Beyond Greek

In this book Denis Feeney ( argues that the creation of a Roman literature on Greek models was not just a matter of time, something that was bound to happen sooner or later, but instead one of the strangest and most unlikely events of Mediterranean history. Authors whom we read every day – Virgil, Ovid, Cicero and Horace – might never have got going in the first place.


The key to a development of Roman/Latin literature was translation, beginning with Livius Andronicus’ 240 BCE commission to: ‘translate an Attic script into Latin for a tragic performance of the Ludi Romani, the greatest Roman state festival’. Literary translation had not always taken place in the past, and doesn’t today. The author cites contemporary multi-lingual India, where there have been — certainly until very recently – exceptionally few translations of literary works between vernacular languages (and even also into English). In classical times the situation was even more clear-cut. Even as much Greek culture was exported or spread through the classical world, it is noteworthy that it seems no one thought to translate it. Greek drama was performed in the original language. Similarly, while other cultures produced their own forms of literature – epics and poetry, for example – there are practically no examples of these being translated into other languages of the day (including into Greek or Latin).


This situation pertained until a huge amount of Greek writing was translated into Arabic in the astounding two and a half centuries, from around 750 to 1000 CE. Greek science, medicine, mathematics and philosophy were translated practically wholesale into Arabic. An excellent introduction to this ‘translation movement’ is found in an ‘In Our Time’ (BBC Radio 4) programme, 45 minutes, found here . However, there was no translation of ‘literature’ – no Homer, Sophocles, or Theocritus found its way into Arabic. The Roman case is all the more surprising because Greek was widely spoken (as Feeney notes, quoting Wiebke Denecke: ‘the Greco-Roman linguistic constellation was bilingual but monoliterate’). Remarkably, the first generation of translators were foreigners.


Beyond Greek reminds readers of the fundamental place of Greek in Western literature – truly the beginning of it all. Denis Feeney shows how translation of that language allowed Romans to systematically take over Greek forms of tragedy, comedy, and epic, making them their own and giving birth to what became known as Latin literature.


Denis Feeney is Giger Professor of Latin and Professor of Classics at Princeton.


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326 pages in Harvard University Press

First published 2016

ISBN  978-0674055230



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Professor Denis Feeney





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