Wednesday, January 18, 2012

It's All Greek To Me! A Review of "The Classics: All You Need to Know from Zeus's Throne to the Fall of Rome"

I know I should have resisted that title, but I honestly just couldn't! I blame the breezy, sassy style of Caroline Taggart's writing. This isn't the book for you if you are looking for a serious review of all the classical literature and mythology you have forgotten since college. Taggart's obvious love of all things Greek (and by extension Roman), doesn't stop her from pithy quips and irreverent commentary on the gods and goddesses of ancient Greece. This is a fun refresher of the Greek and Roman names, places and phrases that have become part of our everyday lexicon.

Taggart defends the study of the Greeks right off the bat: "So the Greeks didn't invent art, architecture or culture, either. Why all the fuss? . . . They invented our art, architecture, culture and philosophy. In the 21st century Western world, there are classical influences all around us." If you doubt Ms. Taggart, take a walk around Washington, DC past the ionic, Doric and Corinthian columns on temples devoted to our dead heroes. Our language tips its hat towards these Greeks. Throw in a funny ad lib while working on an ad hoc committee and you might have a Herculean task to get back to work. "We are just statistics, born to consume resources." A quote from the latest environmental book? Nope. That's Homer writing in the 1st century.

Taggart reminds many who have taken the SAT or ACT why they thanked God for their high school Latin classes: Biology: bio (life) and logia (study); monogamy: monos (one) and gamos (union); telephone: tele (far) and phone (voice) are just a few examples of Greek words adopted in the English language.

Taggart gives her reader a crash course in mythology and provides plenty of witty remarks disguised as footnotes. She discusses historical (and maybe not so historical) figures, gives her readers Homer's background and generally fleshes out those problematic crossword puzzle Greek names and phrases.

A parting shot, or more correctly a Parthian shot, trivia abounds and some of it was really nifty. I now know if we raise a glass to nunc est bibendum ("now is the time for drinking"), we have Horace to thank. Arachne challenged Athena to a weaving contest and ended up being turned into a spider. (Yep, that's how it became arachnophobia.) Nebuchadnezzar built the hanging gardens of Babylon (Yep, same Nebuchadnezzar.) The running of the Olympic torch wasn't part of the ancient games. The man responsible for the 1936 Olympics came up with the idea and the PR guy ran with it. Did I mention it was the Berlin Olympics and the PR guy was Joseph Goebbels?

This, like Taggart's other books, is light reading. If you're looking for a fun way to pass the time (and discover how Hippocrates is associated with certain personality tests), pick up a copy.

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