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Thread: Introduction to the Classical Tradition

  1. #1
    Registered User bluosean's Avatar
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    Introduction to the Classical Tradition

    I'm finally starting to read Shakespeare. Iv'e read some of his plays before, but Iv'e never spent so much time, and tried so hard to understand, as now. Ive also been spending a lot of time with The Bible (Gideon, Oxford Annotated, and Geneva), and I am very happy when I understand characters and passages that Shakespeare is drawing from.

    My problem is that of the Greek/Roman writings/tradition. I haven't received any school here, and, when I see a name, I don't know what that god/person/story was. Actually, this isn't just with Shakespeare. There are reference in Ben Jonson, Melville, Dickens, etc. that I have glossed over.

    Where should I start? I dislike reading translations, but it seems I at last have to read at least some of these texts. Homer and Ovid is all I can think of. Are there any other very, very necessary books that I need to read to get a decent understanding of the Greek/Roman influence?
    "bruised reed" Isaiah 42:3

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    Alea iacta est. mortalterror's Avatar
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    You should probably read the complete Greek plays by Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristophanes. There are about 37 Shakespearean plays and about 45 ancient Greek plays but the overall quality and length are similar. Other than that, you need to read Homer's The Iliad, The Odyssey, Virgil's Aeneid, Ovid's Metamorphoses, Seneca's tragedies, and Lucan's Pharsalia. Seneca is probably the most important influence on Shakespeare, particularly with the five act structure popular at the time imitating his plays. His verse style owes more to Ovid, and Ovid is also the treasure trove of Roman mythology. Homer and Virgil are just the gold standard that everyone has to read to understand ancient Greco-Roman culture since they were the most revered literature of the time. You're also going to want to read Plutarch's Lives which is where Shakespeare got a lot of the material for his Roman plays. You'll also want to read the plays of Plautus and Terence from which Shakespeare borrowed to make his own play The Comedy of Errors.

    If you just want to read classical literature for it's own sake, then try some of these:
    750BC Homer- The Iliad
    750BC Hesiod- Theogony
    700-500BC Homeric Hymns
    680-645BC Archilochus- Be Bold
    630-570BC Sappho- Hymn to Aphrodite
    620-564BC Aesop- The Fox and the Grapes
    582-485BC Anacreon- Love's Night Walk
    525-456BC Aeschylus- Oresteia
    522-443BC Pindar- Victory Odes
    497-405BC Sophocles- Oedipus Rex
    484-425BC Herodotus- Histories
    480-406BC Euripides- Medea
    460-395BC Thucydides- History of the Peloponnesian War
    446-386BC Aristophanes- Lysistrata
    445-380BC Lysias- Speeches
    436-338BC Isocrates- Panathenaicus
    430-354BC Xenophon- Anabasis
    424-348BC Plato- Republic
    420-348BC Isaeus- Speeches
    396-323BC Lycurgus- Speeches
    390-322BC Hypereides- Speeches
    389-314BC Aeschines- Speeches
    384-322BC Demosthenes- On the Crown
    384-322BC Aristotle- Nichomachean Ethics
    371-287BC Theophrastus- On Character
    361-291BC Dinarchus- Speeches
    342-291BC Menander- The Miser
    323-283BC Euclid- Elements
    310-250BC Theocritus- Idylls
    310-240BC Callimachus- Aetia
    300-246BC Apollonius Rhodius- Argonautika
    254-184BC Plautus- The Pot of Gold
    204-270BC Plotinus- Enneads
    200-118BC Polybius- The Histories
    195-159BC Terence- The Brothers
    106-43BC Cicero- Dream of Scipio
    100-44BC Caesar- The Gallic War
    86-35BC Sallust- The Catiline Conspiracy
    84-54BC Catullus- Poem 107
    70-19BC Virgil- The Aeneid
    65-8BC Horace- Odes
    64BC-24AD Strabo- Geography
    60-7BC Dionysus of Halicarnassus- On Imitation
    59BC-17AD Livy- History of Rome
    55-19BC Tibullus- Elegies
    50-15BC Sextus Propertius- Elegies
    43BC-17AD Ovid- Metamorphoses
    4BC-65AD Seneca- Thyestes
    23-79AD Pliny the Elder- Natural History
    27-66AD Petronius- Satyricon
    34-62AD Persius- Satires
    35-100AD Quintillian- Institutes of Oratory
    37-100AD Josephus- The Jewish War
    39-65AD Lucan- Pharsalia
    40-104AD Martial- Epigrams
    45-96AD Statius- Thebaid
    46-120AD Plutarch- Lives
    55-138AD Juvenal- Satires
    55-135AD Epictetus- Discourses
    56-117AD Tacitus- Annals
    61-112AD Pliny the Younger- Letters
    69-130AD Suetonius- Lives of 12 Caesars
    86-160AD Arrian- The Anabasis of Alexander
    90-168AD Ptolemy- The Great Treatise
    95-165AD Appian- Roman History
    121-180AD Marcus Aurelius- Meditations
    125-180AD Apuleius- The Golden ***
    125-180AD Lucian- True Story
    125-180AD Aulus Gellius- Attic Nights
    129-199AD Galen- Medical Writing
    143-176AD Pausanias- Description of Greece
    150AD Longus- Daphnis and Chloe
    150-235AD Cassius Dio- Roman History
    213-273AD Longinus- On the Sublime
    250AD Heliodorus- Ethiopica
    354-430AD St. Augustine- Confessions
    400AD Nonnus- Dionysiacca

