Episode 41: Everything So Far

A retrospective of everything L&H has covered so far, plus some special announcements.

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Everything So Far

Hello, and welcome to Literature and History. Episode 41: Everything So Far. In this show, we’ll consider where we’ve been over the course of more than 500,000 words and 75 hours of Literature and History, and where we’re going next. Having most recently finished Apollonius’ Jason and the Argonauts, now, and having talked about Hellenistic history and religion in the previous episode, we’re hanging out around 200 BCE. Romans are locking swords with Hannibal and Carthage during the second Punic War, and the next major section of our show will involve a long – and I mean long – dive into the literature of Ancient Rome. Thousands of years of fascinating history lie ahead, and literature, too. But a lot lies behind us, as well. Let’s talk about that.

From Cuneiform to Apollonius’ Alexandria

The Euphrates River-Iraq

The banks of the Euphrates. The place where writing began. Note the clay and silt deposits in the foreground.

We started this show with cuneiform. In fact, we started with rain falling on the tops of the Taurus and Pontic ranges in southern Turkey, eroding these mountains and sending them down into the headwaters of the Euphrates, thereafter pushing and swirling silt for thousands of miles across the Mesopotamian desert, where, in the southeast of modern day Iraq, Sumerians used silt deposits to make things out of clay – clay bricks, clay statues, and most importantly, clay tablets. These Mesopotamian clay tablets gave us our first three stories – the Babylonian creation story, the Enuma Elish, and the Babylonian flood story, the Atrahasis, both written long before the Book of Genesis. A flood also showed up in our third text, the Epic of Gilgamesh, that ancient king of Sumerian Uruk who befriended the warrior Enkidu, fought the monster Humbaba and the Bull of Heaven, and unsuccessfully sought eternal life.

The next few shows were on Egypt. Reading the Book of the Dead, we learned that the ideas of divine judgment, and cosmic order, and a bipartite afterlife can first be found in the texts of the Egyptian Middle Kingdom. We read some stories from Ancient Egypt – the cryptic tale of “The Shipwrecked Sailor,” which seems to be a lament about the difficulty of living under an autocratic regime, and the much more rousing tale called “The Eloquent Peasant,” about a commoner who dares to speak up for himself. And finally, we read Ancient Egypt’s “Instructions of Amenemope” and “The Instructions of ‘Onchsheshonqy,” two ancient collections of proverbs that have ties to Proverbs, Sirach, and the Wisdom of Solomon in the Old Testament.

Next, we went on to Hesiod. We looked at Works and Days, a collection of mostly instructive writing that includes the short tales of Prometheus and Pandora and the Ages of Man before talking reverently about the seasons and the right days of the month for doing certain kinds of things. We read the Theogony, Hesiod’s account of how the world and gods came to be. And then we did six full shows on the works of Homer, three for the Iliad, and three for the Odyssey. While we heard the story of the Trojan War, we also learned about Bronze Age warrior culture, and early Greek reactions to Homer’s deities, and the main theories of how the Homeric epics came to be. Next, we went along on Odysseus’ adventures, learning about the maritime history of the late Bronze Age, the Homeric characters, and Homer’s famous similes.

The next ten shows – almost sixteen hours of content by themselves – took us through the Old Testament. Beginning with the history of Canaan and biblical archaeology, we then went on to discuss the basic architecture of the Hebrew Bible. We did two shows on the Pentateuch, learning both about the roots of the Bible’s creation story as well as how the many commandments in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy have parallels in older Ancient Near Eastern law codes. Then, in the longest program in the podcast so far, we spent a full two and a half hours with the Historical Books of the Bible, examining where biblical archaeology seems to support the story told there, and where biblical archaeology contradicts that story. Four wisdom books each got their own show – Job, and then Psalms, then Ecclesiastes, and then the Song of Songs, and finally, we wrapped everything up with a lengthy episode on the Prophetic Books.

Ever since then, we’ve been in Greece. We talked about Greek Lyric Poetry – the works of Archilochus, Sappho, and Pindar. And after an introductory program on the City Dionysia celebration of Ancient Athens, we spent ten straight shows on the drama of the 400s BCE – three plays by Aeschylus, three by Sophocles, two by Euripides, and two by Aristophanes. A final play on the later Greek dramatist Menander closed off that sequence, and most recently, we’ve looked at the epic Jason and the Argonauts, written by that stellar librarian from Alexandria, Egypt, Apollonius of Rhodes.

It’s safe to say that we – and literature – have come a long way from reed styluses carefully pressed into clay along the riverbanks of the southern Euphrates in 3,100 BCE. The earliest civilizations we met – Sumer, and Babylon, and Assyria, were either extinct, or on their way out by the end of the 200s BCE, where we are now. The religious practices of Egypt’s Old Kingdom, though they’d encouraged the construction of the pyramids at Giza, had evolved almost beyond recognition by the year 200 BCE, when Egypt was being ruled by a Greek dynasty, and Egypt’s priests had already seen hundreds of years of Persian influence before that.

Now, as I said, we’re going to begin looking at the literature of Rome – the plays, the poetry, and the fiction that were produced by first the Roman Republic, and afterward the Roman Empire. We’ll have somewhere around thirty shows on Roman literature, before we move on to ten or so programs on the New Testament and the religious practices that it sprang out of, before diving into Late Antiquity, and the early Middle Ages. We’re nowhere near the end of this podcast, and we’re not even at the end of the beginning. Still, as we move away from our first forty episodes, we have reached a benchmark. Let’s take a second to reflect on some overarching things we’ve learned thus far. [music]

The Search for Origins

As I’ve written these past forty shows, going back as far as 5,000 years into the past, two ideas have been crossing my mind, week after week. They don’t belong in any episode in particular, but they’re perfect for a retrospective moment like this one. Odds are, you’ve probably thought about both of them before. But still, since we’ve embarked on this journey together so far, I want to take this special opportunity to talk about them with you for a minute.

Rembrandt - Apostle Paul - WGA19120

Rembrandt’s Apostle Paul (c. 1633). Paul of Tarsus was part of a tradition of theological and ethical writing that was at least 3,000 years old.

