Ancient Greek for Moderns
(San Francisco Chronicle, September 1, 1991)
IT’S GREEK TO ME
Brush Up Your Classics
By Michael Macrone; illustrations by Tom Lulevitch
HarperCollins; 238 pages; $17
Reviewed by David L. Ulin
There should be little doubt that the influence of Greek and Roman
tradition is still heavy upon us. Look at the architecture of our banks
and courthouses, or at the “great books” debate that has so stirred the
academic community over the last several years. But there is another,
more subtle way we remain under antiquity’s thrall: the various
expressions and aphorisms that have come down to us through time and
become part of our language in the form of truisms and cliches.
Michael Macrone, who has taught English and Western civilization at the
University of California at Berkeley, has cataloged the most notable of
these sayings in “It’s Greek to Me!,” a companion volume to his “Brush
Up Your Shakespeare!,” and, not coincidentally, a pop primer on some of
the fundamental notions of the ancient world.
Divided into 15 main sections and two informal appendixes, “It’s Greek
to Me!” tries to present an overview of early Western culture by
exploring its relevance to the present day. It succeeds, for the most
part, because Macrone is an erudite guide who clearly knows and
understands his material and has a real desire to get it across.
The book is impressive in the way it demystifies its subject matter.
Thus, when Macrone describes the origin of a phrase such as “deus ex
machina,” he places it within the context of its time, noting that Greek
dramatists tended to bring gods on stage by setting them down “with a
hand-operated crane, expecting this would produce the desired effect of
awe”—a practice that, he claims, both Plato and Aristotle vehemently
When he turns his attention to “Eureka!,” Macrone is even more direct.
“You may be surprised to discover,” he writes, “that ‘eureka!’ derives
from the simple Greek verb heuriskein, ‘to find’—heureka
means ‘I have found it!’ ... It would be like shouting out ‘I have
bought it!’ today and having some forty-third-century Frenchman quote
your English whenever he struck a particularly good bargain.”
Despite the sense of living, breathing history, however, “It’s Greek to
Me!” has its problems. Most of them result from Macrone’s attempt to
achieve accessibility while he apparently lacks faith in the ability of
his readers to cope with the depth of the ideas and issues he wants to
explore. His writing can be somewhat sketchy, as with his discussion of
“Speak well of the dead,” in which he provides a detailed etymology but
stops short of investigating the original Spartan philosophy from which
the statement came.
His habit of cross-referencing entries—every time a proper name comes
up, we are told where else in the book we can find it—also seems derived
from the same impulse: to emphasize patterns to an audience that might
not otherwise see them. While such a device can occasionally be helpful,
in the end it mostly serves to chop up the flow, making “It’s Greek to
Me!” difficult to read in places, especially since Macrone’s citations
are often redundant, with the same names repeated again and again.
“It’s Greek to Me!” is actually mis-titled, for nearly half of its
contents come from Roman sources. Of course, this may well be in keeping
with Macrone’s contentions that, when constructing their civilization,
“the Romans did what came naturally: They stole from the Greeks.” Either
way, it’s a point with which we can’t really argue, given that we still
do the same thing. From the “Oedipus complex” to “Put your shoulder to
the wheel,” our jargon is riddled with the slivers and shavings of
As the Roman dramatist Terence—himself a plunderer of the past—once
exclaimed, “Nothing is said that has not been said before.”
David L. Ulin is a contributing editor to the Bloomsbury Review and
co-editor of Instant Classics.
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First published in the San Francisco Chronicle (September 1, 1991)