Thursday, October 13, 2011

Memorial by Alice Oswald – review

From The Guardian, October 2 2011
by Kate Kellaway

Alice Oswald made her name with a book-length poem: Dart. A tribute to the Devon river made up of her own and other people's voices, it won the 2002 TS Eliot prize. On the face of it, her latest book – an "excavation" of Homer's The Iliad – is not comparable, except that, like Dart, it is an extended homage. It's a poem written out of love for a story that matters to her as much as the rivers that have inspired her. Oswald is a classicist and, in her preface, writes of her hope that the poem does not depend upon "context" – readers are not obliged to lean on Homer. She need not fear: the poem stands by itself.

Having said that, it was reading Memorial alongside The Iliad (in Robert Fagles's translation) that made me feel the full force of Oswald's achievement. The task she has set herself is a poetic filleting (or, as she describes it, the "reckless dismissal" of seven-eighths of Homer's narrative) and a memorialising of every soldier, juxtaposed with extended similes – a Greek chorus of them. She describes herself as trying to retrieve the poem's enargeia, which translates as "bright, unbearable reality", and writes that she is doing this "as you might lift the roof off a church in order to remember what you are worshipping".

The opening pages list the names of more than 200 dead. Reading them is equivalent to the poignancy of skimming surnames on a war memorial. But as the poem gets going, the risk Oswald runs is obvious: if each death is a foregone conclusion, the danger is of monotonous tragedy – each new casualty is likely to have less impact than the one before. Yet the miraculous thing is that this danger is somehow averted. The poem works in the opposite way: it builds. All poetry has a memorial aspect – the fixing of a moment, a place, the passing of a life. But this is remembering on a grand scale. This is a concentrated, intense, multi-tasking elegy. And it is written with a freshness to match Homer's own – as if each soldier had died on the day of writing.

What Oswald does is to give each doomed person an extra breath of life, a moment in the sunlight of her attention, even though, sometimes, there is little or nothing to record about the life. It is death that characterises the man and each death is different.The style is urgent, simple and spare. There are no ornamental phrases to hide behind: "Grief is black it is made of earth/ It gets into the cracks in the eyes/ It lodges its lump in the throat." It is a disturbing idea: grief as burial. Elsewhere, too, humble images are powerful. One soldier, in death, is described as like a child clinging to a mother: "Wanting to be light again/ wanting this whole problem of living to be lifted/ And carried on a hip."

Homer is full of marvellous images of armies as swarming bees, flattened fields of corn, waves that come in convoy. Oswald's poetic structure itself contains grand rhythms – rather like the sea. The extended similes are printed twice. They come at you like repeated waves. They push the poem forward and draw it back. There is a line in Homer that translates as the "trance of war" and this describes the poem's atmosphere. I long to hear Memorial performed; it would be tremendous. As the death toll rises, one becomes aware that only one thing survives – a life force carrying everything with it: the poem itself.

Grief is black it is made of earth

It gets into the cracks in the eyes

It lodges its lump in the throat

When a man sees his brother on the ground

He goes mad he comes running out of nowhere

Lashing without looking and that was how COON died

First he wounded Agamemnon

Then he grabbed his brother's stiffened foot

And tried to drag him home shouting

Help for god's sake this is Iphidamas

Someone please help but Agamemnon

Cut off his head and that was that

Two brothers killed on the same morning by the same man

That was their daylight here finished

And their long nightshift in the underworld just beginning

The above is an extract from Alice Oswald's Memorial

Thursday, September 15, 2011

THE SONG OF ACHILLIES by Madeline Miller

From The Independent, September 11 2011
Vivian Groskop reviews

The Song of Achilles, By Madeline Miller

For a whistlestop tour around the life and times of Achilles, you'd be hard pressed to find a better guide than Madeline Miller.

This young, first-time novelist has a BA and MA from Brown University in Latin and Ancient Greek and has studied at the Yale School of Drama, specialising in adapting classical tales for a modern audience. Something about this accomplished and enjoyable novel makes you feel it's the book she's been working up to for her whole life thus far. And that's very satisfying for the reader indeed. The Song of Achilles is original, clever and in a class of its own.

