There are any number of reasons why we read, and reread, the literature of antiquity. First of all, its poems, plays, philosophical dialogues and, yes, novels (Lucian’s “A True Story,” Petronius’s “The Satyricon,” Apuleius’s “The Golden Ass”) aren’t just works that illuminate the human condition; they are — to use what might seem an oxymoron — profoundly entertaining.
What’s more, the classics of Greek and Latin literature provide templates and imagery that writers have drawn on for more than 2,000 years. Homer’s tale of Odysseus echoes down the ages, as Dante, Tennyson, James Joyce and many others ring changes on the wanderings and homecoming of that most resourceful of all the warriors who fought at Troy. “The Odyssey” itself is also constantly being reinvigorated through new translations, most recently that of Emily Wilson, the first woman to render the entire epic into English.
Wilson, though, is simply one star in a constellation of brilliant female classicists. On April 27, for instance, the University of Maryland honors the retirement of the anything-but-retiring professor Judith P. Hallett with an international colloquium titled “Women and Classical Scholarship.” Eminent trailblazers, such as Edith Hamilton (author of “Mythology”), have now been succeeded by MacArthur Award-winning poet-translators such as Anne Carson and A.E. Stallings. Carson’s first book, “Eros the Bittersweet” — a study of Sappho’s poetry — must be one of the most exciting works of criticism ever written. Stallings’s 2007 verse-translation of Lucretius’s “The Nature of Things” actually transforms that recondite poem about cosmology and human nature into an intellectual page-turner.
In her new English version of Hesiod’s Works and Days (Penguin), Stallings joins those who argue that its author wrote before Homer and is, thus, the first major poet of Western civilization. Today, Hesiod is known for two works — a genealogical history of the gods titled “Theogony” and what Stallings calls this “variegated and discursive poem about justice and man’s place in the world.” That sounds very high-minded, yet “Works and Days” is a surprisingly personal work, grounded in a quarrel between Hesiod and his brother over a paternal inheritance. As she did with Lucretius, the formalist Stallings again translates into couplets, this time channeling Robert Frost’s mid-register conversational tone. She consequently risks phrases such as “the payback of the gods” and refers to those who don’t do “a lick of work.” Her Hesiod can even be inadvertently funny: “Don’t let a woman mystify your mind/ With sweet talk and the sway of her behind — / She’s just after your barn.”
Still, the most famous section of Hesiod’s poem is probably his heavy-metal account of ancient history. From the paradise-like Golden Age, humankind has gradually devolved through eras of Silver and Bronze to arrive at our own dismal Iron Age, a time without pity, where “suffering never ceases” and all power comes from “the rule of fist.”
Certainly, an absence of pity characterizes Euripides’s greatest tragedy, Bakkhai, as Carson transliterates its title (New Directions). In it, the Asiatic god Dionysos announces that he has returned to his birthplace, Thebes, aiming “to make myself known:/ my rituals, my dances, my religion, my livewire self.” First, he converts the most aristocratic women of the city into whirling dervishes, gentle enough when they gambol in the mountains but capable of superhuman ferocity. Even two standbys from Greek myth, the now decrepit Kadmos, who once sowed the dragon’s teeth, and the aged prophet Teiresias decide to join Dionysos’s posse. “We must get to the mountain,” Kadmos says. “Should we call a cab?” To which Teiresias replies, “That doesn’t sound very Dionysian.”
Throughout, the sassy, seductive Dionysos deliberately antagonizes Thebes’s King Pentheus, who espouses traditional civilized values but represses his own desires, which emerge when he dons women’s apparel. In the end, Pentheus is torn apart by maenads led by his own deluded mother, who imagines she is killing a lion. Her eventual recognition of the truth makes for one of the most shocking epiphanies in Greek drama. Though “Bakkhai” might appear a warning against manic behavior and mindless emotion, it actually stresses the need to accommodate the instinctual in our natures. The mature individual, as Jung said, must embrace his darker, shadow self.
In Horace: Odes and Carmen Saeculare (Hackett), the versatile translator Stanley Lombardo sticks close to the facing-page Latin but eschews the more singing melodiousness of a James Michie or David Ferry. Horace, of course, remains ever-fresh. The famous Ode 1.5, Latin scholar Anthony Corbeill tells us in an endnote, has been translated more than 500 times. Lombardo’s take on it begins: “What slender boy has you bedded on roses/ and, oiled and scented, urges you on/ in some pleasant cave, Pyrrha?” Ode 4.7 — the one A.E. Housman acclaimed the most beautiful poem in ancient literature — is particularly appropriate for April: “The snows have fled away; grass to the meadows/ and leaves to the trees return/ Earth goes through her changes.”
All of the above are familiar classics, but not so The Elegies of Maximianus , now deftly translated by A.M. Juster (University of Pennsylvania) and introduced by Michael Roberts. In them, Maximianus, who flourished in the 6th century and was a friend of the philosopher Boethius, epigrammatically reflects on old age, lost love and sexual impotence. The noted Latinist Helen Waddell convincingly likened him to Maupassant. Yet however Gallic his sensibility, Maximianus certainly knows his Roman rhetoric and can use its techniques to suggest an infinite wistfulness: “Seduced by love for you, I went mad, Aquilina,/ morose and pale, seduced by love for you.” Still, he’s at his most modern when celebrating sex or bemoaning the dismal lot of the elderly: “We’re forced to give up fondness for the pleasant things,/ and we stop living so that we might live.” Ain’t that the truth?
Michael Dirda reviews books each Thursday for The Washington Post.