Child swallowings and vainglory

The marvellously unrelatable world of the ancient Greeks

Today’s classicist is often asked, “How are the ancient Greeks relevant to me, to our society?” To which the awkward answer must be: “They’re not, which is why I like them.” It’s different with Rome. In law, for example, or in lyric poetry, or in the very idea of “the West,” half the Empire still survives; parallels between Donald Trump and the more grotesque emperors, for instance, are by now taken for granted. But the Greeks are a people apart: we are far closer in worldview to their comfortable neighbours, the more even-keeled Egyptians and Lydians and Persians, than we are to that hard-headed, hot-hearted race whose fierce little city states somehow gave rise to an unparalleled artistic and intellectual achievement. The Greeks are deeply alien, whence their perennial fruitfulness. “I do not know what meaning classical studies could have for our time,” protested the civic-minded Nietzsche, “if they were not untimely—that is to say, acting counter to our time and thereby acting on our time and, let us hope, for the benefit of a time to come.”

Still, the gulf will not bridge itself. How to interest today’s civilized reader in the antique? Robin Waterfield’s Creators, Conquerors, and Citizens approaches the problem from a historical perspective, laying a firm foundation in historical narrative for an appreciation of ancient Greece. Hefty but highly readable, with well-produced maps and figures, it can be relied on as a distillation of twenty-first-century historians’ overall view of the subject. Thus he begins with the environment: though the Greeks were prone to migrating and colonizing, as they scattered out from their rocky homeland (roughly modern Greece) to new settings from Spain to Libya to the Caucasus, they tended to pick the rockiest spots, whether for safety or from affinity. (One recollects Dr. Johnson’s jest, upon being told of some Scottish settlers who had picked a North American home that was oddly barren, that surely Scots could not be expected to notice.) Economically, the result was small-scale, low-yield subsistence farming, with little opportunity for coalescence into large, centralized states on the Near Eastern model. The feisty, microcosmic civic life of the Greeks was thus first and foremost the product of geography.

In keeping with tradition, Waterfield divides his timeline into Archaic, Classical, and Hellenistic phases. This does scant justice, unfortunately, to the deep history of Greece prior to the Dark Ages. For five centuries starting in about ­1600 BCE—what we today designate the “Mycenaean” phase—Greece was not a constellation of city states but of micro-empires centred on large palace complexes, in Thebes, Pylos, Athens, Knossos, and Mycenae itself. This was, moreover, a literate world, albeit one that used writing to count the king’s chariots rather than to record poetry. Its palace archives, miraculously preserved, attest to a centralized, economically complex, heavily bureaucratized society, far beyond anything found in the apparently feral centuries of the subsequent Dark Ages. By way of example, the recent discovery of the “Pylos Combat Agate,” a thumb-sized engraved seal dated to c. 1450 BCE, has upended our view of Mycenaean art: as fluid as Donatello, as energetic as Michelangelo, it is the absolute polar opposite of the abstract, ornamental art of the Dark Ages. So the later Greek perfection of form and design, like their alphabet, constitutes a gigantic project of cultural renewal. Likewise, the Archaic period’s oral literature (some of which survives) comes infused with nostalgia for that vanished, heroic world; the birth of the polis (city-state) was very much a rebirth of Greek culture. Such long-term trends, evident in art, should surely be taken as historical evidence of the first order and find a place in the narrative.

Of course, the richness of Greek history prevents the treatment of every subject at adequate length, even in a 500-page volume. Waterfield has vast ground to cover, from the rise of the polis (and, simultaneously, inter-polis institutions like the Olympic games) to political and cultural struggles among aristocrats, tyrants, and plebeians (kings being quickly ditched, except in Sparta). Naturally Athens takes centre-stage early on and keeps it: the Athenians, being almost excessively literate, were devoted as much to huge, expensive inscriptions as to massive theatre festivals, and welcomed many generations of ambitious intellectuals from across the Greek world, in addition to their home-grown historians, philosophers, and comic and tragic poets, and these sources naturally draw the historian’s gaze back to Athens, however much he may strive to include Sparta, Ionia, and the “wild west” of Sicily and Magna Graecia (the vigorous Greek poleis in Italy). We are in sure hands as Waterfield guides us through the major historical milestones: the grand alliance that resisted Persia’s attempt to absorb Greece into the officially civilized world (the “Persian Wars” as the Greeks termed them; the Persian term is unknown but was surely one of exasperation); the upheaval of the Peloponnesian War, the rise of Macedon and the world-upending career of Alexander the Great; the “Hellenistic” world of superstates and pan-Mediterranean Greek culture that preceded the Roman conquest.

