The best books about Ancient Greece by Ancient Greeks

Steve P. Kershaw Author Of The Search for Atlantis: A History of Plato's Ideal State
By Steve P. Kershaw

Who am I?

I was introduced to the fascinating world of the Ancient Greeks by an inspirational teacher at my Primary School when I was about 10 years old—he read us tales of gods and monsters and heroes and heroism, and I was entranced. My grandpa bought me a copy of The Iliad. I read it with my torch under the bedclothes and embarked on a magical journey that has seen me spend the greater part of my life travelling in the world of the Ancient Greeks, both physically and intellectually. Those characters, both real and mythical, have become my friends, enemies, warnings, and role-models ever since.

I wrote...

The Search for Atlantis: A History of Plato's Ideal State

By Steve P. Kershaw,

Book cover of The Search for Atlantis: A History of Plato's Ideal State

What is my book about?

The Atlantis story, first told by the Greek philosopher Plato, is one of the most intriguing tales from antiquity. But where did Atlantis come from? What was it like? And where did it go to? The author follows the quest for Atlantis from Scandinavia to Antarctica and explores how the story has been manipulated by successive generations—used by the Conquistadors to justify their annexations, and by Himmler to prove the Aryan supremacy. 

The Atlantis story is remarkably prescient in our ‘post-truth’ world, not because it invites a search for a mysterious lost continent, but because of its warnings about the disastrous effects of Atlantis-style luxury, excess, corruption, and imperialism on a prosperous society. It should be prescribed reading for every modern political leader.

The books I picked & why

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The Iliad of Homer

By Homer, Richmond Lattimore (translator),

Book cover of The Iliad of Homer

Why this book?

Homer’s Iliad is a fabulously exciting tale of action and heroism, as the mightiest Greek heroes fight beneath the walls of Troy for the most beautiful woman who ever lived. But there is so much more to it! It’s partly the tale of one man’s anger, and partly a timeless tale about war and sacrifice for all humanity. Homer confronts some of the most significant human problems with amazingly contemporary power and nuance: the beauty and horror of combat; the inseparability of glory and destruction; the raw emotional power of reconciliation between mortal enemies; and the fact that there is more to life than revenge and more to being a man than slaughtering other men. Richmond Lattimore’s inspired translation makes you feel like Homer himself is reciting the tales to you.

The Histories

By Herodotus, Tom Holland (translator),

Book cover of The Histories

Why this book?

Herodotus is a joy to read. In his Enquiries into the heroic struggle of Greece against the mighty Persian Empire, he wanted to preserve the memory of wondrous deeds. And he does it brilliantly. Along the way we discover how to catch a crocodile in Egypt, visit the walls of Babylon, and travel with the fearsome, gender-fluid, Scythian warriors. As the massed Persian armies with their arrogant and manipulative commanders bear down on the divided state of Greece, we are taken to battlefield of Marathon, witness the tenacious heroism of the 300 Spartans, and fight on the sea at the great Greek victory at Salamis. This epic conflict between the forces and ideals of East and West is rendered beautifully in Tom Holland’s fluent translation, which nimbly walks the line between accuracy and accessibility.

The Peloponnesian War

By Thucydides, P.J. Rhodes, Martin Hammond (translator)

Book cover of The Peloponnesian War

Why this book?

I actually started to read Thucydides in Greek before I read all his work in English! But whether you do that or choose Martin Hammond’s lucid translation, this is a magnificent account of the terrible Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta and their rival political systems. Thucydides fought as a general on the Athenian side but was exiled by the democracy for a commanding an unsuccessful campaign. He used his new leisure time to write a work that he said was not designed to meet the taste of an immediate public but to last forever. He is an acute analyst of the achievements, atrocities, mistakes, and political decision-making of the two sides, and his work is considerably enlivened by great speeches, vivid descriptions of combat, and insights into the emotional effects of the war on its participants and observers.

Lysistrata and Other Plays: The Acharnians, the Clouds, Lysistrata

By Aristophanes, Alan H. Sommerstein (translator),

Book cover of Lysistrata and Other Plays: The Acharnians, the Clouds, Lysistrata

Why this book?

‘Comedy’ is a Greek word, and there’s no better place to experience Greek humour than in Aristophanes’ plays. He never shies away from transgressive material and would probably send any twenty-first-century ‘celebrity’ straight to the libel courts—no topic or personality is off-limits, and there are 204 terms for genitalia in his surviving work, plus 190 for sex! Three fantastic plays are translated in Alan Sommerstein’s readable translation: The Acharnians, where an ordinary Athenian, Dicaeopolis (Mr. Just City), defeats the political establishment to enjoy a life of peace, food, alcohol, and sex; The Clouds, a stinging satire of philosophers and ‘modern’ education that includes a brilliant contest between Wrong and Right (spoiler alert—Wrong wins!); and Lysistrata, where the heroine puts an end to the war by organizing a sex strike, with all the hilarious consequence that entails.

Guide to Greece: Volume 1

By Pausanius, Peter Levi (translator),

Book cover of Guide to Greece: Volume 1

Why this book?

A brilliant 2nd century AD guidebook to Ancient Greece! The intrepid Pausanias travelled throughout Greece, recording the sights and the artworks that he viewed on the way, and relating the strange myths, rituals, and legends behind them. It’s a splendidly vivid and remarkably accurate book, full of fascinating information about the Greek landscape, natural wonders, and descriptions of the art and architecture of many famous sacred locations—Athens, Olympia, Delphi, etc.—and even today you can still visit many of the major archaeological sites in Greece and use it to guide you around. In Peter Levi’s clear translation, it really takes you into the heart and soul of Ancient Greece.

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