Greek myths are entirely predictable: Actaeon offends Artemis and is hunted down by his own hounds; Pentheus refuses to worship Dionysus and is ripped apart by his mother; Antigone disobeys the king, and dies for her crime. Beginning, middle, and end: so familiar, so inevitable. The trick was never really in the plot, but in what you did with it. And what Helen Morales does with Greek myth deserves our fullest attention.

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Alastair Blanshard reviews 'The Spartans' by Andrew J. Bayliss

Alastair Blanshard
Monday, 24 August 2020

When the Abbé Michel Fourmont travelled to Sparta in the 1730s, he thought he was going to make his fortune and academic reputation. The depths of Ottoman Greece were largely unknown territory to European travellers at this time. What fabulous discoveries lay in store for him, wondered the Abbé. What treasures had been left behind by this one of the greatest powers that the Greek world had ever known? One can imagine his anguish when, after braving numerous perils to reach Sparta, he discovered that barely anything remained of this great city-state. Indeed, the paucity of material was such that it seems to have driven Fourmont slightly mad. Rather than admit that nothing existed, he invented in his account of Sparta a series of fabulous, non-existent monuments – altars for human sacrifice, elaborate records of treaties between Sparta and Jerusalem, lists of priestesses and kings that stretched back to antiquity. To disguise his act of forgery, lest any later traveller try to find these monuments, he even pretended to have destroyed them, protesting that as a decent Christian he couldn’t allow such pagan works to survive. It would take scholars decades before they could unravel the extent of Fourmont’s deceit.

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What is the value of useless knowledge? One of the by-products of the rise of artificial intelligence is that the realm of what one really needs to know to function in society is ever shrinking. Wikipedia makes learning facts completely redundant. Pub trivia competitions now seem a fundamentally anachronistic form of entertainment, like watching a jousting tournament in the age of artillery. One can appreciate the skill, but one also knows that its time has come and gone.

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Studies of the ancient Mediterranean are increasingly popular. Once a privilege of the élite, whose schools prepared predominantly male students for tertiary study of Greek and Latin, Classics now has a much wider audience. This is partly the result of scholars such as Mary Beard (recently the recipient of a damehood) who ...

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Julia Kindt reviews 'Mythos' by Stephen Fry

Julia Kindt
Monday, 26 March 2018

The ancient Greek gods were a rowdy bunch. Adultery, theft, blackmail, and lies are all on the record, as are the usual confrontations between siblings, ranging from harmless banter all the way to aggravated assault – and worse. In short: rather than paragons of exemplary behaviour, Zeus, Hera, Apollo, and Aphrodite ...

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Re-visiting Delphi. The re-iteration is plain necessity: if Italo Calvino is correct and the classics can only ever be reread, then even a first-time visitor to Delphi is revisiting it. That evocative sanctuary barely clinging to the slopes of Parnassus is simultaneously place and commonplace (the Greek topos encompasses both ...

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‘They rose from nothing and changed everything.’  This fantastic, fawning, fallacious guff introduced a 2016 PBS documentary on ancient Greece, and the biography of the sentiment behind it forms the subject of this unusual social history. Irritated by the fact that almost every media report, political speech, and cartoon about ...

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France’s higher education system can seem arcane to outsiders, especially those from the English-speaking world. Although the Sorbonne is coeval with Oxford and Cambridge, there is far greater prestige in attending one of the Grandes Écoles such as Polytechnique or the École Normale Supérieure, only accessible by notoriously ...

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Christopher Allen reviews 'SPQR' by Mary Beard

Christopher Allen
Wednesday, 24 February 2016

At the very bottom of Hell, Dante represents Satan with three mouths, each of which endlessly devours a figure personifying treachery and rebellion against God. One of these, predictably enough, is Judas. What may be surprising to the modern reader is that the other two are Brutus and Cassius, the assassins of Julius Caesar. In the medieval vision of the universe an ...

The missing novels: our critics nominate some overlooked classics

Debra Adelaide et al.
Monday, 24 August 2015

Early success is no guarantee of a book’s continued availability or circulation. Some major and/or once-fashionable authors recede from public consciousness, and in some cases go out of print. We invited some writers and critics to identity novelists who they feel should be better known.

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