    If all of that is too much for you and you just want to get a couple of the references then you can read Edith Hamilton's Mythology or Bulfinch's Mythology.
    Last edited by mortalterror; 01-11-2017 at 05:59 PM.
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  3. #3
    Registered User bluosean's Avatar
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    Great. Thank you so much!

    No, I don't want to read those Mythologies you mentioned last. I'm sure they are great, but I think I'll go for the originals.

    Having said that, your list is overwhelming. I'll start with Mary M. Innes translation of the Metamorphoses I think. Homer's two; any favorite translations? How about other must have translations for some of the other recommendations?
    Last edited by bluosean; 01-11-2017 at 09:23 PM.
    "bruised reed" Isaiah 42:3

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    Artist and Bibliophile stlukesguild's Avatar
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    I would initially crop Mortal's suggestions down... although he's the "classicist".

    Homer- The Iliad and The Odyssey (I would go with either Richmond Lattimore or Robert Fagles... although Alexander Pope may be of interest)
    Hesiod- Theogony and Works and Days (M.L. West?)
    Sappho- Poems (Mary Barnard or Anne Carson)
    Aeschylus- Oresteia (Robert Fagles or Richmond Lattimore and David Grene)
    Sophocles- The Oedipus Trilogy (Robert Fagles)
    Euripides- Selected Plays (especially Medea). There are a number of translations worth looking into: The Greek Plays: Sixteen Plays by Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides (Modern Library Classics), Grief Lessons: Four Plays by Euripides tr. Anne Carson, tr. Paul Roche
    Herodotus- Histories ( The Landmark Herodotus- Robert B. Strassler)
    Thucydides- The Peloponesian War (The Landmark Thucydides- Robert B. Strassler)
    Plato- The Republic (Allan Bloom)
    Aristophanes- Lysistrata (Paul Roche?)
    Theocritus- Idylls (Charles Stuart Calverley)
    Ovid- Metamorphoses- (Rolfe Humphries or Allen Mandelbaum)
    Virgil- Aeneid (Robert Fagles or Robert Fitzgerald)
    Horace- Odes (David Ferry or David West)
    Catullus- Poems (Peter Green?)
    Plutarch- Lives
    Lucretius- De Rerum Natura (Rolfe Humphries or Ronald Melville)
    Marcus Aurelius- Meditations