The setting is Greece in the age of heroes. When Patroclus, a complicated and stubborn young prince, accidentally kills a man, he is exiled to the kingdom of Phthia. There, he is raised by King Peleus, who is the father of Achilles, a youth the same age as Patroclus. Whereas Patroclus is geeky, awkward and self-conscious, Achilles is strong, handsome and regal. "This is what a prince should be," thinks Patroclus. They become unlikely companions and, eventually, lovers.

Sex aside, so far this sounds like something out of a prep-school classics lesson, circa 1984. But Miller works hard to transcend the potentially preachy limitations of her material, and The Song of Achilles is an incredibly compelling and seductive read. Her skill is considerable: she has to make us believe in Achilles and Patroclus almost as if they were modern-day characters in a Hollywood movie. (I have to confess to seeing a young Brad Pitt as Achilles throughout; Patroclus would probably be Steve Carell, who played the 40-year-old virgin in the movie of that name. In fact, both Pitt and Carell are too old for these roles, and no one would want to see the sex scenes.)

This is a tale of love and betrayal set against the backdrop of the epically long Trojan War. The gods are continually intervening and trying to make sense of things, while the men rampage around trying to appease the gods and get what they want at the same time. Achilles spends most of his time brandishing his sword and killing people without really registering it. He doesn't know his own strength.

There is one man whom Achilles must avoid killing, and that is his arch-rival Hector. He knows the prophecy: Hector dies first, then Achilles. So as long as Hector lives, Achilles is safe. As Patroclus puts it: "And Hector must live, always, he must never die, not even when he is old, not even when he is so withered that his bones slide beneath his skin like loose rocks in a stream."

Patroclus is a beautifully drawn, complex character; the real hero of the story. He is what we all fear we might be – pathetic in the face of fate – but his honesty and practicality make him a loveable chap, especially when he takes on the role of war camp medic and gets to know all of the great warriors' flaws. "Nestor with his throat syrup, honeyed and warmed, that he wanted at the end of a day; Menelaus and the opiate he took for his headaches; Ajax's acid stomach. It moved me to see how much they trusted me, turned hopeful faces towards me for comfort." (At this point in the novel, the seven-stone weakling of the piece was suddenly seeming a bit more like George Clooney to me.)

Although Patroclus purports to be a coward, we know that the only person whom he really fears is Achilles' mother, the cruel sea goddess Thetis. She is forever popping up with blood spilling out of her lips, kidnapping Achilles to warn him of the evil ways of men – and then to grieve that even she cannot save him from them. The interplay between the gods and men in The Song of Achilles is wonderful: no one is ever completely in control, although this doesn't stop both sides from persuading themselves that, at some particular moment, they are the ones with the power.

Of course, you can't write a book with "Achilles" in the title without it having a heel of some kind. And this novel's greatest flaw is also its key strength. It is arguably a book of Greek history for idiots. It's not a pretentious and complicated work. There is plenty of sexual tension (and actual sex), much of it homoerotic: Brokeback Mountain sets sail for Troy. But it has all this – necessarily, as sex is the whole point of the story, and much of Achilles' power rests on his masculine allure – without being remotely trashy. It's an entirely successful piece of writing, sitting comfortably between literary and commercial fiction genres. It does what the best novels do – it transports you to another world – as well as doing something that few novels bother to: it makes you feel incredibly clever.

Of course, if we were all better read in classical history, perhaps we would not need to read a novel like this at all. The Song of Achilles just made me glad that I was ignorant enough to really enjoy it.


