That’s a classic: Trinity publishes 50 favourite classical one-liners
The 50 pieces in this magpie’s collection use a classical perspective to reflect on universal themes such as divinity, humanity, education, happiness, love, loss, nature and death.
Line of Enquiry is a worldwide first. Fifty classicists from across the world have been tasked by Trinity College Dublin with the disarmingly simple task of choosing their favourite line of classical literature and explaining their choice in one short page. Their responses and reflections have been brought together by Trinity College Press in a meticulously-produced collection.
Each contribution is a manifesto, a summation of a life (however short or long) shaped by a study of the Classics. As a collection it is compulsive reading for classicists and non-classicists alike – illuminating in its variety and refreshing in its candidness. Within its pages are found contributions from current Trinity undergraduates, postgraduates and professors, world-famous academics from Harvard, Berkeley, Oxford, Cambridge and elsewhere, as well as Irish cultural figures such as Michael Longley and Peter Fallon.
Line of Enquiry is also a uniquely Dublin-based project, edited by a current Masters student under the guidance of the Trinity’s Chair of Latin, and dedicated to Dublin University’s own Niall Rudd, one of the most distinguished classicists of his generation. The book was recently launched in Trinity’s renowned Long Room.
What is the ultimate value in personal recollection, and in this collection? In the words of Niall Rudd, “perhaps the magpie’s approach, however, unrespectable academically, is the most rewarding”. The 50 pieces in this magpie’s collection use a classical perspective to reflect on universal themes such as divinity, humanity, education, happiness, love, loss, nature, journey and death.
From the opening of St. John’s Gospel at number 1 to the conclusion of Homer’s Iliad at number 50, Line of Enquiry guides its readers on a truly personalised tour through the most memorable literature of the classical world.
Here is a selection of six lines from the book, and the writers’ explanation for why they chose them.
invenio et fascia mulieris alligato capite dolores minui
I find that a woman’s breast-band tied round the head relieves headache
Pliny, Naturalis Historia 28.76
As an undergraduate, one day I sat down at a desk upon which lay a volume of Pliny the Elder’s Historia Naturalis. Amusing myself with ancient trivia, I first came upon this line. The mental image of a noble Roman, gravely sitting at his desk with a bra tied around his head, was so bizarre that it bridged the centuries, bringing him to the immediacy of my mind’s eye: an elderly man, happy in his work and not caring in the least about what he looked like to others.
Pliny the Elder was no longer a text, but a person. In his determination to distinguish between hearsay and evidence, Pliny came to represent the spirit of inquiry. Ultimately, this line demonstrates that the words we keep as talismans to guide us through our lives need not be deathless prose, they can be found in the oddest and most overlooked of places, randomly found on an empty desk.
Katharine von Stackelberg, Associate Professor of Classics at Brock University, specialising in the ancient environment, Latin and Roman History
et canat ut soleant molliter ire pedes
And who will sing of how softly her footsteps go?
Propertius, Elegies 12.24, translated by Michael Longley
As a student of Classics in Trinity in the 1960s, I was most deeply attracted to the edgy poetry of Sextus Propertius and, in order to impress my Professor Donald Wormell and compensate for my scholarly indolence, I tried to translate four or five Propertius poems. I so relished this line that in 1965 I pinched it (and modified it) for a poem of my own, Persephone, which appeared in my first collection. This is how it ends:
The weasel and ferret, the stoat and fox
Move hand in glove across the equinox.
I can tell how softly their footsteps go –
Their footsteps borrow silence from the snow.
I know in my bones that Persephone is one of my best poems. I have it by heart. I would not have written it without:
et canat ut soleant molliter ire pedes.
Michael Longley is a central figure in contemporary Irish poetry. He graduated from the Classics Department of Trinity College Dublin with a BA in 1963
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