If you have a taste for ancient Greek history, you may want to give my list a look. I have thousands of books in my house, over 700 of them devoted to ancient Greek history, culture and literature. Even if you’re already a fan of Greek literature, hopefully I am be able to point out a gem or two you’ve missed.
The Iliad and Odyssey of Homer
Not to be sacrilegious, but The Iliad was the Bible of its day. If you haven’t read any of the ancient Greek authors, start with Homer. He gives you the most authentic look at what life must have been like in ancient Greece. The writing is superb. Though there was probably no single man named Homer and these two epic poems probably contain the collective wisdom of a series of bards, the end result is Shakespearean in scope.
While the events of the Trojan War occurred around 1184 B.C., the story was part of an oral tradition for centuries that wasn’t written down until the invention of the Greek alphabet around 750 B.C. Plenty of time for traveling bards to insert characters and genealogies to butter up whoever was in their audience. Interestingly, Athens receives only brief mention in the form of a minor hero, Menesthius, which may be due to Athens not becoming a power till about 500 B.C., by which time The Iliad’s story and characters were solidified.
It helps to understand what an impact Homer’s epics had on Greek culture to know that when Alexander the Great was a young man, he carried The Iliad with him everywhere and even slept with a copy under his pillow at night. When Alexander landed in Asia the first place he visited was Troy, where he took the reputed ‘shield of Achilles’ from a temple and carried it with him throughout his campaigns.
Most high schools generally include The Odyssey in their 9th grade curriculum, though The Iliad is the better story. When I was doing my student teaching and inquired why they chose The Odyssey over The Iliad, I was told The Iliad is too violent, which is true. The Odyssey is about a journey, which has modern applications for students everywhere, which is understandable. Still, I managed to sneak in sections of The Iliad when I taught.
Though The Iliad describes warefare in graphic detail, with heads flying and bodies gutted by the spear, ultimately it is an anti-war story. It’s main hero Achilles made the choice to go to Troy, live a short life, and win eternal fame, versus staying home and living a long life but dying in obscurity. At the climax of the story, after Achilles has slain Troy’s most famous son, the family man Hector, in the scene where he gives Hector’s body to Hector’s father King Priam, Achilles has his ephipany that now that he has won his fame, he too will die. Though most people miss it, I tend to think Homer’s point is that Achilles chose wrongly. What good is fame when you’re dead? If Achilles had stayed at home, he would have lived a long happy life, instead of dying horribly, killed most likely by a poisoned arrow that hit him in his famous heel,
The big question for readers today is which translation of Homer to read. There are almost as many translations as there are characters in the poem. When I was young I read Richard Lattimore’s version and like a lot of people tend to think it’s the best. It’s not easy reading, but it is considered the closest to the ancient Greek style and meaning. More recently Princeton professor Robert Fagles came out with a more modern version that many people prefer. In the 18th century Alexander Pope wrote a version that rhymes the entire poem. I find it rather remarkable, though others find it ridiculous. There are also a number of prose versions written by Samuel Butler, E.V. Rieu and W.H.D. Rouse. All are good. Poet Robert Fitzgerald did a translation in the 1960’s, that while not as faithful to the ancient Greek as Lattimore’s, is considered an excellent literal translation.
Not long ago The New Yorker printed a nice article on the different Homeric translations, Englishing the Iliad: Grading Four Rival Translations.
The Aeneid of Virgil
As a teenager, after reading The Iliad and The Odyssey I was overjoyed to learn that a Roman poet named Virgil had continued the story in his Aeneid. The story mimics Homer’s epics with battle scenes similar to what is found in The Iliad and it follows the wandering of the Trojan Prince Aeneas across the Mediterranean similar to Odysseus adventures in The Odyssey. Aeneas even runs across one of Odysseus’ crew members that was left stranded on the island of the cyclops and rescues him. In the end Aeneas finds his way to Italy where he founds Rome. Traditionally The Aeneid was written by Virgil to connect the Roman Emperor Augustus with the heroes of Greek myth found in Homer’s work. Heroes like Aeneas were descended from the gods, in Aeneas’ case Aphrodite, which helped solidify the Emperor’s claims to divine origins.
The Histories by Herodotus
Herodotus (484-425 B.C.) is considered the ‘father of history,’ as he was supposedly the first to chronicle a historical event, in this case the Persian War. My bet is that others wrote histories before Herodotus, his is just the only one to survive. The Histories covers a lot of ground, from the foundation of the Persian Empire by Cyrus the Great (557-530 B.C.) to his successors conquest of Egypt, Asia Minor (Turkey), Scythia (Bulgaria) and their eventual conflict with the Greeks (490-479 B.C.). Herodotus may have been the first person to travel far and wide to interview people for his history. In a way, he was recording events from the memories of the Persian War veterans similar to the way Ken Burns interviewed World War II vets for his documentary film, The War. Unfortunately, a lot of what Herodotus records is tainted by superstition, folklore and petty political rivalries, which makes some of his facts suspect. The most famous example is his claim that Xerxes’ Persian army numbered one million men. Modern historians claim it would have been impossible to feed that size army, and it’s more likely that to the Greeks the Persian army was so large, that they used a number like a million to estimate its size. Historians reckon it was probably closer to 250,000 men.
