Classic Case of Public Interest; Virgil: His Life and Times. by Peter Levi (Duckworth, Pounds 25). the Emperor Constantine. by Michael Grant (Phoenix, Pounds 12.99). the Lydian Baker. by David Wishart (Sceptre, Pounds 16.99). Sejanus. by David Wishart (Sceptre, Pounds 6.99). Reviewed B Y Stephen Harrison

Article excerpt

Heads shook sadly when The Birmingham Post reported earlier this year that one of the city's high-flying grammar schools was dropping Latin from its curriculum.

The move was seen as another nail in the coffin of the Classics - and from an unexpected, not to say treacherous, source.

How strange, then, that just as the "dead" languages of Latin and Greek are given such last rites, public interest in them and their times should seem to be booming.

Publishers these days are apparently vying with each other to satisfy that interest, and their efforts have been known to be rewarded with the best-seller status accorded to the late Poet Laureate Ted Hughes' re-working of Ovid.

Duckworth deserve commendation for Peter Levi's slimmish (248pp) but elegant new life of Virgil, the first fulength such since 1938.

This is selvidently a labour of love from Levi, a classicist of impeccable pedigree who interprets what little is definitely known of the life of the supreme poet of the Roman Empire with scrupulous attention to historical context.

Given such a paucity of fact, Levi, a poet in his own right, delves deep into the works themselves, teasing out what may be inferred from an engrossing re-reading of the Eclogues, Georgics and Aeneid.

Much more in the way of writings - and inscriptions and coinage - has come down the centuries about the Emperor Constantine, revered as Rome's first Christian ruler. …