“To read the Latin & Greek authors in their original,” Thomas Jefferson once wrote, “is a sublime luxury.” Fortunately, for those who don’t read Greek and Latin, the great works of Classical literature are available in first-rate translations. The following five classics are some of the best works from the astonishing variety and brilliance of Greek and Roman literature.
The first work of Western literature was written around 750 B.C. The Iliad tells the story of only a few weeks from the ten years of the Greek war against Troy, ignited when Helen ran off with the Trojan Paris. But the Iliad is more than just a celebration of war and martial valor. To be sure, Homer’s admiration for men who will risk their lives in war for eternal glory is obvious, and his descriptions of fighting and dying are still some of the most vivid portraits of men at war we have.
Illustration by Barbara Kelley
But the Iliad offers much more: At its heart, it is a profound examination of what is best and worst in human nature, of what binds people together into a community and what tears them apart with bloody violence. As Homer tells the story of the “baneful wrath” of Achilles, the “best of the Achaeans,” over his dishonor at the hands of the ruler Agamemnon, he brilliantly shows us the destructive effects of the hero’s code of honor and vengeance against those, even friends, who fail to acknowledge his excellence and great deeds. Achilles’ quest for revenge, driven by a passionate anger he cannot control, in the end sacrifices his own community, his most beloved friend, and ultimately his own humanity. Homer teaches us that no society can survive when its ideals are based on personal honor and glory achieved through violence. Human community and human identity both depend on the “ties that bind,” the mutual obligations and affections we all, even the most brilliant of us, owe one another by virtue of being born into a tragic world of change, loss, and death.
Long before Aristotle, then, Homer understood that we are “political animals,” unable to live without our fellow humans because of our existential dependence on others. In the end, as we see in the moving scene in which the enemies Achilles and Priam, king of Troy, weep together over their lost loved ones, Homer teaches us that despite what divides us—no matter how exceptional our achievements and talents—it is our common subjection to time and death, and our dependence on other people we love and lose, that make us, for all our bestial passions, more than animals, and better than the immortal gods.
The Apology, perhaps the most important work of Western philosophy, is Plato’s reconstruction of the defense speech given in 399 B.C. by his mentor Socrates at his trial for corrupting the youth of Athens and worshipping alien gods. Plato used the trial to commemorate the fierce integrity and courage of the homely, shabby, annoying Socrates, the self-described “gadfly” whose probing questions, even at the cost of his life, challenged his fellow Athenians to search for knowledge of virtue as the basis of their actions, rather than thoughtlessly acting from selfish appetites or unexamined opinions. As such, Socrates is the ancestor of all those who “speak truth to power” and risk their lives to hold a corrupt, unjust political authority to account, and who stand in opposition to the muddled, conventional opinions of their society.
More important, Socrates makes the capacity to examine critically our existence and the springs of our behavior the essence of our humanity, and the highest good we should pursue in our lives. This belief Plato memorably expressed in one of the most famous quotes of all philosophy: “The unexamined life is not worth living for a human being.” Socrates’ emphasis on the primacy of rational thought as the highest expression of our humanity and his claim that true virtue presupposes knowledge have transformed the Western mind, both for good and for ill.
Yet the Apology is politically significant as well, for Socrates puts democracy itself on trial, exposing what he thought was the absurdity of assuming that all humans are knowledgeable, virtuous, and disinterested enough to make life-and-death decisions for the state, when in truth most people will act out of ignorant self-interest and self-serving passion. In this regard, Socrates is the model for all those anti-democrats who believe that only knowledge and virtue, always the possession of the few, entitle people to wield political power.
Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War
Thucydides’ history of the twenty-seven-year war fought between Athens and Sparta during the last half of the 5th century B.C. remains one of the most penetrating analyses of states at war. His dedication to accuracy, his insights into the eternal truths of human nature, his realist acceptance of the tragic, unforeseen consequences of human actions and plans, and his fairness to both sides, despite his obvious criticisms of democratic Athens, all make his work what he wanted it to be: “A possession for all time.”
In tracing the fall of the Athenian Empire from its peak of power and influence to its near destruction by Sparta, Thucydides shows us that civilization and social order are always vulnerable to the eternal, irrational passions and appetites of human beings, a thin veneer easily shattered by the greed, violence, and fear that attend war and crisis. States too are as subject to the irrational as individuals, no matter how much they disguise their desire for honor, gain, or power with lofty ideals such as justice. But as the Peloponnesian War degenerated into ever-greater brutality, even such pretexts were abandoned, as Thucydides shows in the chilling statement of the Athenians to the Melians they would go on to destroy: “The strong do what they can, and the weak suffer what they must”––the founding maxim of realist foreign policy.
