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Five Fascinating Facts about Plutarch

Fun facts about a pioneering ancient writer

1. Plutarch effectively invented the genre of biography. Plutarch’s innovative approach to biography was to take two important figures – one from Greek civilisation and the other from the Roman empire – and compare and contrast their characters, fortunes, and outlooks. This is the basis for his most famous work, the Parallel Lives.

2. As well as being a serious biographer, though, he was also something of a gossip. Plutarch loves to home in on an individual story that sheds some light on his subject – an anecdote, a moral tale, a quirk or distinctive character trait. And this is why we at Interesting Literature admire Plutarch so much: he saw the importance of trivia, and the fact that it isn’t always as trivial as it might first appear. His Greek Lives and Roman Lives (of which there are two very good selections by Oxford World’s Classics) show the individual personalities of the great statesmen and cultural figures he discusses, their quirks and foibles, their eccentricities. Read the rest of this entry

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Five Fascinating Facts about Sappho

Interesting trivia about the original ‘Lesbian poet’

1. Sappho has been credited with inventing the plectrum. An Athenian vase dating from the sixth century BC shows Sappho holding a lyre, which she is plucking with a small device that is recognisable as the forerunner to the modern plectrum. Did she invent it? Historians are unsure, but it appears that Sappho was using a plectrum to pluck the strings at a time when everyone else was happy to pluck the strings of the lyre.

2. Hardly any of Sappho’s work survives. Sappho is known to have written some nine volumes of poetry, but very little of her work was preserved. Some have blamed this on the activities of the medieval Church, which sought to suppress works which were pagan and, what’s more, often probably quite sexy. Sappho is, after all, the poet who inspired the word ‘lesbian’ for a woman who loves other women; Sappho’s home was on the island of Lesbos. Read the rest of this entry

Five Fascinating Facts about Edmund Spenser

Fun facts about the Elizabethan poet

1. The word ‘blatant’ was invented in Spenser’s epic poem The Faerie Queene. Spenser coined the word ‘blatant’ when he came up with the fictional many-tongued creature, the Blatant beast, in his epic poem. The Faerie Queene is a vast allegorical work of fantasy which mythologises England (using native myths, such as St George, alongside a sort of Chaucerian English) as a great Christian nation, ruled over by ‘Gloriana’ (i.e. Queen Elizabeth I). In the second book of his poem, Spenser mentions the ‘Blatant beast’, a thousand-tongued creature which is the offspring of Cerberus and Chimæra. (The Blatant beast actually has a hundred tongues when it first appears in the second book; when it reappears in the sixth book, though, it’s grown another nine hundred.) In time, this vast, babbling animal became the common adjective we use today to refer to something obvious and obtrusive – as, one suspects, a large beast with lots of tongues would be in any room. Read the rest of this entry