was flying full time, the Everyman Editions available at the local public library just happened to fit quite nicely into my smaller headset bag, so it gave me something to do while waiting for the med-crew or passengers to return. Of course, I’d read anything that sat still long enough, almost.

  9. My high school (1980’s) didn’t offer Latin, nor did it have any classical instruction – it was focused on supposedly preparing students for the business world – this was a PUBLIC high school btw. As I enjoy history, I must confess to not reading any Xenophon, but have read the rest, including Aurelius, Sun Tzu.

    • Xenophon has great moments, and a few not-so-great. It also depends on the translator. _On Horsemanship_ is a how-to guide, very useful. I read it first, then his other work.

  10. I’ve read either the Iliad or the Odyssey in English, I’m thinking it was Iliad, and Odyssey was hit or miss. What I mainly remember is “classic epithets” and “rosy-fingered dawn”. From fifty-some years ago.

    • A little’s better than nothing, unless you are trying to base an argument on a mis-remembered quote. Not that that’s ever happened to me. Nooooo, nope, not me. *studies the ceiling*

  11. I went to a Great Books college, so I read a lot of the ancient classics.

    The “thalassa” anecdote, though reminds me of a children’s book from (checks Amazon) 1969 (in the US) wherein the kid protaganist makes that same reference and the other kids get it. (I didn’t when I read it, except from context.) I don’t think modern kids could or would, or they’d have to be set up as interested in ‘odd’ stuff.

    • No, they’d have to be Odd, or go to one of the few true Classics high schools. We do a lot of Classics, especially the kids who pick Latin-track, but not Greek.

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