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.