The Classics


A ruined caravansary from southern Turkey

The photograph is a ruined caravansary from southern Turkey, some days’ journey east of Adana. The building was constructed during the Seljuk period–old, probably from the 1st millennium AD, but post-classical. It’s a stopping place for caravans, where merchants could lock up themselves and their goods for the night in rooms around the periphery while their animals were corraled in the open courtyard in the center. A building that served the same purpose and looked much the same has probably stood here throughout recorded history: donkeys moved at the same speed in the 3d millennium BC as they did in the 19th century, so the resting places would have been the same distance ap

I used this particular caravansery for the climax of Birds of Prey, one of my personal favorites of my novels, though the book is set in 262 AD. As I said above, there’d have been something similar at the location then.

I’ve made a lot of fictional use of classical places and times, but that’s not the main value the classics have provided me. They’ve been my life’s anchor at times I badly needed one.

I’d taken two years of Latin in high school. When I went off to a large university and found everything scary and different, I took more Latin not for any practical reason but just to remind myself of a time when my life was simpler. (Well, come to think that was a pretty practical reason.) The first year and a half of Duke Law School was tough, but I found I could take classics courses along with those in law school. They didn’t count toward law school graduation, of course, but I didn’t care about that.

Then I got drafted and sent to Southeast Asia. I read Horace in basic training and Vergil in Cambodia. Oxford Classical Texts and a compact dictionary didn’t take up much room even in my dufflebag in the field. (I’d have had more of a problem if I’d been with infantry instead of an armored unit, but I’d still have needed Latin.)

I took more Latin after I got back to the World and finished law school. I remember the paper I did in Medieval Latin on weapon terminology in The Walterius more vividly than I do any of the courses I was taking in law school at the same time; after the fact, that strikes even me as odd.

I was a long way from sane back then; but I was functional, which is at least as much due to the Latin authors I was reading as to any other single factor. It’s a regular pleasure to me to read a few hundred lines of Ovid or Juvenal or Tacitus–and others as the whim strikes me. Not only do they bring back pleasant memories, they are in their different ways some of the best writers in human history. (OK, Silius Italicus isn’t one of the best writers ever; and the various authors of the Priapea mostly weren’t great either, though that’s a fun little volume.)

My Greek was never very good. It’s sufficient to make sense of footnotes or to illuminate an English translation in a bilingual edition, but apart from some Xenophon and chunks of The Iliad I don’t claim to have read Greek. Greek history interests me as much as Roman, however, and some of the best historians of Rome wrote in Greek. I continue to read them also–for fun, but I regularly jot notes from them to use in my fiction. I find it a lot easier to copy reality than I do inventing it.

I said that the classics were more important to me than merely to use as sources and that’s true, but they do regularly provide me with bits to work into my fiction. Some of my pieces have classical settings (like Ranks of Bronze and many others), and I’ve written my share of actual fantasies where people are swinging swords and don’t have electricity. (Lord of the Isles and its sequels fall into this category.)

But it’s beyond that. I assume that people are going to be much the same in the future as they are now and were in the past, so human politics are going to be similar also. Lt Leary, Commanding, the space opera I turned in to Baen Books in January, 2000, had its genesis in a fragmentary story told by the 2nd century AD historian Appian. That’s one example of many where a squib in a classical writer has given me a bit of business.

Twice I’ve reworked the plot of a classical masterpiece into SF. Cross the Stars uses The Odyssey for its armature, and The Voyage is a very direct retelling of Apollonius of Rhodes’ Argonautica. There are many other cases where my copying isn’t quite so close. The Forlorn Hope had Xenophon’s Anabasis as its germ, but the action diverges quickly from that of the historical original; and The Warrior isn’t The Iliad but rather Horace’s description in the Ars Poetica of the character of Achilles. And so on. The classics permeate my life; it’s inevitable that they should permeate my work as well.

For no particular reason, I’ve decided to run the translations of Ovid’s Amores and Metamorphoses here on my website for anybody who wants to see them.

Denarius ring


The setting of this ring is a denarius of Hadrian from 122 OR 123 AD. (The dating is determined by the number of times the emperor received certain honors.) It reverses, so I could wear it showing Hadrian’s head if I wanted to; but I decided many years ago that I’d rather stay with the winged victory that you see here.

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