By Cian Pierce
The Classics are back with a vengeance. The study of the ancient world, it’s cultures and histories seemed to be doomed to die a slow and silent death but recently there has been a Vesuvius-sized explosion of translations, adaptations and re-imaginings of the ancient works. For lovers of ancient literature, it has been a true gift, a chance to revisit the thrilling adventures, beautiful poetry and unflinching psychological insights the ancient stories offer us.
The ancient Classics have enjoyed a boom in popularity over the past few years, one of the biggest factors for this has been their revamping in how they tell their stories. Where before it was the case that the same stories would just be rewritten for audiences that were expected to already have a background understanding of the ancient world, newer media has treated ancient stories not so much as set canon but as a well to pull from for inspiration (for example, Norse mythology’s influence on the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien and the videogame franchise Skyrim) or have completely reimagined the classics into urban-fantasy settings that are more accessible and enjoyable, the best known authors in this case being Rick Riordan for his series focusing on Greek, Roman and Egyptian mythologies; and Neil Gaiman for his American Gods series. Once the classics were made more accessible for audiences to get into at a young age or revisit later in life. They also became super popular on social media sites like Tumblr and Tiktok specially over lockdown when people were practically begging for new exciting escapism.
Once the demand started increasing for more modern versions of the Classics, authors did not disappoint in bringing new approaches to the ancient literature. New translations that used more accessible and relatable language have become readily available for anyone interested that don’t require years of study to understand (except Cicero, that man remains impossible to get through). My personal recommendation for a fun (and quite unhinged) play is Anne Carson’s translation of Euripides’ ‘Bacchae’, a story about Dionysus, the god of wine, madness and parties, and what he does to a city that refuses to worship him. New re-tellings also have shifted the focus of stories onto female figures previously seen as side-characters and explicitly queer relationships, for an example of these re-tellings I would recommend ‘Circe’ and ‘The Song of Achilles’, both by Madeline Miller.
The rise in popularity and accessibility has also resulted in the Classics being approached from newer perspectives. For example, Dr. Emily Wilson, the first woman to translate the Odyssey into English, lays bare some inequalities between characters that other translations omit. She offers not just a new version of the epic poem but a new way of approaching it from the context of gender and modern power relationships. In her translation a lot of small but significant changes affect the story, where in previous translations the line “They made my face the cause that hounded them.” is translated as “shameless whore that I was”, and as “bitch that I was”. The Greek is kunopis, a word meaning dog-face, or dog-eye is rare and previously applied by Euripides to the Furies, terrifying creatures that “hound” murderers. It does not carry, argues Wilson, the overtones of female sexual destructiveness that are often applied to it. Groups have also been formed to study and approach the classics from more modern perspectives, like the group Working Classicists (@WorkingClassicists on Twitter) which seek to represent the working class in Classics.
So, are the Classics still relevant? Aside from providing enjoyment, stories from the Epic of Gilgamesh to the Iliad give readers a glimpse into the past, universal themes and ideas such as tragic love and existential fears and thankfully, right now is the perfect time to get into them as they are the most accessible they have ever been.