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Accidental classicist: Picasso (left) in Pompeii with Leonid Massine in 1917 (©Apic/Getty Images)

Frederic Raphael describes himself as “an accidental classicist”. He fell into the subject at prep school, when his family moved to England from Chicago shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War, and stayed with it when he went up to Cambridge in 1950. Given that his father read Greats, Raphael’s path was perhaps not quite as accidental as he supposed, but he pursued it in his own way, keeping his classics on simmer when he proceeded in his career as a successful screenwriter, biographer and novelist. Two of his biographical subjects have been Alexander the Great and the Jewish historian Josephus, both of whom have cameo roles in his recent book, Antiquity Matters, a series of reflections on the classical world — “more a montage than any kind of a textbook”.

Eschewing the academy for the lyceum, he takes in the philosophy, history and literature of Greece and Rome while issuing the odd barb at the fustiness of scholarship. The third-century BC scholar-poet Callimachus is memorably evoked as “one of the first academics to use criticism as a way of fortifying his own supremacy”. Raphael gets away with the slur — his arrow is firmly embedded in a discussion of the poet’s skill in defeating his critics with his intelligence — but the undertone is there, neither cruel nor bitter, only mildly rebellious.

An unlikely rebel in his own time, Callimachus was born in Cyrene, close to Shahat in modern Libya, and came to work at the Library of Alexandria. He is said to have produced some 800 scrolls of papyrus on subjects as various as the names of fish, rivers of Europe, and Greek drama, but is more famous for his poetry, which he wrote with an appetite for novelty and concision. In one of his works Apollo appears to the poet and says: “Do not tread the path/Which carriages pass over or drive your chariot/Over others’ paths or a wide track, but along unworn/Roads, even if you drive a narrower path.”

He excelled at using his knowledge of the arcane and recherché against people less learned than himself. His clever invective inspired a host of later poets, not least Catullus, who crops up as Callimachus’s belated protégé towards the end of Raphael’s book. If Callimachus was academic, then Catullus was manifestly anti-authority, anti-expert, anti making it obvious to anyone but the cleverest how clever he really was. He skewered his enemies with erudition veiled by colloquialism and crudity. Wearing his learning as lightly as possible, he provided a lesson in writing outside the academy as much as against it.

Minus the explicit polemic, Raphael is a scholar in Catullus’s mould, concerned more with reinterpreting the classics for his own pleasure than masquerading as one of the “old, learned, respectable bald heads” whom W. B. Yeats mocked, wearing the carpet with their shoes and coughing in ink and thinking what other people think. He finds himself repeatedly drawn back to the myths of Crete, which seem to encapsulate for him the intricacy and excitement of the classical world. He writes particularly  well on Daedalus, the master craftsman who provided King Minos with an automaton to patrol the shores of Crete (“illegal immigrants”, says Raphael, “were grilled against the furnace caged in his brazen chest”), and his wife Pasiphae with a model of a heifer to climb inside so she could “be pleasured without being crushed” by the gorgeous bull. The Minotaur that resulted from this unnatural union has become an unlikely paradigm for modern man.
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