Some books to inspire budding classicists

There’s really no need to force your budding classicist through Commentarii de Puero Inepto, or Diary of a Wimpy Kid recently translated into Latin — here are some of my favourite books with a classical or otherwise ancient theme to inspire classicists of all ages.

I was given my first Asterix book when I was six and I decided it was too grown up for me, but it didn’t take me long to change my mind. The stories are entertaining, there’s a cute puppy named Dogmatix, and there are adventures featuring Roman soldiers with ridiculous names, magic potion provided by Getafix the Druid, there’s even a Corsican cheese so smelly it blows up a ship. My favourite adventure, Asterix and Cleopatra, contains one of the best puns ever, ‘We’ll be driven into the Nile! We’ll be annihilated!’, and also secretly educates the young reader about who built the pyramids, Julius Caesar’s relationship with Cleopatra (JC is incidentally portrayed as balding and vain), and the existence of a library at Alexandria. Not a mummy in sight. Incidentally, the wife of Vitalstatistix the Gaulish chieftain is called Impedimenta, which, along with many other phrases and snippets of Latin, was a great help when learning Latin vocab in school.

The Thieves of Ostia by Caroline Lawrence, first in her Roman Mysteries series, provide maps of ancient Ostia (surely one of the most under appreciated places in Classics classrooms in England), historical details of the time, religious practices around the empire (Jonathan, one of the main characters, is Jewish) and cracking good adventures. One pupil of mine, otherwise a fan of the books, found it a little patronising that the names of some characters are a direct Latin translation of their jobs, the slave dealer’s name being Venalicius, for example. This did not bother me at all. I think they are fab, and so does the BBC who televised two series for their children’s programming. There’s also a powerful female lead in the headstrong and fearless Flavia Gemina.

Harry Potter. In case I need say more, the spells are in Latin, or a kind of Latin. JK did Classics.

Children’s author Joan Lennon has created a wonderful, ginger heroine in the form of Slightly Jones, Victorian child detective. Her hero is Sherlock Holmes, she lives with her intrepid grandmother, and it is the house full of lodgers with interesting backstories who provide the mysteries for Slightly to solve, all of which are set in famous museums. I have a personal bias in choosing to recommend The Case of the Cambridge Mummy, set in Cambridge’s Fitzwilliam Museum, but they are all jolly good reads. If you enjoy these, try Joan Lennon’s other series set in the medieval fenlands around Ely Cathedral with a young novice monk and his pet gargoyle solving mysteries together.

The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins, for those who missed the recent blockbuster films, is set in Panem, a dystopian future America with privileged city dwellers served by the effectively enslaved inhabitants of the provinces. The entertainments for the masses (panem et circenses, bread and circuses, see what Suzanne has done there?) are provided each year by a televised gameshow fight to the death amongst the children of the outlying provinces. Katniss Everdene is another strong female lead. See how many classical allusions you can spot. Gripping.

I should have been revising for my history A Level when I read Donna Tartt’s A Secret History. I justified it because the title was similar to Procopius’ Secret History of the reign of Emperor Justinian and his circus performer wife, Emperess Theodora, to which I should have been paying closer attention. But I digress. A group of US Classics students have a dark secret. Their thrilling story is bound up with Bacchic ritual. One for older teens, perhaps.

Now, I know that textual criticism is a somewhat niche subject, but hey, if you’re reading this you’re pretty niche already, and that’s a good thing. Sisters of Sinai by Janet Soskice is the fabulous rip-roaring adventure of Victorian Scots Presbyterian twin sisters who teach themselves ancient languages, take themselves off to the Sinai peninsula, amongst other places, and discover lost texts of ancient Syriac gospels. They also found a college in Cambridge, set up academic journals and are awarded honorary degrees by universities far and wide (but not Cambridge, to its shame). Note the strong female leads again. Words like ‘palimpsest’ and ‘genizah’ abound. I did mention that it is a rip-roaring adventure.

Following the textual criticism theme, Jasper Fforde writes dangerously addictive comedy fiction about literary detective Thursday Next. I urge you to start from the beginning with The Eyre Affair, however, if literary criticism really is your bag, then you can jump straight into The Woman Who Died A Lot. It also features my favourite medieval monk, the Venerable Bede, in an utterly spurious cameo. Dangerously addictive, I tell you, and another strong female lead.

There are so many more and everyone will have their favourites. Please share yours in the comments section below. That would make my day.

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