Book Reviews

Want charisma? Try a little Greek

By Charlotte Higgins

Short Books £12.99

Review by Anne Sebba, Daily Mail, 07 November 2008

review greekNike, Nurses and Neon by Nigel P BrownMetro £9.99

Anyone following the recent collapse of financial institutions will have noticed dozens of references to characters in the drama displaying hubris and meeting their nemesis but not offering an apology. One of the great delights of learning Greek is discovering that we use Greek words to speak English all the time without realising it. The opening sentence of this piece had five of them.

Greek, unlike Latin, is a living language. Yet both have words we use every day.
You might want to get your togs on for a comedy at the Odeon, run a Marathon in the arena or eat lobster thermidor at a local tavern. Well, you might.

However, Greek is not an easy language to learn and I should know. I’ve been struggling with its apparently endless variety of verb forms every Monday morning at 7.40 am for the last two years yet still I can say little more than ‘the Slave was being chased by the wise teacher.’ Not awfully useful in Hammersmith.

So why persevere?

Because Greek culture and thought is incredibly rich and beautiful. Ancient Greece was the greatest civilisation ever known. The surviving poetry and dramas – (even though most have been lost) – have shaped our views of justice and punishment, right and wrong as well as the nature of beauty, goodness and truth. Greek philosophers and storytellers have helped us understand what it is to be mortal – to live for a brief while and die – to mourn the death of friends and to grasp that the greatest freedom may lie within ourselves.

Prize-winning author Philip Pullman, a long term Homer fan, describes how when he was a school teacher he would tell stories from the Iliad and Odyssey to 12 year-olds and learnt more about the nature of storytelling from that than from anything else.

In It’s all Greek to Me Charlotte Higgins, an Oxford classicist who clearly knows her Aristotle from her Aeschylus and her Lemnos from her Lesbos, has written what she calls a ‘Bluffer’s Guide’ to understanding Greek culture and history. Ancient Greek science is less useful today. Even so we have the words and the concepts – Hippocratic oaths and hysteria – if not the cures. And the citizens of Athens knew a thing or two about Maths (remember Pythagoras?) and Astronomy.

Nigel Brown, who learnt his Classics at Cambridge, covers some of the same territory. But his book, Nike Nurses and Neon, explores both Latin and Greek derivations and is for dipping in to. He says it’s for the shopper in the supermarket buying a tub of ‘Flora’ but then he confuses us by asking ‘What is the difference between a super-market (Latin) and a hyper-market (Greek?)

Higgins, in a very accessible and amusing account, devotes more attention to the literature starting with a rather brisk trot through Homer. As she says, there is no more gripping or moving account of mortality, war and the human emotions than the Iliad and no better yarn than the Odyssey. She also admits no one knows precisely who Homer was and, quite possibly, the poems were only written centuries later and derived from an oral poetry passed down and embellished from one telling to another. She finishes with a short essay on Greek homosexuality, a controversial subject still today. In Athens youths were unquestionably pursued by older men who would gaze admiringly on their muscular flesh well-toned from the gymnasium. But sexual relationships with boys under 18? Probably not.

Higgins, author of Latin Love Lessons, makes a plea for Classics not to die. But there’s nothing new in that. In the 19th century a woman’s brain was considered “too delicate and fragile a thing to attempt the mastery of Greek and Latin.” Elizabeth Barratt Browning learnt Ladies’ Greek … without the accents. Back in the sixties, at the tail end of the cold war when I was at school, Greek was not on offer for Ladies; Russian would be more useful, my teachers insisted. Now I’m struggling with Greek I wonder if perhaps the 19th century sages were right after all.

But I sense a revival in Classics and am pleased to be a small part of it. If, like I did, you queued for a couple of hours to see the British Museum exhibition about the Greek-loving Roman Emperor, Hadrian, you’ll have no doubt about it. What’s more you’ll know there’s a man with charisma (from the Greek meaning Grace or Favour divinely bestowed).