Greece Unforgotten

Alfred de Musset, Les Vœux stériles

O Greece, mother of the arts, land of idolatry,

Eternal home of my foolish wishes,

I was born for the time when flowers

Crowned your brow in the azure waves of the Hellespont.

I was a citizen of your ancient age.

My soul, like the bee, wanders under your porticoes.

The language of your people, Greece, can perish;

We are not able to forget the name of your mountains,

But in digging through the heart of your golden fields

Our sights come all at once to discover

Some god of your woods, some lost Venus…

The language which the heart of Phidias spoke

Will always live, always be heard.

The marbles have been mastered, and will not be forgotten.

Grèce, ô mère des arts, terre d’idolâtrie,
De mes vœux insensés éternelle patrie,
J’étais né pour ces temps où les fleurs de ton front
Couronnaient dans les mers l’azur de l’Hellespont.
Je suis un citoyen de tes siècles antiques ;
Mon âme, avec l’abeille, erre sous tes portiques.
La langue de ton peuple, ô Grèce, peut mourir.
Nous pouvons oublier le nom de tes montagnes ;
Mais qu’en fouillant le sein de tes blondes campagnes,
Nos regards tout à coup viennent à découvrir
Quelque dieu de tes bois, quelque Vénus perdue…
La langue que parlait le cœur de Phidias
Sera toujours vivante et toujours entendue ;
Les marbres l’ont apprise, et ne l’oublieront pas.

Envy, Regard, Desolation

Chateaubriand, Voyage from Paris to Jerusalem (1):

It had been one hour since nightfall when we began to consider returning to Athens. The sky shone with stars, the air with a sweetness, a clearness, and a purity which were incomparable. Our horses went with small steps, and we fell to silence. The path which we were going along was likely the ancient path of the Academy, bordered by the tombs of the citizens who died for their country and the greatest men of Greece. There lay Thrasybulus, Pericles, Chabrias, Timotheus, Harmodius, and Aristogeiton. It was a noble idea to gather in one field the ash of those famous people who lived in different ages and who, as members of one illustrious family long disperses, came finally to rest in the bosom of their communal mother. What variety of genius, of greatness, of courage! What diversity of habits and virtues one could perceive there with one glance of the eye! And these virtues tempered by death, like those noble wines which one mixes, as Plato says, with a sober divinity, do not offend the sensibilities of the living. The passerby who read on one funeral column these simple words:

Pericles, from the tribe of Acamantis, from the deme of Cholargos

felt nothing more than admiration without envy. Cicero represents to us Atticus wandering among these tombs, seized by a holy regard for these august ashes. It is no longer possible for us to make the same scene. The tombs are destroyed. The illustrious dead whom the Athenians placed by their city like outposts were not raised to defend them. They suffered the Tartars trampling them underfoot. ‘The times, violence, and the plough,’ says Chandler, ‘have leveled it all.’ The plough is too much there. And this remark which I make paints a better picture of Greece’s desolation than do the reflections which I could yield myself to.

Il y avait déjà une heure qu’il faisait nuit quand nous songeâmes à retourner à Athènes : le ciel était brillant d’étoiles, et l’air d’une douceur, d’une transparence et d’une pureté incomparables ; nos chevaux allaient au petit pas, et nous étions tombés dans le silence. Le chemin que nous parcourions était vraisemblablement l’ancien chemin de l’Académie, que bordaient les tombeaux des citoyens morts pour la patrie et ceux des plus grands hommes de la Grèce : là reposaient Thrasybule, Périclès, Chabrias, Timothée, Harmodius et Aristogiton. Ce fut une noble idée de rassembler dans un même champ la cendre de ces personnages fameux qui vécurent dans différents siècles, et qui, comme les membres d’une famille illustre longtemps dispersée, étaient venus se reposer au giron de leur mère commune. Quelle variété de génie, de grandeur et de courage ! Quelle diversité de mœurs et de vertus on apercevait là d’un coup d’œil ! Et ces vertus tempérées par la mort, comme ces vins généreux que l’on mêle, dit Platon, avec une divinité sobre, n’offusquaient plus les regards des vivants. Le passant qui lisait sur une colonne funèbre ces simples mots :

