The best books on ancient Greece

Paul Cartledge Author Of Thebes: The Forgotten City of Ancient Greece
By Paul Cartledge

The Books I Picked & Why

The Iliad

By Homer, Robert Fagles

The Iliad

Why this book?

I am cheating a little here because ‘Homer’ can refer to either the Iliad or the Odyssey or both. Either way, those are the two foundational works of ALL western literature and of much ‘world’ literature besides. They are both very very long verse epics, originally composed and handed down orally by a combination of memory and performance improvisation, but eventually committed to writing in the Greeks’ then-new alphabetic script. 

If there was just one poet called Homer, his genius lay in his selection of a single unifying theme for both monumental poems – the anger of Greek hero-warrior Achilles (Iliad), and the ten-year travels and travails of petty Greek island king Odysseus (Odyssey). But most of us think that two different ‘monumental composers’ did the business. 

Both epics spoke to and helped form the ancient Greeks’ sense of identity as a people, the Iliad in the context mainly of battle, the Odyssey in terms chiefly of – often violent - encounters between Greeks and a variety of non-Greeks (including monsters and cannibals). The Iliad is more of a ‘boy’s toys’ sort of epic, lots of fighting, blood, and guts, vividly, almost lovingly, described in intimate detail. One oddity is that despite the poem’s title (Ilion was another name for Troy) the work does not culminate in the capture and sack of Troy and recovery by King Menelaus of Sparta of his errant adulterous wife Helen. (To see how it does end, you’ll just have to read it.) The Odyssey, by contrast, is a ‘boy’s own’ adventure story, full of storms and shipwrecks and magic, embracing two passionate love stories (one between Odysseus and his long suffering wife Penelope, the other between Odysseus and the gorgeous immortal Calypso), and rounded off with a seriously nasty revenge drama followed by a charming marital reunion. 

There have been many many English translations – or versions – done over the years or indeed centuries: from Chapman and Pope to yesterday, mostly by men but more recently by women. For adult readers, I am going to recommend the two verse translations by American Robert Fagles, not least because they come with excellent introductions by Bernard Knox. For younger readers, I strongly recommend the stripped-down, ‘told-to-the-children’ versions by Jeanie Laing, illustrated brilliantly by W. Heath Robinson. It was those that set me off on my own Classical odyssey.


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The Histories

By Tom Holland, Herodotus

The Histories

Why this book?

Herodotus (his name means ‘gift of the goddess Hera’, sister-wife of supreme god Zeus) was born in Halicarnassus (modern Bodrum in western Turkey) in about 484 BC. He was born therefore a subject of the mighty Persian Empire. (Based in Iran, founded by Cyrus the Great in about 550 BC, it eventually reached as far east as Afghanistan and the Indus Valley, as far west as the Aegean and Egypt.) But he grew up in the shadow of that Empire’s famous failure - in 480 and 479 - to add mainland Greece to its possessions. And he set himself as his life’s mission - as a pioneer historian - to try to understand and explain that failure. In order to do that, he had first to describe and explain the Empire’s origins, in Iran, then to describe and explain its rise and rise throughout the Middle East, and then, finally, to explain both its successes (conquest of all Asia as the Persians understood that and part of European Greece too, suppression of a major revolt of Greeks in the 490s, victory in the battle of Thermopylae followed by the sack of Athens in 480 and again in 479) and its failures (the battles of Marathon, Salamis, and Plataea) against Greeks.

Herodotus of course wrote a text for himself, but his original mode of ‘publication’ was by public lecture. The eventual written version is the longest surviving single work of ancient Greek prose. For its theme and its epic manner it earned Herodotus the accolade of ‘most Homeric’. The title ‘Histories’ in the plural reflects the fact that the original ancient Greek word ‘historia’ meant ‘research’ or ‘enquiry’. When scholars working in the great royal library at Alexandria in Egypt in the 3rd century BC came to edit a ‘definitive’ text, they divided the monster into 9 ‘books’, each named after one of the 9 Muses, beginning of course with Clio, the Muse of History. The first 4 books take the story from about 550 to about 500, the last 5 books, from about 500 to 479 BC. The first 4 books contain lots of ethnography, that is, accounts of the customs of all the non-Greek peoples with whom Greeks came into regular contact around the eastern Mediterranean and Black Seas, for example the Scythians to the north of the Black Sea, as well as of the Persians further east. The last 5 books are chiefly battle narratives, each book focused on a major conflict: 5 (the Ionian Revolt), 6 (Marathon), 7 (Thermopylae), 8 (Salamis), and 9 (Plataea).