From Literary Review, September 2011

Peter Jones reviews THE CRIMES OF ELAGABALUS: The Life and Legacy of Rome’s Decadent Boy Emperor, by Martjin Icks

The popular image of a Roman emperor is probably determined by Nero: fat, corrupt and doomed but determined to go out in a blaze of orgies, alcohol and mayhem. Elagabalus (actually Marcus Aurelius Antoninus), worshipper of the Syrian sun-god Elagabal whom he intended to replace Jupiter at the head of the Roman pantheon, makes Nero look an amateur. Brought to power in AD 218 at age fourteen by his family in a desperate bid to maintain Antonine rule, he lasted four years before being done to death in the arms of his mother after a reign of which Gibbon said its ‘inexpressible infamy surpasses that of any other age or country’. Even if accounts are only half accurate, one can see why.

Here are some extracts from one of the three sources for his life, the *Historia Augusta* (so named in 1603) a collection of lives of the emperors, put together probably sometime in the fourth century AD. Authorship is debatable – the great Sir Ronald Syme thought it put together by a rogue university teacher with a strong imagination and powerful sense of humour – but it gives a general idea of the sort of person we are talking about.

Depilated and made up like a woman, ‘the recipient of lust in every orifice of his body’, he sent agents looking for men with large organs to satisfy his passions. He put a dancer-cum-actor in charge of the Praetorian Guard, and a barber of the grain supply. The size of a man’s organ often determined the post he was given. His feasting and parties were a riot: ‘He would often shut his friends up when they were drunk and suddenly, in the night, let in lions and leopards and bears - rendered harmless - so that when they woke up they would find at dawn, or what is worse, at night, lions, bears and panthers in the same bedroom as themselves. Several of them died as a result of this.’

He invented a prototype whoopee-cushion: ‘Many of his humbler friends he used to seat on air-pillows instead of cushions and would let out the air while they were dining, so that often the diners were suddenly found under the tables. Finally, he was the first to think of setting out a semi-circle on the ground, not on couches, so that the air-cushions might be loosened by slave-boys at their feet, to let out the air … When already emperor, he used to order ten thousand mice to be brought to him, or a thousand weasels, or a thousand shrew-mice… He served his parasites with dinners made of glass… Sometimes, however, paintings were served up to them, so that they were served with everything, as it were, and yet were tortured with hunger…’.

Since an early, violent death had been predicted for him, he even had a suicide tower built ‘with gilded and jewelled boards spread underneath in front of him,… saying that even his death ought to be costly and of an extravagant pattern…’ (all tr. by Anthony Birley, Lives of the Later Caesars).

He was, in other words, the sort of emperor the Arts Council would have died for, and while Icks very diligently tries to sort out historical fact from fiction in the first half of the book, this is where his real interest lies – Elagabalus’ ‘cultural legacy’.

He re-emerged in the course of the fourteenth century ‘rediscovery’ of the ancient Greeks and Romans. Commonly seen as the archetypal tyrant who was above the law and committed only to his own personal desires, he was amusingly touted as the perfect ruler of an anti-utopian society by Thomas Artus (1605) in an attack on the French state of the time. In the nineteenth and early twentieth century, however, the emphasis shifted from the perfect tyrant to the perfect paradigm of sexual ambivalence, orientalism, ennui and decay. Moral disapproval disappeared and art for art’s sake held the centre stage: Elagabalus the performer with the whole world his audience, the ‘pure product of aestheticism at all costs’ (David).

Maurice, the hero of Didier’s La Destinée (1900), found in him ‘the incomparable artist’, determined to cross every boundary in the search for the unrealisable. Inevitably he is turned into an ancient pop-star in Thomas Jonigk’s opera Heliogabal (2003), with the novel message that stars come and go. He was now a positive figure, battling the morals and values of the day in the name of self-realisation and sexual liberty: in fact, ‘just a weird kid with a thing about animals and big dicks’ (a Neil Gaiman comic, 1992).