Périclès de la tribu acamantide,
du bourg de Cholargue,

n’éprouvait plus que de l’admiration sans envie. Cicéron nous représente Atticus errant au milieu de ces tombeaux et saisi d’un saint respect à la vue de ces augustes cendres. Il ne pourrait plus aujourd’hui nous faire la même peinture : les tombeaux sont détruits. Les illustres morts que les Athéniens avaient placés hors de leur ville, comme aux avant-postes, ne se sont point levés pour la défendre ; ils ont souffert que des Tartares la foulassent aux pieds. ” Le temps, la violence et la charrue, dit Chandler, ont tout nivelé. ” La charrue est de trop ici ; et cette remarque que je fais peint mieux la désolation de la Grèce que les réflexions auxquelles je pourrais me livrer.

Going Ancient

Gustave Flaubert, Letter to Emmanuel Vasse (June 4, 1846):

For me, despite my sorrows, my worries, the troubles of a heap of affairs, I work reasonably enough, that is to say, around eight hours a day. I do some Greek, some history; I read some Latin, I cover myself in these heroic ancients for whom I end up having a sense of artistic worship. I strive to live in the ancient world. I will arrive there, with God’s help.

Pour moi, malgré les chagrins, les soucis, les embarras d’un tas d’affaires, je travaille assez raisonnablement, c’est-à-dire environ huit heures par jour. Je fais du grec, de l’histoire ; je lis du latin, je me culotte un peu de ces braves anciens pour lesquels je finis par avoir un culte artistique ; je m’efforce de vivre dans le monde antique ; j’y arriverai, Dieu aidant.

“Peace in Our Time… and on Our Terms”

Montesquieu, Considerations Regarding the Causes of the Greatness of the Romans and their Decline (§4):

Carthage, which made war with its wealth in contrast to the poverty of Rome, experienced even from this fact some disadvantage; gold and silver can be exhausted; but virtue, constancy, force, and poverty are never drained.

The Romans were ambitious from pride, the Carthaginians from avarice; the former wished to command, the latter to acquire; and these last, calculating constantly about profit and cost, always made war without loving it.

Lost battles, the reduction of the population, the weakening of commerce, the exhaustion of the public treasury, and the uprising of neighboring countries, could make Carthage accept the harshest conditions of peace. But Rome was not managed by feelings of good and ill; it was determined by nothing but its own glory, and, as it could not imagine that it could exist if it did not command, there was no hope nor fear which could oblige it to make a peace which it had not imposed.

Carthage, qui faisait la guerre avec son opulence contre la pauvreté romaine, avait par cela même du désavantage; l’or et l’argent s’épuisent; mais la vertu, la constance, la force et la pauvreté ne s’épuisent jamais.

Les Romains étaient ambitieux par orgueil, et les Carthaginois, par avarice ; les uns voulaient commander, les autres voulaient acquérir; et ces derniers, calculant sans cesse la recette et la dépense, firent toujours la guerre sans l’aimer.

Des batailles perdues, la diminution du peuple, l’affaiblissement du commerce, l’épuisement du trésor public, le soulèvement des nations voisines, pouvaient faire accepter à Carthage les conditions de paix les plus dures. Mais Rome ne se conduisait point par le sentiment des biens et des maux: elle ne se déterminait que par sa gloire, et, comme elle n’imaginait point qu’elle pût être si elle ne commandait pas, il n’y avait point d’espérance ni de crainte qui pût l’obliger à faire une paix qu’elle n’aurait point imposée.

Vergil, Seduced by Imitation

From Samuel Johnson’s, The Rambler No. 121:

Yet, whatever Hope may persuade, or Reason evince, Experience can boast of very few Additions to ancient Fable. The Wars of Troy and the Travels of Ulysses have furnished almost all succeeding Poets with Incidents, Characters, and Sentiments. The Romans are confessed to have attempted little more than to display in their own Tongue the Fictions of the Greeks. There is in all their Writings such a perpetual Recurrence of Allusions to the Tales of the fabulous Age, that they must be confessed often to want that Power of giving Pleasure which Novelty supplies; nor can we wonder that they excelled so much in the Graces of Diction, when we consider how little they were employed in Search of new Thoughts.

