Reviewer’s Choice: A New Sublime – Ten Timeless Lessons on the Classics by Piero Boitani

While Shiny New Books concentrates on the new, occasionally, we give our reviewers room to share previously published – ie: ‘not Shiny New Books’ – they have been reading.


A New Sublime – Ten Timeless Lessons on the Classics by Piero Boitani

Translated by Anne Goldstein

Reviewed by Terence Jagger

This is an interesting and informal book, taking its tone from its original format of talks for the radio, and it tackles a wide range of authors and themes from the classical world, from Homer to Ovid, a period of some 900 years from the 9th century BC to the early years of the 1st century AD.  It covers authors that we all know, or at least know of, but it also ranges more widely and covers a range of interesting authors in a whole range of disciplines – epics, history, poetry, and science.  

I really enjoyed the book, though some preliminary interest in the classics is probably useful, not because knowledge is assumed, but because it is definitely primarily about the classics, not lessons from them, although inevitably, these are also developed. My only slight niggle on my initial contact with the book was the word “timeless”, which seems a big claim – I think it is the classics that are timeless, not Boitani’s lessons!

As a child, I was given Roger Lancelyn Green’s Puffin book, The Tale of Troy, which while it is very slim, keeps much of the richness and excitement of the Iliad and Odyssey (at least it does for a seven or eight year old!), and I soon discovered the E V Rieu translation of the Odyssey on my parents’ bookshelf, and was hooked.  In my teenage years, I was reading the great dramatists – Aeschylus, Euripides, Sophocles – so I need no convincing of the relevance or the value of the classics.  Yet I have not kept my reading up, and there were always gaps, so this was an intriguing reintroduction to old friends and a glimpse into some unread authors.

Boitani starts with Homer, and of his ten essays, gives two over to the Iliad and the Odyssey (which he regards as being by two different authors, the ‘first Homer’ and the ‘second Homer’). Other lessons cover the historians, the great dramatists, Socrates and Plato, the lyric poets, and only goes to Rome for the final two chapters, on Virgil, Tacitus and Sallust, and finally on Ovid. 

He is good at capturing the essence of key works, sharing insights and his joy at reading them. He calls the Iliad, for example, the poem of force and pity and at the very end, when Achilles, mourning his lover Patroclus, and Priam mourning his son Hector, have eaten together and understand each other’s sorrows and virtues, he says:

A great stupor, a profound wonder possesses each man as he looks at the other, as if now, after death, the moment of discovery had arrived, and as if that discovery consisted in the first place in finding beauty again in a human being.  Because the Iliad, the poem of force and pity, is also the song of beauty.

And his comment on the Odyssey is helpful too.  We often think of it as a proto-novel, because of its central hero, clear plot, and final success.  But Boitani reminds us that, once Odysseus has made it home, been recognised and accepted by Penelope, and dealt with the suitors, there is still unfinished business:

The poem appears both closed and open.  It concludes formally with the peace imposed by Athena on … Odysseus and … the relatives of the suitors killed by Odysseus… But it remains open because the prophecy that Tiresias makes to Odysseus when he visits Hades … foresees not only the hero’s return home but also a final journey and then death.

The final journey is the famous one in which he must travel to a land where they live so far from the sea that they do not recognise his oar for what it is, and do not mix their food with salt – a whole new line of speculation can take off from here!

A recurrent theme, with both the philosophers and the dramatists, is the tension between rational and logical analysis, and mythic, religious based belief.  In Sophocles’ plays, for example, there is the debate over whether or not Oedipus is truly guilty of patricide and incest, because he killed his father and married his mother, but unwittingly – merely as a victim of fate.  And in the final play of the trilogy, Oedipus at Colonus, Boitani comments that:

…his [Oedipus’s] sufferings have redeemed him…He no longer has a need for investigations carried out by reason, and speaks in the prophetic tones of Tiresias: he knows with certainty, he says, that the time has come, here and now.

Boitani offers understanding and insights on all the authors, but as I cannot quote from all of them, I will go straight to the end of the book; this is what he says of Ovid:

… his poems were extraordinarily beautiful, and so they circulated freely in Rome and the rest of the Empire. Ovid knew … that the Metamorphoses, the most unexpected and original work of antiquity, would create its own space as a classic … that it was a work and a world capable of crossing the confines of time. ..he had composed a work that would last forever, like the essence and fame of Rome.

So this is a book with a great scope, which wears its learning lightly, and which is accessible and concise.  I found it enjoyable and intriguing, and it relates writings and authors together well, both with each other and their historical context.  It isn’t, of course, comprehensive, but it’s extremely engaging and will certainly prompt re-readings and new explorations.

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Piero Boitani, A New Sublime – Ten Timeless Lessons on the Classics (Europa Compass, 2020.) 978-1787701816, 254pp, paperback.

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