The Magazine

Classical Muzak

What’s a Grecian urn? The answer may surprise you.

Aug 26, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 47 • By A.E. STALLINGS
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Very rarely, one feels the lack of an anecdote. We get plenty of scuttlebutt about Euripides, but not, as far as I can tell, the rumor that he changed the ending of Medea to make her a murderess because of a 15-talent bribe from the Corinthians (who had previously gotten the blame for the death of her children). But like Herodotus, I digress. In truth, the only criticism I have is that an index would have made this volume even more invaluable: Vaguely remembering an anecdote about Socrates’ friends having to make way for a herd of muddy pigs, does one look for it under the chapter heading “Philosophers,” “Athens,” or “Animals”? Should a charm against inebriation (uttering line 8.170 of the Iliad three times before imbibing) be under “Religion, Superstition, and Magic” or “Food and Drink”? (Regardless, it is ineffectual, by my own experiment.)

Even while being entertained, one cannot help but pick up bits of information. There is a useful list of theater terms, for instance. And I had not realized that the ancient Greek word for rooster, alector, comes from the word for bed, lektron, plus a privative “a”—thus the term “getter-out-of-bed.” Or that the modern Greek word for wine, krasi (the ancient word is oinos), comes from kernao (“I mix”), since wine was nearly always drunk with water. Even in modern Greece it is pretty common to mix wine with soda water, and one of the refreshing things about this unassuming volume, besides that it wears its learning so breezily, is its apparent familiarity with present-day Greece and Greek.  

Some chapters are, by the nature of their subject matter, more somber and serious. There are lively, if dark, anecdotes in the chapter on Alexander the Great. For example, Alexander agreed to give his personal paparazzo of a poet, Choerilus, a gold coin for every good verse and a punch for every bad one; the poet ended up beaten to death, giving a new meaning to the phrase “poetry slam.” But the number of horrors Alexander visited on enemies and friends alike (after the fall of Tyre, which he had besieged for seven months, he was still so furious he crucified a further 2,000 Tyrians for good measure) leaves one thinking that a better title for him might have been Alexander the Terrible.

This book could have been arranged so as merely to shock and titillate (we do learn, for instance, that the residents of Lesbos invented fellatio), and the chapter entitled “Sex” will not disappoint. But there is an appealing elbow-patched old-fashionedness to McKeown’s voice and style, as with his occasional gentle, teacherly corrections: “[I]t is strictly speaking incorrect to refer in the plural to the ‘protagonists’ in a play, novel, or movie.” (“Protagonist” means “first performer.”) Or, of “thespian,” that it is a “rather pretentious term for ‘actor.’ ” 

A dash of “Attic salt” seasons the whole volume, especially in asides: When quoting from Aelian’s Miscellaneous History—“In the year of the ninety-first Olympic Games, when Exaenetus of Acragas won the foot race”—McKeown adds, “i.e., 416 b.c.; a modern writer might have said, ‘In the year that the Athenians killed all the adult male inhabitants of Melos and enslaved all the women and children.’ ” No Athenian apologist he! At the start of the chapter on “Women,” McKeown observes wryly that “this chapter might almost better have been entitled ‘Misogyny.’ ” The unshowy and conversational translations throughout appear to be McKeown’s own.

This reviewer is also relieved that the author has stuck with the traditional and perfectly workable “b.c.” in dates, and not the ungainly if politically correct “b.c.e.,” or “Before the Common Era” (the Common Era coincidentally starting around the time of the birth of Christ). It’s the sort of book destined to end up in one of the two most honored places for any favorite volume: the nightstand, or an arm’s-length away from the porcelain throne. It’s the perfect graduation present for a budding classicist, or for anyone of your acquaintance who loves history, mythology, ancient literature, archaeology, drama, philosophy, or the more humane letters.  

What English teacher wouldn’t want on his or her door the following quotation from Socrates? “If I had taken Prodicus’ 50-drachma course on etymology, I could have told you straightaway the whole truth about words. But I didn’t, I took only the one drachma course.”

A. E. Stallings, poet and translator, is the author, most recently, of Olives: Poems