Essays: Ancient and Modern Essays
by Bernard Knox

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Essays: Ancient and Modern Essays

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 34)

Few scholars lead lives of such diversity and adventure as the author of this book has enjoyed. Bernard Knox is recognized among general classicists for his interpretative studies of ancient Greek drama. Especially well known are The Heroic Temper: Studies in Sophoclean Tragedy (1965), in which the characteristics of a Sophoclean hero are defined, and Oedipus at Thebes (1957), in which the main character of Sophocles’ dramatic masterpiece is shown to possess many traits identifiable with fifth century Athenians. Research- oriented classicists associate Knox with the Harvard Center for Hellenic Studies in Washington, D.C., where, as director, he regaled fellows for many years with his scholarly erudition and with his personal anecdotes.

In Essays: Ancient and Modern Knox combines his classical knowledge with broad personal experiences and creates a diverse collection of essays in which ancient and modern are constantly juxtaposed. For example, at one point Knox combines the reflections of Ernest Hemingway and Homeric heroes on the horrors of war. At another point he presents The History of the Peloponnesian War; written by the fifth century b.c.e. Athenian Thucydides, as a model for strategists at the American War College.

Indeed, it is the author’s own autobiography which provides the chief unifying element among these essays, which deal not only with Greco-Roman antiquity and its influence but also with the literary, social, and military history of the twentieth century. Knox reinforces this autobiographical link in his introduction to the book, where he describes his childhood in Britain in the aftermath of World War I, his uninspiring career as a student of Latin and Greek at the University of Cambridge, his experiences as a Republican soldier in the Spanish Civil War, his emigration to the United States in 1939, his service in occupied France during World War II, and eventually the attainment of his Ph. D. in classics from Yale University. The introduction contains several memorable passages, including the author’s memory of his schoolboy attempts to teach himself Greek, his early encounters with Fascists at Cambridge, his use of a text of Vergil as a book of prophecy during World War II, and a noteworthy postscript correcting a statement that William Casey, the late director of the Central Intelligence Agency, made about the activities of the Allied occupational forces in France. Such personal reflections are not, however, limited to the introduction. Some of the essays, especially those about the Spanish Civil War, also contain dramatic reminiscence, such as a nearly fatal midnight encounter with a Spanish Republican soldier on the war-torn streets of Madrid. These autobiographical reflections not only make exciting reading, they also help justify and personalize the scope of this collection of essays: Only Bernard Knox could offer, in the same volume, comments upon the poetry of Homer and eyewitness accounts of the Spanish Civil War. The first half of the book is devoted to literary and social aspects of the ancient world. There are studies of Hesiod, Homer, the Homeric world, and the character of Sophocles’ Oedipus, and discussions of ancient slavery, class struggle in the ancient world, war, women, and homosexuality.

In the second half of the book, Knox moves to the modern world and offers the reader several essays on the influence of classical antiquity, including studies of Sophocles’ Antigone, a modern staging of his Oedipus at Thebes, the satirical Epigrams of the Roman poet Martial, classical themes in French painting, and the idealization of Greek civilization in Victorian England. Knox proves his broad scholarly interests with discussions of homosexuality in Victorian Britain; with biographies of several figures in early twentieth century Britain, including A. E. Housman, Siegfried Sassoon, W. H. Auden, and E. M. Forster; with three essays on the Spanish Civil War; and with two about World War II.

Most of these essays...

(The entire section is 1,342 words.)