Calder Classics

Timeless Bob Dylan: Inspired by the Classics

Rebekah JunkermeierComment

(repost from 10/20/16)

“I’m gonna spare the defeated, boys, I’m going to speak to the crowd,

I am goin’ to teach peace to the conquered

I’m gonna tame the proud…”

            So goes Bob Dylan’s song “Lonesome Day Blues.” As many have noted, these lines of Dylan’s bear a striking resemblance to those of another poet, one who lived roughly two thousand years ago in ancient Rome: Vergil.

            Publius Vergilius Maro, or Vergil, as he is better known, is famous for many works including the Eclogues and the Georgics, but is known best for his epic poem the Aeneid, which he modeled after Homer’s renowned Iliad and Odyssey. It was Augustus, Rome’s first emperor, who commissioned Vergil to write the Aeneid, which tells the story of the hero Aeneas, the legendary founder of Rome.

            Dylan seems to be drawing from Allen Mandelbaum’s 1971 translation of Vergil’s magnum opus, which renders the Latin as follows:

“But yours will be the rulership of nations,

Remember Roman, these will be your arts:

To teach the ways of peace to those you conquer,

To spare defeated peoples, tame the proud…”

            This particular scene takes place in Book VI in the underworld, where Aeneas finds the ghost of his father, Anchises, who tells him (in the lines above) what his purpose and role will be. And, as Harvard Professor Richard F. Thomas puts it, “What does it mean that Dylan incorporated these lines from a 2,000-year old poem into his 2001 song [“Lonesome Day Blues”]?”[1] Thomas suggests that if we take a look at what was happening in the early 70s when this translation was published, we may find our answer.[2]

           The Vietnam War had been raging for fifteen years. Opposition to the war was at an all-time high. As Muhammad Ali famously said, “Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on Brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?” Americans were horrified by events such as the My Lai Massacre in 1968, where some 500 unarmed Vietnamese civilians were murdered and mutilated by U.S. soldiers. The time was ripe with questioning the cost of American power and domination in the world.

Watch a video of Dylan playing "Lonesome Day Blues" in New York City in 2001 here

            Vergil also knew a thing or two about questioning power and domination in the world. Many scholars believe that the Aeneid exemplifies Vergil’s own interrogation of the cost of empire. When he began writing the Aeneid, Rome had just emerged from over fifty years of nearly continuous civil wars. Just two years earlier, in 31 BCE, Octavian (soon to be named Augustus) had defeated fellow Roman and rival Mark Antony to become sole ruler of Rome. The idea of Rome had been so lofty and virtuous, as the ghost of Anchises reminds us: “To teach the ways of peace to those you conquer, / To spare defeated peoples, tame the proud…”[3] And yet, as Professor Thomas reminds us, Aeneas does not succeed in this in the end. Instead of showing clemency to the army and people he has defeated, Aeneas massacres them.[4] I, for one, am convinced that Dylan found the same dissonance between the ideals and realities of empire in the Aeneid that he found in the United States during the Vietnam War leading up to 9/11 (incidentally, the release date of his Love and Theft album).

            Dylan’s ability to understand, digest, and draw inspiration from classical authors such as Vergil and also Homer, Catullus and Ovid, among others, helped place him among the ranks of the Nobel Prize winners in Literature.


 Bibliography & Further Reading:

Allen Mandelbaum, The Aeneid of Virgil. A Verse Translation by Allen Mandelbaum, Berkeley: University of California Press (1971).

Jennifer Schuessler and Dina Kraft, “Bob Dylan 101: A Harvard Professor Has the Coolest Class on Campus,” The New York Times, Oct. 14, 2016.

Richard F. Thomas, “The Streets of Rome: The Classical Dylan”, Oral Tradition, 22/1 (2007): 30-56.

Thomas E. Strunk, “Achilles in the Alleyway: Bob Dylan and Classical Poetry and Myth,” Arion: A Journal of Humanities and the Classics, Third Series, Vol. 17, No. 1 (2009): 119-136.

[1] Richard F. Thomas, “The Streets of Rome: The Classical Dylan”, Oral Tradition, 22/1 (2007): 30-31.

[2] Richard F. Thomas, “The Streets of Rome: The Classical Dylan”, Oral Tradition, 22/1 (2007): 31-32.

[3] Allen Mandelbaum, The Aeneid of Virgil. A Verse Translation by Allen Mandelbaum, Berkeley: University of California Press (1971).

[4] Richard F. Thomas, “The Streets of Rome: The Classical Dylan”, Oral Tradition, 22/1 (2007): 32.

Top 3 Underrated Features of Italy

Calder ClassicsComment

by Macy Kwon and Sophia Kottman

  1. You can drink from all the fountains, and stick your head under them too!
  2. There are lots of big squares where you can have water fights.
  3. Granita.  Trust us
Water fountain by the Pitti Palace, Florence

Water fountain by the Pitti Palace, Florence

There's water shooting out of our eyes! Fontana della Barcaccia, Rome

There's water shooting out of our eyes! Fontana della Barcaccia, Rome

Breathtaking view from the top of the Spanish Steps, Rome.

Breathtaking view from the top of the Spanish Steps, Rome.

Granita.  One of the most underrated substances on Earth. Trust us.

Granita.  One of the most underrated substances on Earth. Trust us.

What Do Daenerys Targaryen and Augustus Have in Common?

Calder ClassicsComment

Daniel Paul, PhD student at Fordham University and graduate of Cambridge and Oxford, recently gave another talk in his engaging lecture series, “Controversial Leaders of Antiquity.”  He began his talk by playing a short clip from the popular television program Game of Thrones and asking the audience to remark on her leadership strategies.  Daniel then went on to say that Augustus, the first emperor of Rome, shared many leadership traits with The Mother of Dragons. So what do Daenerys Stormborn and Augustus have in common?

