ASU professor’s work on ancient Greek poetry praised by New York Review of Books

By

Gabriel Sandler

Mike Tueller, a classics professor at Arizona State University’s School of International Letters and Cultures, has been praised by the New York Review of Books for his contributions to the Greek Anthology of the famous Loeb Classical Library.

Tueller’s expertise allowed him to update the Greek Anthology of the library, which has not been reviewed since 1918. Tueller translates epigrams, ancient short poems that he likens to an ancient tweet or meme. Given their style, Tueller sees them as very timely, as “a lot of our genres are getting shorter anyway.”

The Loeb Classical Library is considered the premiere collection of ancient Latin and Greek texts, preserving cultural history and explaining it for others.

“There are a few book series in the world that print classical texts, and [the Loeb Classical Library] is the only one of any completion in the United States,” Tueller explained.

Ironically, given his success, Tueller did not set out to become an expert in classic Greek. Originally an astrophysics major at Harvard, he felt uninspired and switched to classics, enjoying the methodical nature and perspective of translation.

Tueller has completed one volume out of a projected six or seven for the Greek Anthology.

“I’m going through the Greek text, making sure it’s correct given the scholarship that has been done over the last hundred years ...” Tueller said. “These epigrams … a lot of them were playing tricks that I thought people hadn’t really noticed. These are short anyway, and a lot of short genres tend to have twists or jokes.”

In addition to adjusting translations of the epigrams, Tueller has added various notes on the headings of the poems, how he arrived at the translation and other pieces of context.

The New York Review of Books considers Tueller’s work an improvement on the original anthology, calling his work “an ambitious and worthy enterprise.”

In epigrams, Tueller has enjoyed a form of ancient writing unique from the popular ancient plays or works meant to be recited; epigrams were actually made to be read.

“That’s one of the reasons they strike us differently,” Tueller said. “They’re meant to be consumed differently. Epigrams were always meant to be read, even when nothing else was like that.”

While the epigrams are ancient, Tueller believes working with them strengthens skills in close reading and writing, inspiring ideas in people from the Renaissance to the Founding Fathers.

“You end up getting this really complete package of skills that you can bring to any work where you have to examine words really closely,” Tueller said. “There is not a single career in the world where knowing how to write well doesn’t help you.”

Read Tueller’s favorite epigram below, written by Callimachus in the third century BCE.

They told me Heraclitus, they told me you were dead

They brought me bitter news to hear and bitter tears to shed.

I wept as I remembered how often you and I

Had tired the sun with talking and sent him down the sky.

 

And now that thou art lying, my dear old Carian guest,

A handful of grey ashes, long, long ago at rest,

Still are thy pleasant voices, thy nightingales, awake;

For Death, he taketh all away, but them he cannot take.