Let’s start with the first one. There’s a quote in the New Testament. It’s in First Corinthians. Chapter 15, verse 33. That quote is “Bad company ruins good morals.”1 Again, “Bad company ruins good morals.” Okay. Now, if you know the epistles in the New Testament, you know that, being letters of counsel and wisdom, they are packed full of proverbs. Some of these proverbs are potent truisms about human life, and others bear the unseemly birthmarks of the Iron Age. The one that we’re talking about – “Bad company ruins good morals,” again 1 Corinthians, Chapter 15, verse 33, is somewhere in between. It reminds you that you’re vulnerable to the possibly pernicious ideologies of those around you, while at the same time assuming that a rather simple binary between two universal opposites exists – that’s “bad” and “good” – and that people can generally tell the difference between these two. You may agree on the latter point, but for our current purposes, it doesn’t matter one way or another.

Because the first thing I wanted to talk about – the first main point – has to do with origins. I think that many of us like to search for the origins of things. I’m as guilty of it as the next person – I like to try and follow something back – an idea, or a story, or a cultural practice – I like to follow these back to where they first arose – at least insofar as we can tell. When we look at something like First Corinthians, something that billions of people have read over the course of almost two thousand years, the temptation to point to the New Testament as an origin point for an idea is very compelling. If Paul, one the ten or twenty most influential people in world history, wrote that “Bad company ruins good morals,” and if this pronouncement is bundled into the most widely circulated book on earth, that’s as good an origin as any, isn’t it?

Well, maybe. But not for me. Because over the past forty episodes, I haven’t found a single origin of anything. Not one. I’ve found echoes of echoes of echoes. I’ve found an archaeological dig site, with infinite layers, and before you can follow them down into the earth they start to disintegrate and lose their definition under the press of time. I’ve found a vast wooden block with a billion things carved into it, and things are carved on top of other things, and nothing appears out of nowhere, and the whole mass is unsettling in its complexity – an unending cobweb extending infinitely backward, its earliest tendrils spiraling into the Paleolithic, ten thousand years ago, twenty thousand years ago, thirty thousand years ago, to the Venus of Willendorf and the Oldowan period of the Lower Paleolithic, over two million years before the days of Saint Paul.

And so this quote from 1 Corinthians, anthologized as it is neatly in the thousands and thousands of pages of the Bible – this letter of Saint Paul, with all of its wise pronouncements, seems to us in modern times to rear up from the past like an obelisk. If the transmission of literature is a process of survival of the fittest, then the Bible is a great white or horsetail fern – something that withstood the conflagrations of history to come to the present, largely unchanged by time. If you take this – rather simple – view of literature’s journey forward through the centuries, then the Bible stands, awesome and solitary, an origin point if there ever were one.

But we know differently, don’t we? We know that the Bible isn’t so much a single species as it is a preserve of many species – stories, songs, commandments, prophecies, proverbs, lamentations, eschatology, history, revisionist history – an endlessly variegated mass of statements and contradictions and restatements, a bulky and occasionally perplexing cross section of the writings of the ancient world.

When Paul wrote 1 Corinthians from Ephesus in modern day Turkey, some time around 53 or 54 CE, he was not writing in a vacuum. Paul had just been in the Greek city of Corinth – the same Corinth that had participated in the Peloponnesian and Greco-Persian Wars five centuries before, the same Corinth that was the legendary home of Oedipus, the same Corinth where legendary Medea killed her children. Ephesus, where Paul wrote his letter to his followers in Corinth, was also a city with a rich history and intellectual heritage – during the middle Persian period it had been the home of Heraclitus, that philosopher so invested in the notion of change whom we met a number of episodes ago. Paul, who wrote more of the Bible than anyone except for the Deuteronomist, came of age in a literary, multilingual world – a world where Greek washed all over the Aegean and Asia Minor and Egypt and beyond, where before that, Persian had done the same thing, and through the mediums of these international languages, religions and cultures were splitting and fusing and recombining, year after year, month after month, day after day. It’s no wonder, then, that such a huge amount of the New Testament has analogues in the texts that came before it.

When Paul wrote that “Bad company ruins good morals,” he may have been adapting from any number of sources. The early Christian historian Socrates of Constantinople, who wrote during the 400s, theorized that the quote had come from Menander, who had adapted it from Euripides.2 This may be the case – Paul was certainly versed in Greek letters, and the works of Menander and Euripides were in circulation during this period of Roman history, but the idea of avoiding fools and seeking the counsel of the wise pervades a great deal of ancient literature. Paul would have known the Old Testament’s Proverbs 14:7: “Leave the presence of a fool, for there you do not find words of knowledge.”3 And this proverb may have come from the older “Instructions of Amenemope,” written around 1100 BCE, which says, “Do not take counsel with fools. Do not seek their advice . .Seek advice from your peers.”4 So when I say that I have found no origins, just echoes of echoes of echoes, this is the kind of thing I mean. Paul says something that Hellenistic playwright Menander said, that before that the Athenian tragedian Euripides said, that before that the Canaanite scribe who compiled Proverbs said, that before that an Egyptian set down during the Bronze Age Collapse. We look back into the ancient world with a misguided sense that there will be some blinding flash where an idea was first born – we look for an entirely original story that blazed across the world and took its drowsy audiences unawares – we look for a god, or a pantheon who, when they were first written of, were unlike anything that had come before. We look for all of these things, and we find something else – a meshwork of infinitely tangled precedents and variations, shimmeringly beautiful but foreboding in its complexity. Over these past forty shows I’ve learned, and I hope I’ve communicated, that if you want to find the beginning of what we are, it started long, long before the first stone tablets that we now possess, and it was far more intricate than the crumbled rocks that have come down to us might lead us to believe. I think one of the reasons so many of us prefer creation stories is that they are simple, resonant alternatives to an otherwise inconceivable multiplicity.

Even with our earliest texts – even with the Sumerian proto-cuneiform that predates Iron Age religion by two thousand years, we must accept the fact that we’re reading reworkings and adaptations and derivatives. And that leads us to the second thing I wanted to talk about. The search for the oldest literature of humanity takes us to an incomprehensibly tangled thicket, the outskirts of a boundless forest, of which we can only see a few trees. When confronted with such an impenetrable mass, intellectual history has recurrently sought out an alternative to creationism to make sense of the early history of humankind – an alternative that takes the Gordian knot of our beginnings and attempts to cleave it with grand theory. And in the 1880s and 1890s, theory was deployed in great quantities order to try and illuminate and organize the rapidly expanding realm of ancient comparative literature.

