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 Jaap Wisse
Is there a source from the ancient world that you find yourself coming back to when you want to feel better?
Hard to choose, though to be honest I am not sure there are many that actually cheer me up. But I do find it comforting that these old texts can still touch us – whether by being intellectually fascinating (Cicero), by ironically but seriously reflecting on life (Horace), or by giving us disturbing and gripping stories, fictional or historical (Homer, tragedy, Tacitus). Of course these authors are very different from us (Cicero would make a fascinating but rather too overwhelming dinner guest, Horace’s attitude to women is often embarrassing); but that, for me, in fact enhances the surprise and delight of finding common ground. But if I have to choose one text it would have to be Vergil’s Aeneid.
When did you first come across the Aeneid?
At school, but I don’t think I understood much of it then. I liked Lucretius much better (I forgot to mention him just now). The Dido episode was what appealed to us most, because it just seemed a ‘tragic’ love story.
Can you tell me a bit about the Aeneid and its context?
It was written in the 20s BC, so at the start of Augustus’ reign, when the Roman world was ‘settling down’ after a long period of devastating civil wars. The new empire was relatively peaceful, but that came at the cost of growing authoritarianism. Augustus presented himself as rebuilding Rome and its power. At one level the Aeneid fits into that project by presenting an epic about the foundation of the City that looks forward to Rome’s later greatness. At another level, Vergil shows an acute awareness of the pain and suffering that was behind this, clearly partly a reflection of the civil wars. He may even suggest scepticism about Augustus’ grand claims, but the jury is still out on that, and opinions about this question will continue to differ.
What is it about this text that appeals to you most?
The depth of its humanity in the face of darkness and moral complexity, underlined by the comforting beauty of the way it is written. You always feel there is more going on than you have understood until now.
And finally… what do you do, outside of Classics, to cheer yourself up?
A good bottle of wine in good company (which doesn’t happen often enough), and music: lately Bob Dylan’s new work, Bryan Ferry, Schubert and Chopin.
Jaap Wisse is Professor of Latin Language and Literature at Newcastle. He studied mathematics and then classics in Amsterdam, where he also received his doctorate. His book publications centre on ancient rhetoric, in particular Cicero and his masterpiece, De oratore (On the (Ideal) Orator); they include an accessible translation of the latter (with James May). He also likes to work on Roman intellectual life, Greek and Roman historiography, and Greek and Latin language. He is currently collaborating with his Newcastle colleague Federico Santangelo in writing a commentary on Sallust’s War with Jugurtha for the Cambridge ‘Green & Yellow’ series.
You can listen here to the recording of his public lecture ‘Lest we forget: Tacitus on history writing under a tyranny’.