The warmest Admirers of the great Mantuan Poet can extol him for little more than the Skill with which he has, by making his Hero both a Traveller and a Warrior, united the Beauties of the Iliad and Odyssey in one Composition; yet his Judgment was perhaps sometimes overborn by his Avarice of the Homeric Treasures, and for fear of suffering a sparkling Ornament to be lost, has inserted it where it cannot shine with its original Splendor. When Ulysses visited the infernal Regions, he found among the Heroes who died at Troy, his Competitor Ajax, who, when the Arms of Achilles were adjudged to Ulysses, died by his own Hand in the Madness of Disappointment. He still appeared to resent, as on Earth, his Loss and Disgrace. Ulysses endeavoured to pacify him with Praises and Submission; but Ajax walked away without Reply. This Passage has always been considered as eminently beautiful, because Ajax the haughty Chief, the unlettered Soldier, of unshaken Courage, of immoveable Constancy, but without the Power of recommending his own Virtues by Eloquence, or enforcing his Assertions by any other Argument than the Sword, had no way of making his Resentment known but by gloomy Sullenness and dumb Ferocity. He therefore naturally showed his Hatred of a Man whom he conceived to have defeated him only by Volubility of Tongue, by Silence more contemptuous and affecting than any Words that so rude an Orator could have found, and which gave his Enemy no Opportunity of exerting the only Power in which he was superior. When Aeneas is sent by Virgil into the Regions below, he meets with Dido the Queen of Carthage, whom his Perfidy had hurried to the Grave; he accosts her with Tenderness and Excuses, but the Lady turns away like Ajax in mute Anger. She turns away like Ajax, but she resembles him in none of those Qualities which give either Dignity or Propriety to Silence. She might, without any Departure from the Tenour of her Conduct, have burst out like other injured Ladies into Clamour, Reproach, and Denunciation; but Virgil had his Imagination full of Ajax, and therefore could not prevail on himself to teach Dido any other Mode of Resentment.

If Virgil could be thus seduced by Imitation there will be little Hope that common Wits should escape; and accordingly we find, that besides the universal and acknowledged Practice of copying the Ancients, there has prevailed in every Age a particular Species of Fiction. At one Time all Truth was conveyed in Allegory; at another nothing was seen but in a Vision; at one Period all the Poets followed Sheep, and every Event produced a Pastoral; at another they busied themselves wholly in giving Directions to a Painter.

Stealing from Homer – A Difficult Task!

Donatus, Vita Vergilii

“Asconius Pedianus wrote a book against Vergil’s detractors, but he nevertheless adds some objections of his own, mostly dealing with Vergil’s narration and the fact that he had taken much from Homer. But he also says that Vergil was accustomed to refute this latter criticism thus: ‘Why did they themselves not try to do take some verses from Homer? To be sure, they would learn that it easier to take Hercules’ club than to lift a verse from Homer.’ Yet, Asconius adds that he decided to retire so that he could do everything to the satisfaction of his malicious critics.”

Asconius Pedianus libro, quem contra obtrectatores Vergiliis scripsit, pauca admodum obiecta ei proponit eaque circa historiam fere et quod pleraque ab Homero sumpsisset; sed hoc ipsum crimen sic defendere adsuetum ait: cur non illi quoque eadem furta temptarent? Verum intellecturos facilius esse Herculi clavam quam Homero versum subripere”; et tamen destinasse secedere ut omnia ad satietatem malevolorum decideret.

Shitting on Pope’s Homer

Adam Gopnik writes in a New Yorker piece, “Pope’s Homer read like Homer when it was published…” Pope’s Homer was undoubtedly a commercial success, but certainly it failed to impress those who were qualified to judge its merits relative to the Greek original. Pope’s translation is a testament to his thorough saturation in the spirit of the English Augustan spirit, but revealed to his contemporaries a failure to steep himself in the classical springs.

Edward Gibbon, Memoirs of My Life:

“Before I left Kingston school I was well acquainted with Pope’s Homer and the Arabian Nights Entertainments, two books which will always please by the moving picture of human manners and specious miracles: nor was I then capable of discerning that Pope’s translation is a portrait endowed with every merit, excepting that of likeness to the original.”

