Sunday, June 3, 2012

The Ancient Guide to Modern Life

From The Guardian, by Jessica Holland
The Ancient Guide to Modern Life by Natalie Haynes
If you're looking for something that captures the spirit of ancient epics, says Natalie Haynes, forget the Hollywood versions of Troy and Beowulf. Watch television. Deadwood, The West Wing and Battlestar Galactica will do; better still is Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which evokes the lonely, difficult heroism of Virgil's Aeneid. For "purest Sophoclean tragedy", you can turn to The Wire, in which Stringer Bell, like Oedipus, seals his fate by trying to change it.
As a standup and former classics scholar, Haynes is in an excellent position to tell ancient stories, although she doesn't seem too bothered about turning them into a self-help guide, as the title suggests. (Alain de Botton has that corner of the market covered, anyway.) Instead, she rattles through the politics, religion, philosophy and literature of ancient Greece and Rome, pointing out which ideas have caught on and which definitely haven't.
In the second category is the Roman practice of stuffing certain criminals into a bag with a snake, a rooster, a dog and a monkey and throwing them in a river; their suspicion that Christians were cannibals; and the Spartan tradition of having brides shave their heads and dress up like men for their wedding nights. "Anachronism isn't a healthy indulgence," Haynes writes, "but one still cries out to know what Freud would have made of all this."
In the other group are 2,000-year-old sayings we overhear every day. Next time someone tells you: "One swallow doesn't make a spring", ask them whether they knew it was Aristotle they were quoting and that the thought ends: "Similarly, one day of happiness does not make a man blessed." Another hijacked phrase is the Roman satirist Juvenal's: "Who will watch the watchmen?", which was originally about women in general being so slutty they couldn't even be locked up, because they'd seduce their guards.

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