Golden Bough Anthropology – Then and Now


James George Frazer in 1933.

I’m talking specifically about what’s called Golden Bough anthropology, a school named after the Scottish anthropologist James George Frazer and often associated with Cambridge University. In the year 1890, Frazer published a classic called The Golden Bough. The book’s thesis became possible as anthropologists and archaeologists began travelling and studying on a global scale, collecting data about ancient and aboriginal cultures. For the first time, as the Epic of Gilgamesh and the Enuma Elish and the Book of the Dead were rendered into modern languages, and as the rites and rituals of indigenous cultures were documented and diagrammed and even photographed – for the first time, men and women could set global religious and literary traditions together in tables, and draw lines between them. Frazer’s book The Golden Bough noticed pervasive tendencies between ancestral narratives of world cultures – stories of sacrificed kings, divine deaths linked to earthly fecundity, stories of rebirth linked with the cycles of the moon. Quite to the dismay of the reading public of the 1890s, Frazer even discussed the sacrifice of Christ as symptomatic of a widespread pattern of mythology about divine deaths, rebirths, and the agricultural cycles that followed them.

There are many prominent heirs of what can be called Golden Bough anthropology, or archetypal literary criticism. And what these thinkers do is to use data gathered from comparative religion and literature, in order to hypothesize some parent explanation about the root of all human stories. Thinkers of the Golden Bough or archetypical school look into the foreboding complexities of literary history searching for elements that are universal, or nearly universal, and their theories are designed to illuminate these universals. You might not have heard of James George Frazer unless you have a sociology or anthropology degree, but some of the people Frazer influenced might be familiar – Robert Graves, Carl Jung, Northrop Frye, Joseph Campbell, and to a lesser extent T.S. Eliot, each with their specific spin on what to make of all the archetypes that seem to pervade much of human literature and religion – aquatic creation scenes, initial transgressions, floods, brothers fighting brothers, virgin births, and that kind of thing.

I have a lot of affection for Golden Bough anthropology, and archetypical literary criticism. Its practitioners are by necessity very learned and dynamic thinkers. It allows us to look at the gigantic wicker work of religious and literary history and have a sense that, beyond physics and chemistry and biology, there is perhaps another explanation for how it all fits together. But in modern classics and literary criticism, Golden Bough anthropology hasn’t really stood the test of time. Walter Burkert, one of Ancient Greek religion’s major historians, writes that “[T]he influence and reputation of ‘Golden Bough anthropology’ has fallen sharply [and] a more rigorous methodological awareness has come to prevail in ethnology and in the specialist. . .archaeologies, and increasing specialization has brought with it a mistrust of generalization.”5 It’s a wordy statement, so let me put it very simply. Grand theory, for maybe a century, was used to simplify the archives of ancient literature and archaeology – to streamline them into a few meta-narratives and potent, supposedly universal and primordial images and impulses that exist in all of us. But modern archaeologists and classicists have found that they prefer dusting off and documenting unfamiliar stone figurines, and cataloguing mysterious hieroglyphs far more than attempting to squash all these figurines and hieroglyphs into some gargantuan theory that’s supposedly the key to all mythologies. Empiricism and induction, though they’re not as glamorous as pontificating a new global theory of mythography, are where the rubber meets the road in modern Classics, which has in recent years proved more interested in grains of sand than theories of beaches. T.S. Eliot himself was sufficiently ambivalent about grand theory that in 1923 he wrote that rather than possessing an elaborate theoretical sensitivity, “a critic must have a very highly developed sense of fact. . .any book, any essay, and note in Notes and Queries, which produces a fact even of the lowest order about a work of art is a better piece of work than nine-tenths of the most pretentious critical journalism.”6 And on a personal note, it’s my belief that modern literary criticism is at its worst when scholars build theoretical cudgels and then proceed to treat literature like a game of whack-a-mole, more enchanted with the fibers of their theoretical armaments than with the lush and stubbornly anomalistic vastness of the stories, plays, and poems that we have created as a species.

So as we move forward in this show, of course I’ll occasionally point out the parallels between this work and that other work, between this period of history and that other period of history. But by and large, I hope to continue the old school, historicist approach we’ve taken so far. I read enough theoretically heavy criticism in graduate school – years and years of it, in fact – and have taught this stuff long enough to know that while theoretical approaches evolve through the generations, the texts, and the general history behind them, insofar as it’s accessible to us, stay the same. In English departments specifically, formalism was influential starting in the 1920s, giving rise to semiotics and structuralism in one branch, and then New Criticism on the other. From there, we spread out in all sorts of directions – feminism, post-colonialism, various strains of Marxism, reader response theory, post-structuralism and deconstruction, queer theory and new historicism, and more recently, ecocriticism and post-humanism and newer emergent schools. We who do business in English departments generally enjoy what these approaches to literature have to offer. But, although Freudian psychoanalysis might have once seemed the key to Oedipus the King, and then semiotics, then Frankfurt Marxism, then deconstruction, and whatever is to come next, the play itself continues to include the same words, generation after generation, and those words were originally written in a specific place and time. The theoretical procedures we use to approach literature will continue to change. The play and the basic facts that we possess about its gestation – these, in all likelihood, will change very little.

Typically, as I’ve written this show, I’ve found that what I like most, and what listeners like most, is when episodes ground prose and poetry in specific historical moments, offering supplementary information about religious and philosophical history, to boot. Inconveniently for me, this approach requires a lot of work. If in this show I were merely summarizing texts, riffing my little jokes off of them and then doing a bit of what we English people call close reading, on one hand I’d probably already be to John Milton, and on the other you’d likely be listening to something more substantive. But I think the strength or this show, as I’ve developed it and listeners have offered input, that it takes literature and anchors it in history. It’s a theoretically simplistic approach – I guess it’s what you’d call “old historicism.” To any specialist in any period I’m covering, the connections that I’m drawing are so prosaic and obvious that they almost needn’t be drawn. However, I think that when you open an Oxford or Penguin or Norton Critical edition of a work from the classical or medieval period – or even works from far more recent history, and you read their introductions, old historicism is most often precisely the approach you get.

