I was on the Sacred Way in Ephesus, one of the great cities of the ancient world, on Turkey’s western coast. One marble column had the jolly line “Ἀγαθὴ τύχη” – “Good luck”. Suddenly, all those years spent learning Greek vocabulary at Westminster School clicked into super-sharp focus.
Those two words are simple enough – but what a lot of useful baggage they carried. I remembered my old Greek teacher telling me that agathos (“good”) is behind the name Agatha – literally “good girl”. I remember, too, him teaching that agathos meant “brave”.
The equation between bravery and goodness in ancient Greece wasn’t accidental. And I remember, also, learning about the power of tuche in ancient Greece, where luck was seen as an elemental, near-divine force.
In that snap second, I realised how crammed with information those Greek lessons had been; how ideas that seemed unrelated, and irrelevant to my Eighties teenage life, were bound together in an intricate web that spread across the millennia and bound the present to the distant past.
Again and again, as I travelled in Odysseus’s wake around Homer’s Greece over the past three years researching my new book, I thanked the gods for a rigorous education in the fundamental language of western European civilisation.
In Alan Bennett’s The History Boys, Hector, the inspirational gay teacher with the Trojan hero’s name, talks about the power of great books: when a writer stretches his hand out from the pages and you reach out to take it in recognition.
Homer’s is the oldest, grizzliest hand of all. Time after time, he stretches it out and you think, “Yes, that’s what the sea looks like; that’s how a deep sleep feels; that’s the horror of loneliness.”
I never knew I’d stumble upon these magical connections when I was slogging through the present passive of luo at school. I wasn’t wrong to find Greek difficult as a child; there’s a reason that people say, “It’s all Greek to me.” The language just is tricky, principally because it’s in a different script from English, unlike Latin. Greek also has more inflections, or changing word endings, than Latin.
The average Latin verb has more than 200 endings; English verbs rarely have more than five. Greek ones can have well over a thousand.
Greek has lots of forms not used in English, among them the optative: a type of verb used to express wish or desire. It also has the dual: a word used only of two people or objects. Useless in modern English – although the writer Stanley Johnson, father of Boris, told me he longed for a dual to argue against his wife and one of his daughters when they ganged up on him.
Greek has the same Indo-European origin as Latin – and, indeed, Sanskrit, Teutonic and Celtic. But, even though it came before Latin, it is more flexible in expression and meaning. It has more participles – 10 to Latin’s three – allowing for more subordinate clauses. And it has a whole pack of conjunctions that flip sentences on their head and alter their meaning.