15 Greek and Latin Classics

The following conversation is adapted from episode #1274 The Classics, edited for length and clarity. You can find a list of Clay & Catherine's recommendations at the bottom of the page, which includes links to Amazon. If you choose to use these links, the Thomas Jefferson Hour receives a commission. However, we also encourage you to support your local independent bookstore.


The chief glory of every people arises from its authors.
— Samuel Johnson

Clay: The Founding Fathers — I’m going to say this, it’s going to sound kind of weird — you cannot understand the founding of this country without understanding their obsession with classical languages and literature. They were deeply involved in a world that goes back to Athens of the 4th century, and Rome of the 2nd and 1st centuries B.C., and they were filtering their dreams of America through the classical world. There’s only one way to really do this, and that’s to read some of these works and to get a sense of why they thrilled and inspired the Founding Fathers, particularly John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. The Founding fathers believed in classical education. Even George Washington, who was not a very well-educated man, had read his Plutarch in Dryden's translation. He modeled his life on characters out of Plutarch, particularly Cincinnatus. Jefferson modeled his life not only on Cincinnatus, but Solon, the Greek statesman; Lycurgus, the Greek law-giver; Cicero, of course. Cato. Brutus. He found warnings about what can go wrong in the lives of Caesar, and others, like Alexander the Great. All of them were reading this sort of thing, if only in translation.

Catherine: I’ve read that Jefferson died with an open book of Seneca on the table. Amazing.

Clay: When I read that in the last months of his life, Jefferson was reading Thucydides without a grammar and without a dictionary, I am just filled with envy and self-loathing. They saw people like Cicero as almost their neighbors. I mean, Cicero is an imperfect human being who loved the Roman republic and feared Caesar. He was a coward in some ways and a political opportunist, yet he was the greatest orator of the Roman world. When we read about him, we sort of see ourselves in Cicero — our strengths and our weaknesses. If you’re interested in the Founding Fathers and the classics, I say start with Plutarch because they were all reading Plutarch. There are great translations of Plutarch. Jefferson believed that Tacitus was the most important Roman writer. Get a good copy, a Penguin translation, of Tacitus and read a hundred pages and see what you think.

  Cincinnatus Leaves the Plough to Dictate Laws to Rome , Juan Antonio Ribera c. 1806. Public domain from  Wikimedia Commons .

Cincinnatus Leaves the Plough to Dictate Laws to Rome, Juan Antonio Ribera c. 1806. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons.

Catherine: No, don’t start with Tacitus. They’ll never pick up another book if they start with Tacitus.

Clay: What would you do?

Catherine: I say, start with the Robert Fitzgerald translation of the Odyssey. You’ll read about the Trojan war, of course, crafty Odysseus.

Clay: Of the Latin works, other than the Aeneid, what would you recommend?

Catherine: Ovid’s the Metamorphoses are easy to read, they’re recognizable stories, they’re foundations of many of the myths and fables and fairy tales, Shakespeare, etc., that we know so well.

Clay: One of the world’s most delightful books.

Catherine: So I’d say, read Ovid, or pick up a book of Horace’s Odes or Martial’s Epigrams and read them in English and you’ll laugh out loud or you’ll be amazed at the way that the language works, even in English. Book 1, Poem 9 of Horace’s Odes, I recommend most strongly. And Book 1, Poem 14.

Clay: The Odes of Horace are tremendous. Some of the most beautiful lyric poetry and light satire. Tom Holland, the great British translator and historian, has a magnificent, new, racy, saucy translation of Herodotus. Probably, people don’t want to read all 600 pages of Herodotus — this is not The English Patient — but pick up and read a hundred pages. It’s thrilling and delightful, crazy, nutty, wonderful ancient historiography and lore.

Bust of Homer, Hellenistic period. Modern copy after an original in the National Archaeological Museum of Naples. Photograph by Bibi Saint-Pol, 2007. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Catherine: Read Pericles’ Funeral Oration. You can go to Wikipedia and read it. It’ll take you ten minutes.

Clay: One of the greatest things ever written.

Catherine: You’ll be so moved and you’ll think, is there any American politician of all time — Jefferson, Kennedy, Trump, Clinton, anyone — who could possibly say something better about his or her country than what Pericles said about Athens.

Clay: Livy has the history of Rome from its founding up until his own time. Many of those books are lost. Juvenal is a savage satirist.

Catherine: Catullus for pure entertainment.

Clay: Now, Jefferson would not read Catullus. It’s a —

Catherine: Oh, come on.

Clay: It’s erotic poetry. Jefferson wants it toned down a little. I don’t know what you’ve been reading at that Columbia. And then, of course, Homer. Homer in the original is best but Homer in the magnificent Richond Lattimore translation or Robert Fagle’s translation.

I must study Politicks and War that my sons may have liberty to study Mathematicks and Philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematicks and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce, and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, musick, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelaine.
— John Adams

Catherine: Caroline Alexander.

Clay: My classmate from Oxford, Caroline Alexander, has a new translation of the Iliad. Amazing to think that she would do that. The Aeneid is the Latin epic of the Roman world. What is it like to read the Aeneid in Latin?

Catherine: It was wonderful. I had an incredible professor, James Zetzel, who was an amazing scholar.

Clay: One of the top five scholars of Latin in the world. You know, there’s the Bible, and there’s the Iliad and the Odyssey, and then there’s the Aeneid. It’s one of the foundation texts of Western civilization. Of the top ten books that formed Western civilization, the Aeneid is one of them. Dante’s Commedia is one of them. It’s of that importance. It used to be that every educated person had to come to terms with Virgil, now not so much, but it’s no easy thing, is it?

Catherine: No, it’s not, and it’s also amazing simply that it survived so that we, in 2018, can read these texts in the same way that Jefferson read them several hundred years ago.

Recommendations in Greek and Latin Literature and History

  1. Homer's Iliad and Odyssey — Greek poet, c. 8th or 7th century BC

  2. Herodotus — Greek historian, c. 484 to 425 BC

  3. Thucydides, including Pericles' Funeral Oration — Greek historian and general, c. 460 to 400 BC

  4. Plato’s Republic — Greek philosopher, c. 428/427 or 424/423 to 348/347 BC

  5. Cicero — Roman politician and lawyer, c. 106 to 43 BC

  6. Catullus — Roman poet, c. 84 to 54? BC

  7. Virgil's Aeneid — Roman poet, c. 70 to 19 BC

  8. Odes of Horace — Roman poet, c. 65 to 8 BC

  9. Livy — Roman historian, c. 64/59 BC to AD 12/17

  10. Ovid's Metamorphoses — Roman poet, c. 43 BC to AD 17/18

  11. Seneca the Younger — Roman philosopher, c. 4 BC to 65 AD

  12. Martial — Roman poet, c. 38/41 AD to 102/104 AD

  13. Plutarch — Greek and Roman biographer and essayist, c. 46 to 120 AD

  14. Tacitus — Roman politican and historian, c. 56 to 120 AD

  15. Juvenal — Roman poet, c. 1st to 2nd century AD