A few years back I assigned Edith Wharton’s novel Ethan Frome to an undergraduate Introduction to Literature class I was teaching. The scholarly introduction, bizarrely, ended up being a detailed analysis of racial politics in the novel, assuming that the reader already thoroughly understood all the book’s characters and the biography of its author. There was nothing wrong with the introduction as an essay – it was excellent secondary reading and the kind of thing I read all the time for my own research, this podcast included. But to those who had never read the novel for the first time, the introduction would have been unintelligible.

Generally, whether I’ve been in the classroom or here, my teaching approach has always been to present facts, tentatively suggest connections between them that are simple enough to be unobjectionable, and keep my own theoretical stance out of the picture as much as I am able to. In doing so, I’m following the advice of one of my hundred or so favorite poets, John Keats. In early February of 1818, John Keats wrote in a letter to his friend,
We hate poetry that has a palpable design upon us, and, if we do not agree, seems to put its hand into its breeches pocket. Poetry should be great and unobtrusive, a thing which enters into one’s soul, and does not startle it or amaze it with itself, but with its subject. How beautiful are the retired flowers! how they would lose their beauty if they were to throng in the highway, crying out, “Admire me, I am a violet! Dote upon me, I am a primrose!”7

I think this advice goes not only for poetry, but for many subjects – this idea that marvelous things, whether poetry, or any sort of literature, don’t require any elaborate critical apparatus or editorializing when you first meet them. They just need to be encountered. I should say I love theory and definitely have my own preferences – it’s just that I imagine you do, too, and would prefer to let you approach these works in your own way.

So, we’ve talked about origins. And we’ve talked about the grand theory approaches that have been leveraged to try and make sense of humanity’s earliest writings, and the theoretical approach of this show. Now I want to change the subject slightly, and return to talking about the texts that we’ve covered so far.

Greatness vs. Influence

Literature and History has moved chronologically forward to talk about ancient Alexandria in the era of Apollonius, and most recently the cultural evolutions of the Hellenistic period. We have gone far back in time to learn about ancient cultures from the words they left behind – back to Mesopotamia, to ancient Turkey, to the land of Canaan that existed before the Israelites; back to Persian period Judea, the era of Alexander’s successor kings, the many books of the Old Testament, and the splendor of Golden Age Athens, and on and on. For a long while, now, ancient literature has been my breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I wanted to talk a bit about why this podcast – which will later have a predominate focus on Anglophone literature, has expended and will continue to expend lavish amounts of time on the ancient world.

I don’t often use the word “greatest” or “most important” in this podcast. These are funny words – magazines about popular music will often publish provocative lists of the 100 greatest albums, or the 100 greatest musicians, and of course we always disagree with them for one reason or another, and that’s why they’re interesting. Here’s the Beatles, here’s the Stones, here’s Bob Dylan, blah blah blah, and of course your own favorite group isn’t in the top ten. Anyway, I don’t say “greatest” very often, I hope – except maybe for in moments of hyperbole. But what I do say a lot is “influential,” and I rather frequently called the Old Testament the most influential book ever written. There are books that I consider to be great – when I think about Joyce’s Ulysses, for instance, the phrase, “greatest novel of the twentieth century” just slips out, like I have Joyce Tourette’s, or something. I don’t know if it’s the greatest, I haven’t read all the novels of the 20th century, of course – no one could, and what’s great to me is a slush pile to other people, because we all have different opinions, and that’s how it works.

Susan Warner 003

Susan Warner (1819-1885) massively outsold the seven figures we now call the American Renaissance (Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Poe, Whitman, and Dickinson). Influence, as Americanists like Jane Thompkins have demonstrated, comes in fits and starts, and authorial reputations wax and wane with the passage of the centuries. Nonetheless, it seems steadier and more quantifiable to me than more subjective qualities like “greatness” or “brilliance.”

But influence is a slightly different story. While greatness is a qualitative and emotionally charged idea, influence is more quantifiable, especially as data-driven literary analysis gets properly on its feet. And considering works in terms of what they influenced is far less shaky than assigning some arbitrary quality called “greatness” to them. Influence is complicated, obviously. For instance, in 1851, Herman Melville published Moby-Dick. But the year before, an American novelist named Susan Warner had published a novel called The Wide, Wide World. Moby-Dick was a commercial failure, and almost no one read it until after the First World War. But Wide Wide World was a colossal bestseller, and Susan Warner was a household name, while Melville, and Thoreau, and Dickinson, and other writers we imagine to be giants of nineteenth-century America were largely or entirely unknown to the general public until the early and middle parts of the twentieth century. Influence comes in bursts and pockets, and fads burn out, and new fads are born; critics and scholars prop up writers and bring them into the limelight of the general public and critics and scholars determine that certain writers are not worthy of circulation amidst the general public, and one generation’s trash is the next generation’s El Greco or Edgar Allan Poe.

However, that dust does eventually settle. And you and I live in a world in which we read Shakespeare in high school – in which our language, and its words and expressions are soaked with the ideas and cadences of the King James Bible. There are cloudbursts these days – new hashtags, new colloquialisms, and fantastic new writers, and many of them will endure. But the endurance of classical literature – the further back you get, the influence of this literature is indubitable and absolutely clear. The 20th-century confessional poets so central to contemporary poetry read modernism, and modernists, whatever their reasons, knew Milton and Shakespeare, and Milton read Dante and both were acquainted with Roman literature and the Hebrew Bible, and the authors of the Hebrew Bible knew the literature of ancient Babylon and Ugarit, and on, and on. While tracing influence is not an exact science, it’s nonetheless a process that we can undertake which yields plenty of information about how and why literature has evolved to be what it is.

And to return to classics, in terms of influence, writers like Sophocles and Euripides, the prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel, and before them the architects of Mesopotamian and Egyptian and old Canaanite religion, all the way back to Enheduanna of Ur of 2200 BCE, the first named author in the historical record – these writers, because they came along so early, had a unique advantage in terms of influencing posterity. As literacy and written texts and the preservation of these texts has increased, with some lumps and bumps, over the course of human history, we can think of it all as an upside down funnel – with the known classics way up at the top at the narrowest part, and us, right down at the bottom, spilling out on a giant water slide of literature, ancient, modern, and everything in between. Setting aside any abstract concept called greatness, if we want to find the most influential texts in Anglophone literary history, a critical mass of them are either a part of, or came along before or just after the Hebrew Bible.

