Essential Classic Literature
Hello, my lovely flowers, I hope that you
are all having absolutely splendid days today. Do you know what I decided? I decided that
people don’t read enough classical literature and that that’s kind of an absolute tragedy.
Because that means that a load of people are missing out on some of the best books and
poems and histories and plays that have ever been written, and – let’s face it – they’re still in publication
today, thousands of years after being written, so they’ve gotta have something good to them. And so I decided I’d compile a little, very
very small, beginners’ list of some classic literature that I think everybody should read, so that
you can get started on your journey into the world of classical literature. We’re gonna start off basic, with one guy
who I swear everyone has probably read, but people forget that he lived ages and ages ago. And
that is Aesop. And Aesop’s fables. His fables are short and sweet, so they’re
a fantastic way of getting into classical literature. because, let’s face it, you’re reading a paragraph
at a time. You’re gonna be just fine. In this edition by Penguin Classics, which
is translated by Olivia and Robert Temple it also gives you the moral of the story at the
end. Just in case you couldn’t figure it out yourself. Which I think’s adorable. We also have, the
one and the only, light of my life, the poet that is Ovid. And I have with me here, Ovid’s Love Poems,
in the Oxford World Classics edition. And this translation was done by A. D. Melville.
I know that the Metamorpheses is an extremely popular epic poem by Ovid
and it is fantastic, but I was there like “that is really long”. There’s no denying
it. It’s about 700 pages long. So if you want something a bit more accessible,
I think the Love Poems are absolutely beautiful. And also, y’know, you can dip in and out of
it more. It’s entertaining. You realise how little times have- have changed.
With the whole “women make sure you shave! Because that’s how you’re gonna be beautiful!”.
But it’s amazing. And it’s the fact that he’s got a little section on cosmetics
for ladies and the types of hairstyles you should wear for the shape of your face. Ovid! Also in the land of poetry we have Sappho.
My gay, queer, wonderful Sappho. Who wrote gorgeous, short, little sensuous
poems between the 7th and the 6th century BC. It’s amazing This is from the Penguin Little
Black Classics editions. It’s a really cute one, because it’s got lots of little poems and
it’s small and tiny and she’s amazing. Come on, it’s Sappho. Next up, we’re delving away from the more
fictional/poetry area into the more non-fiction area. But let me tell you, ancient historical
non-fiction can be super entertaining, especially when you’re reading Suetonius’ Live of the Caesars. Suetonius was living in the 1st to 2nd century
AD. He kind of- from around Italy, but the guy… the guy moved around a lot. But the Lives of the Caesars are, you know,
what it says. It’s short biographies of the twelve Caesar emperors. And let me explain you a thing, it’s fucking
hilarious. Because Suetonius realises when you’re reading
a biography, okay, maybe you care a little bit about their life in a kind of somewhat, maybe,
chronogical order (if he thinks that a chronological order will be amusing to you).
But he knows that what you’re really after, is not how many wars they’ve won, you want
the gossip. You want to know about their personal life. And when he loves an emperor, it’s amazing.
And when he hates an emperor, it’s also amazing. But one of my personal favourites is when
he’s talking about what Augustus looks like. “The expression of his face, whether speaking
or silent, was so calm and serene that one of the leading men of Gaul professed
to his fellows that he was so impressed and won over, that he abandoned his plan to
throw the emperor over the cliff when he was admitted to his presence when he was crossing
the Alps. His eyes were clear and bright. He liked it to be thought that they revealed
a godlike power and was pleased if someone who regarded him closely, then lowered their gaze
as though from the sun’s force.” It’s like, okay “okay, we get it Suetonius, you’ve
got a massive crush on Ausgustus. Who doesn’t?”. Still in the non-fiction area, but we’ve jumped
back over to Greek history, we have, what is maybe a slight tome… it’s a little
bit big, but we’ve got Herodotus’ The Histories. Herodotus was originally from Halikarnassus
and he was writing this history and most of his works in about 5th century BC. It is supposedly
a history of the Persian Wars in Greece. What it actually is, is like listening to
a guy talk at a pub who keeps on interrupting himself to go off on tangents and going “and I knew a
guy who knew a guy who knew a guy and when they went to somewhere, let me tell you, they told me a story,
giant gold-digging ants in the middle of the desert!” And you’re just like “what? what? okay. Right.
