The best books that make Ancient Greece come alive

Who am I?

I became enthralled by the ancient world when as a child I first saw those sand and sandals movies back in the sixties, Ben Hur and Spartacus especially. I began learning Latin aged nine and Greek aged twelve. I started a Ph.D., abandoned it, went to drama school, became a schoolteacher, worked as a professional gardener, became a schoolteacher again, eventually finished my Ph.D., and was lucky to get a job at Colgate University. Over time I realised that what really fascinated me about history was trying to insert myself imaginatively into the ancient world, so I began to ask questions about what it was like to be disabled, to be a refugee, to be a child, and so on.


I wrote...

The Other Side of History: Daily Life in the Ancient World

By Robert Garland,

Book cover of The Other Side of History: Daily Life in the Ancient World

What is my book about?

The Other Side of History is a course of lectures that focuses on the daily lives of the underdogs, all those people who are commonly left out of history books, such as hunter-gatherers, slaves, the poor, the sick, the elderly, criminals, foot soldiers, serfs, in a variety of cultures including Egyptian, Persian, Greek, Roman, Viking, Anglo-Saxon, and so on. Women and children, who are also marginalised in conventional accounts, are prominently featured. The course starts in the Neolithic Period and goes down to the Middle Ages.

My goal is to invite the viewer/listener to imagine the enormous challenges that ordinary people faced and to try to identify with their specific mindset, invariably so different from ours. I talk about a wide range of topics that affected their lives, including religious beliefs, daily routine, diet, clothing, family setup, way of relaxing, and disposal of the dead.

The books I picked & why

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The World of Odysseus

By M.I. Finley,

Book cover of The World of Odysseus

Why this book?

This book made a deep impact on me when I first read it decades ago and it influenced me in the way I try to understand and write history to this day. I’d already read The Odyssey when I encountered Finley’s book, but Finley made me believe in a world that became real despite being imaginary. The World of Odysseus is an amalgam of the half-remembered world in which it is set – the twelfth century BC – and of the world in which Homer was composing – the eighth century BC – and of the big gap in between the two, known as the Dark Ages.

It’s a completely artificial world but it’s wholly convincing and coherent – a world, incidentally, dominated by a large cast of formidable women. Finley provides by far the best introduction to it, and he writes in an engaging, unpedantic, highly accessible, and informative style, detailing a range of topics including customs, social relationships, and the economy.


Ancient Greece

By Thomas R. Martin,

Book cover of Ancient Greece: From Prehistoric to Hellenistic Times

Why this book?

There are lots of books that provide a straightforward account of Greek history for the general reader, but this is the one I recommend most highly. It assumes no prior knowledge of Greek history, there are summaries at the head of each chapter, and convenient subsections within it, all of which ensure that the reader never gets lost or left behind. Martin has set himself the formidable task of covering 20,000 years of history – from the Stone Age down to the collapse of the kingdoms that emerged after the break-up of the empire of Alexander the Great – and he does so in some 250 pages, which is no mean achievement.

Not only that, he does so with flair, unflagging zeal, and infectious enthusiasm, making it an exciting read from beginning to end. He also gives focus to the plight of the common woman and man, including slaves. The second edition, which came out in 2013, is thoroughly updated and revised.


Democracy

By Paul Cartledge,

Book cover of Democracy: A Life

Why this book?

It’s impossible to enter the mindset of the ancient Greeks without understanding that democracy runs deeply in their cultural bloodstream. There are numerous books on the subject – I did a course called Athenian Democracy: An Experiment for the Ages for The Great Courses – but Cartledge’s book, as the title suggests, offers a biography from its beginnings down to the present day. It also provides a nuanced exploration of the connection between Greek politics and society. Democracy: A Life depicts democracy not as a theoretical model but at work, and, in the challenges it faces today, a work in progress. Get A Life!


The Last of the Wine

By Mary Renault,

Book cover of The Last of the Wine

Why this book?

The Last of the Wine, the first and best in Renault’s series of novels set in ancient Greece, brings to life that world as no other novel I’ve read has done. The title derives from the fact that it is set at the end of the Peloponnesian War, which results in Athens’ defeat, so there is an elegiac tone running through it. The events are seen through the eyes of a young man called Alexias, who introduces the reader to major historical figures such as Socrates. Renault’s big achievement is to succeed in entering the contemporary consciousness of her characters by divesting them of any modern sensibility.

It’s worth noting that the relationship between the two main characters, Alexias and Lysis, both men, made a big impact on the gay community when the novel was first published in 1956. The Last of the Wine is both compulsive reading and insightful.


Gates of Fire

By Steven Pressfield,

Book cover of Gates of Fire: An Epic Novel of the Battle of Thermopylae

Why this book?

This is a historical novel about the Battle of Thermopylae, the Gates of Fire of the title, which was fought between the famous 300 Spartans – and importantly, and not to be forgotten, their allies and helot slaves – and the invading Persian army and navy under King Xerxes. The battle ended in the defeat of the Spartans but it bought time for the rest of the Greeks to prepare for further encounters and it is often seen as an important turning point in the war.

In a highly original way, Pressfield describes the battle through the eyes of Xeones, a helot survivor who served as the squire of one of the 300. Xeones tells his story from the time that he fell into the hands of the Spartans until the moment he stood beside them in battle, and in the course of his narrative, he reveals a lot about Spartan culture. Gates of Fire brims with testosterone – Pressfield draws on his experience in the US Marine corps – and though some of the details he includes about Sparta are invented he brings to life the experience of fighting in an ancient battle with all its stench and gore in a way that has hardly been exceeded.


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