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What Is Classical Allusion?

By G. Wiesen
Updated May 23, 2024
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A classical allusion is a reference to a particular event or character in classical works of literature, such as ancient Roman or Greek works. This type of allusion can be made to a particular work, usually a famous work such as the plays of Homer, in which case they can be exact quotes or merely specific references to events in a literary work. Such allusions can also be references to figures popular in stories and myths from classical eras. A classical allusion is often cultural in nature and usually refers to classical works within a particular society or geographical location.

The exact nature of a classical allusion can vary somewhat, since it is so often culturally-dependent, though it usually refers to some ancient story or character. Allusions, in general, are references typically made by a speaker or a writer in his or her work, which creates a connection between the ideas in the work and something else. In the instance of a classical allusion, this reference is made to figures or stories that come from the ancient past of a particular culture. Such allusions in much of Europe and the US, for example, often make reference to ancient Greek or Roman myths, epic poems, and plays.

This means that a classical allusion often refers to a story or character that is thousands of years old. The specific reference can be to a number of different things, depending on the needs of a writer or speaker and the nature of his or her work. Someone writing about a cunning plan that someone is coming up with to trick an opponent in some way, for example, might make reference to a “Trojan horse.” This is an allusion to the story of the Trojan Wars and how the armies of Greece utilized a large wooden horse to trick the people of Troy into allowing their armies into the city, which led to the downfall of that city.

In other cultures, however, a classical allusion may refer to other events and figures of historical and classical significance. Chinese works, for example, would likely make reference to ancient stories from China’s past, rather than Greek or Roman tales. These stories or figures would still need to be quite ancient, however, and more modern references, even to events of 200 years ago, would not be considered classical allusions. This cultural component means that a classical allusion usually works best when a writer or speaker knows his or her audience, and understanding some allusions may be seen as a sign of education or cultural status.

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Discussion Comments

By indigomoth — On Sep 25, 2013

There are quite a few classical allusion examples which have become so ubiquitous that we use them without even thinking about it. I think that's particularly true of biblical allusions.

I got a reminder of this recently when I was leading a book club for the local library for teenagers.

They got stuck on a comparison between the character in the book and David of David and Goliath fame.

These kids just had no idea what the author was talking about. They had never heard the story. I just took for granted that almost everyone would know it and would, therefore, understand the allusion.

By bythewell — On Sep 25, 2013

@browncoat - The problem is that the whole point of an allusion is to provide a point of comparison in order to illuminate understanding. If the allusion is obscure to the point where people don't know what it is alluding to, then it isn't going to do it's job.

That's why, when you look at most examples of classical allusion, they tend to focus on books that most people have read, like The Iliad and the Odyssey. It's the fault of schools for only focusing on those works, and so only providing that easily accessible point of comparison for most people.

By browncoat — On Sep 24, 2013

It's important to remember that Greece and Rome are not the only ancient cultures that are worth mentioning or learning about. The article mentions China, but there are other cultures as well, like Persia and India. I would love to see more classical allusions that referenced these ancient civilizations as well as the ones that we usually read about.

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