Just about sums it up, really. But ‘reception studies’ being all the rage in university classics departments at the moment at the expense of the serious study of the language and culture of the ancient world, I can already see a flock of bleating receptionists being herded together on the horizon to do yet more, pointless ‘research’ into this ghastly creature. But once you have done the historical job on him, which Icks has, the rest is intellectual froth. Comprendre tout, c’est pardonner tout. No, it isn’t.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Orpheus: The Song of Life, by Ann Wroe

Orpheus: The Song of Life, By Ann Wroe

By Ruth Padel
From The Independent July 22 2011
Jonathan Cape £17.99

Lyric poetry is poetry sung to a lyre; the figure of Orpheus embodies it. So what does his myth tell us about how lyric poetry connects to life and what poetry offers modern lives today? Orpheus emerged from a culture intensely aware of its own communality. Ancient Greeks wove into their poetry and philosophy what it means, politically and imaginatively, that different people play different roles in society. "Music", which meant poetry as well as melody, symbolised the way many different elements combined to make harmonia. Harmonia - from harmottein, "to join or fit together" - was an important concept in moral philosophy and medicine as well as music. It was the taut balance of different forces in one body, either our own bodies or the body politic.

Orpheus is about voice and strings making music together. His instrument is not flute or drum but the lyre, with its different strings. He too stands for combining, for drawing disparate elements together. Appropriately, several features of his myth combine to generate its power.

One, Orpheus was a lyre-player and singer from Thrace, the wild north of Greece. Two, animals, people, trees and rocks came close to him, therefore closer to each other too, to hear his song. Three, he was an adventurer: he accompanied the Argonauts on their voyage. Four, he was a priest who founded a mystery religion.

Fifth, of course, he was a lover. When Eurydice died, he went to the underworld to get her and was allowed to lead her up to life as long as he did not look at her. On the brink of success, he glanced back to make sure she was there and lost her for ever.

Six, when he returned to Thrace the maenads, mad female followers of Dionysus, tore him to pieces; possibly out of jealousy because he kept singing about Eurydice and wouldn't look at other women. Finally, seven, the maenads threw his head into the Hebrus River where it floated, still singing, to the sea. His singing head became an emblem of poetry's power to transcend death. As Auden puts it in his "Elegy for WB Yeats", poetry is "a mouth" which "survives". It "flows on" after the poet dies.

Ann Wroe's beautifully crafted study explores Orpheus's myth and its origins in ancient Greece. She guides us through a tangle of narrative, beliefs and theories about Orpheus in antiquity and on into his myriad appearances in modern art, photography, film, philosophy, sculpture, opera and poetry. Like her 2007 study of Shelley, this is not so much a biography of a poet (in this case a legendary one) but an evocation of his roles, bringing out particularly the way lyric poetry through the centuries has spoken for and to Earth, and all Earth symbolises.

Like the Italian mythographer Roberto Calasso, she wears a lot of learning lightly, blending multiple interpretations of her subject into a rich and almost cinematically beguiling narrative. The story as she presents it has seven parts which she aligns with the seven strings of his lyre. Each "string" vibrates to a different image.

Her first is Winter: for Orpheus's childhood in bleak mountainous Thrace but also for February 1922, when Rilke began his extraordinary Sonnets to Orpheus. Her second string is Trees - for Orpheus's legendary alphabet whose 13 consonants s derived from 13 trees, but also for the trees (and everything else, animate and inanimate) which Orpheus draws as he sings. Third comes the Sea for his voyage with the Argonauts, foreshadowing the sea into which the Hebrus runs. Love is the central string; the fifth is Death. Not his own death, not yet: his experience of the underworld. Then comes Fame when loss and desolation are transfigured in song and in his Mysteries.

The seventh string is Scattering - Orpheus torn apart. (Some poets have interpreted this as torn to pieces by reviewers.) The maenads scattered his limbs; the head floated downstream. Afterwards, Orpheus had no fixed place or monument because, says Wroe, "he was in everything that flowed or grew or changed."

She opens and closes with Rilke writing Sonnets to Orpheus. Like Rilke, she treats Orpheus as if he were about to waft into the room. The alchemy she performs on his myth almost turns at times into a ghost-raising. Rilke becomes Orpheus's avatar, whispering in her ear what Orpheus is really like, for those who can bear his presence.