And that mass of texts, which we’ve covered over the course of some 500,000 words of this show, is now something with which you’re familiar, along with the history behind those texts. Through many hours of listening and many curious pushes of the play button, now you know a great deal about the literature of the Bronze and Iron Ages. That is not an area of knowledge that very many people have – it sits somewhere between divinity school, and classics departments, history departments, comparative literature departments and English departments, gargantuan in its importance but not really having a single home in academia.

In learning all of this – the Old Testament and what came before it – the works of Homer and Classical Greece, we have built a large foundation on which we can understand later moments of literary history. It would be hard for you or I to remember everything that’s been covered so far – and I think that the podcast as a form can tend to go in one ear and out the other. But nonetheless, you’ll remember the general architecture of the texts of the Bronze and Iron Age that we’ve covered – the scope, and density, and to some extent the interrelatedness of this period’s literature. And on top of these contours, we can put a lot more literature – the literature of Rome, first off, but soon that of Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages. There are giants behind us already – Hesiod, Homer, Jeremiah, Aristophanes – but there are giants ahead of us, too – the major works of Roman literature, Muhammad, the Beowulf poet, Chretien de Troyes, Marie de France, Dante Alighieri, William Langland, Geoffrey Chaucer, and before too long, William Shakespeare, too. I have spent time studying all of these folks – in some cases, years, and look forward to talking about them all with you. In fact, let’s talk for a second about this show’s long term agenda.

Because I need to tell you ahead of time – and I assume most people listening to this will probably be listening to it some time after I record it, and my whole sequence on Rome has been released – I need to tell you ahead of time why this show will include such an enormous amount content on Roman literature. [music]

“A Footnote to Greek”

The poet Virgil, who lived from 70-19 BCE, shares with his younger contemporary Ovid the reputation of being one of Rome’s two most influential writers. And in a biography of Virgil, classical scholar Peter Levi recollects being taught in the 1960s “that Roman literature was no more than a footnote to Greek.”8 This is a common idea – this deprecation of Roman literature next to Greek literature. The Greeks of 5th-century BCE Athens were the wellspring of European civilization, the story goes, and the Romans a bunch of brutes who marched in, pummeled the Greeks into submission, and then made crude imitations of their poems, philosophy, and statues, like cave men banging on pianos with their fists. The Greeks flourished in the radiance of democracy, the Romans putrefied once their conquests solidified them into an empire. The Greeks were graceful intellectuals pondering the truthiest truths atop the Acropolis, and the Romans a bunch of thugs – beefcakes whose skulls were too thick for the poetry and postulations of their Greek neighbors.

Alma Tadema The wine shop. 1869

Lawrence Alma-Dadema’s The Wine Shop (1869). Alma-Dadema and other artists in the 19th century, while never ignoring the Caesars and Agrippinas of Roman history, also painted scenes of everyday Roman life, bringing a naturalism to representations of Roman history that were unconventional at the time.

There is so much wrong with this stereotype that I don’t even know where to begin – I hope that at this point it simply feels ethically wrong and stupefyingly reductive to actually compare the net cultural output of two civilizations, however tempting it is for us to do so. When people sing the praises of Ancient Greece over Ancient Rome, they are most often thinking of a tiny, geographically localized twinkle – Athens from perhaps 508 until the end of the Peloponnesian War in 404 or slightly afterward, ignoring the nearly constant internecine warfare that kept the Aegean and lower Balkans a series of quarreling, plutocratic and autocratic city states for nearly a thousand years of recorded history, never mind the fact that democracy was an exception rather than a rule for this epoch of pan-Hellenic civilization. If Rome has a comparably famous period, it is the demolition derby of the republic from Caesar crossing the Rubicon in 49 BCE up until the ascent of Augustus in 31 BCE, and then a comic strip of the Julio-Claudians that inevitably includes sadistic Caligula and matricidal Nero – in other words the later Julio-Claudians who ruled from the 30s until the 60s CE. And if we compare the summit of Athenian democracy to these turbulent periods of Roman history, then yes, most of us would rather swig wine with Socrates at the city Dionysia in 441 BCE than get murdered by one of Tiberius’ purges in Rome in 30 CE. But the cultural output of over a thousand years of Roman history, which happens to include Christianity as we know it today, includes a fair bit more than gladiators, swaggering generals, and wicked emperors.

When we encounter Rome in popular culture, it’s a comic strip or swords and sandals and orgies, a demeaning handful of stereotypes that date all the way back to Christian denunciations of Roman paganism in Late Antiquity. And when we encounter Roman literature – those of us outside of classics who encounter it at all – it’s a passing reference to an ode by Horace, or a Renaissance repurposing of something in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, or maybe, if we’re lucky, Virgil’s Aeneid, read with the smug assurance that it’s a crude derivative of Homer and can be skimmed over rather quickly. Let me take a second to tell you everything that’s wrong with all of this – this idea that so many of us in the Anglophone literary world that the Parthenon and Areopagus of 5th-century BCE Athens somehow make the considerably more massive and diverse textual output of Rome optional reading.

Perhaps the first, and least subjective point I can make is that Greek language manuscripts did not see much circulation in European cultural history until perhaps the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. To Shakespeare and the generations that bookended him, the oldest and most storied texts out there were Latin – the comedies of Plautus, the tragedies of Seneca, the elegies of the Augustan Age love poets, the archaic splendor of Virgil and the inexhaustible variety of Ovid. This isn’t to say that the stories of Ancient Greece were altogether unknown – merely that with Latin being the sacred and liturgical language of Europe’s literate classes for a thousand and a half years, Latin manuscripts survived and circulated, and the works of Homer, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Aristophanes and others were far, far less familiar. There were exceptions. Plato and Aristotle, from Christianity’s inception, have ridden in its philosophical sidecar. The romantic adventure stories of Euripides snuck into European literature sideways through Greek New Comedy and the Roman playwrights Plautus and Terence. But by and large, the authors from pagan antiquity who fueled the creativity of the European renaissance wrote in Latin, and not Greek. If we care to learn about literary history as something with specific interconnections and evolutionary lines, then, and not simply an asteroid field with numerous bright points, the literature of Rome is the bottleneck where the cultural history of the ancient Mediterranean cinches together for several marvelous centuries and transmits this history to posterity, like so many Roman copies of original Greek statues.