We’re going there. Okay. Fine. Yes.” And it’s just endlessly entertaining. So I
know that it’s long and parts of it aren’t that interesting but overall it’s such a good history. It’s
hilarious and ridiculous and all his sources are generally completely unreliable. I mean, sometimes
he’s just there like, “Oh no, no, no. A bloke told me. it’s definitely
true.” So maybe just skim-read the bits you don’t
care about, or find entertaining bits online, but Herodotus’ The Histories are so, so good. We now have one of my favourite pieces of
classical literature and also just one of my favourite books ever, because it’s just so good. And that is Longus’
Daphnis and Chloe. Daphnis and Chloe is one of the earliest Greek novels and one of
the earliest romances and it is such a beautiful short novel. The premise of the story is that Daphnis and
Chloe are super young goatherds and sheepherds, and they’re in love. But they’re so young
and innocent they don’t know what love is. And by love, we mean sex. Hilarity ensues.
It’s also got pirates and kidnapping and diguises and deaths and obviously it’s got loss of virginities
and finding out who your real parents are etcetera etcetera. I mean it’s got it all. It also has tellings
of three myths in it. It’s just got everything you could ever want. and they fit that all into about 90 pages.
It’s really quite impressive. Not a dull moment. Last but not least I have two playwrights
I want to talk to you about. We’re gonna start off with Menander. He was
an Attic playwright writing in the 4th century BC. And he was writing Greek New Comedy. So New
Comedy is very, very situational, domestic comedy. So you’ve got families’ affairs, you’ve got
families’ love lives getting all tangled up with each other. It’s all situational comedy. A lot of mistaken
identity and all the common tropes we see in sitcoms today. Just set in Ancient Greece.
Some things don’t translate as well, With all comedies you find a lot of the puns
don’t translate as well, because we can’t translate the pun to make it work in modern English. But a lot
of the time in the notes they’ll let you know, “By the way, he put in a really good pun there.
Just doesn’t work in English.” They’re just endlessly entertaining and although
most of his works haven’t survived in full, we’ve got – I would say – about four or five
plays where we’ve got enough fragments left and we know enough of his overall outlines for his plays (’cause
he was quite repetitive with his overall plotlines) that we can tell what would happen and fill
in the gaps. And then, y’know, the rest… sometimes you’ve got the odd hilarious scene!
But I really think Menander is worth checking out. Last, but certainly not least, we have the
one and the only Aristophanes. He was, again, an Athenian playwright and
he was writing in the 5th century BC, he was writing Greek Old Comedy. Old Comedy is a lot more big and fantastical
and ridiculous things happening and myth and political ideologies on a much larger sphere.
So you’re gonna get a lot more characters, a lot more general storylines going on and
just bigger themes being dealt with. A lot of slapstick humour. It’s a lot of dirty
jokes. It’s a lot of fart jokes. It’s a lot of stuff where you remember that the Greeks were no way near as classy
as the Western world tries to paint them out to be. They’re so not classy, guys! You’ve gotta
remember when you’re reading an Aristophanes play that everyone on the stage would be wearing a mask to tell them who’s who, and all the men would be walking around with massive, erect penises, because they found that absolutely hilarious. Start with Lysistrata, because it’s hilarious
and it has the best oath scene you will ever read in your life. Basically, Lysistrata – if you don’t know
– is basically the women of Athens and Sparta get really, really sick of the fact that their
two city-states are at war with eachother and that their husbands are never home and
it’s just frustrating for them. Understandably. So they all come together and Lysistrata leads
them all and says, “You know how we’re gonna solve this? We’re
gonna stop having sex with the men. And I don’t care how badly you want it. Don’t give it to them.
And they’ll soon see that the correct course of action is just to make a peace.” Freaking amazing. Do leave suggestions of any other writers
you like, or of those writers, any particular works, plays, poets that you think are interesting
and that other people should read about, so that I can get some recommendations and
so that all of you can get some recommendations for each other. Because the world of classical literature
is very, very large and I understand that that can be quite daunting because you’re like, “But
there’s so much stuff has been written where do I begin?!” So it’s always good to have some recommendations
out there. I hope that you enjoy at least some of those. I hope that you all have absolutely lovely
days and I will see you next time, guys. Bye!