The Histories will appeal to late teenagers and to adult readers of all ages and tastes. One of its many charms are the anecdotes that tell an edifying tale or point a moral: for example, when the Athenian statesman-philosopher Solon tells oriental king Croesus to ‘look to the end’, that is, to call no person fortunate or happy until you have seen how she or he died. Or, when that same Croesus tells his conqueror Persian emperor Cyrus that there is a ‘cycle’ to the affairs of men and mankind: as we might say, what goes around comes around – no one and no state remains forever at exactly the same point in the cycle, whether of good or ill fortune. Indeed, as Herodotus himself says, cities that once were great now are minor, and vice versa.


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Thucydides: The War of the Peloponnesians and the Athenians

By Thucydides, Jeremy Mynott

Thucydides: The War of the Peloponnesians and the Athenians

Why this book?

Thucydides of Athens (c. 455-400 BC) was an Athenian aristocrat of supreme intelligence and a failed politician who turned his 20 years of political exile to excellent account by turning himself into the most acute analyst and historian of the great Atheno-Peloponnesian War of 431 to 404. Thucydides was born within the world’s first democratic political state but was out of sympathy with the rule of the majority, the masses – except when they themselves were kept in check and did what they were advised by a superior statesman of the unique calibre of Pericles (c. 493-429).

Thucydides outlived the end of that War, which was a major defeat ultimately for his own home city by the Spartans aided financially by the old enemy, the Persians. But he did not live long enough to complete his History, which breaks off in mid-sentence in what we call the summer of 411 BC – what he called the 20th summer of ‘his’ War. I put it that way because Thucydides’s view that there had been just the one War, interrupted by a period of phoney peace, was not shared by all his contemporaries. One reason he wanted it to be a single, 27-year conflict was that that made it so much longer than not only Herodotus’ wars (only 2 years, 480 and 479) but also than Homer’s 10-year Trojan War! So much longer and therefore so much more memorable – so much more demanding a historian of his quality and stature. Thucydides was nothing if not agonistic, competitive, a very Greek character trait.

But he was very much more than a descriptive, narrative historian. Rather, he regarded his war as a kind of laboratory sample which should be dissected and analysed so as to bring out the constants in human behaviour, not so much personal as collective: what was it that made states behave towards each other in the ways they did, especially in terms of peace and war. He seems to have thought there were three main motivations: fear (in the security sense, that is), economic advantage, and self-esteem or ‘honour’. Rather like a dramatist, he composed speeches which he put in the mouths of the chief actors at key moments of decision. Being a historian, concerned overridingly with historical accuracy, he was careful to state that he didn’t just make these speeches up off the top of his head, but did so on the basis of such primary reports from reliable eyewitnesses as he could get access to as well, of course, as his own experience of those speeches he himself had actually heard – for example, some by the master-orator Pericles. 

Pericles died, as did many thousands of Athenians, of some devastating plague, probably either typhus or typhoid fever. Thucydides too caught the plague but lived to describe its symptoms, in horrifyingly graphic detail. But for Thucydides the death of Pericles had a much wider significance – as a key part of his explanation of why, 25 years later, the Athenians lost the War. This was, he believed, because after Pericles’s death the Athenians no longer possessed such a leader of genius and were persuaded by inferior, self-serving democratic politicians (‘demagogues’) to abandon altogether th strategy and policy laid down so wisely and foresightedly by Pericles. Actually, things were not quite as black and white as that, and Thucydides is guilty of being blinded somewhat by his excessive admiration for his fellow-aristocrat and by his class prejudice both against democracy as such and against lower-class politicians. 