Any of these would warrant a volume in itself, and the fact that Waterfield keeps the whole huge freight train on track, indeed clacking elegantly along, is proof of an experienced engineer. There is nothing idiosyncratic: his aim is to demarcate a neutral common ground of historical fact, and readers will have to look elsewhere not just for detailed studies of particular aspects—for example, philosophy, sculpture, or poetry—but also for big-picture ideas after the fashion of, say, Jacob Burckhardt’s nineteenth-century lectures on the Greeks and Greek civilization. Today historians are shy of discussing the “Greek spirit,” as Burckhardt’s contemporaries, and so many others before and after them, did, mainly because the questions it forces us to ask admit no definitive answers: Why were the Greeks so aggressively anti-sentimental? Why were they so exuberant yet so pessimistic? Why did they so worship the naked male human body?Why were they wholly addicted to hearing long, meticulously argued, elaborately constructed speeches, whether in tragic verse or in dramatic political debates? Why, in short, were they so different, in these regards, not only from their neighbours but, above all, from today’s pervasive moralizing, passivity, optimism, prudery, and ­glibness? Apart from the sheer interest of the material, the joy of studying Greece lies in continually confronting such ­questions—and never finding an answer. Even if they are not prominent in Creators, Conquerors, and Citizens, this book will inform any interested reader, and it is upon such general interest and information that loftier interests are built.

Turning from history to culture, it is pleasant to note how Greek myth has the wind in its sails these days: Emily Wilson’s new translation of the Odyssey (the first by a woman into English) has been acclaimed in The New Yorker and The Paris Review, while a novelistic retelling of the same work by Canada’s own Alex Boyd, Army of the Brave and Accidental, draws inspiration from James Joyce’s Ulysses in the way it infuses a contemporary tale with the logic of ancient epic. So Homer continues to steal the spotlight, 2,500 years later; but there is far more to ancient mythology than the Trojan War, and that core canon finds new life in Stephen Fry’s Mythos.

Fry is of course beloved unto millions for his acting, from A Bit of Fry & Laurie and Blackadder in the 1980s through one of the lengthier filmographies in the British scene; he is also a prolific narrator of television series and audiobooks. One can catch him narrating Winnie-the-Pooh in the morning, ringmastering the kids’ television show Pocoyo in the afternoon, and popping into some Netflix program at night. He has also published five novels and three volumes of autobiography; he has given the world delightful beginner’s guides to classical music and to the composition of structured poetry; he has been politically active in favour of humanism, peace, and free speech. In short, he is a leading cultural figure in many spheres simultaneously, and it is this fact that puts him in a peculiar position as an author.

One of the pleasures of reading is that the reader slips into the author’s style as into a new wardrobe, as though trying on a new version of one’s own personality: in reading Jane Austen, I turn witty and astute, while, in reading Gibbon, I’m the picture of erudition; for their part, politely meeting me half-way, books adopt a Canadian accent. Even when I’m familiar with an author’s real-life voice, as I am with, say, Gore Vidal’s, the prose speaks with my voice: for the reader, an author’s real-life self is, if not moot, mute. In Stephen Fry’s case, however, the writer’s voice and style comes already so firmly fixed in the reader’s inner ear that the usual mind-meld is difficult to achieve.

