| Share

My wife works for a local authority. She has been redeployed from her usual team, and now spends most of her days ringing vulnerable tenants in social housing to check on their well-being. Our conversations, over rigorously enforced lunchbreaks, make for interesting comparisons. While she confronts the harsh realities of the present, I spend my days with Herodotus on the battlefield of Marathon (490 BC), or on campaign with Germanicus in Syria (19 AD), or clinging to a broken plank at sea with Odysseus. Classics teaching, I find, often throws up these curious juxtapositions, and it is tempting to see such meanderings as escapism, or even elitism: is it merely an indulgence to spend my days diving into Homer and Horace, when nurses, supermarket-workers, doctors are daily putting their lives at risk?

Predictably enough, I would argue the reverse; I think we need Homer and Horace more than ever. Quite soon after we retreated from school and disappeared into our electronic bubbles, my dad sent me an email with a friend’s email address pasted below and the request to send that friend a favourite poem which might bring comfort in difficult times, along with the address of another nominated friend (a kind of literary pyramid-selling scheme). I found it difficult not because nothing sprang to mind; rather, too many things clamoured for attention from classical texts. Here are three.

When the Odyssey begins, Odysseus has been away from home for 20 years, the last seven of which he has spent marooned (self-isolating?) on Calypso’s remote island of Ogygia. When Calypso is forced to release him by Zeus, she still tempts Odysseus to stay by offering him immortality, and by warning him of the suffering that lies in store. Odysseus shrugs, insists that he must get home come what may and, ‘If again some god shall smite me on the wine-dark sea, / I will endure it, having in my breast a heart that endures affliction. / For before now I have suffered much and toiled much / amid the waves and in the war; let this trouble be added to those’ (Odyssey V.221-224). This, in Book V, is the first time we meet Odysseus himself in the epic (Homer makes you wait…) and his defining characteristic is made clear: it is suffering, and his capacity to endure it. Put differently, by rejecting immortality and embracing suffering, Odysseus embraces humanity, or being human, itself.

Aeschylus’ brooding trilogy the Oresteia, written a good four centuries after Homer, deals with the same cycle of mythology that surrounds the Trojan war and explores a similar theme. In the first play, Agamemnon, his chorus of Argive old men nervously celebrate the return of their king from his own ten-year absence at Troy, but their joy is mixed with foreboding of some terrible crime at the hands of Clytemnestra, his vengeful queen (quite rightly, as it happens: in conspiracy with his cousin Aegisthus, she promptly murders Agamemnon in the bath). In the opening chorus they give the reason for her rage, recalling the awful sacrifice, by Agamemnon, of their daughter Iphigeneia to appease Artemis and grant the army a fair wind for Troy. ‘But Justice turns the balance scales, / sees that we suffer, / and we suffer and we learn. / And we will know the future when it comes’ (Agamemnon 250-253). This provides the key note of the whole trilogy: the necessary darkness of suffering, the ensuing light of understanding and truth.

My third is a cheat as it’s prose not verse, but Thucydides’ account of the vicious epidemic that killed a third of the population of Athens in two waves (gulp), first in 430 – 429/8 BC, then again in 427/6 BC, has an eery resonance. Thucydides tells us that it originated in Egypt, but spread through ‘much of the territory of the King of Persia’, which is to say a good deal of the known world. On doctors: ‘At the beginning doctors were quite incapable of treating the disease because of their ignorance of the right methods’ (II.47); on conspiracy theories: ‘The first cases were in the Piraeus [the harbour]…so that it was supposed by them that the Peloponnesians had poisoned the reservoirs’ (II.48); on nurses and carers: ‘Terrible, too, was the sight of people dying like sheep through having caught the disease as a result of nursing others’ (II.51). I was reading this final passage with my A-level Ancient History class just as things were developing from bad to worse in China, and I’m glad that some of the gloomier parallels and speculations have not come true (Pericles, the leading voice in Athenian politics at the time, whose bust, we are told, sits on Boris Johnson’s desk in No.10, caught the plague and died of it in 429 BC).

So, not much levity in my three examples and little escapism. But, to my mind, some comfort nonetheless. Perhaps this has as much to do with the fact that continuing to teach and discuss these texts, even remotely, has a reassuring quality all of its own: Zeus has adapted to Zoom, and Tacitus to MS Teams. But, I think, there is further comfort to be found in the texts themselves, not only in their unblinking confrontation of suffering, but also in their very age and endurance in the midst of so much change.

Athens survived the plague, so did Socrates, and Plato was born roughly at its outbreak. Athene lifted the curse on Agamemnon’s wretched family. Odysseus found his way home, swimming through the wine-dark sea.

Henry Shepherd About the author
Henry Shepherd
Henry Shepherd grew up in Oxfordshire and, having studied Classics at University, caught the bug for teaching in a summer school for German pupils learning English literature. His first proper job was at Brentwood School in Essex, and he has taught at Highgate ever since.