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Sir Basil Markesinis QC, a lawyer with no academic background in Classics who has recently published a three-volume series on Ancient Greek Poetry from Homer to Roman Times, confesses to feeling more liberated than today’s university classicist: “I can afford more easily than the professional to fly kites, take risks and be wrong in the process of striving to be original.” The self-confessed novice needn’t worry about getting his facts wrong when he faces a more threatening risk in the form of falling prey to some of the more outlandish “academic” studies out there. Few familiar with the history of classical scholarship would be as open as Markesinis is to engaging with a late American professor’s theory that Homer’s Odysseus was a psychopath, for example. It is to Markesinis’s credit that he battles through the arguments to find the diagnosis ultimately unconvincing.

There is also a problem, both inside and outside academia, with striving too hard for originality, which is that it can produce rather strained comparisons. The scene in the Iliad in which Hector and Andromache laugh to see their infant son flinch from his father’s terrifying war helmet, for instance, leads Markesinis to the conclusion that “only a musical composer of the calibre of Beethoven could recreate this succession of feelings, probably by making use of strings in a slow tempo”.

But being liberated from the facts can also produce some interesting interpretations of the classical world. Markesinis comes to the subject with considerable enthusiasm and a particularly keen eye for the revival of classical themes in art. Among the dozens of beautifully reproduced paintings in his series is Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s painting of Phidias presenting the Parthenon Frieze to Pericles and his mistress Aspasia. Alma-Tadema was an astute classicist, but felt no pressure to limit himself to the historical accounts. His painting, which features Socrates and Alcibiades as curious onlookers, celebrates the process of invention and reinvention that lies at the heart of Classics.

It is a painting that reminds you how easy it is to be overly reverent towards works of antiquity. The Parthenon marbles are so iconic that one forgets the obvious point that they were based on human models; that Phidias was even said to have been accused of impiously incorporating portraits of himself and Pericles into the shield of his colossal Athena. Myths, shape-shifting since before Homer’s time, belong as much to Alma-Tadema and Picasso as they did to Sir Arthur Evans, as much to the sculptors of antiquity as to the 21st-century commentator on Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Classics is a subject that thrives on creative interpretation. If one needs a certain depth of understanding in order to keep the material alive, the vision and skill to reimagine them for one’s own time are just as important.

Only recently, 2,000 years after his death, Ovid received something close to a pardon for the carmen et error (“poem and mistake”) that led him to being relegated to the coast of south-eastern Romania. Reflecting on his earlier life in his exile poem, the Tristia, he described how naturally his brother had tended towards a career in the senate or law court, while he had struggled to avoid the lure of poetry. “Why pursue a useless subject?”, his father had asked him, establishing a damaging precedent for countless parents since. Ovid might have entered the senate but resisted, preferring to follow the Muses along a path that would rob him of the very freedom he sought in writing. “The once cynical amorist,” as Frederic Raphael puts it, “was left to weep away his last years in solitary uxoriousness.” Ovid remains to my mind one of the great trailblazers for the rebel classicist. As unpretentious as Catullus, as endearingly flawed as Picasso’s Minotaur, but as cultivated as the Alexandrians, he showed just how much fun can be had in breaking the rules you once learned.
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