Classical Iowa presents how the Greek and Roman world has influenced and continues to shape the cultural contours of our state. Our first feature was "Cyberspace Meets Classics in Iowa." Future features will include photographic essays on classically influenced architecture, Herbert and Lou Henry Hoover's translation of De Re Metallica, and more.

Novelist, Critic, Translator, Historian: An Interview with Peter Green

Peter Green has had an amazing career as a novelist, poet, translator, fiction critic, film and TV critic, and ancient historian. His novels include The Sword of Pleasure (Penguin) (Sulla's fictionalized memoirs) which won the Heinemann Award for Literature, and The Laughter of Aphrodite (California) (Sappho's fictionalized life). He has contributed poems to many journals, most recently to Arion and the Southern Humanities Review. He has published translations of Juvenal, Ovid, Apollonios, and Yannis Ritsos. And his historical works include, among others, The Greco-Persian Wars; Alexander of Macedon, 356-323 B.C.: A Historical Biography; and Alexander to Actium: The Historical Evolution of the Hellenistic Age (all published by University of California Press). His forthcoming works include a translation, The Poems of Catullus (California 2004), and From Ikaria to the Stars: Angles on Classical Mythification, Ancient and Modern (University of Texas Press, 2004). He is currently Adjunct Professor of Classics at the University of Iowa and Editor of Syllecta Classica.

Before I try to tackle your questions, let me try to give a thumbnail bio of the kind of things that don't get on a cv. I was the only child of a late marriage, a good recipe in itself for becoming a writer. Taught myself to read at the age of three because my mother kept reading me Beatrix Potter's Peter Rabbit till I knew it by heart; I got hold of the book, being monumentally bored even at that age, and matched squiggles to words. After that there was no stopping me. I retired on the blue carpet under the grand piano with a stack of books, and in a sense I've never come out since. I'd read all of Tennyson's Idylls of the King by the time I was six. Didn't understand half of it, but the noise was magical.

How did you become interested in the ancient world?
From six till nine I was at a progressive day school that fed me classical and Norse mythology, and I was hooked. I read the Wind in the Willows about the same time. My two great wish-books as an adult have been my biography of Kenneth Grahame in 1959 and my translation/commentary/edition of Apollonius Rhodius (because of the Argonaut myth) 40 years later. I hardly met anyone socially at home. Then I was pitched into English boarding schools, from 10 till 18. The best thing they did for me was to make war-service on the Arakan in Burma a picnic by comparison.

Because of the English system I had to decide how I was going to specialise at 16. It was either medicine or classics. Classics won, largely because my biology was only so-so. I've never regretted the decision.

What got you into writing as a career?
Basically I'm a writer. 'What do you study, my lord?' Hamlet was asked. 'Words, words, words,' he replied. That's me. There's a family tradition that William Morris was an (illegitimate) ancestor of mine. The creative urge had to come from somewhere. Of course the trouble was that it was so diffuse. I had to try everything--fiction, essays, biography, translation, poetry, you name it. Like pigging out at a smorgasbord.

But I had this fabulous training in classics, first at Charterhouse, then (after the rude 5-year interruption that sent me to the Far East) at Trinity College Cambridge--the college of Bentley, Porson, and Housman. Trouble was, I got back to Cambridge after the war not really prepared for the still-powerful tradition of male spinsterdom that controlled English classics then ('I hear that young man still has women visit him in his rooms', A.S.F. Gow was reported to have observed about me: I figured then I was in the wrong business). I was also getting more and more interested in history, though what I'd specialised in was epic and textual criticism: it took me some while to realise that the principles of textual criticism worked beautifully for historiography. I started writing historical novels because I figured that the Thucydidean conventions only let you tell half the story, if that. I tried it on Alcibiades, Sulla, and, later, Sappho. It gave me an acute sense of chronological structure: it's amazing how fuzzy most classicists' sense of historical time is. They're happy if they get the year right. In a novel you have to think in months, weeks, days, hours.

At this point, after doing a little desultory teaching in classics at Cambridge, I decided, along with my first wife (an archaeologist turned Egyptologist turned novelist) to embrace the literary rather than the classical world. This involved living in a cottage in the country and going very broke indeed, mitigated only by weekly trips into Blackwell's in Oxford to sell off my first editions for shopping cash. That didn't last. We moved to London and I turned myself into a pretty enterprising literary journalist operating out of Chelsea--fiction critic for the London Daily Telegraph, TV pundit, movie reviewer, you name it. Later we moved to a 16th century house we restored on the Norfolk-Suffolk border; I spent half the week in London. After a while this drove me nearly insane.

