The best books for understanding classical Greece

David Stuttard Author Of Phoenix: A Father, a Son, and the Rise of Athens
By David Stuttard

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.”

The books I picked & why

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The Landmark Herodotus: The Histories

By Robert B. Strassler (editor),

Book cover of The Landmark Herodotus: The Histories

Why 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.

The Landmark Thucydides: A Comprehensive Guide to the Peloponnesian War

By Robert B. Strassler (editor),

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

Why 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.

Aphrodite's Tortoise: The Veiled Woman of Ancient Greece

By Lloyd Llewellyn Jones,

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

Why 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.

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

By Paul Cartledge,

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

Why 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.

The Parthenon Sculptures in the British Museum

By Ian Jenkins,

Book cover of The Parthenon Sculptures in the British Museum

Why 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. 

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