Comfort Classics: Greg Woolf




The world is in a state of upheaval at the moment, and we’re all looking for things to make us feel less anxious. Maybe Classics can help.



Today’s interview is with Greg Woolf




Is there a source from the ancient world that you find yourself coming back to when you want to feel better?


I don’t find many classical texts comforting. Intriguing, entertaining, provocative maybe. But I don’t think I have much in common with the people who wrote them, or those they expected to read them. I think people like me eavesdrop on the past. Do private eyes find comfort in their tapes?

But I do have many favourites, and one of them is Juvenal.




When did you first come across Juvenal?


In my second term at university I asked if I could study Horace’s Satires. My teacher grimaced and suggested the topic ‘Are Horace’s Satires as trivial and pointless as they seem?’ We compromised on Juvenal, and I never looked back.





Can you tell me a bit about Juvenal and his context?


Juvenal wrote in the comfy first decades of the second century CE, and his satires are mostly set in and around the city of Rome. He was a contemporary of Martial and Pliny and Tacitus but he is quite unlike them (perhaps a bit like the more fun bits of Tacitus). Satire was an old genre of poetry in Rome, had been invented two hundred years before by Lucilius. The fragments of his poems that survive show his satire was rude, political, personal and contemporary – a sort of anti-epic even though it was written in hexameters, the metre of epic. Since then other poets – including Horace – had made it more gentle, calm, witty. Juvenal made satire angry again.




What is it about Juvenal that appeals to you most?


Like Tacitus and most Latin authors of the principate Juvenal was trained in oratory. The oppressive politics of empire didn’t allow many spaces for the kind of ferocious attacks Cicero used against enemies like Clodius and Antony. I love the way Juvenal harnesses the power of oratory to make savage attacks on Roman society, especially the hypocrisy of the wealthy, the pomposity of the wellborn, the feebleness of poets, the cowardice of those close to the emperor. He packs a lot into each verse too.

I don’t always share the opinions expressed. The attack on aristocratic women behaving badly in Satire 6 is quite strong stuff. But I love the energy and sustained fury with which his spokespeople launch their attack. He rarely speaks in his own person and in fact we know almost nothing for sure about him. Juvenal’s satires repay close reading too, which is one of the things that make them so much fun to re-read again and again. There have been many imitations too. I love Samuel Johnson’s London,  an attack on the city that makes good use of Juvenal’s third satire on Rome.




And finally… what do you do, outside of Classics, to cheer yourself up?


Bruce Springsteen and Elvis Costello LOUD. Reading detective fiction, Ian Rankin a special favourite. Watching science fiction on Netflix and reading Marvel Comics. When things are dark, a long walk, ideally by the sea. But I am lucky that I am not usually down for long, and usually remember life is a roller-coaster and that what goes down goes up.




“At the moment I am Director of the Institute of Classical Studies in London which is an amazing place to work as there is always something going on, new visitors arriving and all the excitement of the capital (so I agree with Samuel Johnson on something else). But I like to move about. I have studied and taught in Oxford and Cambridge, and for nearly twenty years in Scotland where I still have a home. I am about to move again, after Christmas, to Los Angeles and looking forward to that.

As for classical interests I am a sort of hybrid classicist-historian-archaeologist and I have very broad interests. One of the great things about Classics is that this has always been easy to do. I have worked on Roman identity in the provinces, on ancient libraries, on Iron Age hillforts, Roman religion and the assassination of Caesar. I have a new book coming out in a few months called The Life and Death of Ancient Cities. A Natural History which gave me a chance to learn a lot about evolution.”





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