Epicurus takes on Jilly Cooper

MILLION-SELLING authors do not grow on trees. In Britain only a handful of paperback titles sell in that volume every year, and the writers who produce them, such as Stephen King, Robert Ludlum, Danielle Steel, or Jeffrey Archer, form a small club indeed.

The Greek philosopher Epicurus (341-270BC) would seem an unlikely candidate to join them; but suddenly he may be in with a chance. An obscure tract of his wit and wisdom has topped the Italian bestseller list for a year and at the last count had sold 1.3 million copies.

Could this be the start of something? Could the classics now compete with the thrillers, bodice-rippers, prurient biographies and diet manuals that fill the bookshop windows today? The answer, say the experts, is yes: there is nothing about popular writing that we could teach the ancient Greeks and Romans.

Take Plutarch. His Lives, a series of biographies combining intimate detail with high moral judgement, has already had one successful revival, inspiring Shakespeare to write some of his finest plays. Today it could easily catch the imagination of readers familiar with his literary descendants, Kitty Kelley and Albert Goldman. They would soon learn that the rich and powerful of Plutarch's time were no better behaved and, of course, no happier than they are today.

There are other candidates. With lesbianism fashionable in America and k d lang bounding out of the closet and on to the cover of this month's Vanity Fair, perhaps it is time for a revival of Sappho, grandmother of them all.

At the other end of the spectrum, Egeria's Travels, the journal of a young nun's pilgrimage to the Holy Land in AD380, could have all the qualities needed to compete with Michael Palin. As a humorous portrayal (however unintentionally so) of an innocent abroad, it prefigures a long line of literary successes.

One work that could sweep the board, given the chance, is Apuleius's Metamorphoses, better known as The Golden Ass. Written around AD150, this tells the story of Lucius, who on a visit to Thessaly is accidentally turned into an ass by a lover's spell and endures many strange ordeals before being restored to human form by the goddess Isis. Sex, romance, travel, cookery, horror, cult belief and equestrian pursuits - all human life is there, or certainly just as much as in anything by Jilly Cooper.

This is a rare find - a novel that could appeal to the chattering classes as well as the mass market. Ken Dowden of Birmingham University, who has made a close study of the ancient novel, points out that alongside scenes of threatened bestiality, The Golden Ass contains passages of spiritual intensity and has a teasing Platonic riddle at its centre. He likens its appeal to reading reports of murder trials. 'What we pretend to be interested in is the act of justice being done, what we're really interested in are the seamy details.'

Not only is the material there but, according to Anthony Spawforth of Newcastle University, who is co-editing a new edition of the Oxford Classical Dictionary, the time is right for a revival of the classics. 'In many ways the gap between the ancient and contemporary world has narrowed rather than broadened,' he says. 'With the breakdown of a single moral authority, the post-war period is very similar to the late classical world and there's the same search for new wisdom.'

There is evidence that he is right. While Epicurus is a hit in Italy, a retelling of classical myth, Roberto Calasso's novel The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, has taken literary New York by storm and this month is published in Britain. At the National Theatre, a play first performed in Athens in the fifth century BC, Aristophanes's Lysistrata, is packing them in.

As for the adventures of Lucius in The Golden Ass, Radio 3 continues a repeat run of its serialisation tonight.