Of Gods and Men: 100 Stories form Ancient Greece & Rome
Selected and introduced by Daisy Dunn
Head of Zeus
512pp
Hardback, £25

Many of our most arresting and enduring stories originated in the worlds of ancient Greece and Rome. Whether they be myths and legends, works of drama and fiction or accounts of real and dramatic events, we were bequeathed a host of stories that have continued to absorb and inspire us. In this anthology Daisy Dunn takes us
on a journey through an impressive and engrossing array of them.

It is a collection that well reflects the broad scope of the ancient Classical literary canon and immerses us in the intellectual, emotional and political lives of the ancient Greeks and Romans. The stories are drawn from a range of sources, from plays to poetry, philosophical discourses, speeches and works of history and biography. Some are full, stand-alone stories, many are extracts from longer works which form whole stories themselves. Here we have extracts from the work of a plethora of ancient writers from Hesiod and Homer, Aeschylus and Xenophon to Plautus, Catullus and Plutarch.

It was the richness and variety of Homer's storytelling, Dunn tells us, that served as her inspiration in compiling her collection. So too did Homer's epics serve as a catalyst for many other renowned narratives that are featured: Virgil's Aeneid, recounting the tale of the foundation of Rome, is one. But the art of storytelling reached tremendous heights in many other classics from the tales of adventure of Herodotus to the account of the appalling plague that befell Athens related by Thucydides, though as Dunn points out, some writers inventively blurred fact and fiction.

The stories transport us back to a time when beliefs and preoccupations, social structures and customs were different. But, in many cases, we can readily identify with what they present. Pliny the Younger's vivid account of the catastrophic eruption of Vesuvius can make us feel that the tragedy is unfolding before us. Cicero's terrible grief at the loss of his daughter Tullia, which he shares with his friend Atticus in a series of letters, is heart-rendingly appreciable: '… my sorrow is too much for any consolation,' he forlornly relates. We can also share the horror of Oedipus's shock as he begins to comprehend who he really is and the horrendous crimes he has committed.

Dunn has taken her selections from a wide range of translations old and new: from those of EV Rieu to TE Shaw (better known as Lawrence of Arabia) to Shelley and Ted Hughes, with a view to including those that most fully capture the spirit of the original texts. Several of her own feature. The last, the excerpt from Boethius' The Consolation of Philosophy, is by none other than Elizabeth I.

This is a handsome tome, the stories are well set out and preceded by a brief introduction that sets the scene. One of the joys of the anthology is that it provides a stimulus for us to read further, to return to works we may not have visited for some time or which we have not read before. The book is perfect gift material but really, you should treat yourself to it first.

Diana Bentley

 

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