Classics Digest, Volume II
This week: Rome
The Romans are, in mythological terms, descended from the survivors of Troy, although everyone knows that they are actually descended from the Italians, or possibly the Boston Celtics. Because of this, the Romans always had a chip on their shoulder regarding the Greek destruction of Troy and all of Greece in general.
So in a lot of their literature they try to “one up” the Greeks. In most cases, this blatant own-horn-tooting is a lot more interesting than the actual content of the literature.
But even still, the Roman classics have had a far-reaching influence, especially the transmittance of Latin. For example, Latin was considered the “lingua franca,” or “French language,” of the Middle Ages, and it was spoken by all French persons during that time.
A lot of scholars consider the Aeneid as The Odyssey version 2.0 because the author, Virgil, basically took the same stories and made improvements upon them. For example, he got rid of a bunch of the funny-sounding names like Antilochus, Telemachus and Polyphemus, and replaced them with even funnier ones like Aeneas, Ulysses and Spaghettius.
Aeneas, sole survivor of Troy, receives a message from Jove, king of the gods. He is to sail away and found a new city to rival the Greeks. Months later, after scores of extremely patriotic Roman adventures, he reaches the shores of Utah and founds Salt Lake City.
Along the way, Aeneas somehow conveniently visits many of the same spots Odysseus visited during the Odyssey and learns that, contrary to what Homer said, Odysseus was a huge jerk to most of these people, particularly the very sensitive, well-read cyclops.
Some of these adventures include:
- A trip to the underworld, except instead of seeing a bunch of his dead friends, like Odysseus did, Aeneas gets a huge party thrown in his favor and also wins a new Camaro.
- A trip to Carthage, where Aeneas has a whirlwind romance with Queen Dido. After an intimate rendezvous in a seaside cave, Aeneas, who is a much better lover than Odysseus, suddenly remembers that he cannot stay and cuddle with her because, as Jove (Zeus) reminds him, he has to continue valiantly onward in pursuit of his destiny. The fact that Jove chose to remind Aeneas after rather than before the intimate rendezvous shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone.
- A trip to the Strophades, a group of islands where tons of delicious cows and sheep are roaming free. Aeneas, who is a way better hunter than Odysseus, brings back tons of meat, but before the men can dig in, they are beset by a flock of harpies. Harpies are terrifying, guilt-inducing half-mother, half-bird creatures who continually remind the men to clean their rooms and admonish them for forgetting their younger siblings’ birthdays.
Aeneas, in part due to the fact that he is much more sensitive and emotionally awake than Odysseus, has mom issues and is unable to defeat the harpies. Before he is able to retreat, however, one of the harpies prophesies that his men will not reach Salt Lake City until their hunger forces them to eat their own tables.
This is probably a metaphor, as actually eating tables would be ridiculous. Most scholars believe that the prophecy only required the eating of chairs, rather than the whole table.
One of the great themes of the Aeneid is the triumph of intellect over emotion, symbolized by the two opposing elements of fire and water, represented respectively by Charmander and Squirtle. At this point, they hadn’t yet invented the grass type, represented by Bulbasaur, so all their Pokemon battles were pretty one-sided.
The Aeneid also doesn’t have as many “magical delights” as the Odyssey because Roman heroes are way more serious than Greek ones, who are always messing around with boats and horses and voluptuous women.
Also, Aeneas gets to become a god at the end, which is way better than what happened to Odysseus, who, if you’ll remember, had to spend the next ten years sleeping on the couch after Penelope heard about all the “magical delights.”
Things change into other things. Seeds change into trees. Tadpoles change into frogs. Life changes into death.
Excitement on picking up the Metamorphoses changes into boredom once you open it up.
The Metamorphoses reads basically like an angry god’s handbook. Your old man getting on your case? Change him into a tree. Lover not pleasing you in the right way? Change her into a cow.
Guy in front of you at the ATM doesn’t know how to deposit a check, despite the fact that the instructions are clearly printed at a fourth-grade reading level in five languages directly above the check slot? Change him into a mushroom.
Ovid, the author of the Metamorphoses, took many of the ancient Greek myths and changed them by making the Greeks look stupid. This is supposed to prove that Roman culture is better than Greek culture, which is actually really funny when you think about how much of Roman culture was “borrowed” from the Greeks.
It’s pretty obvious that Ovid has an axe to grind. He is convinced that he is a way better writer than anyone else who came before, especially the Greeks and especially that jerk, Virgil.
So, in Ovid’s writing, there are even more epic similes, even more battles and even more ridiculous plot lines.
The Metamorphoses is the source of many of the best-known Greek myths, including some of my personal favorites.
For example, the story of Orpheus, a famous musician who journeys into the underworld to save his dead wife but then realizes, considering he’s going on the road with his rock band in a couple of weeks, that it’s probably better for everyone if she stays that way, if you know what I mean.
Or the story of Narcissus and Echo. Echo is in love with Narcissus. Narcissus is also in love with Narcissus.
Echo promises to wait for Narcissus, which turns out to be a bad idea, because Narcissus and Narcissus are going steady. Echo starves to death in only a few short weeks and is transformed into an immortal spirit filled with eternal sorrow.
Meanwhile, Narcissus drowns while trying to kiss himself. In the end, it’s really up to you as to which one got it worse.
Or the story of the prophet Tiresias, in which—this is true—he gets turned into a woman after poking some snakes with his walking staff. She’s a smart guy, though; she hangs around until the snakes come back, pokes them again, and presto. He’s a man again.
Or the story of Daedalus and Icarus, in which Daedalus, a genius inventor, flies too close to the sun after sleeping with a bull and rescuing the slaves with Theseus, and then his son Icarus makes a sacrifice to King Minos in order to pacify the city of Athens and the Minotaur gets mad because he runs out of nachos. Or something like that.
And, of course, the death of Achilles, in which Achilles for some reason dies instantly after being shot in the foot, despite the fact that this is, strictly speaking, anatomically impossible.
The Works of Cicero:
Cicero was the first writer to master the ability to talk at length about virtually nothing, while using a maximum of really big words. For this reason, one cannot overstate the importance of his contribution to modern scholarship, especially public state university philosophy and honors curriculums.
Views expressed in this column do not nessecarily reflect the views of the Easterner