A Dedication to Bacchus

Alma-Tadema’s A Dedication to Bacchus (1889). One of the many problems with focusing on Roman military and political history, rather than its cultural and intellectual history, is that doing so causes us to miss out on the theological developments of the late republican and earlier imperial period – developments crucial to the rise of early Christianity.

There is more, however, to Roman literature than derivation and transmission. I began this program by talking about how we assign merit to things through attempted assessments of their originality. We like simplicity. We like clear instantiation points – obelisks into whose shadows we can nudge the messy complexity of artistic posterity, as though something is inferior simply because it comes along later in a rich tradition. But while earlier works almost inevitably enjoy longer lines of evolution, they don’t necessarily speak to us on the basis that they inaugurated traditions alone. The Iliad, that great Jurassic predator of literary epics, piercingly contrasts kleos, or battle-glory, with an alterative peacetime world of nature and agricultural ritual. But reading the Iliad today, eons after the turbulent, martial world from whence its story comes, its narrative, and the lofty moral dilemmas of Ancient Athenian tragedy, feel far away from our lives in a globalizing, diverse economy with increasingly diffuse and limited rules for what constitutes citizenship. We are, as historian Mary Beard once said in a televised debate with Boris Johnson, far more Roman than we are Greek.

We can read the Roman satirist Juvenal and marvel at his hauntingly modern salvos against conspicuous consumption and consumer culture. We can read the Latin novelist Petronius and see the first surviving story of an urban man apart, strolling through the eateries and alleyways of Julio-Claudian Rome and feeling as alienated as a protagonist from Hemingway or Camus. We can read the love elegies of Propertius, Tibullus, and Ovid and enjoy love poetry for grown-ups – couplets as likely to express hardheaded realism and cynicism as they do the jubilation of new romance. We can study the poet Catullus, and see the amplitudes to which profanity and sexual license climbed, two thousand years before the self-styled rebels of twentieth-century supposedly freed us from the constraints of Victorian morality. We can read the first comedies of Roman literature and marvel at the extent that they deal with immigration, deracination and personal identity in an increasingly intercontinental society. We can read Marcus Aurelius and watch him pondering the implications of a purposeless universe, driven by atomic motion and nothing else, and trying to find meaning in all of it. We can read the works of Cicero and learn about a world of rampant political corruption, when money was rotting through the electoral system, and penniless commoners and provincials bore the brunt of the instability that resulted. And if we indeed looking for literary merit – for authors who can go a full twelve rounds with Homer and Aeschylus and come out swinging, Roman literature provides these, as well.

Virgil Reading the Aeneid

Jean-Baptiste Wicar’s Virgil Reading the Aeneid (c. 1790-3). Octavia faints at the mention of her deceased son as Augustus tells Virgil to hold his horses for a moment. For later medieval and renaissance readers, the fact that Virgil had secured the patronage of the Emperor himself was nearly as admirable as his capacities as a poet.

Scholarship generally agrees that the Homeric epics were a joint project, produced by a number of individuals over a long period of time, perfected in performances and tempered through countless public receptions – the communitarian projects of generations. Virgil’s Aeneid, however, was written by one person, alone, under very well documented circumstances, in a decade. It is a story about a flawed man with the weight of the world on his shoulders, a refugee who has lost a war and a home, who, against his own personal exhaustion, the dirty tricks of the gods, and the trauma of a second unwanted war, is able to make a modest place for himself and his people, though along the way he sacrifices nearly everything he has and believes in. The Aeneid begins with a storm and ends with thunderous and discordant anger, a statement, many modern readers agree, out of line with the propagandistic expectations of Virgil’s patron Augustus, the first emperor of Rome. And while Virgil’s Aeneid, not to mention his Eclogues and Georgics, were everywhere during the Renaissance, Ovid’s Metamorphoses almost literally was the European Renaissance, by all means the most important secular influence on Early Modern visual art and literature for several generations. If Virgil’s intention was to rival Homer, Ovid’s was to eat him and smelt him into something new – a 250-story long synthesis of the entire known cultural history of the Mediterranean that began with creation, and ended with contemporary Rome, and told every available story along the way, in breathtaking, newly-minted Latin. As we’ll see again and again in future episodes, although Homer and the Athenian dramatists might have been the titans of the literary past to Virgil and Ovid’s generations, Virgil and Ovid were themselves the titans to European posterity.

Prizing originality for its own sake is generally a misstep in the study of literature. For one, as we have often seen in our show, origins have cobwebs of influence that predate them – the seeming darkness that lies behind Homer must have at one point been a long and thickly populated history of oral poetry characterized by incremental advancement rather than a single bardic superhero. And additionally, first by no means indicates best. Plato and Aristotle indeed produced a great deal of work, but today, much of it is difficult to take very seriously. Praxiteles was a tremendous sculptor by any standards, but Michelangelo and Bernini were every bit as ingenious. And to return to literature, we have to admit that it’s not at all unlikely that our most visionary and influential productions lie ahead of us, as well as behind, and will be abetted by technological advancements that are hard, at this point, to anticipate, and that they will, for the first time in human history, begin to speak to a global public, rather than a geographically or linguistically delimited cross section of us.

Technology, after all, helped Roman literature become what it was. The generations of Virgil and Ovid enjoyed resources unavailable to Homer and Hesiod – an ocean of manuscripts, written and copied in long-established phonetic alphabets, and the libraries and patronages of an aristocracy that was centuries old even upon the ascendancy of Rome’s first emperor in 31 BCE. Manuscript culture changed literature forever. Over the course of the second and first centuries BCE, as Rome’s wars caused educated Greek slaves to pour into Italy’s harbors, as hardcopy texts became increasingly more common, as Greek and Roman culture became Greco-Roman culture, the Mediterranean’s literature became denser, more allusive, and more self-consciously literary. What was produced was neither better nor worse than Homer – it was simply a different era, and one that by all means deserves as much deference as anything and everything that came before it.

