Swords, sandals and Olympics (not to mention Brad Pitt) breathe new life into Greek literature

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The Independent Culture

A summer of Olympian sport, Hollywood blockbusters and radio dramatisations have resulted in a huge increase in sales of classical Greek literature. The Athens Olympics may have left its hosts with a £6.5bn bill, but the Games can claim to have reignited interest in Greek culture beyond the Balkan Peninsula.

A summer of Olympian sport, Hollywood blockbusters and radio dramatisations have resulted in a huge increase in sales of classical Greek literature. The Athens Olympics may have left its hosts with a £6.5bn bill, but the Games can claim to have reignited interest in Greek culture beyond the Balkan Peninsula.

An estimated 1.7m visitors passed through this summer's British Museum's Troy and Olympia exhibits. Radio 4 aired a well-reviewed dramatisation by Simon Armitage of Homer's Odyssey two weeks ago, and sales of classical Greek literature are soaring.

It is the first of Homer's two epics, The Iliad, which has seen the most dramatic increase in popularity, however. Sales of Penguin editions trebled between 2002 and 2003 - to more than 70,000 - and and that figure has already been surpassed this year. Booksellers Waterstone's report a rise of some 800 per cent, from 400 copies last year to more than 3,700 in 2004, and Ottakar's expect sales to treble by December, from 1,500 to 4,000.

Jon Howell of Ottakar's said: "At the beginning of the year, most stores would have kept this in ones and twos. Now it's back on the bestseller lists."

The Odyssey is up by 50 per cent, and sales of Robert Graves' Greek Myths have doubled. The film Troy, released in May and starring Brad Pitt, has contributed to a "sandals and swords" effect that has boosted the ancients' profile.

"While Troy wasn't particularly well reviewed as a film, it did excite people's interest in the Trojan stories," explains Dr Susan Walker, a classicist at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. "And we await the release of a film about Alexander the Great in October, which will give classics a further boost."

The rise, a hangover from the BBC's Big Read in 2003, is part of a larger resurgence in so-called "black classics" - predominantly pre-20th century works by authors from Aristotle to Austen, Bronte and Dickens.

Scott Pack, buying manager for Waterstone's, who have been marketing their classic backlist titles in three-for-two offers at the front of stores and seen a 40 per cent rise year-on-year, puts it down to a fresher image. "The problem with classics used to be that they were seen as a bit fusty - dull or dark covers made them look academic, which doesn't appeal to your general audience. In the past year or so, publishers and booksellers have realised they need to pitch them differently."

Indeed, last spring Penguin relaunched its Classics range, reformatting texts, introducing modern covers and sometimes adding new introductions. Sales went up 144 per cent. One particular success story for Waterstone's and Penguin is the Chinese text Monkey, by Wu Ch'eng-en, about an arrogant ape thrown out of heaven and forced to help a monk take holy texts to India.

"It was a stuffy little text before," says Mr Pack. "Its cover was black with a tiny ornament, a little inaccessible. We sold about 30 a month. Then we suggested Penguin change it to a cult-retro tie-in with the television series from the 1970s and 80s, which people can relate to. Now we sell thousands. The sort of people who bought this book from us in the past few months wouldn't consider themselves to be people who read the classics - but clearly they are, because they've just bought one."

The book's success is an example of how high-profile television coverage can work in favour of literature. The screen adaption of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, the BBC's Canterbury Tales series last Christmas, and interest in the work of Greek historian Herodotus following the release of The English Patient (during which extracts are read around a camp fire) are recent examples of how the screen can spark success in the literary world.

FIVE GREAT GREEK CLASSICS

The epic stories and legends of ancient Greece have inspired generations of the world's greatest artists, thinkers, and writers. Here are five essential works for classics virgins,introduced by Professor Simon Goldhill of Cambridge University. Professor Goldhill is author of the best-selling Love, Sex and Tragedy: How the Ancient World Shapes Our Lives, published by John Murray, priced £18.99.

The Iliad, Homer

Western civilization begins with The Iliad and The Odyssey of Homer (right), and you can't count yourself as really cultured until you have read them. The Iliad is a tragic epic of power and warfare, which poses the question of what it is worth fighting and dying for, as Achilles loses his best friend in his passionate search for his own glory at Troy.

The Odyssey, Homer

This story tells how Odysseus takes ten years to return to his home and wife after the fall of Troy. He has to defeat mythic creatures, like the one-eyed Cyclops, and kill the suitors who are pursuing his wife. It is a tale of homecoming and revenge, sex and monsters, an extraordinary mix of family drama and heroic adventure. These are truly foundational narratives, which give the model for so much Western literature.

Oedipus the King, Sophocles

There is more Greek tragedy on the London stage now than ever before. Its searing exploration of human frailty in war, personal relationships, and political life speaks to our times like no other genre. Sophocles' Oedipus the King, the play which inspired Freud, shows Oedipus gradually discovering the horrific truth that he has killed his father and married his own mother.

Antigone, Sophocles

In Sophocles' Antigone, Nelson Mandela's favourite prison reading, Antigone and Creon, her uncle, clash to the death over whether her dead brother, a traitor, should be buried. These are texts which demand you rethink who you are, and what you care about. They anatomise the human condition.

The Symposium, Plato

"All western philosophy is footnotes to Plato." That famous bon mot is absolutely true. The Symposium shows Socrates and his pals at a party, drinking and talking about love and desire. It is a sexy, funny dialogue and one of the most influential and moving accounts of how we can transcend the physical and reach for a spiritual ideal.

All texts available in translation in the Penguin Classics series

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