Fortunately for us, Thucydides lived long enough to write up in detail the civil strife into which the Athenians sadly fell in 411 following their disastrous attempt to extend the scope of the war to Sicily and conquer (democratic) Syracuse, an ally of Sparta. He thus was able to complement his earlier, excoriating analysis of another Greek civil war, the one that afflicted the island-state of Corfu in 427. For Thucydides, as well as being a brilliant historian, was also a quite exceptional political theorist and analyst, even philosopher. Consider, for classic instance, the so-called ‘Melian Dialogue’: set in the winter of 416/5 at a pivotal moment of the entire War, the Dialogue – invented entirely by Thucydides – pits the oligarchic rulers of the small, Cycladic island-state of Melos against representatives of the greatest Aegean naval power of the day, democratic Athens, in a debate about Power and Might. It was for the Melians a matter of life and death – in actuality, the Athenians entirely destroyed the Melian state, killing the males, and selling the females and children into slavery abroad. But what interests Thucydides, and he thinks should interest us (since his work as a whole is he claims ‘a possession for ever’), is what factors motivate a large state in its power-relations with a small one, and how best that differential power ought pragmatically to be wielded. Thucydides, quite clearly, believed that the Athenians had got it quite seriously wrong. After the Melian episode the path to Athenian defeat was set.

Translating Thucydides’s Athenian Greek into English is notoriously difficult. One of the most widely used translations, now rather antiquated, is that of Richard Crawley, which has been helpfully reprinted as the core text of The Landmark Thucydides, subtitled A comprehensive guide to the Peloponnesian War, ed. R. Strassler. The Strassler edition comes equipped with all sorts of aids, including a multitude of maps, and footnotes, and appendixes on various aspects both of Thucydides’s work and of the Greek world about which he wrote. But for me the best translation on the market, because the most faithful to Thucydides’s often contorted Greek, is that of Jeremy Mynott, done not for a straight history series but for Cambridge University Press’s Texts in the History of Political Thought series (2013). Note the title Mynott gives: not History of the Peloponnesian War, but The War of the Peloponnesians and the Athenians – clumsier, less snappy, but (it would have delighted Thucydides himself) more accurate.


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The Last of the Wine

By Mary Renault

The Last of the Wine

Why this book?

Mary Renault (pen name of Mary Challans, 1905-1983) was an Oxford-educated novelist who, in order to practise her gay sexuality more freely, emigrated permanently to South Africa, where she joined in with the feminist, anti-Apartheid ‘Black Sash’ movement. Her first novel, The Charioteer, had a (male) gay plot but, unlike the rest of her considerable oeuvre, was set in contemporary Britain. Otherwise, she specialized in ancient Greek worlds settings, both mythical/prehistoric and historical, with a preference for the ‘Classical’ 5th and 4th centuries BC. 

Though not a trained Classicist herself (she had read English at St Hugh’s), Renault (pronounced ‘Renolt’, not as in the French car) diligently read in translation all the obvious contemporary and non-contemporary ancient sources. In one – I think misguided – deviation from her novelist’s vocation she felt she had come to know enough about the real Alexander the Great, around whose extraordinary life she composed a remarkable fictional trilogy, to be able to write a nonfiction monograph, The Nature of Alexander (1976). In this essentially apologetic work (Alexander had – and has – his very fierce critics as well as his devoted or passionate admirers) she fell, inevitably, victim to the paucity of reliable ancient testimony; she gave us ‘her’ Alexander but without convincing scholars that it had any strong claim on their credence.

Twenty years earlier, however, at the peak of her novelist’s craft she published the book that is my fourth choice, The Last of the Wine. I read it first when I was 15 or 16 (in 1962 or 1963) and have read it several times since; it never fails to make me weep, or rather howl. Its formal literary conceit is that this is not a novel by a 20th-century author but the recovered contemporary memoirs of a late-5th century BC upper-class Athenian, one who lived through the very same period and events that Thucydides (above) had chosen for his subject: the War of the Peloponnesians (led by Sparta) and the Athenians. These memoirs had been silently stashed away by their author, only to be discovered by the author’s homonymous grandson, Alexias, who considered them important enough to be published. 

