In college, my focus was mainly on American history. I did take courses on British history (which is fundamental background for American history) and on Modern Europe (meaning Europe since the 1500s). Outside of my course work and interest was the Ancient and Medieval Worlds. Years of teaching world history did better acquaint me with fields outside of my preferences. But the focal point was always on American and Modern European history.
My entrance into classical Christian education began with a horrifying jolt in the summer of 1995. I attended some lectures by Wes Callihan and Chris Schlect (both of whom were then teachers at Logos School in Moscow, Idaho) and found myself confronting a near total illiterate–myself. That began what is now year 24 in a quest to read all the classical works from Genesis and Gilgamesh to Faulkner and Ishiguro. I am still behind on my readings, by the way. But I have made progress.
This post–which promises to be brief–will focus on three recent books that are helps or friends in the journey through Antiquity. They all deserve longer, more detailed, more persuading reviews. For now, let me assure you that they are all worthy candidates for a space on your bookshelf if you are reading, teaching, or exploring the worlds of Greece and Rome.
Communication, Love, and Death in Homer and Virgil by Stephen Ridd is published by the University of Oklahoma Press. It is Volume 54 in the Oklahoma Series in Classical Culture. As Victor Davis Hanson and others have lamented, studies in the Classical Culture of Antiquity or studies in the Greek and Roman languages and literature are much diminished in our day and time. College educated people from past centuries read the classics in the original languages. My college experiences did not even include reading translations.
This is not the book to start with. Even though it is called “An Introduction” to certain aspects of Homer and Virgil, don’t begin here. Read Homer and Virgil. Read them several times. Read them with a group. Read a couple of translations. Homer’s works are simple enough: The Iliad and The Odyssey. (I recommend Richmond Lattimore for the first and Robert Fagles for the second.) For Virgil, read The Aeneid. Virgil’s Georgics can also be fun.
It was Louise Cowan and some of her students who first opened my eyes to the richness of these works. Through the years, I have taught Homer and Virgil’s books to many innocent students. Each reading and teaching experience challenges me to better understand and enjoy the epics. My preliminary reading from Dr. Ridd’s book convinces me that this is a worthy resource to be dipped in to or read from cover to cover.
Worldview Guide: Meditations of Marcus Aurelius by Dr. Brian Phillips is published by Canon Press. Brian Phillips is a friend of mine (although we have only met once) and a brother in Christ. He is also the pastor of a family of friends–Wade, Jody, and Caleb Choate. Brian jokingly wrote in the inscription of my copy “Rave about it publicly.”
This makes my task and burden difficult. But I will be brave and launch in with this major criticism of this book: At 41 pages, it is WAY TOO SHORT. I was just getting into the enjoyment of this book when poof, it was over.
Now, let me put a better spin on all this. When reading and teaching classics, we often need help. The tendency is to go pull a dozen volumes off the shelf that provide helps and hints to understanding some older work. The book–even if it is War and Peace–looks small compared to the towering stack of commentaries and serious studies. The book described above about Homer and Virgil is that type of helpful reading. But the key to reading classics is reading classics.
My belief is that the reader/teacher needs to find a few short, simple (as in simplistic), readable guides for the classic. Read the Wikipedia article on the classic. Read an encyclopedia article, a summary, or a brief (5 pages or less) introduction. But let nothing stop you from reading the classic. Upon reading the work itself, keep plowing back through the brief helps. Only after your classical permanent teeth come in can you or should you read the experts.
Brian’s book is a part of a series of Worldview Guides. The Christian reader can easily succomb to either rejecting a book totally because the author is a pagan or embracing it totally because it mentions things compatible with Biblical truths. Marcus Aurelius was not a Christian; in fact and almost unexplainably, he was a Roman emperor who persecuted believers. But before we shout, “Unclean, unclean,” we have to recognize the sheer brilliance and beauty–via God’s common grace–of his Meditations.
I read and loved the Gregory Hays’ translation of Meditations, pictured above and published by The Modern Library. Phillips uses the older George Long translation (1862).
Destoyer of the gods: Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World by Larry W. Hurtado is published by Baylor University Press. This book is a blockbuster of a work. It can be asserted that the Christian battle royal against the Roman world is the greatest epic battle of history. Many of us Christians read the New Testament with far too much ease. But the Gospels, Acts, and the Epistles are battle reports and tactical training manuals for warfare. And, pragmatic folks notice, it worked.
This book will preach, to use the old preacher term. It is a scholarly, historical, and theological work. But it is affordable (not all that common for university press publications) and practical and devotional.
My only lament in this post is that this is my American Story year for Humanities. Most of my reading and all of my teaching will be devoted to things American. But books can still be scanned, dipped into, and coveted (in terms of content) even when they are not on the reading stacks.