Ancient Greek also had different pitches – marked from the third century BC with circumflex, grave and acute accents – making the language extremely musical. Sappho’s poetry had the devilish Mixolydian mode, with note pitches at quarter-tone intervals – as early as the seventh century BC.
All this was a little impenetrable to me at Westminster; even more so at my north London prep school, North Bridge House, where I started learning Greek at 11. But oh, how much joy Greek has generated in me in later life. It was hard-won joy, admittedly. There were years – decades – in the dogged accumulation of the seeds of knowledge, before the appreciation of the fully grown plants could develop.
Now I’m so grateful I wasn’t fed a dumbed-down, supposedly accessible version of classics. Watered-down Greek is the opposite of accessible – it provides access to nothing. Without those long, slow hours, forcing down the vocab and the verb endings, I would never have punctured that hard skin wrapped around the core of Greek, and discovered the beauty within.
How tragic it is that earlier this year Camden School for Girls, the last British comprehensive offering Greek A-level, announced it could no longer afford to do so.
It was only through understanding Greek, and Latin that I also understood the relation between Greece and Rome. Back at Ephesus, Latin inscriptions were rarer than Greek ones. Even though Ephesus became a Roman city in 129BC, under the Romans the Ephesians spoke a mixture of Latin, Phrygian, Lydian, Old Anatolian and Greek.
Greek dominates the inscriptions on Ephesus’s houses, statues and temples. Latin was largely confined to official imperial buildings, such as the grand gate of Mazeus and Mithridates, built by two freed slaves in AD 40 in honour of the emperor Augustus.
The inscription on the gate reads, “Mazeus and Mithridates dedicate this to the son of the divine Julius Caesar, to the greatest priest, Augustus, who was consul 12 times, and tribune 20 times; and to Livia, wife of Augustus; and to Marcus Agrippa, consul three times, and tribune six times; and to Julia, daughter of Caesar Augustus.”
I got the picture: formal, highfalutin inscriptions were written in Latin; easy-going, good-luck messages were in Greek.
If you know Greek, you don’t just know the fundamental western European language, you also know the language in which so many firsts were written – the first tragedy; the first comedy; even, as Milan Kundera said, the first novel, the Odyssey.
Greek is often the first – or at least the earliest surviving – language in which so many emotions and thoughts are framed. Because Greek got there first, you get ultra-pure, inherently original descriptions, free of cliché or imitation.
Soon after I finished my odyssey, I read an interview with Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, the best classicist in the Vatican. “You don’t study Latin or Greek to speak them,” he said. “You do so to come in direct contact with the civilisation of two peoples who were the bedrock of modern society; that is, you study them to be yourself and to know yourself.”