Alexias senior is in fact a character invented by Renault, but the Athenians with whom he interacts either closely, even intimately, or at a distance are all real – in the sense that persons with those names and attributes are recorded in our sources. At the heart of the novel is a homosexual pairing relationship, of a type quite common among upper-class Athenian males of the day, between Alexias – the junior partner – and Lysis. Lysis is a character in, in fact he gives his name to, a dialogue by Plato, which Renault presumably chose because the subject of the dialogue is philia or friendship (a concept which in ancient Greek terms covered a very wide spectrum, from the purely instrumental to the most intimately personal and sexual). Renault’s Lysis is – like Plato, as it happens – a champion athlete, in his case, again like Plato, a wrestler. Wrestling then was considered an elite, upper-class, and not a working class sport, and one that was taken deadly seriously by its practitioners who exercised their craft stark naked .

One of the most affecting scenes in the novel takes place at Corinth, at a celebration of the biennial Isthmian Games in honour of the sea-god Poseidon, in which Lysis though he reaches the final is very nearly crushed to death by his victorious brute of an opponent. As was quite ‘normal’ for ‘bisexual’ Athenians of the day, Lysis eventually marries and starts a family, whereafter his relationship with Alexias becomes a little more distanced, and Renault shifts the scene more to the experiences of Alexias’s own nuclear family and especially those of his – ultra-conservative, politically – father. For instance, Alexias’s father takes part in the disastrous Athenian ‘Sicilian Expedition’ (415-413) and like many other Athenian captives is thrown into the totally uncovered and exposed stone quarries of Syracuse to die a horrible death from ‘exposure’. Somehow or other, he survives, but he returns to Athens a changed man – changed very much for the worse, both politically and personally. His first wife, Alexias’s mother, had already died, and he now rather brutally and unfeelingly replaces her with a young woman, really a young girl, still a virgin, who is about the same age as Alexias himself (15 or thereabouts). Alexias’s feelings of tenderness and empathy for his stepmother are beautifully drawn by Renault, as is the grief he experiences when – as happened to so many (too) young Athenian brides – she dies in her first childbirth.

Here in other words is a classic example of ‘the historical novel’, one that is set against one of ancient Greek history’s most dramatic and significant episodes, and one that involves bringing to life some of that period’s most enchanting witnesses or exemplars, for good or ill, among them Plato and Xenophon and Alcibiades, and their mutual mentor Socrates. 


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The Cambridge Illustrated History of Ancient Greece

By Paul Cartledge

The Cambridge Illustrated History of Ancient Greece

Why this book?

Not – repeat not – because I am its editor and wrote more than half of it but mainly because this is I believe the one-volume, one-stop-shop book to have on your shelves or digitally on your computer if you want to gain something like a complete understanding and appreciation of the world or rather worlds of Ancient Greece. I can do no better than quote from the ‘blurb’ provided online by the C.U.P. itself.

It is sumptuously illustrated throughout, almost entirely in colour. It offers fresh interpretations of the whole range of ‘Classical’ Greek culture, different aspects of which are expertly handled by members of an international cast of top-notch scholars both male and female. These aspects include: the influences of the environment and economy; the effects of interstate tensions; the implications of (bi-, homo-, hetero-normative) sexuality; the experiences of workers, soldiers, slaves, peasants and women; and the roles of myth and religion, visual and other (e.g. dramatic) art and culture, and of science and education. The linguistic, literary, artistic and political legacy of ancient Greece is far-reaching and vibrantly alive still to this day. This is the book to show you why that is and should have been so.

The book was sufficiently well regarded when it first appeared (1998) for me to have been awarded the prestigious John D. Criticos Prize of the London Hellenic Society.


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