Saturday, 26 September 2015

The Stuff You Wish You'd Been Taught at School

This funny, humorous book by Caroline Taggart is a must if you are interested in  A Classical Education. Here you get the most important information on the classical world, described in an easy way and with a lot of humour. I really loved it. We get a look at the classical Gods, the emperors, the philosophers, writers, architectural features, the sciences and much more. Here you find the background to a lot of features in our present world, be it language, characterisations, architecture, mythology and so on.

It is divided into chapters covering Languages, Religion and Mythology, Crete (this is a detour!), Ancient Greek History, Roman History, Classical Literature, Architecture and Art, Maths, Science and Inventions, Philosophy and the 'Liberal Arts' and the Games.

Here a few teasers. I start with Hercules.

"So after gods and monsters come superheroes, and other bits and pieces of mythology that have lingered on into our culture and vocabulary. People still talk about a Herculean task, which might mean as little as doing the washing-up after a dinner party. The original twelve Labours of Hercules were rather tougher.
To kill the Nemean Lion; to kill the Lernaean Hydra; to capture the Hind of Ceryneia; to capture the Erymanthian Boar; to clean out the Augean Stables; to get rid of the Stymphalian Birds; to capture the Cretan Bull; to tame the Horses of Diomedes; to capture the Girdle of Hippolyta; to capture the Oxen of Geryon; to capture the Apples of the Hesperides; and to capture Cerberus.
The tasks might not sound that challenging, but when you read what it really is, I agree that we talk about a super hero when speaking about Hercules.  The introduction to Alexander the Great reads as follow:
"Reflecting on how little many of us accomplish in life, Tom Lehrer once said that 'when Mozart was my age he had been dead for two years.'
If that idea upsets you, don't read this section."
Can't talk about the Roman world without mentioning Caesar.
"...Caesar, disgusted by this breach of trust, put Ptolemy's sister Cleopatra on the Egyptian throne instead. Pausing only to have an affair with her (see the play by George Bernard Shaw, in which she smuggles herself into his presence rolled in a carpet), Caesar went off to win a quick battle in Asia Minor -after which he declared, Veni, vidi, vici ('I came, I saw, I conquered') - and a few more in other outposts of the empire. He then returned to Rome to be assassinated."
"One other thing before we leave Caesar: he found time to reform the calendar. (The foot note says: If you want something done, ask a busy person, they say.) 
On Livy, a historian living from 59 B.C. to AD 17, Ms Taggart writes, among other things:
"...Personally I could never get on with him, not because I am a stickler for historical accuracy but because he had a Henry-James-like attitude to the length of sentences and paragraphs and by the time you came to the verb  at the end you had lost all trace of the noun at the beginning, though I realize that this opinion may well put me in the minority and that a modern translation might have a few more full stops in it." 
I have to check next time I read Henry James! About the Roman way of organising their armies.
"The structure of the army was brilliant, too - with the possible exception of calling a unit of eighty men a century, which was surely somebody's idea of a joke. Six centuries made a cohort and ten cohorts made a legion - which therefore consisted of 4800 men under normal circumstances. It sounds formulaic, but in fact the subdivision into small units made it very flexible: soldiers marched and went into battle in strict formation, but each century could be redeployed quickly if conditions changed. It certainly scared the hell out of the Ancient Britons, whose idea of battle formation was to paint themselves blue and run around like lunatics."
She also gives us the opportunity to shine at dinner parties with a few favourite lines. From Aristotle;
'Probable impossibilities are to be preferred to improbable possibilities'. However, as Ms Taggart says; "Perhaps best to wait till everyone is a bit pissed, though." And a last one: "So, a tough cookie, Seneca. And just in case you are still being invited to dinner parties, I rather like: 'If one does not know to which port one is sailing, no wind is favourable.'" I like these two!

At the end is this final words:
The 1959 film Ben-Hur won elven Oscars, a feat that was unequalled until Titanic came along nearly forty years later. And why was the Titanic so named? Because she possessed titanic strength, an attribute of the Titans of Greek mythology, who existed even before the gods. As I said almost 200 pages ago, the classics really are everywhere.
Cut."
Just a few of a lot of funny and educational information on the cradle to our civilisation. It does not hurt to be repeated and reminded when we think we are on top of civilisation today. There were people, long before us, who had already thought about it and gave us the hints.

I just love these kind of books and the humour and references makes it a very entertaining read. I have another one to go; Pandora's Box.

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