A deft distillation of 1,000 years of literature.
Classicist Jenkyns (Emeritus, Classical Tradition/Univ. of Oxford; God, Space, and the City in the Roman Imagination, 2014, etc.) crafts a concise and spirited overview of poetry, drama, and prose from Homer to post-Augustan Rome, focusing on a broad swath of writers. “The ancient Greeks and Romans are our parents,” he asserts, “and on the whole they have been good parents,” inspiring future writers—Shakespeare, Milton, and, notably, the Romantics—to build on their rich foundation. That foundation is startlingly incomplete, represented by works that were repeatedly copied. All manuscripts from classical authors, notes the author, “are copies of copies of copies.” We know the love poems of Sappho, Catullus, and Lucretius on the basis of a few manuscripts, while Cicero was survived by all or part of his 58 speeches and more than 900 letters, making him one of the best known personages of antiquity. Many, once admired, are now completely lost. Among the vast strides made by Greek writers, Jenkyns praises those of the sixth and fifth centuries B.C.E. for discovering differences: “fact was different from fiction, history from myth, natural science from philosophy” and verse from prose. He praises Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, whose masterful tragedies emerged from Athens “within a period of less than a century.” But all writers do not merit his acclaim. Ovid’s Metamorphoses, he writes, “can be overrated….His passages of natural description are rather unimaginative.” Virgil seems to the author a greater poet. In later fifth-century Greece, Jenkyns notes the disjunction between repetitive forms of visual art (sculpture and architecture) and “daring and innovative, sometimes wild or experimental” literary forms. In the fourth century, with the advent of Plato, “a literary artist of a high order,” and Aristotle, philosophy “got off to a dazzling start.”
Jenkyns’ enthusiasm and erudition infuse a shrewd, illuminating narrative.