Email this review


Appealing, highly personal, somewhat quirky popular survey, from Homer to Plutarch. Very few living classical scholars would dare to tackle the immense corpus of Greek literature (10 times larger than Latin), but Levi (currently Professor of Poetry at Oxford) has carried it off without any pedantic straining. He discusses every major writer, with the exceptions of Marcus Aurelius--a regrettable omission--and Plotinus. He assumes no prior knowledge of the texts (and so provides brief plot summaries), but beginners will find him rather dense and allusive. Levi is generous with quotations, most of which he translates himself. He is especially good with the lyric poets, Archilochus, Mimnermus, Alcman, Pindar, Simonides, et al. He also draws on some of the great translations of the past, from Hobbes' Thucydides to Pope's Homer to Yeats' Sophocles. Unfortunately, he ignores most contemporary translators (Lattimore, Fitzgerald, Fagles), and lists only secondary sources in the bibliographies at the end of each chapter. As a literary critic, he is generally conservative (accepting the traditional canon, rejecting only--as many others do--Plato's authorship of the Letters and Euripides' of Rhesus) and warmly appreciative (though he concludes that ""The ratio of signal to noise among the Greek orators is terribly low""). He makes no bones about his subjective bias, defending the medieval Scholastic reading of Aristotle (Levi is an ex-Jesuit) and explaining that swotting over Hate's Republic for exams has chilled his feelings for it. He is perhaps best at putting the classics in the context of modern European culture, as when he notes that Lucian's Greek ""has the curious purity of the kind of French that used to be spoken by educated people in the Balkans, a beautiful and sinuous, but slightly refined, unidiomatic language."" He also does eloquent justice, as might be expected, to the literary aspects of the New Testament. Levi cannot compete (nor does he try) with scholarly monuments like the Oxford Classical Dictionary or exhaustive studies like the new Cambridge History of Classical Literature, but this modest, graceful, solid work may be the best non-specialized introduction to its subject available in English.

Pub Date: June 1st, 1985
Publisher: Viking