So in the next season of our show – the next thirty or so episodes, by my count, I am going to tell you the main story of Rome’s literary history. And by the time we’re done – by the time we read Apuleius’ The Golden Ass and the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius and wrap things up some time in the 160s and 170s CE, at which point Christianity really starts to reach a critical mass, I think you’ll see that assuming that Roman literature is just a footnote to Greek, as Peter Levi was taught as a schoolboy in the 1950s, is a terrible mistake. [music]

Rad Greek Myths

It’s going to be a long, memorable journey for us through Roman literature in our next season, which will stretch from the very earliest evidence we have of Latin language literature in the third century CE all the way up until the late Nerva-Antonine Dynasty. I’m already well into the writing of this next season, and I can tell that, fittingly for Rome, perhaps, it’s going to be a big one. And while I’m certainly ready to voyage into the world of the cursus honorum, the two triumvirates, the Julio-Claudians and the Flavian Amphitheater and beyond, I still feel like we have one or two pieces of unfinished business with Ancient Greece. In fact, I still feel like we have at least fifteen hours worth of unfinished business with Ancient Greece in the form of some bonus episodes, and I’d like to tell you about those episodes now.

Rad Greek Myths

This new series is called [music Rad Greek Myths!] Rad Greek Myths. This one is a doozy. So, you’ll notice that although we’ve been up to our eyeballs in Ancient Greek literature for a total of 23 episodes now, you’ve hardly heard a peep about Perseus and Andromeda, Theseus and Ariadne, Orpheus and Eurydice, Daedalus and Icarus, Persephone and Hades, and really, all of these familiar fixtures of Greek mythology. The main reason for this is that we don’t have any authoritative author, or time period, or origin point for these widespread myth cycles. They show up in ancient compilations, some lost, some only partly in existence, and one or two of which we have in total – in Acusilaus’ Genealogies, Euhemerus’ Sacred History, Asclepiades’ Tragodoumena, the Ornithogonia of Boios, the Narrations of Conon, the Metamorphoses of Ovid, the library of Apollodorus – and the Greek myths show up in the work of more recent mythographers – Thomas Bulfinch, Edith Hamilton, Robert Graves, and others. There are hundreds of Greek myths, and variations of them. I have a special fondness for these myths – my copy of Bulfinch’s Mythology – the mid-nineteenth-century collection that many authors read – is literally falling apart, and as I grown up I’ve continued to read these stories and trace the appearances and reappearances of certain figures throughout literature.

Anyway, I wanted to do something special for the Greek myths. So, for Season 3’s bonus series, again titled “Rad Greek Myths,” I have created a fully soundtracked, ten part audio book that tells the stories of the most famous Greek myths, drawing from a broad number of sources, both ancient and modern. Now, this is important – the Literature and History podcast is all non-fiction, as you well know – in this show our mission is scholarly, and we go through summaries of great literary works and talk about historical climates that gave birth to these literary works. But the Rad Greek Myths series is a collection of ten medium length original fictional adaptations, written by me, divided into five programs based on theme. While these stories are based on my own mythographic studies, they are again fiction, with my own dialogue, embellishments to scenes, and that kind of thing. I wrote the series because I always thought that the myths that come down to us are a little thin in characterization. Sure, we know that Theseus kills the Minotaur with help from the Cretan princess Ariadne. But what kind of a person was Theseus? What about Ariadne? What was the labyrinth like? What about the minotaur – was it purely a monster, or did it possess a kind of consciousness? These kinds of questions prompted me to write a long series of audio short stories, in which the familiar figures of Greek mythology act out their dramas and we learn about them as human beings.

Rad Greek Myths is broken into five programs, entitled, respectively, Heroes, Parents and Children, Lovers, Adventures, and Monsters. These five programs cover the stories of Perseus and Theseus, Daedalus and Icarus, Persephone and Hades, Orpheus and Eurydice, Bauchis and Philemon, Bellerophon and Pegasus, Iphigenia at Taurus, Arachne, and the monster Typhoios. All told, Rad Greek Myths is over 15 hours of content, and once you finish it, you’ll have been through all of the most famous parts of ten of Ancient Greece’s most widespread myth cycles. It was a gigantic project in and unto itself, and I even created custom orchestral music for each of the five long shows, so that every major character has his or her own theme. But let me repeat that note again – if you like to keep things strictly scholarly, and you’re just here for the pure, canonical, academic content, Rad Greek Myths is something else, its careful fictional adaptations being sort of a middle ground between literary education and creative fiction.

So there you have it – the bonus content for our third season on Ancient Greece. It’s going to be a long haul through Ancient Rome, and I don’t have any bonus content planned for a while after this – honestly doing such content on top of everything else takes just about everything I have. One of the reasons for this is that all of these bonus episodes are made with the same love and care, the same research and attention to soundtracking as the main sequence, and they’re just as long, or longer as the programs we cover in the free shows. Ethically speaking, I feel like it would be unkind of me to fold parts of this podcast’s main narrative behind a paywall – I want this whole story to be available everyone, wherever they are, and not have any kinks or doglegs where you have to do extra stuff just to continue hearing it. That said, though, these two bonus sequences I’m just now releasing, along with the earlier ones – Before Yahweh and The Astounding Apocrypha – they tell pretty robust and fascinating parallel stories that I think are really worth hearing in their own right. All bonus episodes are $1.99 each, and you can buy any of the 5-show bonus sequences for $9.99 at literatureandhistory.com.

So let me say something similar to what I’ve said in the other two soliciations for contributions thus far. I realize that in our own main podcast series, the literature of Ancient Rome lies ahead, majestic and somehow always more obscure and strange than the literature of Ancient Greece, and I sure hope you’re interested in it. I also realize that you have a heck of a lot of great content available for free. But I hope that you realize that this program takes a gigantic amount of work for me to handle all of it on top of my full time day job – research, writing, web design, making the quizzes, recording, mixing, playing instruments and doing these cinematic soundtracks, and on and on. And in consideration of the amount of time and the array of activities that goes in to this project, I hope you’ll take just one or two minutes, later today, after your commute is over, or your jog, or chores, or meth cook, and go to literatureandhistory.com, and buy some of this bonus content that I’ve poured my heart into, or pledge a little contribution per emerging show on Patreon, or just make a little one-time donation. This is an ad-free program and I intend to keep it that way, forever – just pure, narrative driven literary history for everyone interested, but to make this happen – to keep producing at this rate, for the sake of my own finances and physical health, I’m going to need some more help. Although independent podcasters like me often reach tens or hundreds of thousands of listeners, this medium is at the moment so young that the work we do lives in an odd middle ground between academic research and intellectual puttering. Those of us in academia don’t really get a lot of institutional incentive to do projects like this, and those of us who aren’t in academia, which at this point includes me, are not eligible for any public grant money because we’re not affiliated with a university. And so, if we – and by we here I mean podcasters who are passionate about education even if we’re not situated in an institution – if we want to even meet our basic expenses as public educators, we need help from the public. You’re all we’ve got.