By the end we feel that this haunting and luminous figure, who stands for lyric poetry and the many roles it plays, embodies our most intense and concentrated response to life. We come to see Orpheus as our own best answer - to earth and nature, each other and the world, death, loss and going on. "Orpheus, we say, wherever the true song is manifest," Rilke's lines run, in Don Paterson's version. "He comes and goes." This insightful and visionary study, treading a perfect line between imagination and scholarship, is as readable and necessary as a fine novel. Ted Hughes, another mythographer, would have loved it.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

INVISIBLE ROMANS: Prostitutes, Outlaws, Slaves, Gladiators and Others by Robert C. Knapp

From the BBC History Magazine June 2011
INVISIBLE ROMANS: Prostitutes, Outlaws, Slaves, Gladiators and Others

By Robert C. Knapp

Profile Books h/b 320pp £20

If you like your information to come thick and fast without too much need to beetle the brow, this is the book for you. Robert Knapp, emeritus professor at Berkeley, California, has gathered together a vast amount of evidence about back-street Romans, clearly presented and well backed up with copious quotations from the sources. These feature inscriptions and letters in particular, but also folksongs, fables, books of jokes, legal digests, the Bible, novels, dream interpretations (‘to defecate in the temple, market place, public street or bath…portends the wrath of the gods, great disgrace and severe loss’) and so on.

His purpose is to get into the ‘mind-world’ of these invisible people. Taking each group in turn, he finds plenty of evidence to suggest that fear (of violence, exploitation, etc.), need (for everything from security to health), dependence (especially on family and friends) and hope (for better days) dominate their thoughts, with all the worries attendant on such concerns. The possibility that gods or fate might be on their side was a comfort, but there were no guarantees.

One can see why life was such hard going when one considers the statistics with which Knapp begins the story. In the Roman empire of 50-60 million people, there were perhaps 5,000 super-elite adult males with the wealth to qualify as Roman senators. Across the c. 300 established urban districts in the empire, there might be 30-35,000 very rich elite males. Those two groupings between them might have held 80% of the total wealth. That leaves 99.5% of the population to account for. Perhaps 25% of them could make a broadly sustainable living. They would include merchants, artisans, soldiers, peasant farmers who had done well, and those who lived off the elites, teachers, doctors, architects and so on.

Observe here that there was no prejudice against ‘work’ of the sort one finds among the leisured elites. Work was the only way to survive, and as Rome grew wealthier from its conquests, so the standard of living and the quality and range of goods rose. That needed a flexible labour-force. Knapp might have quoted the graffito ‘You’ve had any number of different job opportunities – barman, baker, farmer, at the mint, now you’re selling pots. Lick **** and you’ll have done the lot.’

Knapp has much of interest to say about women too, pointing out that, from the evidence we have (an important proviso), women do not appear to have felt themselves an oppressed class, nurturing secret aspirations for liberation. Letters from Egypt, for example, show strong-minded women fully in charge of their own business.

If the book has a weakness, it lies in the relentless piling up of examples, leading to somewhat repetitive conclusions. Some analysis of, for example, the tension between the elite’s image of a well-governed, just society and the reality of non-elite life might have been quite eye-opening: how did that affect the non-elite’s ‘mind-world’? But one certainly cannot complain about the sheer richness of the fare spread out before us.

John Timney

Monday, March 7, 2011


From Literary Review March 2011

Peter Jones reviews
SONG OF WRATH: The Peloponnesian War Begins,
by J.E. Lendon
(Basic Books 566pp £25)

The ‘Peloponnesian’ War (431-404 BC) was fought between two of the most powerful of ancient Greek city-states, Athens and Sparta. In the summer of 424 BC, its contemporary historian, the Athenian Thucydides, recorded an Athenian assault on the town of Megara, a Spartan ally. It would have succeeded, had not the Spartan general Brasidas arrived. He was not allowed into the city, however, because ‘the Megarians were watching to see which side would win’. After some cavalry skirmishing, the two armies drew up for battle. Brasidas, on favourable ground, ‘did not have to run any risks ... and might win an unopposed victory.’ But neither side engaged. After a while the Athenians retreated, deciding that they ‘had achieved most of their objectives and did not want to run the risk of losing some of their best hoplites’, and Brasidas was at last welcomed into Megara.

