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 Michael Wood
(documentary film maker, historian and lifetime Classics lover)
Is there a source from the ancient world (a text, an inscription, an object…) that you find yourself coming back to when you want to feel better?
Let me start with the stories: for me it was a children’s illustrated Odyssey, then Roger Lancelyn Green on Troy and the Greek myths:
The stories are so thrilling – the heroes and heroines are so fascinating aren’t they? And the gods all the more so: as Quintilian said: ‘things that never were, but are always.’ Capricious and cruel, yet captivating (as a small boy I remember I always found Athena particularly alluring!).
I didn’t do Greek and Latin at school, but always loved the classics; the earliest ‘serious’ books I bought were the old Penguins – Tacitus’ Annals, Homer, Aeschylus (who fascinated me – as a student I acted in the Agamemnon at the ancient theatre in Delphi and saw Tyrone Guthrie’s famous production of the Oresteia in New York). And Arrian: which I later carried with me on Alexander’s track to Sogdiana and India:
My single text though, is Fraser’s wonderful edition of Pausanias, bought in a second hand bookshop in South Manchester half a lifetime ago: travel, landscape, the living culture (I once quixotically made an entire travel film walking the 14 miles of the Iera Odos with Pausanias in hand!).
Here is an account of Greece in the Antonine period – which Gibbon thought the best time to be alive: ‘the happiest and most prosperous age of mankind’ – the roads, the cities, the pilgrimage places with their temple fairs, their hostels and hucksters and storytellers. In his pages you are there at his side. As you will see from what follows I am a great believer in going on the ground exploring the classical world with the texts – and of course I agree with Cavafy that ‘just because we have broken their statues and driven them out of their temples, doesn’t mean at all that the gods don’t still exist. …’
On Troy: And then there’s the Iliad! Like many young people I was gripped by the story of Troy. When I was about twelve, I read Leonard Cottrell’s Bull of Minos with its evocative descriptions of post- Civil War Greece.
Cottrell had been a war reporter in the Mediterranean and had a keen sense of ancient history as a living presence, and the search for that past as an almost physical excitement. His journey on the old train across the Corinth Canal into the Argolid seemed to open a door to another world; indeed that corner of the Peloponnese still seems to me a magic land, and years later I tried to achieve that heady mix of history, landscape and living culture on film.
I did modern history at university, but classical civilization remained a great love. One university half term I went to Alesia with Caesar’s commentaries; and one summer I hitch-hiked to Greece through Italy visiting classical sites including the three main battlefields of the 2nd Punic War with Polybius in my rucksack – starting with the river Trebia near Piacenza, ending at Cannae. But I especially loved the Greeks – and in my late teens and early twenties I hitched all over (as we did in those days!) trekking over thyme-scented hills, drinking from mountain springs and munching paximadia and goats cheese by shaded chapels. I fell in love with Greece then, not just the magic land – Mycenae, Tiryns, Midea – but then Crete – Phaestos, Knossos and Mount Ida, and in time even the minor sites of the Catalogue of Ships. I even got to ‘Thisbe of the many pigeons’!
After post graduate research in the early medieval period I ended up working in TV making documentaries, and in the early eighties we made In Search of the Trojan War. The series told the story of the discovery of the Greek Bronze Age, trying for that mix of history, landscape and living culture which Cottrell achieved in his books; history not as dry narrative but a present day detective story, a ‘thriller’ as a Greek reviewer said in ‘Kathimerini’.
As for an object I would choose this coin of Eukratides the Great (2nd c BCE) which I bought in the flea market in Kabul during the first war with the Taliban when we were following Alexander’s track in the middle of a real war. We had flown in from Peshawar with the Red Cross and were stuck for a day or two trying to get the old BBC Landrover working again, to take us past Bagram to the foot of the mountains from where we planned to walk over to Pul-i-Khumri, and on down to the Oxus:
Just look at that elephant headed headdress! The Greek adventure in India and Central Asia is an amazing tale: even perhaps spreading Greek ideas to Qin China (as I explore in my new book The Story of China). In India the Indo-Greeks under Menander went all way down the Ganges valley as far as Patna. At a village near Kausambi in UP, there’s a Shiva temple with an inscription to a Maharaja and ‘Great Saviour’ who appears to be Greek (Menander himself? More likely maybe Apollodotos II who reigned 85-65 BCE in Taxila). In the NW Frontier and Afghanistan Greek influence was incredibly long lasting: cities founded by the Greeks survived for centuries, like Ai Khanoum on the Oxus with its agora gymnasium and a heroôn. Indeed ‘Alexandria the Furthermost’ is still a thriving city, Khodzent in Tajikistan. I find Gandhara culture one of the most interesting offshoots of Hellenistic culture.