Matthew Arnold, On Translating Homer:

“Yet it is strictly true that, for want of duly penetrating themselves with the first named quality of Homer, his rapidity, Cowper and Mr. Wright have failed in rendering him; that, for want of duly appreciating the second named quality, his plainness and directness of style and diction, Pope and Mr. Sotheby have failed in rendering him

James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson:

“I remember also distinctly, (though I have not for this the authority of my journal,) that the conversation going on concerning Mr. Pope, I took notice of a report which had been sometimes propagated that he did not understand Greek. Lord Bathurst said to me, that he knew that to be false; for that part of the Iliad was translated by Mr. Pope in his house in the country; and that in the mornings when they assembled at breakfast, Mr. Pope used frequently to repeat, with great rapture, the Greek lines which he had been translating, and then to give them his version of them, and to compare them together.”

Sir Leslie Stephen, Alexander Pope:

“It is needless to say that he never became a scholar in the strict sense of the term. Voltaire declared that he could hardly read or speak a word of French; and his knowledge of Greek would have satisfied Bentley as little as his French satisfied Voltaire.”


“But he could say with perfect truth that, ‘thanks to Homer,’ he ‘could live and thrive, indebted to no prince or peer alive.’ The money success is, however, of less interest to us than the literary. Pope put his best work into the translation of the Iliad. His responsibility, he said, weighed upon him terribly on starting. He used to dream of being on a long journey, uncertain which way to go, and doubting whether he would ever get to the end. Gradually he fell into the habit of translating thirty or forty verses before getting up, and then “piddling with it” for the rest of the morning; and the regular performance of his task made it tolerable. He used, he said at another time, to take advantage of the “first heat,” then correct by the original and other translations; and finally to “give it a reading for the versification only.” The statement must be partly modified by the suggestion that the translations were probably consulted before the original. Pope’s ignorance of Greek—an awkward qualification for a translator of Homer—is undeniable. Gilbert Wakefield, who was, I believe, a fair scholar and certainly a great admirer of Pope, declares his conviction to be, after a more careful examination of the Homer than any one is now likely to give, that Pope ‘collected the general purport of every passage from some of his predecessors—Dryden’ (who only translated the first Iliad), ‘Dacier, Chapman, or Ogilby.’ He thinks that Pope would have been puzzled to catch at once the meaning even of the Latin translation, and points out proofs of his ignorance of both languages and of ‘ignominious and puerile mistakes.’”

Thomas Jefferson to Joseph Priestley, January 27th 1800:

“To read the Latin and Greek authors in their original, is a sublime luxury; and I deem luxury in science to be at least as justifiable as in architecture, painting, gardening, or the other arts. I enjoy Homer in his own language infinitely beyond Pope’s translation of him, and both beyond the dull narrative of the same events by Dares Phrygius; and it is an innocent enjoyment. I thank on my knees, him who directed my early education, for having put into my possession this rich source of delight; and I would not exchange it for anything which I could then have acquired, and have not since acquired.”

Finally, a note on Pope’s theology:

Sir Leslie Stephen, Alexander Pope:

“The old gods, then, were made into stiff mechanical figures, as dreary as Justice with her scales, or Fame blowing a trumpet on a monument. They belonged to that family of dismal personifications which it was customary to mark with the help of capital letters. Certainly they are a dismal and frigid set of beings, though they still lead a shivering existence on the tops of public monuments, and hold an occasional wreath over the head of a British grenadier. To identify the Homeric gods with these wearisome constructions was to have a more serious disqualification for fully entering into Homer’s spirit than even an imperfect acquaintance with Greek, and Pope is greatly exercised in his mind by their eating and drinking and fighting, and uncompromising anthropomorphism. He apologizes for his author, and tries to excuse him for unwilling compliance with popular prejudices. The Homeric theology he urges was still substantially sound, and Homer had always a distinct moral and political purpose. The Iliad, for example, was meant to show the wickedness of quarrelling, and the evil results of an insatiable thirst for glory, though shallow persons have thought that Homer only thought to please.”

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“What sort of speech has escaped the bulwark of your teeth!?”

