Classical Authors and My Humble Opinion of Them

Mar 2012
2,345
#1
Good day all.

In the last few years, I have spent most of my time reading classical authors of history, poetry, drama, politics and philosophy, mixing in some medieval and modern works along the way. I thought it would be fun to briefly critique them and get a discussion going about them. I will go in roughly chronological order and note the works read. Do you agree with my assessments?

HOMER (The Iliad. The Odyssey)
It goes without saying that Homer was ahead of his time, as he/she/they wrote 3-400 years before the classical age, but it is almost astonishing how modern Homers works come off. Homer's heroic age Greece is populated by some very complex characters who contemplate some very topical issues. Unlike classical Greek literature, they seem capable of a remarkable degree of tenderness and contemplation . Simply an incredible experience reading these.

HERODOTUS (The Histories)
No work of history is more pure fun. Lively, engaging, and probably 90% nonsense, Herodotus , the father of history, was also the father of history as entertainment. Not that there is anything wrong with that. I would venture to say that he becomes more truthful when discussing the actual war with Persia than during the general encyclopedia of the world.

THUCYDIDES (History of the Peloponnesian war)
As a pure history filled with facts, nothing is more thorough. Also, he is capable of generating interest with his moving speeches (the funeral oration of Pericles) and compelling anecdotes (Diodotus saving Mytilene). Make no mistake about it, though- Thucydides is the driest, sparest in presentation and in many ways the most difficult author to get through. His history will test your spirit.

XENOPHON (The Anabasis, Hellenica)
Self serving, Sparta-phillic and at times dubious in terms of both truth and judgment of what to include and leave out, but also excellent as telling history as a compelling story. THE ANABASIS is an amazing read, you just have to take it, and his other works, with a large grain of salt.

PLATO (The Last Days of Socrates)
A touching story of a wise and gentle man defying the government to the end, combined with some absolutely dated and incomprehensible philosophy.

AESCYLUS (The Suppliants)
Incomplete. I have only attempted the one, incomplete play, so I can't really judge the man. He is a fine source of early myth, but so far is no Euripides.

SOPHOCLES (Antigone, Oedipus Rex, Oedipus at Colonus)
By today's standards (and compared to Homer), Greek tragedy in general seems a little bare to me, but Sophocles did manage to write about some topics that are still with us today, such as the conflict between the state and the individual in Antigone. I always get a good laugh at how often the structure of Oedipus- someone researching a mystery that folds back onto themselves- is copied for modern pulp films and novels.

EURIPIDES (The Trojan Women, The Bacchae, Ion, Helen)
Head and shoulders my favorite Greek tragedian, what separates this man is the very ahead-of-his-time concerns for woman and their issues. THE TROJAN WOMEN defies narrative convention- it is just a chance to let the women tell their side of the story.

POLYBIUS (The Histories)
I am only about halfway through, and so far, he is one of the most hot and cold of the authors. He is very thorough, with a holistic approach to history, and tries to honestly evaluate his sources, but he spends so much time posturing and explain why he is going to explain something that, on occasion, I have no idea what he is talking about. When he gets down to it, he is excellent.

LIVY (Books 1-10, 21-30)
Often accused of being inaccurate and dishonest, I find him just the opposite. As a complier, he often tells multiple versions of the same anecdote when he does not know the truth. Sure, some of it is embellished/untrue, but I have no doubt that he got it from a source which embellished it. Capable of some fun digressions and nice flourishes to keep you interested. His history of the war with Hannibal is one of my favorite things on this list.

CICERO (Books of selected speeches)
Cicero is Cicero...no better window into the Republic and its values exists. I was a bit surprised at how much time he spends in his speeches condemning other people's sex lives. Truly different times. His brilliance still shows through when he is on point.

CAESAR (The Conquest of Gaul, The Civil War)
Self serving to an annoying level, it is none-the-less undeniably fascinating to hear the campaigns from the man himself. Comical that he writes in the third person, as if he were an unbiased witness.

TACITUS (The Annals of Imperial Rome, The Histories, Germania, Agricola)
Seems like a very honest, straightforward historian who occasionally adds some eloquent flourishes to keep things humming along. Is a good story teller when he wants to be.

SUETONIUS (The Twelve Caesars)
This man really relished getting into the psychology of the emperors centuries before there was such a thing as psychology. A terrific read for history and pleasure.

JOSEPHUS (The Jewish War)
Probably my favorite thing on this list. Josephus writes as a self-serving turncoat, but no one is better at communicating the depth of the tragedy of what he was writing about. Simply an amazing, affecting read about how quickly a war gets out of hand. Honestly changed my thinking reading it.

PLUTARCH (Parallel Lives, Barnes and Noble Addition, volume 1, an select readings from Volume 2)
Very thorough in his attempts to compile the "facts" about ancient historical figures and to put them in context. Obviously it is not all true, but don't let that stop you from enjoying them. Much like Livy, I don't think the embellishments are fully intentional.

ARRIAN (The Complete Alexander)
He wrote a fanboy piece, and he wrote a good one. Every Alexander fan should read it with a lot of joy and a little skepticism. Manages to throw in some very interesting "facts."

PRECOPIUS (The Secret History)
A very fun and crabby hate piece on Justinian and Theadora. I have no idea how true it is.

SCRIPTORES HISTORES AUGUSTAE (The Augustan history)
I understand that that these are of disputable historical value because no one knows when they were written, by whom, and what sources were used. If nothing else, they are fun reads, and I have to think that some drop of history survives in them.
 