There are a lot of good translations of The Histories out there. The new The Landmark Herodotus: The Histories is excellent as it includes maps on nearly page, plus is accompanied by a great deal of worthwhile commentary.
The History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides
While Herodotus has been dubbed the ‘father of history,’ Thucydides (460-395 B.C.) is known as the ‘father of scientific history.’ His History of the Peloponnesian War covers the war between Sparta and Athens (431-404 B.C.) and as Thucydides was an Athenian general during the war, is much more factual than Herodotus’ work. Though Herodotus has a lot of good stories to tell in his work, such as the stand of the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae, Thucydides’ work is better written. He does not glorify war or moralize events, instead he records the facts, which make quite clear just how horrifying war must have been in the ancient world. Thucydides died before finishing the book, so it does not cover the last seven years of the war. Readers interested in finding out what happened turn to Xenophon’s Hellenica. Like Thucydides, Xenophon was a general during the Peloponnesian War, he’s just not as good a writer as Thucydides.
Description of Greece by Pausanias
Pausanias was a Greek traveller and geographer living in the 2nd century A.D. His Descriptions of Greece gives firsthand observations of the art and architecture in ten Greek cities, including Athens, Sparta and Corinth. He not only describes what he sees, but provides the myths and legends that produced the buildings, statues and monuments. Though Pausanias lived several hundred years after the period I am writing about, his work provided inestimable assistance in helping me describe the cities and the landscapes in my book, The Wandering King. Want to take a walk through ancient Greece? Check out Pausanias.
The Tragedies of Aeschylus
One of the things that saddens me about Greek literature is knowing that most of what was written during the Classical Age has been lost. Only a fraction of what was written has survived. Much of it was destroyed when the Library of Alexandria in Egypt was accidently burned down in 48 B.C. by none other than Julius Caesar.
For instance, of the ninety plays written by the Athenian playwright Aeschylus’s (525– 455 B.C.) only seven survive. One of his plays, The Persians, is unique in that it was based on his personal experience in the Persian War at the Battle of Salamis.
The Tragedies of Euripides
Of Euripides’ (480-406 B.C.) ninety-five plays, eighteen survive. Of them, my favorite is The Trojan Women, which was produced into a movie in 1971 starring Katherine Hepburn and Vanessa Redgrave. It deals with the fall of Troy from the perspective of the captured Trojan women, who were once royalty and are now slaves. It is possibly one of the best anti-war plays of all time.
The Tragedies of Sophocles
Seven of Sophocles’ (496-405 B.C.) 123 plays survive. His most famous work is the story of Oedipus the King, though my favorite is his story about Oedipus’ daughter Antigone. She is a wonderfully heroic figure who fights the ‘establishment’ to do what she believes is right and of course, dies for her efforts. Sophocles was the most successful playwright of his time, winning the dramatic competition at Athens 24 times, compared to 14 wins for Aeschylus and 4 for Euripides.
The Comedies of Aristophanes
The best known comic playwright of the classical age was Aristophanes (446-386 B.C.). My favorite among his plays is Lysistrata, the plot of which is truly remarkable and still reads well today. The (fictional) story describes how the women of Athens and Sparta conspire together to end the Peloponnesian War by refusing to have sex with their husbands! Eleven of Aristophanes’ forty plays survive.
Whom the Gods Would Destroy by Richard Powell
Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1970
This is my favorite historical novel of all time. In the 1950’s, Richard Powell won acclaim as the author of The Philadelphian, which was later turned into a movie The Young Philadelphians (1959) starring Paul Newman. Like in a lot of cases, the book is a hundred times better than the movie. Unfortunately, no one ever thought to make a movie about his best novel, Whom the Gods Would Destroy, The title comes from a line in Euripides, “Whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad.” The book tells the story of the Trojan War through a young Trojan boy named Helios. Powell takes Homer’s characters such as Achilles, Odysseus, Hector and Helen and injects so much life into them, he turns them into living, breathing people that you feel you know, and are quite sad to leave when you finally finish the book.
Gates of Fire by Steven Pressfield
Steven Pressfield has written a number of novels about ancient Greece, none of which I really like. I mention The Gates of Fire because it’s about the 300 Spartans and it’s the least offensive of all his novels. The beginning and ending are worth skipping, but the middle section that deals with the Battle of Thermopylae is excellent. They probably should have taken Pressfield out and shot him after he wrote that part, as I’ve yet to enjoy anything else he’s written. The title of the book comes from the word ‘Thermopylae,’ which means ‘hot gates’ in Greek. The place was named for the hot sulpher springs in the area and was thought to be one of the entrances to the underworld.
Goat Song by Frank Yerby
The Dial Press, 1967
Frank Yerby is perhaps best known for writing about the American south. He is also the first African American writer to sell more than a million copies and to become a millionaire as a writer. He wrote a couple of historical novels, including Goat Song, which follows a Spartan named Ariston during the Peloponnesian War. Most of Yerby’s early books were romance novels, and it shows in Goat Song, though it does have some nice scenes. In ancient Greece, a tragic play was called a ‘goat song.’