It is with this story that Lendon begins his highly readable account of the first ten years of the Peloponnesian War down to the seven-year peace in 421 BC. Its purpose is to provide an example of the book’s thesis: that the war between Athens and Sparta was driven by—well, what? To read Thucydides’ account, one would naturally conclude ‘military self-interest’. Brasidas did not want to fight if he did not have to; the Athenians thought about it and decided it was not worth the candle. Who can blame them? The Spartans had the most fearsome land-army in the Greek world. So the Athenians came up with a baffling excuse about achieving their objectives and left. But this is not Lendon’s conclusion: he uses the incident to argue that it was honour that was at stake.

This strikes me as distinctly odd. If honour was indeed at stake, it is hard to see why the Athenians acted as they did: what on earth was honourable about slinking off? The fact that the Athenians justified their actions to themselves is neither here nor there. Honour is a matter, not of private or personal, but of public judgement, and if it was dishonourable to refuse battle, the Athenian view was irrelevant. Clearly, saving their skin came first. But there is another problem. Do we know how other Greeks viewed the Athenians’ retreat? The answer is ‘no’. They might well have thought it sensible. The Spartans were the most feared warriors of their day.

That is not to argue that Lendon is wrong in saying ancient Greeks put a very high value on ‘honour’. The Greek word, tîmê, means basically ‘evaluation’. For Homeric heroes it was the key to winning that immortal glory (kleos) that would result in their being remembered for ever. But it did not come at the price of one’s life. Only Romans and heroes of Germanic myth went in for suicidal gestures like that, unless one knew one’s time was up. The great exception is Achilles, who in the Iliad knows that, if he kills Trojan Hector (who killed his beloved Patroclus), he will die next. But that tells us everything about Achilles, nothing about other men.

Thucydides too is well aware of the importance of tîmê in Greek culture. But it is rare for him to highlight it; and when he does, it does not occur on its own as a definitive motive or explanation of events. In one important passage, for example, the Athenians explain that it was ‘fear most of all’, then tîmê and finally ‘self-interest’ that drove them to expand their empire. Tîmê, in other words, is just one of a number of reasons why men act as they do. When the Spartans sued for peace in 425 BC, they proposed an alliance, offering Athens virtually nothing but the chance to be equal with Sparta in tîmê. The Athenians rejected it. They had Sparta where they wanted it. Lendon argues that they were driven by the desire for even greater tîmê. But, to make a comparison, why does anyone want to win Wimbledon: the sheer pleasure of victory? Or of stuffing your opponent? The prize? Future earnings? Tîmê? How do you separate all this out? When the snooker player Ronnie O’Sullivan saw a chance for a maximum 147 clearance, he asked the referee if there was a prize for the feat. Informed there was not, he proceeded to clear the table, but not the final black (though he was eventually persuaded to sink it).

So the subject is not as cut and dried as Lendon often seems to make it. Nevertheless, he does admit that relations of tîmê between Greek states were not ‘neat and predictable’. Tîmê could not be measured precisely, not could one forecast what action by an enemy could be seen to threaten it and so invite a vengeful response. He agrees that Athens sometimes had more important things on its mind than how it looked to others.

After reviewing a Cambridge reprint of A.B. Cook’s monumental Zeus (1914-1940), Professor Colin Leach commented to me ‘one could disagree with every single one of his conclusions without in any way lessening the utility of the work’. That seems to me a judgement that could be well applied to Lendon. There is more to battle than strategy, technology and tactics. By foregrounding the cultural values that underpinned an ancient Greek’s mentality, Lendon offers an imaginative tool with which to examine Thucydides’ explanations for events and see whether they could not make better sense in a wider context. After all, as he points out, it was an analysis which a much later historian, the first century BC Sicilian Diodorus, deployed to explain Athens’ behaviour. It adds considerably to the value of Lendon’s account that he writes with persuasive clarity, tells a cracking story, makes some stimulating comparisons with current international politics and provides excellent glossaries, appendices and notes. So even if one has doubts about the overall thesis, this is still a book that is well worth reading and will provide a good deal of food for thought.

