“A Crisp and Merciless Clarity”: Mary Beard’s SPQR


I haven’t read the latest book by Mary Beard yet, but this NY Times review is certainly enough to whet my readerly appetite:

How on earth did they do it? The Greek historian Polybius, writing in the second century B.C., was the first to ask the question: “Who could be so indifferent or so idle that they did not want to find out how, and under what kind of political organization, almost the whole of the inhabited world was conquered and fell under the sole power of the Romans in less than 53 years?” It was not as if Rome was a promising spot: a swampy piece of ground up a barely navigable river surrounded by scrubby hills, its few thousand inhabitants alternately flooded out and ravaged by malaria….

In “SPQR,” her wonderful concise history, Mary Beard unpacks the secrets of the city’s success with a crisp and merciless clarity that I have not seen equaled anywhere else.

For those of you not familiar with Mary Beard, she’s worth checking out. She’s one of my favorite guests on the In Our Time show (with Melvyn Bragg) and one of my favorite reviewers in the New York Review of Books. When it comes to the ancients, she’s as consistently excellent (and reliable) as we have.

You can find it here:

Sensual Sappho

Wow, what a great response to the Sappho episode of the History of Literature podcast. An all-time record for downloads in a day! You can catch up on the Sappho episode (or any other episode) by subscribing on iTunes or Android or Stitcher, or just typing “History of Literature” into whatever podcast app you use.

(Let me know if that doesn’t work – most of the big sites and apps are carrying the History of Literature, but if they aren’t yet, I’ll make sure they do.)

Need more Sappho in your life? My podcast isn’t enough! Hey, I’m not offended! In fact, I’ll join you and say we all could use a little more Sappho in our lives. You might want to check out this essay by the always excellent Edith Hall in the always excellent New York Review of Books. A sneak preview:

In about 300 BC, a doctor was summoned to diagnose the illness afflicting Antiochus, crown prince of the Seleucid empire in Syria. The young man’s symptoms included a faltering voice, burning sensations, a racing pulse, fainting, and pallor. In his biography of Antiochus’ father, Seleucus I, Plutarch reports that the symptoms manifested themselves only when Antiochus’ young stepmother Stratonice was in the room. The doctor was therefore able to diagnose the youth’s malady as an infatuation with her. The cause of the illness was clearly erotic, because the symptoms were “as described by Sappho.” The solution was simple: Antiochus’ father divorced Stratonice and let his son marry her instead.

Plutarch’s story invites us to wonder if the relationship between Sappho and erotic symptoms is entirely straightforward…

Thanks to the holiday, we’ll be back on Wednesday this week with another Restless Mind Show (on the same podcast feed as the History of Literature). And on Monday, we’ll have our first installment in the incredible inventiveness and creativity of Greek Tragedy, perhaps the pinnacle of theater and the theatrical experience. Top five, no question. It’s worth spending some time to figure out why.

Until then, may you enjoy a faltering voice, burning sensations, a racing pulse, and fainting and pallor. Hopefully brought on by Sapphic sensuality with your sweet partner and not whatever strain of flu is going around this winter.

Or if your sweet partner isn’t available, or if the two of you need a little assistance, let’s just go with this:

Onward and upward, everyone!

Dante in Translation

Image Credit: http://www.famousauthors.org

In my shout-out to Graywolf press yesterday I neglected to mention their well-received edition of Dante, translated by the accomplished poet Mary Jo Bang. Writing in The New York Review of Books, Robert Pogue Harrison makes a strong case for Bang’s translation over the recent Clive James version. It does sound better. But frankly I’m not sure either is the way I would really wish to read Dante. So what do I want? Continue reading