No Wit in the Latin Poets

Joseph Addison, The Spectator – May 11, 1711

“As true Wit consists in the Resemblance of Ideas, and false Wit in the Resemblance of Words, according to the foregoing Instances; there is another kind of Wit which consists partly in the Resemblance of Ideas, and partly in the Resemblance of Words; which for Distinction Sake I shall call mixt Wit. This kind of Wit is that which abounds in Cowley, more than in any Author that ever wrote. Mr. Waller has likewise a great deal of it. Mr. Dryden is very sparing in it. Milton had a Genius much above it. Spencer is in the same Class with Milton. The Italians, even in their Epic Poetry, are full of it. Monsieur Boileau, who formed himself upon the Ancient Poets, has every where rejected it with Scorn. If we look after mixt Wit among the Greek Writers, we shall find it no where but in the Epigrammatists. There are indeed some Strokes of it in the little Poem ascribed to Musœus, which by that, as well as many other Marks, betrays it self to be a modern Composition. If we look into the Latin Writers, we find none of this mixt Wit in Virgil, Lucretius, or Catullus; very little in Horace, but a great deal of it in Ovid, and scarce any thing else in Martial.”

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O Antioch, Fairest of Cities!

Libanius, On His Own Fortune:

“First, if being a citizen of a great and renowned city has any bearing on one’s good fortune, then let the reader consider the size of Antioch, how great it is, and how much land it possesses, from what kinds of springs it drinks, with what gentle breezes it is soothed into luxury – even someone who does not see the city can understand it all from hearing this. How much land or how much of the sea does not receive the glorious fame of Antioch? It happened that my family were among the greatest in the greatest city in education, wealth, public spending, contests, and speeches which oppose the impositions of the rulers.”

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Πρῶτον τοίνυν, εἰ καὶ τόδε εἰς εὐτυχίαν φέρει πόλεως πολίτην εἶναι μεγάλης τε καὶ ὀνομαστῆς, ἀθρείτω μέν τις τῆς ᾿Αντιόχου τὸ μέγεθος καὶ οἵα τις αὐτὴ καὶ πόσην νέμεται γῆν καὶ οἵων μὲν πίνει πηγῶν, οἵοις δὲ ζεφύροις τρυφᾷ, ἔστι δὲ καὶ οὐκ ἰδόντι τὴν πόλιν ἀκοῇ πάντα ἐπίστασθαι. ποῖος γὰρ ἠπείρων ἢ ποῖος θαλάττης μυχός, οἷ τὸ κλέος οὐ πεπόρευται τοῦ ἄστεος; ἐν δὴ μεγίστῃ μεγίστους εἶναι συνέβη γένος τοὐμὸν παιδείᾳ τε καὶ πλούτῳ καὶ χορηγίαις καὶ ἀγῶσι καὶ λόγοις, ὅσοι φοραῖς ἀρχόντων ἀπαντῶσιν.

F**k the Haters – I Believe in the Liberal Arts!

Aldus Manutius, Preface to Joannes Crastonus’ Greek Dictionary

“I had originally designed not to publish the Greek lexica (which we can call dictionaries in Latin) from our press before I had them sufficiently abundant and correct. But I changed my mind about this when I recognized that it was difficult in the extreme, not just for me – a man burdened by family obligations and my printing business – but even for an unencumbered person thoroughly knowledgeable of both languages, as well as the liberal arts, medicine, and all of the sciences. Indeed it is proper to know all, and to interpret all of the words according to their most proper sense, but I doubt whether anyone of our own time other than a stray person here and there has achieved excellence in this matter, when Greek and Latin literature – though they are thriving more than in many previous years – nevertheless languish in some obscurity.

For, who really knows the liberal arts? Who is thoroughly learned in the most simple things which are necessary in medicine? Alas – it is a shame to say, we hardly recognize lettuce, cabbage, and the herb which shows itself even to the blind. When I think about this, even though I cannot grieve about it too vehemently, I not only refrain from giving way to my pain, but I gird myself night and day to remedy the situation while avoiding no labor, so that I may hope that it will soon come to pass that the people of our age will know all the good arts and even have some fine skill in medicine, and that each scholar will have the strength to contend with antiquity as long as they not fail themselves. If there are any haters, imbeciles, or barbarians, then let them grieve, let them criticize, let them stand in the way as much and as long as they want. But this will turn out beautifully – it will.”