Equally influential on later political theorists like the American founders is Thucydides’ analysis of the failures and weaknesses of direct democracy. His reconstruction of debates in the Athenian Assembly, where ordinary citizens made the most important decisions affecting Athens, exposes the susceptibility of people to the sophistries of orators who appeal to their worst instincts at the expense of the well being of the state. Rather than soberly deliberating about actions that will serve the long-term good of all the people, Thucydides’ Athenians are shown to be “slaves to the pleasures of the ear,” as the demagogue Kleon puts it, turning political debate into a form of theater and voting for whatever policy served their private interests. Thucydides’ descriptions of the tragic constants of human nature and the weaknesses of democracy are more necessary than ever in our time of populist excess and progressive delusions of peace and human perfection.
Long dismissed as an imitation of Homer or propaganda for the emperor Augustus, Virgil’s tale of how the Trojan Aeneas founded Rome is in fact a masterpiece not just of literary skill, but also of profound philosophical and political insight. In the story of Aeneas’ adventures as he sails from Troy to central Italy and then, once there, battles to create Rome, Virgil examines the collision of order and chaos on the divine, natural, psychological, ethical, and political levels. He recognizes the necessity of a just political order for a state to flourish and survive. But, at the same time, he acknowledges the permanence of the destructive passions in human nature that compromise our highest ideals.
Thus, the Aeneid shows the tragic price that must be paid to create an ideal political order that gives its people peace and justice. These themes are concentrated in the character of “pious Aeneas,” whom divine destiny chooses to lay the foundations of what will become the Roman Empire, a universal civilization that will bring culture, justice, peace, and law to the whole world. Yet in the course of fulfilling his duty to the gods and the future Roman Empire, Aeneas must struggle against his own destructive passions, such as his desire for revenge against his enemies and his great doomed love for the Carthaginian queen Dido, and he must accept the sacrifice of many people he loves.
Few writers have described the tragic costs of duty in the service of an ideal as eloquently as Virgil. And, like Thucydides, Virgil understood that achieving any political ideal as grand as Rome would come at the cost of blood and destruction, and, sometimes, the betrayal of the very ideals on whose behalf the hero struggles. The Aeneid describes a political dilemma still with us today: how a republic ruled by law can shoulder the responsibilities of a global empire—which inevitably will require the use of violence—without descending into corruption and tyranny.
Also known as “Trimalchio’s Dinner,” this substantial fragment of a much longer work was written by the advisor to Nero who killed himself in 66 A.D. after falling afoul of the emperor. A blend of literary parody, deflating allusions to highbrow philosophy like Plato’s Symposium, and biting satire of Roman social and political corruption, the Satyricon tells the story of Encolpius and Giton, a homosexual couple whose adventures parody the Greek romantic novels popular at the time. “Trimalchio’s Dinner,” the largest fragment, tells of a banquet that Encolpius and Giton attend at the hideously vulgar mansion of the millionaire Trimalchio, an ex-slave who often calls to mind the absurd pretensions and sordid appetites of the emperor Nero and his retinue of toadies and flatterers.
Petronius’ documentation of social reality and individual character in the portraits of the crude, blustering Trimalchio, his grasping wife Fortunata, his equally vulgar fellow freedmen, mediocre academics and artists on the make, and various parasites (like the hustler Encolpius) give us a detailed, life-like panorama of the corruption of Roman morals and taste by luxury and its excesses. In this world, appetite and status eclipse principle and virtue.
The Satyricon anticipates the social and psychological realism of the modern novel, and its brutal flaying of the pretensions and vulgarity of imperial Rome and its moral decay evoke the works of later novelists like Balzac, Charles Dickens, and F. Scott Fitzgerald––whose original title for The Great Gatsby was “The Trimalchio of West Egg.” As we enjoy Petronius’ richly detailed survey of the hustlers, religious quacks, nouveau riche, pretentious parvenus, self-important blowhards, and ambitious slaves, we can’t help but think of our own times and its vulgar, debasing materialism.
These classics are just a small sampling of what Jefferson called a “rich source of delight.” More than enjoyable literature, they have bequeathed to us the intellectual equipment with which we still express and make sense of ourselves and the world around us.