This peculiarity, far from being a disadvantage, is in fact the saving grace of Mythos. On the one hand, the book (a hefty paperback, lovely to hold in the hand, with a nice selection of colour plates) is a straightforward modernization of ancient sources. Most stories are one to three pages long, sometimes reaching to fifteen. Hesiod’s Theogony contributes the creation myth and the Succession Myth of Cronus’s and Zeus’s seizures of supreme power (complete with castrations, child-swallowings, paranoia, vainglory); the Homeric Hymns adds the Olympian biographies; Hesiod again contributes Prometheus’s theft of fire; the Library of Apollodorus fills in the supporting cast of god-born heroes. (We stop before the Trojan cycle.) Above all there is Ovid, who two thousand years ago ransacked the agreed-upon canon as gleefully as Fry does here, reordering and reimagining it: as Fry says in an end note, the Roman poet was “happy to add, subtract, and invent, and this has influenced and emboldened me to be—shall we say ­imaginative?—in some of my retellings too.”

More power to him. If there is one consistent trend in the history of Greek mythography, it is the fluidity of the retelling. Classical myth never became a holy book, never went through an official recension: ancient scholars might strive to throw doubt on scenes of outright Olympian adultery, but they never eliminated them from the epics. Hesiod himself provides two different versions of Prometheus’s fire-theft; tragedians might suddenly recast their mythic plots for dramatic effect (as Euripides is said to have done in being the first to make Medea kill her own children). It is surely owing to the embroidering genius of Ovid that the stories of Arachne’s hubristic weaving competition with Athena, Phaethon’s cosmic joyride with the Chariot of the Sun, or the nymph Echo’s tragic pursuit of Narcissus have taken root in the Western imagination. By way of tribute, Fry sometimes playfully competes with Ovid. Here is the Roman poet’s Echo, a nymph who, stripped by Juno of the power to originate words, must cleverly (indeed poetically) echo her beloved, who takes to his heels:


“Ante,” ait, “emoriar, quam sit tibi copia nostri.”

Rettulit illa nihil nisi “Sit tibi copia nostri.”

“May I die,” said he, “before you make me yours.”

To which she answered nothing but—

“Make me yours.” [translation mine]

Fry instead swings for the fences:


“I suppose like all the others you’ve fallen in love with me.”

“Love with me!”

“Love! I’m fed up with love.”

“Up with love!”

“It’ll never happen. Never. Go away!”

“Never go away!”

And so on, for about a page. Fry is not one to resist a vivid detail: “Arachne sat down, cracked her knuckles and began.” The bare bones are fleshed out, the gist elaborated, sometimes to tedious length and in doubtful taste.  In Hesiod, for example, the Earth Mother Gaia (“Earth”), enraged at her partner Uranus (“Sky”), summons her Titanic children to parricidal slaughter: “Children of a vicious father, if you will heed me, pay him back his foul outrage, for he was first to plot shameful deeds!” (Again, the translation is mine.) In Fry’s soap operatic narration, Gaia must first track down her son Cronus, eventual spouse of her daughter Rhea, who tells her mother that Cronus is dissatisfied with Uranus and just might prove helpful:


“Really?” cried Gaia. “You say so? Well, where is he?”

“He’s probably mooching around down by the caves of Tartarus. He and Tartarus get on so well. They’re both dark. Moody. Mean. Magnificent. Cruel.”

“Oh god, don’t tell me you’re in love with Kronos . . .”

“Put in a good word for me, mummy, please! He’s just so dreamy. Those black flashing eyes. The thunderous brows. The long silences.”

Gaia had always thought that her youngest’s long silences indicated nothing more than dullness of intellect, but she refrained from saying so.

Apart from reservations about the burlesquing of a violent creation myth (even one tinged, in Hesiod, with sardonic humour), this representative sample of Fry’s style is a challenge for my inner reader’s voice, which just can’t manage this dialogue. But it hardly needs to, since I already know Fry’s own voice and manner so well that I am effectively listening to him rather than reading him. Indeed the whole book—which, somewhat annoyingly for a volume packed with hundreds of names, somehow lacks both table of contents and index—seems less like a traditional book than a script for the Fry-narrated audiobook. This is perfectly in keeping with the most venerable performance traditions of Greek myth— (mythos) originally meant “authoritative speech act”—and if Fry the tale-teller means to lead his myriad listeners to Greek culture down the path of sheer glee, I for one shall not protest. Something of the alien nature of the old Greeks—their fondness for irascible, jealous, impulsive deities; their love of life as it is actually lived instead of how it somehow ought to be—is authentically communicated in this unique volume.