Pompeii by Robert Harris
Random House, 2005
Though not about Greece, this book is worth mentioning as it is an excellent novel about the eruption of Vesuvius in southern Italy and the destruction of the city of Pompeii. The book covers two days in the life of Marcus Attilius Primus, a Roman aquarius (an engineer that works on aqueducts), who is sent to Pompeii to investigate why the aqueduct there has stopped working. The book reads like a mystery novel, and as Marcus learns, early tremors from Vesuvius are what have disrupted the city’s aqueduct. The description of Roman daily life and the volcanic erruption are so well done, you feel like you are there walking the streets of Pompeii alongside Marcus.
The Last Kingdom by Bernard Cornwell
Harper Collins, 2005
Another novel not about Greece, but Cornwell’s historical novels are worth mentioning as they are extremely good reads. His Saxon series follows a hard-nosed warrior named Uhtred during the reign of Alfred the Great when the Vikings were rampaging across England. The series starts with The Last Kingdom, is up to its sixth book, and though the series has its highs and lows, Uhtred is such a good character, I find it impossible to resist it when Cornwell comes out with another installment. Also high on my list of Cornwell’s many books is his King Arthur trilogy which starts with The Winter King.
The Greek Myths by Robert Graves
Though there are dozens of books on the market about Greek myths, Robert Graves’ book is the definitive work on the subject. It covers every Greek myth ever told, including a lot you probably never heard before What makes Graves’ book unique is that each chapter is divided into three sections. The first part retells the myth, the second section provides the ancient Greek sources where the myth may be found, and the last part gives the reader an interpretation of the myth’s origins. While his recounting of the myth will not wow you, his interpretations most likely will as they provide great insights into ancient Greek culture.
Alexander of Macedon: 356 – 323 B.C. by Peter Green
University of California Press, 1992
I’m not a fan of Alexander the Great, but after reading this book I became a follower of classical British scholar Peter Green. Green not only recounts Alexander’s life, he provides a fascinating analysis of each battle, peels back the propaganda spewed by Alexander’s historians and digs out the truth. Green has written several books on ancient Greece, but this is his best. I’ve given it to friends who don’t care about ancient history and even they found it hard to put down.
The Greco-Persian Wars by Peter Green
The University of California Press, 1998
Another book by Peter Green, this one on the Persian Wars. Not as well written as his book on Alexander, but it’s one of the better works on the subject.
The Oracle: Ancient Dephi and the Science Behind its Lost Secrets by William J. Broad
Penquin Books, 2007
The oracle of Delphi influenced Greek politics and society for hundreds of years. Stories about the oracle are legandary. For instance, when Croesus of Lydia asked the oracle if he should attack Cyrus the Great, the oracle responded, “If you do, a great empire will fall.” Croesus thought the oracle meant the Persian Empire would fall, attacked, and it was his empire that was destroyed. In this fascinating book, the author Broad investigates whether or not the oracles were just clever propaganda spewed by the priestesses, called Pythias, or if there was a scientific basis behind the mysterious oracle. By tracking down recent archegological evidence, Broad discovers that the Temple of Apollo at Delphi was built on a fault line over a chasm that emitted ethylene gas. By comparing the historical and archelogical record, Broad reveals that the Pythias breathed in the fumes, which put them into a euphoric state that they interpreted as being inspired by Apollo, god of prophecy, and then delivered their oracles. Though a niche subject area, the book is well-written and provides an interesting, fact-based answer to the mystery of the Delphic Oracle.
The Spartans: The World of the Warrior-Heroes of Ancient Greece by Paul Cartledge
Overlook Hardcover, 2003
Thermopylae: The Battle That Changed the World by Paul Cartledge
Overlook Hardcover, 2006
Like Green, Cartledge is another Brit, a professor at Cambridge and probably the world’s foremost authority on ancient Sparta. Though not the best writer, he’s a must read for anyone that wants to know everything about the Spartans.
A War Like No Other: How the Athenians and Spartans Fought the Peloponnesian War by Victor Davis Hanson
Random House, 2005.
The Western Way of War: Infantry Battle in Classical Greece by Victor Davis Hanson
Alfred A. Knopf, 1989.
Hanson is an American military historian, columnist, political essayist and former classics professor. He first attracted my attention when he was teaching at California State University and mocked up an ancient Greek hoplite panoply and was running tests among his students to see how far they could run, to check Herodotus’ claim that the Athenians sprinted for a mile before crashing into the Persian line at the Battle of Marathon. Hanson is an excellent non-fiction writer, though from what I see on Amazon his first foray into fiction, a novel titled The End of Sparta has received mixed reviews.
A History of Sparta, 950-192 B. C. by William George Grieve Forrest
W. W. Norton & Company, 1969
This little paperback gives a great overview of Spartan history. Forrest was not only a professor of ancient history at Oxford, he was an RAF pilot during WW2.
Well, that’s my list. If you’d like to suggest something you’ve read that you felt was praise-worthy, please leave a comment!