The Times, 2 October 2010

Cheltenham Literature Festival

On Sunday 10th October, Cheltenham will play host to a competition that has fallen through time. The Ancient Booker will pit modern advocates of Classical literature against each other, each trying to persuade an audience that their pet set text is the best the ancient world has to offer. Those who dislike literary prizes in principle might be appalled, but Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Aristophanes would be used to it: tragedies and comedies were shown in competition in fifth century Athens, and a laurel wreath would be given to the winning play. The prize wasn’t money, in other words, but kudos.

So, which ancient authors are likely to make a splash in the debate? And what – if anything - do they have in common with modern Booker nominees and winners?


The poet Ovid wrote the Metamorphoses – mythic tales of transformation which have inspired everything from the werewolves of the Twilight saga (King Lycaon of Arcadia was transformed into a wolf after attempting to trick Jupiter into eating human flesh) to the character of Henry Higgins in Pygmalion (Pygmalion carves a statue of a woman, and prays to the goddess Venus to turn her into a real woman, which she does). But Ovid’s talent also got him into trouble. He was eventually exiled by the Emperor Augustus to an island on the Black Sea. Ovid described the cause of his banishment as ‘carmen et error’: a poem, and a mistake. The poem was the Ars Amatoria – a guide to illicit love-affairs, which did not coincide with the emperor’s ideas about public morality. The mistake was to rub it in by having an affair with Augustus’ daughter, Julia.

Ovid is, therefore, the perfect match for Booker of Bookers winner, Salman Rushdie. Each writer has received a disproportionate, intemperate response from a reactionary moral authority after writing a piece of work that offends. Each has delighted the literati with erudite use of myth and magic. And, best of all, each one has engrossed us with his intriguing love life.


Petronius was the author of the Satyricon, one of the earliest examples of prose fiction that survives, albeit in fragmentary form. The longest fragment – the Cena Trimalchionis – describes a dinner party at the house of an unbearably rich, vulgar ex-slave, Trimalchio. Petronius was the emperor Nero’s arbiter elegantiae: he was the taste-setter for a metropolitan elite that enjoyed nothing more than scorning those less rich, or less chic than themselves. And Trimalchio is a horrifying creation – he serves too much food; his staff are trained to deliver every dish to the table while singing or performing some acrobatic activity; he embarks on lengthy practical jokes with his chef; and he spends all night telling everyone how very, very rich he is. Our narrators are not much better, either – they might snigger at Trimalchio’s excesses, but they cheerfully tolerate them for a taste of how the wealthy live and dine.

Petronius, with his cruel, satirical vision of a ghastly self-made man, must remind us of Martin Amis. Only an author who could create dart-playing Keith Talent, commercial-directing John Self, and his father, Barry Self – a man so fixated on money that he sends his son an invoice for the cash spent on him in his childhood – could really carry the mantle of the sarky, snarky Roman writer. Amis should therefore be watching his back: Petronius didn’t die of old age. Rather, he antagonised too many people with his vicious wit and soon found himself on a trumped-up charge of treason. He was obliged to take his own life, having been framed by an old acquaintance. So perhaps Amis should consider himself lucky - even Anna Ford didn’t go that far.


Euripides was the author of some of the greatest tragedies ever written: The Bacchae, Hippolytus, and Medea. He was accused of misogyny (at least by the women of Aristophanes’ comedy, The Poet and The Women), because he presented women doing things they shouldn’t: falling in love with their stepsons (Phaedra), joining crazy cults and going mad (Agaue), and killing their children (Medea). Euripides also stands accused of being too clever by half, in Aristophanes’ Frogs. But that is precisely why he is so brilliant, and why his stories sing through the centuries to us now. If we can’t immediately relate to every story from the ancient world (how many of us have accidentally killed our father and married our mother?), we can always find a way in to a Euripides play. Medea is the scorned wife left for a younger model, Phaedra is the fading beauty, Electra the bitter daughter, torn apart by her parents’ destructive relationship. These women may have more extreme reactions than most of us, but we can’t help but understand the emotions that drive them to their excesses.

Margaret Atwood is Euripides’ modern match. She may seem a more obvious tie-in with Homer, since her Penelopiad offers a retelling of his Odyssey from the perspective of Odysseus’ long-suffering wife, Penelope. But her characters are so complex, her stories so full of both inevitability and surprise, and her women so well-drawn that she is closer to the tragedian. Their mutual love of language also unites them: Euripides’ poetry was so admired by the ancient Sicilians that they legendarily gave freedom to Athenian men they had captured in war if they could quote large chunks of it. Besides, Euripides is always disguising himself as a woman, at least in Aristophanes’ plays. He was destined to be reincarnated as one.


Apuleius wrote The Golden Ass, a story of a fatuous young man, Lucius, who embarks on a trip to Thessaly. He is interested in tales of magic, and obsessed with sex. He soon finds himself in all kinds of scrapes – arrested for murder, then accidentally turned into an ass, chased by dogs, and eventually sold to a circus. He is finally redeemed by his faith in the Egyptian goddess, Isis, and returned to human form. He has, at last, become wise and mature. Apuleius was prolific and extremely learned, although little of his work has survived.

The heir to Apuleius is the equally prolific Peter Carey, the bookies’ favourite to walk away with his third Man Booker prize this year. The nominated novel is Parrot and Olivier in America, another story of a rather fatuous young man, who embarks on a trip from revolutionary France to America and finds himself utterly changed by everything he experiences there. It would be a closer match if at some stage Olivier had turned into a donkey, admittedly, but one can’t have everything.


Plato is the literature-lover’s philosopher: his ideas are complex, and shaped Western thought for millennia. But he is also a wonderful prose-stylist on a vast array of topics. His Republic ponders the ideal society, his Theaetetus examines how we acquire knowledge. His Symposium sees the celebrities of Classical Athens – Socrates, Aristophanes, Alcibiades - discussing the nature of love. Are we all looking for our missing other half? Or do we seek someone with whom to procreate, and thus achieve the closest thing to immortality that human beings can know?

Plato’s natural successor is Julian Barnes – another elegant writer with his mind on higher things. Barnes has also dissected the nature of love in Talking It Over and Love Etc. And his recent book about dying and the fear of death – Nothing To Be Frightened Of – is the perfect sequel to Plato’s Phaedo, in which Socrates discusses the soul and the afterlife with his friends, as he dies of hemlock poisoning in an Athenian jail. Plato, though, never made it on to the Richard and Judy book list, so Barnes is the winner on points.