And finally… what do you do, outside of Classics, to cheer yourself up?
Gardening: we are very lucky to have a garden and a small vegetable patch. I’ve just been digging a space for a new shed. Theatre and exhibitions we love: we were lucky to see the breathtaking El Greco show in Paris in the New Year just before the lockdown. Music (I still play with old mates in M/c- though only on Zoom now with CV19). And travel. Greece is our big love. We still go every year to a small island in the Small Cyclades where aspects of the ancient culture – including a water oracle – survived in folk life into my lifetime. (And of course some still do.) As for everybody, our travelling has been curtailed with CV19 but in mid August we took an empty middle of the night flight from a ghostly Heathrow, and a dawn ferry for eight hours across the ‘wine dark sea’ to the island where we always stay with the same family.
As for reading, I have been working in and on China much of the last seven years and the Story of China book has occupied my mind for a long time, but now it’s out, and the online literary festivals are mainly done, so I’ve been able to go back to Homer, with eg. the new material on the influence of Near Eastern and Anatolian poetry, Hittite and Hurrian, on Homer. I’ve been re-reading Mary Bachvarova’s fascinating book From Hittite to Homer. I’ve just read Armand D’Angour’s lovely book Socrates in Love (what a film that would be!) and just started Llewelyn Morgan’s new Ovid: A Very Short Introduction (a crisp, sparkling distillation of long thought).
I’ve a special interest here: having been to Constanta (Tomis) where Ovid died, and gone up the coast to the Danube delta where Ovid saw the sea frozen over. I am enjoying Morgan’s stress on the exilic part of the story, and not just the wonderful Tristia (which incidentally inspired Bob Dylan to write several songs on his Modern Times album and one on Together Through Life – ‘Beyond Here Lies Nothing’ – longius hac nihil est). I find the idea of him re-editing and rewriting his oeuvre extensively in Tomis very interesting – reshaping his legacy for posterity. He’s brilliant, and problematical (some US universities have trigger warnings for Ars Amatoria); but a poet for our times. When we asked permission to use Dylan’s songs in our film on Ovid, he agreed, though he declined an interview; but this came from Dylan’s management: ‘the message is: “the world needs more Ovid!”‘.
And lastly re ‘Comfort Classics’, the thing I would say to lovers of the classics, is whatever path your life takes, never forget your passions; they will sustain you all your life. Years ago when our elder daughter was doing GCSE ‘Class Civ’ we went on a half term trip to Rome and Naples, to see Pompeii (the house of Caecilius of course, and the astounding Naples Museum); on another trip we went to Athens and Eleusis where we saw originals by Exekias. She’s now a barrister but she still knows her Black Figure Painting – and loves Greece! For me, of all intellectual comfort foods the classics are the richest – and as Heinrich Schliemann the excavator of Troy said, Greek is ‘the gateway to paradise’!!
Historian and broadcaster Michael Wood has made over 120 films which have been seen all over the world, among them In Search of the Trojan War (on Homer and Bronze Age archaeology) and In the Footsteps of Alexander the Great (a journey from Greece to India which included treks over the Zagros and the Hindu Kush on foot, with Arrian, Curtius and Plutarch in hand). Both the books were Sunday Times number one bestsellers. His films have been called ‘the gold standard for history documentaries’ by the Wall St Journal and ‘the most innovative history series ever made for TV’ (Independent). His other films on classical subjects include The Sacred Way, The Golden Fleece (a film on the Jason myth), and recent Ovid: the Poet and the Emperor with readings by Simon Russell Beale for BBC4. Michael is Professor of Public History at the University of Manchester and a recipient of the British Academy President’s Medal for services to history and outreach.
Catch up with all the Comfort Classics interviews here.