Must Read Classics for Your Reading List
Part 2: Roman Classics.
In our continued quest to overcome the throws of pop lit and pop lit-turned-Hollywood-blockbuster, let us turn to the other side of our classical heritage: the Romans. When I say “other side” I am, of course, referring to my initial post on this subject, cataloguing classic Greek classics. If you have not read that, maybe you should start there. [ Read the Part 1 here. ]
If you have, then you are brave soul with a strong spirit and admirable tastes! Let`s carry on with this Caesarian section.
Just as in my last post I said that you must start with Homer to understand Ancient Greece, the equivalent to Homer for the Romans has to be Virgil. Working off of the poems of Homer, and at a much later time, Virgil’s Aeneid demonstrates a mastery of epic meter. It is no exaggeration to say that even centuries later the likes of Dante and Milton were still striving to produce anything close to the Aeneid’s Virgilian excellence.
“The Fates will find a way.” – Virgil, Aeneid
HISTORY: Caesar Gallic Wars
There are boring histories, and then there are the histories that Caesar writes about himself. This is the latter. Full of the tersity of a general, the cunning of a genius, and the pride of an egomaniac, few capture the Roman spirit as well as the infamous Julius Caesar himself. His account of the wars in Gaul are perhaps the most accessible, the most adventurous, and the most troubling to modern audiences … all spending on how you take Caesar, of course.
“All Gaul is divided into three parts, one of which the Belgae inhabit, the Aquitani another, those who in their own language are called Celts, in ours Gauls, the third.” – Caesar, Gallic Wars
DRAMA: Seneca’s Medea
Much like this article, this play is a beautiful counterpart to its Greek equivalent of the same title by Euripides (mentioned in the previous post). In Seneca we get to see a Roman take on a Greek classic, and the differences are striking. The conflicted Medea of Euripides becomes in the hands of this Roman philosopher furry maelstrom of divine retribution.
“…the only calm for me –
if with me I see the whole universe o’erwhelmed in ruins;
with me let all things pass away; ’tis sweet to drag others down when thou art perishing.” – Seneca, Medea
PHILOSOPHY: Cicero On Duties
If you ever wanted a summary of philosophy in Ancient Rome, what better source than a Roman himself? In On Duties Cicero presents a set of dialogues that cover the primary philosophical arguments of his time: from Stoicism to Epicureanism to Skepticism. The dialogue form is also a significant mainstay of the ancient philosophical tradition. In On Duties Cicero does not lecture his reader on the right wrong answers to philosophical questions, rather he invited the reader into the conversations he held with his friends.
Non nobis solum nati sumus
“We are not born for ourselves alone” – Cicero, On Duties Book I, section 22.
POETRY: Horace Odes
Have you ever heard the line “Carpe diem”? Perhaps the translation, “Seize the day”? I know what you are thinking. No that was not composed by Robin Williams to teach teenage schoolboys poetry. This line comes from the Roman poet Horace. I know I already told you to read Vergil’s poetry (and you still should!), but Horace’s poetry is more like what a modern would expect a poem to be like. The Odes are reminiscent, reflective, clever, and (at moments) transcendent. Through the poems of Horace we can access the living, breathing presence of an ancient Roman poet beyond the page and enjoy the human experience that we both have in common.
“The envious moment is flying now, now, while we’re speaking:
Seize the day, place in the hours that come as little faith as you can.” – Horace, Ode XI
This brief digest of ancient Roman writings offers an introductory opportunity to strengthen our bond to Western human history. The world may be always changing, but the human condition remains the same.
Be sure to check out part one of this review that covers the Greek side of the classical world.
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Image Credit: flickr.com/photos/turatti/