Why Study Latin?

Calder ClassicsComment

Had to re-post this thoughtful piece by Cambridge Coaching on how studying Latin in high school provides benefits throughout your education!

Excellent reasons for studying Latin have been given elsewhere on this blog: knowledge of the ancient language can boost your standardized test scores, enrich your understanding of European culture, and make you stand out in college admissions. As a long time Latin tutor in Boston, I’d like to add to these reasons two of my own.


Reason #1: Latin will make any language easier to learn

You’ve probably heard that Latin helps you acquire its modern descendents, the Romance languages. In fact, by enriching your understanding of grammar, Latin will help you learn any foreign language, not just those of the Romance family. Let me explain.It’s only reasonable that teachers give scant attention to Latin as a spoken language (although doing so can be fun and instructive), and instead, their assignments explicitly focus on Latin grammatical structures, or on translation. Latin students have no choice but to become well acquainted with hairy grammar topics like contrary to fact conditions, participial phrases, tense sequence, and the subjunctive mood.These concepts are often difficult at first, although if explained by a skilled teacher or Latin tutor they shouldn’t be overwhelming. Because many students now don’t study grammar at all in their middle and high school English curricula, and because modern language teachers emphasize the use of language in context, the Latin classroom is where students are most likely to get a rigorous introduction to grammar.

When you learn any language, even one unrelated to Latin, you encounter concepts like imperative and conditional verb forms, pronoun reference, subordinate clauses, and gerunds. (While unrelated languages show large differences in their grammatical structures, the same vocabulary, or at least a similar one, is used to describe those structures.) If you’re armed with an understanding of these terms through the study of Latin, then your language of choice will be less intimidating. (If you are having trouble, Cambridge Coaching offers Latin tutoring services in New York, Boston, and online that can help.)  

For Example:

For an English speaker who has never heard of grammatical case, the eighteen cases of Hungarian nouns would be a dizzying challenge and might even be reason enough to give up; a student with a solid grasp of Latin, used to declining nouns in six cases, would be less distressed. One approaching modern Hebrew would be less likely to agonize over the need to memorize the gender of nouns, and Latin’s flexible word order is an excellent preparation for the syntactic peculiarities of, say, German or Spanish.

It’s unsurprising that so many great polyglots have been superb Latinists. Leo Spitzer, one of the great humanistic scholars of the twentieth century, studied literature in over a dozen languages and published scholarship in five. But he claimed to know, aside from his native German, only one of them well: Latin.



Leo Spitzer in 1952

Reason #2: Knowledge of Latin grammar can improve your writing in English.

From middle school through freshman comp, phrases like “vague pronoun,” “dangling modifier,” and “mixed verb tense” refer to defects in expository writing. Students with grounding in Latin grasp these slips immediately, and are more likely to avoid them thereafter, because they’re familiar with the underlying grammatical issue. On the other hand, their peers with less knowledge of grammar struggle to identify the same pitfalls. In order to see why vague pronouns are a problem, you have to know what a pronoun is. Students who are used to making their Latin participles agree with their nouns perceive more quickly the error in sentences like “I saw my neighbor’s dog riding my bike yesterday.”

If you'd like support in making sense of your Latin assignments, we're here to help. Cambridge Coaching offers Latin tutoring services in New York and Boston in person, and anywhere else through Skype. We're happy to provide one-on-one Latin mentoring, and can help students at any level, from beginners to college students taking courses on Latin literature. The study of the classical world and its languages should be nothing less than exhilarating, but it’s important to recall that the benefits can be quite practical.

Sign up for a free Cambridge Coaching Study Skills Consultation!


Our trip to Nîmes

Calder ClassicsComment

Salvete parentes comitesque!

On Thursday, we went to Nimes, a city that is often called the “French Rome.” Nimes was the capital of the Roman Gallic province and was formed around the sacred spring of Nemausus, a Celtic god. When the Caesar tried to conquer Northern Gaul, their allies in southern Gaul assisted them by providing auxiliary troops. Their leader, the Gaul Adgenix, who fought in many battles with the Romans for 25 years, built the city of “Nemausus,” modern-day Nimes, with the funds he received from Augustus in his war chest upon his decommission. Nimes became the regional capital and was a center of Roman culture, art, and commerce.

When we arrived in Nimes we were met at the train-station by Lana’s uncle Laurent, who set up a citywide scavenger hunt for us. We began the hunt with clues leading to the Arena, where we listened to the audioguide to find the next hint. We followed the clues to the Place d’Horloge where we decoded a secret message hidden in the placard explaining the tower. We used our French skills to ask for directions to the Fountain d’Assas where we measured the cubic volume of the water in the fountain using the different materials we had (a 10-cm ruler, Gigi’s leg, and eyeliner). We discovered that it was 30 m3, which corresponded with the clue telling us to go to the Temple of Diana. We then climbed the tower and stopped for lunch. After our quick break, we read some poems by Martial. To continue the scavenger hunt, we put together a puzzle and proceeded to the Musée Carrée. We went to the terrace where we spotted our next clue, which led us to a church. Then we went to the port of Augustus, near another church, where we followed three successive clues, including one that had us use the direction Augustus was pointing (southeast towards Carthage) to determine that the final stop was the Maison Carrée. We watched a reenactment movie about the founding of Nimes (see above) and took the train home at the end of a fun day!

Avete atque vale!

 Discipulae Latinae

About | Contact Us | Join our Mailing List | Follow us on Twitter | Like us on Facebook
Copyright © 2015 Calder Classics LLC | All illustrations by Meredith Hamilton