    Ovid's Metamorphoses might be the best place to start being a classical era compendium of Greco-Roman myth and legend. Honestly, many of the Greco-Roman "originals" assume the reader is already familiar with the various myths and legends and at some point you will likely discover that a solid encyclopedic compendium of Greco-Roman mythology provides a useful foundation for a greater understanding of the Greco-Roman classics... and subsequent literature and art rooted in the same.
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    Alea iacta est. mortalterror's Avatar
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    For Homer, Virgil, and Aeschylus you can't do better than either Fagles or Fitzgerald. Sophocles I'd go with the Fitzgerald translations. For Ovid, I go with the Humphries. Whatever you do, steer clear of Green and Lattimore. They are the worst, even if they are the most readily available. William Arrowsmith's competing collection is vastly superior. For Seneca, I like Slavitt and E.F. Watling. Either's good. You might want to cut your teeth on the Harvard Classics volume Nine Greek Dramas. The translations are old but excellent. Arrowsmith's Petronius is the best and Melville did the only readable Statius. Other than that, I have no real preferences. Stuff like the histories can be pretty dry and you just have to power through them whatever translation you get. For instance, I've never found good translations of the speeches. About the only place you are even going to find them is in the Loeb Classics library. Besides Loeb, I find that Penguin usually makes pretty high quality books whatever the language or period. Oh, and if you want to read Catullus, be warned he's extremely dirty like Petronius. Also, I like the Guy Lee translation.
    Last edited by mortalterror; 01-12-2017 at 07:02 AM.
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  6. #6
    Registered User bluosean's Avatar
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    Thanks so much y'all.

    This gives me plenty to start.
    "bruised reed" Isaiah 42:3

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    Quote Originally Posted by mortalterror View Post
    For Homer, Virgil, and Aeschylus you can't do better than either Fagles or Fitzgerald. Sophocles I'd go with the Fitzgerald translations. For Ovid, I go with the Humphries. Whatever you do, steer clear of Green and Lattimore. They are the worst, even if they are the most readily available. William Arrowsmith's competing collection is vastly superior. For Seneca, I like Slavitt and E.F. Watling. Either's good. You might want to cut your teeth on the Harvard Classics volume Nine Greek Dramas. The translations are old but excellent. Arrowsmith's Petronius is the best and Melville did the only readable Statius. Other than that, I have no real preferences. Stuff like the histories can be pretty dry and you just have to power through them whatever translation you get. For instance, I've never found good translations of the speeches. About the only place you are even going to find them is in the Loeb Classics library. Besides Loeb, I find that Penguin usually makes pretty high quality books whatever the language or period. Oh, and if you want to read Catullus, be warned he's extremely dirty like Petronius. Also, I like the Guy Lee translation.
    First off, glad to see St. Lukes posting. Thought he had disappeared, and he always has valuable info for someone like me going through the classics for the first time. You, too, mortalterror!

    I read Lattimore's Iliad and Odyssey. Liked the Iliad more than the Odyssey, but maybe (probably) that was due to the original work more than him. Mortalterror, you say steer clear of Lattimore. Is that just in reference to Ovid, or any Lattimore. I remember I read his Homer since Beowulf on the Beach (which inspired me to read the classics--highly recommend) recommended it, or his Iliad, anyway.

    I'd like to read both Ovid and the Aeneid this year. I have the latter in Mandelbaum, so I, going to read that translation. Murnighan (Beowulf on the Beach author) cites Mary Innes, but you guys both mention Humphries, so that seems as good as any. Anyways, Murnighan didn't exactly love The Metamorphoses.

    To the OP, I agree with the others that having a background of the mythology independent of the classic fictional works helps. In Homer, he's not telling the background of the gods' stories. They are merely characters in the ongoing action, and you are expected to have a background in them, as his audience would've. I'm sure it's similar in other classical works (outside of Metamorphoses, which as far as I know IS tales of mythology themselves). I haven't read either Hamilton or Bulfinch's Mythology books, but I do want to. I have read Don't Know Much About Mythology a while ago, which I did like. It's not just about the Greco-Romans, though.

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    So I was at a nice used-bookstore and made two purchases relevant to this thread today: Bulfinch's Mythology and the Mandelbaum translation of Metamorphoses. Hopefully his translation is good for a first-timer. I actually have his translations of the Aeneid and the Divine Comedy, although I haven't read either, so maybe that'll give me a sense of consistency in all those.

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