Beginning with Homer, and concluding with Socrates' thoughts on “Love and Loss,” Higgins leads us on a journey through poetry, life and death, politics, feminism, war, medicine and science, philosophy, and love in its many forms. Although Higgins' prose is occasionally digressive, and the inserted essays (sidebars within the main body of the work) can be distracting, It’s All Greek to Me is never boring or pedantic. Although I could wish that the information presented in the intrusive essays had been placed within the text in a different manner, these paragraphs are chock-full of fascinating detail. For instance, did you know that Socrates' last words were “Crito, we ought to offer a cock to Asclepius. See to it, and don’t forget.”? I didn’t.
Higgins addresses the whys and whereofs of what we know or believe to know about the classics. From the authorship of The Iliad and the Odyssey to the reasons for the execution of Socrates, she explores some of the questions that have puzzled scholars for centuries, putting them into terms that hold the interest of the amateur.
Though It’s All Greek to Me has academic overtones, Higgins is unable to keep her sense of humor from enlivening the proceedings, nor does she appear to try. The appendices are well worth the read, and contain some of the best bits of the book.
Sitting in the chambers of the California State Assembly, I realize, thanks to Charlotte Higgins, that while an ancient Athenian would not recognize this building as the home of a democracy, our ties to that Athenian are inescapable. “What is that gold picture,” one of the girls asks. “Is that a goddess?” “That is Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom.” The docent pauses. “In Greece she was called Athena.” Twenty fifth graders smile and nod. They know.