Monday, January 3, 2011

The Ancient Guide to Modern Life by Natalie Haynes

From The Guardian January 1 2011

Charlotte Higgins on what the Greeks and Romans did and didn’t do for us

When Natalie Haynes was a teenager, her head was turned. She read the second book of Virgil’s Aeneid, the Roman poet’s astonishing account of the fall of Troy. Instead of taking science A-levels and becoming a vet, she studied Latin, Greek and ancient history and took a degree in classics. Her passion for Virgil is still ardent. You should read Aeneid book four (the tale of Queen Dido’s fall) because, she exhorts in The Ancient Guide to Modern Life, it "is the most brilliant book of verse ever written, and it’s your own time you’re wasting if you decide to read something else instead".

But Haynes has more than enthusiasm to offer. As the title of her book implies, she wants to show what the ancient world has to offer us as a guide to living now. This is tricky territory. The ancient world looks as if it is populated by people "just like us", not least because it is the great minds of the classical world – Virgil, Homer, Plato, Cicero and the rest – who have informed so much of our intellectual inheritance, from the humanists onwards. Read certain love poems by the Roman writer Catullus, and you can almost hear him breathing, so close and immediate do the emotions that flood out of those words appear to be. But the worlds of classical Greece and ancient Rome are also irretrievably alien, separated from us by thousands of years, utterly foreign by way of everything from religion and ritual to their universal acceptance of a slave-based economy (even Spartacus believed in slavery, he just didn’t want to be one).

Haynes gets this, and writes rather well about the trap of seeing "ancient Rome as a toga party to which our invitation went astray". Recalling the opening sentence of LP Hartley’s The Go-Between ("The past is a foreign country"), she writes: "We tend to view Rome as though it were topographically, rather than temporally, separate from our world."

Unfortunately her awareness of the trap does not stop her from tripping into it from time to time. Ancient Athenian democracy, for example, had very little to do with our modern political system in Britain: the problem is that we have inherited the Greek word (the original meaning is "grip of the people", so it’s an idea with an inbuilt critique). Haynes seems to me to be too enthusiastic about Athenian democracy, which – even if it was retrospectively glorified in texts such as Pericles’s Funeral Oration– began as a pragmatic solution to a very real set of political problems that just happened to work out rather well for the family of its founding father. (The statesman Pericles and the gorgeous Alcibiades were both of the same family as Cleisthenes, the aristocrat credited with Athens’s democratic reforms.)

Sometimes the conclusions for modern life that Haynes draws from the ancient world can seem rather banal. Does the fact that Greek officials were paid a workman’s wage mean that modern politicians could usefully take a pay-cut? Will thinking about Plato’s theory of forms really make us hesitate when considering the purchase of a new electronic gadget? Does the fact that the emperor Caligula died at the hand of the head of the Praetorian Guard really teach us not to tease policemen? (Surely Haynes has her tongue in her cheek with that last one.)

For all that, as you’d expect from someone who made a career in stand-up comedy, Haynes is brilliant on writers such as Aristophanes and Juvenal. The Greek comic playwright’s most obvious successor, she reckons, is The Simpsons – "anarchic, satirical, parodic and political". The Roman satirist she unpicks with ravenous enthusiasm, loving him though he’s "dyspeptic, bigoted, racist and furious". A compelling passage describes Juvenal’s third satire, in which he dramatises his friend Umbricius’s decision to leave Rome and embrace the rural life in Cumae (not far from the ultra-fashionable seaside resort of Baiae, on the bay of Naples). The savage, witty accusations against Rome pile up: it is expensive, dangerous, there’s no work, it’s full of crooks and immigrants. So, will Juvenal move to the country too? No fear. Rome, for all its confusion and discomforts, its mess and chaos, is where Juvenal will stay. The Rome of the mind, as Haynes demonstrates, is still the place to be.

Charlotte Higgins’s It’s All Greek to Me is published by Short Books.