The best books on the Greeks and Romans you never read in school

Steven R. Perkins Author Of Latin for Dummies
By Steven R. Perkins

Who am I?

I like books to grab and hold my attention. That’s what I like about music, too, which is why I co-host a heavy metal podcast when I’m not teaching Latin or writing books and articles. Having taught Latin and Classics for over thirty years from middle school through undergrad, I know what people enjoy about the Greco-Roman world and what they often missed out on in school. I love reading this stuff, too, whether prepping for class, doing research for my next publication, or while listening to head-banging greats of the ‘70s and ‘80s, so dig in and get ready to rock with the Romans and groove with the Greeks!

I wrote...

Latin for Dummies

By Clifford A. Hull, Steven R. Perkins,

Book cover of Latin for Dummies

What is my book about?

Earn-lay atin-Lay? No, not that kind of Latin! You can learn true Latin, with conjugations, declensions, and all those extra syllables - and it's easier than you think. In fact, most people mistakenly think of learning Latin as perhaps the most useless, tedious, and difficult thing to do on earth. They couldn't be more wrong.

Latin For Dummies takes you back for a quick jaunt through the parlance of ancient Rome, as well as discussing the progress of Latin into church language, and its status today as the"dead" language that lives on in English, Spanish, Italian, and most other Western tongues. Written for those with zero prior knowledge of Latin, this snappy guide puts the basics at your fingertips and steers clear of the arcane, schoolmarm stereotype of endless declensions and Herculean translations.

The books I picked & why

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By Homer, Stanley Lombardo (translator),

Book cover of Iliad

Why this book?

I get it. People read Homer’s Odyssey because of the adventures and gods and monsters, but for me, his best was his first epic poem, The Iliad. The opening word of the story is “rage,” and the action never stops until the last line. From clashing swords to souls sent down to the house of death, this could have been a heavy metal opera if only Homer had played an electric guitar instead of a lyre. I chose the Lombardo translation because it captures best the action and heroism and pulse-pounding excitement that keeps me reading this one over and over.

The Aeneid

By Virgil, David West,

Book cover of The Aeneid

Why this book?

Decades ago I wouldn’t have recommended Vergil’s Aeneid. It’s a scandal for a Latin teacher to say that, but there you have it. And then one day the light came on, and I saw the incredible depth of the characters, to say nothing of the artistry of the poetry itself. As I have taught the poem to juniors and seniors each year and worked on my own translation along the way, I never cease to be amazed by Vergil as a writer. He crafts each scene, each character, as if he were a sculptor or a jeweler working the most exquisite cameo. Don’t miss out on a world classic that is too often overlooked in the modern age. For this, I chose a prose translation that really showcases Vergil’s storytelling. 

The Virtues of War: A Novel of Alexander the Great

By Steven Pressfield,

Book cover of The Virtues of War: A Novel of Alexander the Great

Why this book?

The internet has made possible what used to be only a dream for readers. Now we can contact our favorite authors, which is what I did while in the middle of this book. I emailed Steven Pressfield just to tell him how much I loved his battle descriptions, and he wrote back thanking me and saying that people usually emailed to ask something of him rather than to compliment his writing. As a former Marine, he knows how to bring ancient battles alive in the modern world. The Alexander he gives us is one you can easily imagine soldiers following to the ends of the earth.

The Skystone

By Jack Whyte,

Book cover of The Skystone

Why this book?

I had had this book on my shelf for a number of years when, working late at school one night, I took a break and pulled it out to look at it. After reading a few pages, I could hardly wait to get home to read the whole thing, and I don’t think I have ever read a book more quickly. I went on to devour all the novels in Whyte’s series The Camulod Chronicles because his writing is superb. This is historical fiction that grounds the King Arthur legend in the dangerous years of post-Roman Britain. The details are accurate and give realism to a well-known legend while creating characters and scenes you just want to spend time with.


By Plato,

Book cover of Theaetetus

Why this book?

When people think of the great rock bands, they think of the hits, the songs that raced to #1. True fans know that there are some great, even better songs, on the flip sides of the albums, the so-called deep cuts. The same is true with writers like Plato. Few are familiar with his Theaetetus, but it is my favorite. It explores how we know what we know and proves the error of a slogan that is as popular today as it was in his time, “Man is the measure of all things.” Plato shows how logically silly that is, and in a fairly humorous way…if you like philosophical wit, that is.

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