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Oct 2014
430
Las Vegas NV
#2
Wonderful list with commentary. I have a thread with my favorite Roman and medieval authors.

Caesar and Cicero, though boring and overrated, provide fairly easy reading for those learning Latin and served as models of Latin composition in the Renaissance.

I think that Cicero Atticum servum suum pedicabat. Hence, his recurrent criticism of sexual morals of others.
 
Feb 2015
36
Terra incognita
#3
Hi, Cachib! Thanks for mentioning many of them who (I think) are the best friends of any lover of history and classic literature.

As you enjoyed Aeschylus (my favourite "tragic" author) I can suggest you a reading of Ἑπτὰ ἐπὶ Θήβας (Seven against Thebes), the only extant tragedy perspecting a negative catharsis.

As for Scriptores Historiae Augustae, they often degenerate to pure gossip, and still this work is one of the few sources on Roman History of III century. In any case, it is a pleasure to read it.

Tacitus is a champion of the Senatus and Xenophon, in his Anabasis, is able to invent a rare cocktail of historiography and pure literary technic.

If you let me add some names to your list, I would add the Pseudo-Xenophon's Ἀθηναίων πολιτεία (The Constitution of the Athenians), perhaps the most elegant criticism of the democratic system ever written.

I also would add Flavius Philostratus (Φλάβιος Φιλόστρατος)' Τὰ ἐς τὸν Τυανέα Ἀπολλώνιον (The Life of Apollonius of Tyana), a strong reply of Paganism to Jesus Christ who was gaining ground among the people of the Roman Empire.

Last (but not least), let me quote Ammianus, a writer still in love with Rome while Rome herself had already started her decline...

And there are many, many Others...
 
Apr 2013
2,544
U.K.
#5
That's a rather good list. Many of those are very familiar.

I'd like to add to it Plotinus, If I may:

[ame="http://www.amazon.com/Plotinus-Volume-Porphyry-Classical-Library/dp/0674994841"]Amazon.com: Plotinus: Volume I, Porphyry on Plotinus, Ennead I (Loeb Classical Library No. 440) (9780674994843): Plotinus, Paul Henry, A. H. Armstrong, Porphyry: Books@@AMEPARAM@@http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/51WaANFCUtL.@@AMEPARAM@@51WaANFCUtL[/ame]

This link includes both the Loeb and Penguin edition, I only have the Penguin ed. at present... but my Loeb collection is growing.

I've also dipped into Horace recently, his Ars Poetica...

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ars_Poetica_(Horace)
 
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Apr 2011
3,075
New Jersey
#7
POLYBIUS (The Histories)
I am only about halfway through, and so far, he is one of the most hot and cold of the authors. He is very thorough, with a holistic approach to history, and tries to honestly evaluate his sources, but he spends so much time posturing and explain why he is going to explain something that, on occasion, I have no idea what he is talking about. When he gets down to it, he is excellent.

LIVY (Books 1-10, 21-30)
Often accused of being inaccurate and dishonest, I find him just the opposite. As a complier, he often tells multiple versions of the same anecdote when he does not know the truth. Sure, some of it is embellished/untrue, but I have no doubt that he got it from a source which embellished it. Capable of some fun digressions and nice flourishes to keep you interested. His history of the war with Hannibal is one of my favorite things on this list.
Livy is necessary, of course, especially considering what we are lacking from Polybius. However, one can't really deny that he is inaccurate and that he does often shape things in a manner that is more about telling a story than anything else. Between the two Polybius, who was writing much nearer to the war than Livy, is the one we should lean on where possible. I think it's a pretty big stretch when you say you find him just the opposite of "inaccurate and dishonest". The rest of your post doesn't seem to say that you find him accurate and honest, but entertaining and sometimes dishonest or mistaken.
 
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Jul 2013
189
Oregon
#8
Nice, thanks!

Herodotus is definitely the most fun read of the bunch, there's a reason some scholars think it was begun as a series of talks by the author.

Thucydides I don't think is as difficult to read as a lot of reviewers think--the Landmark Thucydides is very helpful in understanding the geography & timelines--or to put it another way if you've been to law school and read legal briefs, did any grad economics class or...well you get my drift, then Thucydides is flowing stuff.

I love Polybius and Josephus' insight into the Romans, they're writings are even better because they aren't Romans.

Caesar's War in Gaul is something I've read several times and never tire of. It's an amazing document that tells us a lot not only about the Gauls & the Gallic Wars but also about Caesar. Whatever exaggerations there are are tempered by the fact that the wars & his comments were available to contemporaries who served with him and not necessarily 'in his camp'.

Cicero is great, but what a whiny little...he can be.

Do read Sallust if you like these, he's another that gives some 'first person' accounts.
 
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Mar 2012
2,345
#10
Livy is necessary, of course, especially considering what we are lacking from Polybius. However, one can't really deny that he is inaccurate and that he does often shape things in a manner that is more about telling a story than anything else. Between the two Polybius, who was writing much nearer to the war than Livy, is the one we should lean on where possible. I think it's a pretty big stretch when you say you find him just the opposite of "inaccurate and dishonest". The rest of your post doesn't seem to say that you find him accurate and honest, but entertaining and sometimes dishonest or mistaken.
You are actually saying about the same thing as I am. He is a compiler, and not a primary source of any kind, so whereas there is bound have some inaccuracies, I am not sure they are intentional or original to himself.

Again, Livy often tells several versions of the same story in order to get as close as he can to the truth, so I don't find him to be intentionally dishonest. I agree that Polybius, who had access to the Scipio family, is a better pure source.
 

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