The best books for understanding classical Greece

Who am I?

Ever since my father introduced me to the Greeks, I’ve been passionate about the ancient world and bringing it alive. I read Classics at university and taught for eleven years, during which time I founded the award-winning theatre company, Actors of Dionysus, dedicated to performing Greek drama in translation. A highlight was staging my adaptation of Trojan Women not just in Ephesus Theatre but besides the walls of Troy. From 2010, I’ve divided my time between writing books and articles on wide-ranging classical subjects, editing Bloomsbury Academic Press’ ‘Looking at…’ series on Greek drama (which include my translations), book-reviewing, lecturing, and directing theatrical performances (most recently with Dame Sian Phillips).


I wrote...

Phoenix: A Father, a Son, and the Rise of Athens

By David Stuttard,

Book cover of Phoenix: A Father, a Son, and the Rise of Athens

What is my book about?

Phoenix is a vivid, novelistic history tracing the rise of Athens from relative obscurity to the edge of its so-called ‘Golden Age’, told through the lives of Miltiades and Cimon, the father and son whose defiance of Persia vaulted Athens to a leading place in the Greek world.

According to author and classicist, Daisy Dunn, Stuttard writes with such passion and verve of these vibrant years in Athens's history. Such is the power of his storytelling that Miltiades and Cimon – both so often overlooked – soar as triumphantly as any phoenix from the ashes of antiquity.”

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Landmark Herodotus: The Histories

David Stuttard Why did I love this book?

For anyone wanting to find out not just what happened in the Graeco-Persian Wars (490–479 BC) but how their participants viewed the world, Herodotus’ Histories are a treasure trove. Writing a generation after the event, Herodotus travelled widely, interviewing as many people as he could from veterans to Egyptian priests. But readers must be wary: Herodotus wasn’t writing history as we understand it. Instead, he blended fact, anecdote, and moralizing to demonstrate why in his view the Greek way of life (especially Athenian democracy) was superior to Persian totalitarianism, and why Persian hubris merited divine punishment. While the Landmark edition’s translation of Herodotus’ seductive prose may not be the best (Tom Holland’s, for example, is better), the number and clarity of its maps make it invaluable.

By Robert B. Strassler (editor),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Landmark Herodotus as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In the 5th century BC an adventurous Ionian Greek, Herodotus of Halicarnassus, journeyed extensively through the lands of the eastern Mediterranean, from Egypt to Asia Minor, collecting tales of the upheavals that had afflicted the region in the earlier part of the century. The fruits of his wanderings were The Histories, in which he used his narrative gifts not only to chronicle the rise of the Achaemenid Persian Empire and its war with the Greek city-states, but also to recount his experiences with the varied peoples and cultures he had encountered during his journey.
Herodotus earned the nickname 'the father…


Book cover of The Landmark Thucydides: A Comprehensive Guide to the Peloponnesian War

David Stuttard Why did I love this book?

Declaring it a ‘possession for eternity’, Thucydides presented his History as a rival to Herodotus’. His account of the Peloponnesian War (431–404 BC) between Athens and Sparta, eschews the fantastical and divine. Part of what makes it compelling is the fact that Thucydides himself fought as a general, so he knew whereof he wrote. With brilliant digressions on topics such as the evolution of language as propaganda or set pieces describing debates and battles, for generations his apparently balanced exposition was seen as commendably objective. More recent studies have uncovered a definite agenda, revealed (for example) in his use of political speeches, not least in his celebrated version of Pericles’ Funeral Oration (430 BC). To make the best sense of the narrative, readers need maps, so I’ve again chosen the Landmark edition.

By Robert B. Strassler (editor),

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked The Landmark Thucydides as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Thucydides called his account of two decades of war between Athens and Sparta "a possession for all time," and indeed it is the first and still the most famous work in the Western historical tradition.

Considered essential reading for generals, statesmen, and liberally educated citizens for more than 2,000 years, The Peloponnesian War is a mine of military, moral, political, and philosophical wisdom.

However, this classic book has long presented obstacles to the uninitiated reader. Written centuries before the rise of modern historiography, Thucydides' narrative is not continuous or linear. His authoritative chronicle of what he considered the greatest war…


Book cover of Aphrodite's Tortoise: The Veiled Woman of Ancient Greece

David Stuttard Why did I love this book?

Fifth-century BC Athenian society was male-dominated, so most of our evidence comes from – and is about – men. Elegantly written, immaculately researched, and pleasingly illustrated, Aphrodite’s Tortoise goes a long way towards restoring the gender balance, uncovering the complex role that women played in Greek society, whether as wives, priestesses or slaves. At the heart of the book is the use of the veil, which not only protected women from the male gaze as they ventured outside (hence the title) but could convey a variety of visual signals depending on how it was worn. It’s a really stimulating book, the kind that makes you sit up and think about not just the ancient world but our own.

