In the poem about the death of Lesbia’s sparrow, Catullus evokes the image of death as an eater of life and its bounties. So how did his own work escape this maw?
“Luck,” says Raphael. “There's another poet who was a great friend of his, who was very well spoken-of in the ancient world, called Calvus. None of his work survived in Rome. That was true of him and a number of other people who are very well spoken-of in contemporary literary documents, like Quintilian. Cicero was very lucky to enjoy a high reputation — high enough that even Augustus, responsible for his political persecution, described him as ‘a very great writer, and one who loved his country.’ Reputation worked for Cicero. It didn't work for a number of writers. Survival in the modern world has a great deal of luck involved with it.”
The question of survival, however, is not without its own troubling ambiguities. Raphael notes that “there's a huge amount of television which purports to be about the ancient world. There are an enormous amount of books about the ancient world. About ancient philosophy, about ancient poetry. What you do not have are people studying Greek and Latin. They study opinions about Greek and Latin writers at university, and the trouble with the grading in universities, however grand they may once have been or still seem to be, is of course that you either conform with what people like Professor Beard want you to say or you don't get a good grade.”
It is hard to disagree with his assessment: at the moment, we demand orthodoxy along with our entertainment. Worse still, this rot began (as most rot does) at the head. Even among professional translators of the classics, Raphael notes, you will find “pretty rough work. Anybody who knows any Latin or Greek is almost certainly going to come across things, whether in Ted Hughes or any other literary translator you care to mention, which aren't in the Latin or the Greek at all. My friend Peter Green is a great translator, who's just finished — at the age of 94! — translations of both the Iliad and the Odyssey. I said to him, ‘Why are you doing it?’ He said, ‘Because nobody's done it before.’”
The fate of classics may be in doubt. But their value never can be. That, we would argue, is a tension Catullus himself might have appreciated