Image: Unsplash
Image: Unsplash

The forgotten ancient classics you should read

The world of classical literature often feels introspective and insular. Yet some texts rise above this world and retain their place in the pantheon of literature today. Homer’s epic poems are the prime example. From Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida to Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles, Homer’s shadow has loomed over subsequent literature. Works such as Virgil’s Aeneid or Sappho’s poetry also penetrate the popular conscience. To talk about why these are important to today’s literature is cliché by this point. The ancient world gave us theatre, the novel, poetry, literary criticism, philosophy, and the list goes on.

Unfortunately, other works have faded into relative obscurity despite having a great sway over modern literature. There are many reasons for this: the teaching of Latin and Ancient Greek has declined in schools, leaving little opportunity in the curriculum to read ancient texts. They have then fallen out of the canonical ‘classics’ that are taught in English classes and courses. Therefore, it’s important to highlight some works that are less popular, yet still eminently readable and accessible.

John Keats, one of the most important Romantic poets, chose not to be named or dated on his gravestone. He wanted only an inscription, which bore the words: “Here lies One / Whose Name was writ in Water.” This is by no means random, but an evocation of his ancient counterpart, Catullus.

This isn’t some sober or serious ancient writer, but one annoyed at dinner party etiquette

Though not forgotten Catullus is gliding towards ignominy. He was a Latin poet who wrote in the early to mid-first century BC. Above any other Latin work, he is relatable to the modern reader. His 116 poems do not give a sense of a man stuck in a remote past, but a person like anyone today. His poetry is emotional, quirky, and lively. In Catullus 12 he writes to a man named Asinius in anger, vexed by Asinius having taken Catullus’ prized napkin. This isn’t some sober or serious ancient writer, but one annoyed at dinner party etiquette.

Catullus is most famous for his love poetry, and if any of his works are popular, these are them. He mostly writes about his intense passion for a woman named Lesbia. All stages of the romance are felt in his poetry. But instead of describing this poetry, just read his shortest but most enduring poem: “I hate and I love. Perhaps you ask why I do this? / I don’t know, but I feel it happening and am tortured.”

This is Catullus in a nutshell: emotional, tortured, and confused. He seeks answers in his poetry because he does not know them, for him poetry is catharsis. His poetry is something you can dive in and out of. Maybe you just want to read a short epigram like the one above, or maybe you want to get a bit more invested in why he actually hates a man named Gellius so mch.

This work is a wildcard: baffling, hilarious, and troubling

The greatest problem to the modern-day reader in accessing Catullus is choosing the right translation if you can’t read the Latin. Finding the right translation is usually a process of trial and error, no one translation is necessarily ‘right’. It just depends what reads best to you, as you implicitly trust that the translator is being faithful. When choosing I would recommend either the translation of Daisy Dunn, Peter Green, or Guy Lee. All of these offer rich and interesting takes on the poetry. Whichever you choose, Catullus will not disappoint.

While Catullus remains relatively popular, an ancient work undeservedly forgotten is the Satyricon, probably written by Petronius in the first century AD. This work is a wildcard: baffling, hilarious, and troubling. It is incomplete, and no one is quite sure how long it really was, but it has been interpreted as the earliest ‘novel’ written. The Satyricon follows the adventures of its unreliable narrator Encolpius as he stumbles through the ancient world. Most memorable is when he and his companions go to the feast of a rich man called Trimalchio, a merchant attempting to appear more educated and eloquent than he really is.

The Satyricon really needs to be read to be believed, which is maybe why it has not fared well in the ocean of literature available. Yet it clearly had an effect on modern literature. TS Eliot prefaces ‘The Waste Land’ with a story recounted by Trimalchio, and Oscar Wilde mentions the Satyricon in The Picture of Dorian Gray.

They are relatable as artists, they are interesting, influential, and most of all worth reading

The most notable mention is that of F. Scott Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby, which most people in English education systems will have to read at some point. For a long time Fitzgerald’s preferred title for his novel was Trimalchio in West Egg. Then during Gatsby’s downfall Fitzgerald writes that Gatsby’s “career as Trimalchio was over”. Here then is Fitzgerald writing one of the defining English language novels, taking direct inspiration from the Satyricon – it must be worth reading at least?

Despite earlier saying you should try out different translations, Walsh’s translation is the best for the Satyricon. Not because it is necessarily the most faithful to Petronius, but because the notes and explanations of the text make it by far the most accessible to a first-time reader.

The poetry of Catullus and Satyricon of Petronius both encapsulate something different about the ancient world. They are not Homer or Virgil singing of heroes and war and adventure, but witty men seeking as much to entertain as to create art. They are relatable as artists, they are interesting, influential, and most of all worth reading.

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