Classical Worlds: Translation and Reception

Module code: EN3151

Module co-ordinator: Professor Sarah Knight

Throughout its history and development, literature in English has owed a vast debt to the cultures of ancient Greece and Rome. Many political, religious, educational, and cultural developments in Europe over the last millenium have been influenced by - or have reacted against - classical Greek or Roman precedents. Love of the classics has often been located at the centres of power. In the 16th century, Queen Elizabeth I read Greek and Latin authors after dinner, while during the 1990s Bill Clinton said that his favourite book was a work of Roman Stoic philosophy, the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius.

The monastic cultures of the High Middle Ages, the humanistic obsessions of the Renaissance, the Republicanism of the English civil war, the nostalgic neoclassicism of the 18th century, the empire-building of the 19th century, the modernisms of Eliot and Joyce, contemporary re-workings of Homer by Simon Armitage, Christopher Logue, and Derek Walcott: all owe a monumental debt to classical civilisation. Even in the 21st century, we don't seem to be able to leave the ancient world behind, and new cultural technologies have vividly recreated classical civiliations for contemporary audiences, as seen in films such as Gladiator (2000) and 300 (2006).

Why does the classical world continue to exercise such a fascination over us in such markedly different cultural and political circumstances? To begin to answer this question, we will look at a diverse range of Greek and Latin poetry in English translation, moving from Homer's primordial epics of war, anger, and exile to Virgil's epic as imperial propaganda, and Ovid's witty mythological epic of changing forms; from Ovid's erotically charged, urbane, cynical poems to the intense lyrical love poetry of Sappho and Catullus; from Hesiod's vivid representations of the gods and universe of Greek myth to Lucretius's atheistic account of science-based creation. 

We will look in detail at how our own world responds to ancient Greece and Rome, and explore how contemporary poets and film-makers have reconstructed the ancient world for contemporary readers and audiences. We will address the question raised by Simon Goldhill's important book on the civilisations of Greece and Rome: Why Classics Matter.

We will concentrate on three main areas:

  • Reading Greek and Latin literature in English translation
  • Comparing different translations to see how different writers have responded to ancient poetry at different historical moments
  • Examining contemporary re-workings of the classics by more recent writers of poetry, screenplays and teleplays

We will investigate a range of literary genres, including traditional generic divisions such as epic, pastoral, erotic and religious poetry, but also less typical and unexpected genres, such as a scientific poem by an unconventional Latin atheist of the first century BCE and a consideration of 20th century cinematic and televisual adaptations of classical narratives, such as the 2004 film Troy and the BBC/HBO series Rome. 

We will read the original classical texts in English translation and consider how later English poets, influenced by these ancient originals, went on to rework both text and theme in very different contexts. Towards the end of the module, we will consider filmed versions of classical texts, such as the representation of Julius Caesar in the 2005 television series Rome, which we will compare with other representations of Caesar in classical and English poetry. We will also look at the 2004 film Troy, which we will compare with Homer's Iliad and its literary descendants.

Topics covered

  • War and anger
  • Nostalgia
  • Sirens and sorceresses
  • Death of young men
  • Love and sexuality
  • Pets
  • How to be a poet
  • The creation of the world
  • Ancient Rome in the modern world




  • Written assessment, 1,000 words
  • Essay, 4,000 words