By Lloyd Llewellyn Jones,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Aphrodite's Tortoise as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Greek women routinely wore the veil. That is the unexpected finding of this major study. The Greeks, rightly credited with the invention of civic openness, are revealed as also part of a more eastern tradition of seclusion. From the iconography as well as the literature of Greece, Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones shows that fully veiling of face and head was commonplace. He analyses the elaborate Greek vocabulary for veiling, and explores what the veil was meant to achieve. He also uses Greek and more recent - mainly Islamic - evidence to show how women could exploit and subvert the veil to achieve…


Book cover of The Spartans: The World of the Warrior-Heroes of Ancient Greece

David Stuttard Why did I love this book?

There was really no such thing as Classical Greece. Instead, 1,000 city-states founded by Greeks around the Mediterranean and the Black Sea experimented with constitutions ranging from democracy to tyranny. None was as idiosyncratic as Sparta. Even contemporary Athenians, who viewed it as their mirror image, found it hard to penetrate the ‘mirage’ of this secretive, militaristic yet fascinating society. Cartledge, a world expert as well as a persuasive writer, untangles romance from reality to give the general reader a real flavour of life in this eccentric state and unpick the reasons for its power and ultimate demise – and along the way he tells some cracking stories. But be warned: you’ll never watch 300 in the same way again.

By Paul Cartledge,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Spartans as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The Spartan legend has inspired and captivated subsequent generations with evidence of its legacy found in both the Roman and British Empires. The Spartans are our ancestors, every bit as much as the Athenians. But while Athens promoted democracy, individualism, culture and society, their great rivals Sparta embodied militarism, totalitarianism, segregation and brutal repression. As ruthless as they were self-sacrificing, their devastatingly successful war rituals made the Spartans the ultimate fighting force, epitomized by Thermopylae. While slave masters to the Helots for over three centuries, Spartan women, such as Helen of Troy, were free to indulge in education, dance and…


Book cover of The Parthenon Sculptures in the British Museum

David Stuttard Why did I love this book?

Much of Classical Greece remains intangible, but some of its artworks have survived (albeit often in fragments) allowing us to gaze upon what ancient Greeks once saw. Among the greatest sculptures are those which adorned the Parthenon, created in Athens’ heyday under Pericles. Few knew more about them than the late and much-missed Ian Jenkins, whose sumptuously illustrated book not only discusses the artworks but reproduces many in such glorious detail that you feel you could almost touch them. You can certainly appreciate their energy. And in the end, for me, it’s this energy – preserved through time in art or literature – that makes the study of Classical Greece so exciting. As Sparta was for Athens, so Classical Greece can be for us a mirror in which to reevaluate ourselves. 

By Ian Jenkins,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Parthenon Sculptures in the British Museum as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The Parthenon sculptures in the British Museum are unrivalled examples of classical Greek art that have inspired sculptors, artists, poets and writers since their creation in the fifth century BC. This book serves as a superb visual introduction to these magnificent sculptures. The book showcases a series of specially taken photographs of the different sculptural elements: the pediments, metopes and Ionic frieze. It captures the vitality of the sculptures in a group, an individual sculpture or an exquisite eye-catching detail, such as the mane of a horse, a human foot, the swish of drapery or a youthful head bowed in…


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Why We Hate: Understanding the Roots of Human Conflict

By Michael Ruse,

Book cover of Why We Hate: Understanding the Roots of Human Conflict

Michael Ruse Author Of Why We Hate: Understanding the Roots of Human Conflict

New book alert!

Who am I?

Author Teacher (professor) Author Darwin specialist Charles Dickens fanatic

Michael's 3 favorite reads in 2023

What is my book about?

Why We Hate asks why a social animal like Homo sapiens shows such hostility to fellow species members. The invasion of the Ukraine by Russia? The antisemitism found on US campuses in the last year? The answer and solution lies in the Darwinian theory of evolution through natural selection.

Being social is biology’s way of ensuring survival and reproduction. With the coming of agriculture 10,000 years ago, new conditions – primarily much-increased population numbers – meant that sociality broke down as we battled for our share of much-reduced resources. But, as cultural change brought about our troubles, so culture offers prospects of a future where our social natures can emerge and thrive again.

Why We Hate: Understanding the Roots of Human Conflict

By Michael Ruse,

What is this book about?

An insightful and probing exploration of the contradiction between humans' enormous capacity for hatred and their evolutionary development as a social species

Why We Hate tackles a pressing issue of both longstanding interest and fresh relevance: why a social species like Homo sapiens should nevertheless be so hateful to itself. We go to war and are prejudiced against our fellow human beings. We discriminate on the basis of nationality, class, race, sexual orientation, religion, and gender. Why are humans at once so social and so hateful to each other? In this book, prominent philosopher Michael Ruse looks at scientific
understandings…


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Interested in Greece, classical Greece, and the Peloponnesian War?

10,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about Greece, classical Greece, and the Peloponnesian War.

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