The best books on the classical mythology of Etruscans, Greeks, and Romans

The Books I Picked & Why

Myths and Legends of Ancient Greece and Rome

By E.M. Berens

Book cover of Myths and Legends of Ancient Greece and Rome

Why this book?

The ancient world has always held a fascination for me. It must be in my genes because one of my fondest memories is my father telling me stories about the Greek gods. As a kid, I also found a book in our house that had been handed down through generations within my family entitled The Myths and Legends of Ancient Greece and Rome by E.M. Berens. This book was published in 1892 but Berens is still in print, no doubt in its umpteenth edition.

My book has a leather cover, the spine frayed so that the webbing that binds the folios is exposed. The pages are mottled, yellowing. It is a treasure. Inside, the lives of the fickle, adulterous, benevolent, or malevolent deities are revealed; their bickering and flaws similar to mortals but their ability to bless, curse, and manipulate man’s fate, divine.

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The Greek Myths

By Robert Graves

Book cover of The Greek Myths

Why this book?

I first became aware of Robert Graves at university when I studied his war poetry but his novels I, Claudius and Claudius the God, captured my imagination especially after their famous adaptation into a TV series starring Derek Jacobi and John Hurt. When I began researching the Etruscans, I discovered Graves’ two-volume Greek Myths with his in-depth examination of the legends of the classical world. Reading Graves gave me insight into the difference between ‘myth’ and ‘cult’ which proved invaluable when researching the shared pantheons of the Romans, Greeks, and Etruscans. It also opened my eyes to the fact myths have many different versions even within one culture. This was particularly pertinent to my study of Dionysian worship.

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The Religion of the Etruscans

By Nancy Thomas de Grummond, Erika Simon

Book cover of The Religion of the Etruscans

Why this book?

The Etruscans had already established a sophisticated and cosmopolitan society centuries before the nascent Roman Republic was fighting tribal turf wars. At its peak, Etruria extended from the Po Valley in the north to Campania in the south, with trade routes spreading from the Black Sea through to Africa. The Etruscans had advanced the art of prophecy into a science with a complex codification of beliefs known as the Etrusca Disciplina revealing how to divine the future from thunder and lightning. I found The Religion of the Etruscans essential reading for my research as it provided insights into rites, beliefs, architectural meanings, and sacred texts of these doomed people.

Sadly, there is very little left of Etruscan literature other than religious inscriptions due to the Greeks and Romans destroying their civilisation. However, through recent archaeological digs, more and more has been gleaned as pieced together by the authors of the various essays compiled in this book.

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The King Must Die

By Mary Renault

Book cover of The King Must Die

Why this book?

As a historical novelist, I am drawn to novels that entwine history and imagination together. I was first inspired to write historical fiction after I discovered Mary Renault’s The Persian Boy, in her Alexander trilogy. 

I also love Renault’s The King Must Die and The Bull from the Seaher Theseus series which re-imagines the Minotaur legend and the exploits of the mythical Theseus. I became totally absorbed in the lavish yet brutal world that Renault rendered through her elegant prose and intense imagery. I also admire Renault’s great knowledge of the classical world and her courage to write about the realities of those times without the need to sanitise them.

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The Song of Achilles

By Madeline Miller

Book cover of The Song of Achilles

Why this book?

Madeleine Miller has succeeded in following in Mary Renault’s footsteps in bringing fresh eyes to Homer’s age-old epic in The Song of Achilles. I admire Miller’s vivid and visceral retelling of the love story of Achilles and Patroclus. Here are mythical heroes made human in a manner that inspires me to improve my own writing. Miller instilled a sense of place and created both drama and pathos that kept me turning the pages even though I knew the inevitable tragic ending.

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