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 sixteenth 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 eighteenth century, the empire-building of the nineteenth 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 civilization. Even at the start of the twenty-first century, we don't seem to be able to leave the ancient world behind, and new cultural technologies have vividly recreated classical civilizations for contemporary audiences, as seen in the recent films Gladiator (2000) and 300 (2006).

So 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 civilizations of Greece and Rome: Why Classics Matter.


This module will concentrate on three main areas: we will read Greek and Latin literature in English translation, we will compare different translations to see how different writers have responded to ancient poetry at different historical moments, and we will look in particular at contemporary re-workings of the classics by more recent writers of poetry, screenplays, and teleplays. 

You will gain an understanding of a parallel history of English literature, in which writers from the sixteenth up until the twenty-first century have passionately and seriously engaged with the literature of the classical past.


The module will be structured by weekly two-hour discussion seminars, which will be divided into investigations of different literary genres: these will include 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 twentieth-century cinematic and televisual adaptations of classical narratives, such as the 2004 film Troy and the BBC/HBO series Rome. 

You will be introduced to these literary genres in thematically structured seminars: these themes will include: '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', and 'Ancient Rome in the Modern World'. We will read the original classical texts written on these themes 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.

Students will be expected to do the required primary and -- on occasion -- secondary reading in advance. All students will be required to deliver an oral presentation on a set text and adaptation, an appropriate piece of secondary criticism or work of theory, or a related text from their own reading, to be agreed with the module tutor.

The tutor will put together a course packet of the relevant texts or will make these texts available on Blackboard. 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. Screenings will be organized for all students to watch these versions; the DVDs will also be available to borrow for individual study.

The secondary sources considered throughout the module will familiarise you with the range of approaches that modern scholars have taken in their study of classical literature. These may include:

  • Simon Goldhill's Love, Sex and Tragedy: Why Classics Matter (2005)
  • The essay collection Classics and the Uses of Reception (2006)
  • Charles Martindale's Redeeming the Text: Latin Poetry and the Hermeneutics of Reception (1992)

By the end of the module, you will...

  • Have gained a sense of how the classical tradition has influenced the development of English literature
  • Have gained an understanding of how the practice of literary translation differs according to the author's purpose, cultural context, and intended readership
  • Be able to consider Greek and Latin texts within their contemporary social and historical contexts
  • Have gained experience in presenting your readings formally to your peers
  • Have participated in small-group discussions
  • Be able to answer the question 'Why Classics Matter'


  • The first written assessment will be a comparison of two or more English translations of the same classical texts: in consultation with the module tutor, you are free to choose any translation in English produced over the last 800 years. This comparative exercise will be approximately 1,000 words in length and will be due during term-time. 
  • You will also be required to write a thematic essay on an aspect of classical literature in translation: this essay will be approximately 4,000 words long, and will be due after the vacation.