How did you get lured back into being a classicist?
I'd discovered Greece in 1949-50 at the tail-end of the civil war. The place really got me. In 1963 we sold the house and emigrated, on a chance, to Lesbos, with three kids. Totally crazy, and I've never regretted it. Three and a half years on the island, making a new career as a translator, mostly from French and Italian, but also starting in on classics, including my Penguin Juvenal. At which point it may be worth saying that a good training in classics (which in those days included turning English poetry into its Greek or Latin equivalent, as well as the other way round) equips you technically to write in just about any style, and pick up extra languages with surprising ease (I broke the back of Italian on a slow train from Bari to Venice, by reading Per Chi Suona La Campana, i.e. the local version of For whom the Bell Tolls). If you're going to be a writer or journalist, you couldn't have a better training.

So there we were in Greece. But kids grow: Greek primary school was fine for them, but high school was another thing. We moved to Athens, the kids went to the American College in Halandri (which successfully later sent one to Cambridge, another to Birmingham); I'd become fluent in modern Greek (though not so fluent as the kids, from whom I learned all the best Greek cusswords) and loved the country--I'm still living on that experience in many ways--and I was looking for a job. Ismene Phylactopoulos, the guiding spirit of College Year In Athens (still the best of the junior year abroad programs) needed a lecturer in Greek literature and, later, history. By this improbable route I got lured back into teaching classics at tertiary level, and found that with American students I loved it. And, I was told, was good at it. I taught just about everything in Athens, from Greek archaic history to the satires of Juvenal, from 1966-71. During that time living history, in the form of the Colonels' coup, came to give us a nice lesson that ancient and modern Greek history had some weird (and in this case Peisistratid) similarities. In 1971 I got an invitation to spend a year as a Visiting professor in Texas. Closure taking me back to an academic career was operating nicely. My first marriage was breaking up. The time seemed right. I went. At the end of the year they offered me tenure and a permanent job. I married Carin, probably the best thing I ever did in my life. The rest is history. In my end was my beginning, with a vengeance.

What are you doing now and how have your past careers helped you as a teacher and writer and scholar?
The extraordinary thing was how much various aspects of my oddball career helped me in my reinvention as a professional academic. The rigors and deadlines of professional literary journalism, not to mention my spell as a publisher's editor, came in wonderfully handy when helping knock Ph.D. dissertations into shape (no, I'm not going to reveal how many I've directed!). A lifelong fascination with the stage, and a short spell as a professional repertory actor (waiting to be called up) ensured that my big public lecture-courses were always audible, and (as all lectures need to be) a performance. My hands-on experience of Greece, a surprising amount of which I've walked or sailed, paid enormous dividends when teaching, say, ancient battles (I used to lecture to CYA on Marathon, Salamis, Thermopylai, Plataia, etc. on-site). I still go back whenever I can. I'm as interested in modern as in ancient Greek literature--and history. And now I'm officially emeritus, all the earlier things I did --translation, literary reviewing, TV spots, novel-writing, poetry--I'm going on with, to my enormous pleasure and I hope for the profit of others too. It's been a wonderful, and heterodox, career, a deeply satisfying life. It's paid me to go on doing what I love best in the world. I wouldn't change a moment of it.

Are there issues today that a knowledge of the classics would help us solve?
Almost anything to do with politics! So much else changes, but the psychology of power, never. You want to understand OPEC? look at the Sicilian Expedition. The Colonels? Peisistratos wrote the blueprint. Orwellian doublespeak? Try civil war on Corcyra. This is why (if you discount the topical jokes) Aristophanes is so astonishingly modern-sounding.

Why should anyone still be interested in the ancient world?
The obvious basic answer is that anyone would want to understand the long perspective of the past that, among other things, led to him/her. Also because it's unbelievably fascinating: so like in so many ways (politics, literature, art), so different in others (sex, social mores, including slavery, religion: try picturing a world without a TRACE of Christianity or Islam). Such different solutions for all the same old big problems. The piquant contrast between high intellectual sophistication and practical primitivism (no W.C.'s, anaesthetics, or refrigeration, let alone electric power for servo-mechanisms--hence slaves--or TV).

Why should anyone come and see Art in Roman Life: Villa to Grave at the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art?
Most of the above. The lesson of how luxury could be had without a whole range of the things today's young presentists take for granted. Beautiful houses and artifacts (but all the energy generated by human or animal muscles--work as well as transport), the best light a naked flame, communication by voice or handwritten letter only, no cars, computers, clocks, thermometers, gas-stoves, dishwashers, electricity, air travel, or canned music, and a pair of human hands replacing most gadgets around the house. But a rich intellectual [and cultural] life at least the equal of today's.

Interview date: November 2003.

For more about Peter, along with links to some of his essays, reviews, and books, see the New York Review of Books: Peter Green



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