Bob Dylan and the Classics

January 21, 2009

Early on in the fascinating Chronicles: Volume One (2004) Bob Dylan describes the library in the home of a New York acquaintance:

There were all types of things in here, books on typography, epigraphy, philosophy, political ideologies. The stuff that could make you bugged-eyed. Books like Fox’s Book of Martyrs, The Twelve Caesars, Tacitus lectures and letters to Brutus. Pericles’ Ideal State of Democracy, Thucydides’ The Athenian General – a narrative which would give you chills. It was written four hundred years before Christ and it talks about how human nature is always the enemy of anything superior. Thucydides writes about how words in his time have changed from their ordinary meaning, how actions and opinions can be altered in the blink of an eye. It’s like nothing has changed from his time to mine. [page 36]

Thucydides evidently made a lasting impression on Dylan (the passage seems to refer to the early 60s). Of some other books in the library he notes “This stuff pales in comparison to Thucydides” [37]. While Dylan clearly read Thucydides – the reference to words changing their meaning comes from the account of a civil war at Corcyra (book 3, section 82) – it is curious that Dylan gets the titles wrong. Thucydides, though he was an Athenian general, did not write a book called The Athenian General. He wrote a history the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta in the late 5th century BCE. Furthermore, there is no book by Pericles called Ideal State of Democracy, though Thucydides’ history does contain speeches, attributed to Pericles, discussing Athenian democracy. The Twelve Caesars is a real book (by Suetonius) but what are Tacitus’ lectures? As for the letters to Brutus, presumably that’s a reference to one of Cicero’s works. Inaccuracies aside, it is worth noting that Thucydides (and some other classical authors) apparently had a substantial impact on one of the foremost twentieth century songwriters.