Additionally, if you’re 41 episodes into this program and haven’t reviewed it anywhere yet, those reviews are extremely helpful when it comes to the circulation and prosperity of young podcasts like this one, and at this point, we could really use some more of them – it’ll take you about eight seconds to do so on Apple Podcasts if this thing is already playing on your phone – I can’t imagine it takes too much longer on the other platforms or apps.

A final time, then, everything you need to contribute to this podcast is at literatureandhistory.com. Even if you don’t want the bonus content, and are happy to listen to just the main series, consider a donation – you tip your bartender, your barista, your hair stylist, your cab driver, and unlike any of them, I’m not charging you anything to begin with, so now is the time to offer some help, because it’s going to be a long while before the end of Season 4 on Ancient Rome. As I’ve said before at similar junctures, thank you for your time in listening to my solicitations here – all the new bonus episodes are now waiting hopefully for you to buy them and listen to them, and it’s time for this main series to lift off from the Aegean Sea, make a short flight, and touch down in a marshy flatland in the west central coast of modern day Italy, perhaps a dozen miles upriver from the mouth of the Tiber. We have finally come, in our podcast’s long journey, to Rome. And we’re going to be here for a while. [music]

Moving on to Early Roman Literature

Roman literature’s beginnings are as mysterious as any literature’s beginnings. Starting in the early to mid third century BCE, we begin to have scattered evidence that the intermixture of cultures that existed in the bustling streets of the republic’s capital, say, around the 240s BCE, had begun developing literature in Latin. It was a curious development. Italy, during the 200s, was hardly a unified mass of Latin speaking Romans – it was a checkerboard of different cultures speaking native regional languages, not the least of whom were Magna Graecians, or Greeks who lived along the sole and heel of the Italian boot. But as diverse as the cultures of Italy were in the 240s, the First Punic War of 264-241 BCE had whirled many of them into contact with one another, to such an extent that in September of 240 BCE, we believe that for the first time, a Latin language play was staged in Rome.

The next program is the story of how this happened – how Roman literature was born out of a confluence of cultural influences – Oscan, Etruscan, Umbrian, Greek, and Latin, and how this patchwork quilt of cultures and ideologies combined to produce the first works of Roman literature. The works of Rome’s first literary figures are lost. But these works, revered by the generations of Cicero and Virgil, were a canon created by an unlikely cast of characters – the playwright and translator Livius Andronicus, the epic poets Quintus Ennius and Gnaeus Naevius, and many more, altogether a motley crew of polyglots, slaves, and foreigners whose efforts combined to form Rome’s earliest literary works. So next time, get ready for a journey into the obscurest archives of ancient Latin, together with a general primer on Roman literary history as a whole. While I don’t have a song to end this episode, I’ve made a 40-question exam on everything the podcast has covered up to this – one stumper question from each episode. Give that a whirl at literatureandhistory.com later today, and see how you do. Thanks for listening to Literature and History, and I want to close with a little extra something.

This extra something will be the first installment of the first part of the bonus series Rad Greek Myths, the one that tells of the very ancient hero Perseus, one of the earliest figures in the Greek myth cycle. It’s an eleven minute slice of soundtracked prose, telling the very first part of the Perseus cycle, when Perseus was just a little child, imprisoned in a box in the earth with his mother Danae by the King of Argos. If you’re not partial to this podcast’s creative artistic excursions, now’s the time to hit the stop button. If you are, here’s the beginning of my brand new, 125,000 word educational audio book, which takes all the fragments and oddments of ten major Greek myths and weaves them into one giant 15 hour story.

[Rad Greek Myths Sample]

If you want to find out what happens to Perseus and his mother, how Perseus grows up to become the hero who faces Medusa and the Kraken, and later, his father, what you just heard was track number one of ninety-nine of the Rad Greek myths bonus series, for sale at literatureandhistory.com for $9.99. Thanks for listening to Literature and History, and joining me on our great adventure so far, and whether you check out one of the new bonus sequences, or forge ahead into early Roman literature, I’ll see you next time.

1.^ 1 Corinthians 15:33, quoted in Coogan, Michael D.; Brettler, Marc Z.; Perkins, Pheme; Newsom, Carol A. The New Oxford Annotated Bible with Apocrypha: New Revised Standard Version. Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition, p. 2021.

2.^ Socrates Scholasticus. The Ecclesiastical History of Socrates Scholasticus. Revised and with notes by A.C. Zenos. http://www.documentacatholicaomnia.eu/03d/0380-0440,_Socrates_Scholasticus,_Historia_ecclesiastica_[Schaff],_EN.pdf p. 167.

3.^ Coogan (2010), p. 913.

4.^ Matthews, Victor Harold. Old Testament Parallels: Laws and Stories from the Ancient Near East. Paulist Press, 2007. Kindle Edition, location 2184.

5.^ Bukert, Walter. Greek Religion: Archaic and Classical. Maiden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 1988, p. 3.

6.^ Eliot. T.S. “The Function of Criticism.” Quoted in Eliot. T.S. Poetry, Plays and Prose. Ed. Sunil Kumar Sarker. New Dehli: Atlantic Publishers and Distributors, 2008, p. 233.

7.^ Keats, John. Letter to John Hamilton Reynolds, 3 February 1818. Quoted in The Letters of John Keats, ed. H. Buxton Forman, London: Reeves & Turner, 1895, p. 81.

8.^ Levi, Peter. Virgil: His Life and Times. St. Martin’s Press, 1998, p. 11.