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 Peter Frankopan
Is there a source from the ancient world that you find yourself coming back to when you want to feel better?
I suppose it is a funny thing for a historian to say, but I get much more excited about the future than about the past: if I want to feel better, I don’t go and dig out something I already know. I like to go and find something new. I am almost unable to open a book without finding something that catches my eye that I don’t know or haven’t thought about. So quite often I will go and dip in and out of things that I haven’t looked at or read before. I don’t fetishise Classics by thinking it is pure, noble or gives me an insight from history that can make me happy. But I do know that reading about the past helps me remember that we’ve all been here before: love, loss, war, pestilence, climate – these are the ways our lives are defined, as were those of our ancestors.
When did you first come across your favourite book?
Well, my last answer invalidates all of that. But I can answer in a different way which is that I have a really big library and probably add at least half a dozen books per week. This last year, I’ve been involved in a few book prizes, so received all of those too. So I’ve got a pretty deep pond to fish in. At the moment, I’m reading a book on ideas about the moon in Ancient Greece. It’s quite brilliant.
Is there any one ancient source that means a lot to you?
My favourite source is the Alexiad by Anna Komnene, which is a text I lived inside for 15 years. I translated it for Penguin classics and wrote tons about it. It was written in quite florid Greek around 1000 years ago in Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire. I probably OD’d on it a bit, so I haven’t gone back to it for a while. But I will in due course.
What is it about this text that appeals to you most?
It’s beautifully written, witty but above all it’s extremely complex. It’s like a very elaborate puzzle that requires skill and patience to work out. Part of the problem is that I feel like I’ve ‘solved’ it, so am looking for new challenges. But I’m hugely grateful to it as it taught me how to read, how to think and also how to write. So it has a very special place in my heart.
And finally… what do you do, outside of Classics, to cheer yourself up?
I don’t really know what Classics means. I don’t really have a concept of the past that divides into periods or into regions. So the question to me really means what do I do outside reading and thinking. And the honest answer is that those really do cheer me up. I’ve never had a single day go by without realising how lucky I am to do what I do. It’s not always easy; there are lots of frustrations; and it is tough. But I’ve never thought of it as a chore or something I need cheering up from. But give me a ball to catch, a book to read or a plane ticket to anywhere in the world, and I’m ecstatic.
Peter Frankopan is Professor of Global History at Oxford; Stavros Niarchos Foundation Director of the Oxford Centre for Byzantine Research at Oxford; Associate Director of the Silk Roads Programme at King’s College, Cambridge. Author of The Silk Roads: A New History of the World; The New Silk Roads: The Present and Future of the World; The First Crusade: The Call from the East.
Catch up with all the Comfort Classics interviews here.