The best books on why ancient Greece still matters today

Who am I?

I fell in love with the ancient Greeks a half-century ago. Ever since I have tried to learn from the past, by recognizing the ways in which the ancients were at once very like us and shockingly different. I only recently grasped that the Greeks were like us in their self-consciousness about human motivation: They recognized that many (perhaps most) people are driven by self-interest. But only a few of us are skilled at strategic choice-making. They knew that cooperation was necessary for human flourishing, but terribly hard to achieve. Today working together on common projects remains the greatest challenge for business, politics – and your everyday life. 


I wrote...

The Greeks and the Rational: The Discovery of Practical Reason

By Josiah Ober,

Book cover of The Greeks and the Rational: The Discovery of Practical Reason

What is my book about?

The Greek discovery of practical reason, as the skilled performance of strategic thinking in public and private affairs, was an intellectual breakthrough that remains both a feature and a bug of our modern world. Countering arguments that rationality is a contingent product of modernity, The Greeks and the Rational traces the long, complicated history of rationality back to ancient Greece. Greek sophists, historians, and philosophers implemented ideas about practical reason in sophisticated and systematic ways and we see contemporary echoes of this tradition in everything from game theory to political science and economics. The Greeks and the Rational offers a striking revisionist history with widespread implications for the study of ancient Greek civilization, the history of thought, and human rationality itself. 

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Greeks and the Irrational

Josiah Ober Why did I love this book?

A long time ago, back in the mid-1970s, my Greek history professor told me that Dodds’ Greeks and the Irrational was one of the most important books on Greek history of the 20th century. He was right. It is a wonderful book, full of amazing facts about magic, ritual, and religion. It has had a huge impact on the field of classical studies and is still in print 70 years after its first publication. Dodds was a distinguished Greek scholar (the Regius Professor of Greek at Oxford) but wrote for a wide audience interested in not only Greek civilization but social science as well. I have thought hard and long about his book ever since reading it on my professor’s recommendation. 

By Eric R. Dodds,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

In this philosophy classic, which was first published in 1951, E.R. Dodds takes on the traditional view of Greek culture as a triumph of rationalism. Using the analytical tools of modern anthropology and psychology, Dodds asks, 'Why should we attribute to the ancient Greeks an immunity from 'primitive' modes of thought which we do not find in any society open to our direct observation?'. Praised by reviewers as "an event in modern Greek scholarship" and "a book which it would be difficult to over-praise", "The Greeks and the Irrational" was Volume 25 of the "Sather Classical Lectures" series.


Book cover of Shame and Necessity

Josiah Ober Why did I love this book?

Williams was one of the most creative and engaging moral philosophers of the 20th century. He was a student at Oxford of E.R. Dodds. While Dodds reminded his readers of how strange the Greeks are to us, in terms of their religious practices, Williams reminds us that the Greeks are also very like us in the moral problems they confronted. Rejecting the idea that modern people have given up on “shame” in favor of “guilt,” Williams showed that we still share the same concerns as the conflicted characters of Greek tragedy – like them, for good and for ill, we gain our sense of ourselves and our moral worth from the reactions of the those around us. 

By Bernard Williams,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Shame and Necessity as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Although humanity has changed since the times of the ancient Greeks, this study claims that the differences are not to be traced to a shift in basic conceptions of ethical life. We are more like the ancients than we are prepared to acknowledge, and only when this is understood can we properly grasp our most important differences from them, such as our rejection of slavery. This treatise is directed towards writers such as Homer and the tragedians. At the centre of the study is the question of how we can understand Greek tragedy at all, when its world is so…


Book cover of Slaves and Slavery in Ancient Greece

Josiah Ober Why did I love this book?

The United States today still bears the scars of our long and terrible history of slavery. In this new and wonderfully thoughtful history of ancient Greek slavery, Sarah Forsdyke brings us face-to-face with the lived experience of a very different, but also harrowing, history of human bondage. Forsdyke delves into the question of how slaves lived and worked, how they resisted their oppression, and how the fact of slavery defined Greek society and economy. The intertwined development of a market economy, a citizen-centered democracy, and the systematic extraction of labor from unfree people is a stark reminder that our American story, although in many ways distinctive, was not unique. 

By Sara Forsdyke,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Slaves and Slavery in Ancient Greece as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Slavery in ancient Greece was commonplace. In this book Sara Forsdyke uncovers the wide range of experiences of slaves and focuses on their own perspectives, rather than those of their owners, giving a voice to a group that is often rendered silent by the historical record. By reading ancient sources 'against the grain,' and through careful deployment of comparative evidence from more recent slave-owning societies, she demonstrates that slaves engaged in a variety of strategies to deal with their conditions of enslavement, ranging from calculated accommodation to full-scale rebellion. Along the way, she establishes that slaves made a vital contribution…


Book cover of The Battle of Salamis: The Naval Encounter that Saved Greece—and Western Civilization

Josiah Ober Why did I love this book?

Barry Strauss is among the best writers ever to address the history of ancient Greece and Rome. In this exciting book, Strauss retells the great battle of Salamis – the naval battle that turned the tide of the Greek-Persian wars of the early fifth century BCE and inaugurated the Athenian Golden Age. He does so through the eyes of a wide range of those who participated in the battle – on both sides. This is military history that attends closely to the human element, and that reminds us that at various points in the past, the future of the world hung in the balance – and that the result was never foreordained. 

By Barry Strauss,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

On a late September day in 480 B.C., Greek warships faced an invading Persian armada in the narrow Salamis Straits in the most important naval battle of the ancient world. Overwhelmingly outnumbered by the enemy, the Greeks triumphed through a combination of strategy and deception. More than two millennia after it occurred, the clash between the Greeks and Persians at Salamis remains one of the most tactically brilliant battles ever fought. The Greek victory changed the course of western history -- halting the advance of the Persian Empire and setting the stage for the Golden Age of Athens.
In this…


Book cover of Gods and Robots: Myths, Machines, and Ancient Dreams of Technology

Josiah Ober Why did I love this book?

Full disclosure: Adrienne Mayor is my wife. But that is not why I chose this book: It is a mind-blowing account of ancient dreams of technology and ancient scientific wonders. Mayor is a master storyteller. She recreates the ancient myths to reveal the timeless fascination with “artificial life” – with beings that are like us in some ways, except that they are “made, not born.” Long before humans could create real mechanical men and thinking machines, the Greeks dared to imagine what that would mean for humans and our relations with one another. And they imagined the inner lives and torments of the semi-machines themselves. Read this book and shiver to learn that our modernity was dreamed of 2500 years ago. 

By Adrienne Mayor,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Gods and Robots as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The fascinating untold story of how the ancients imagined robots and other forms of artificial life-and even invented real automated machines

The first robot to walk the earth was a bronze giant called Talos. This wondrous machine was created not by MIT Robotics Lab, but by Hephaestus, the Greek god of invention. More than 2,500 years ago, long before medieval automata, and centuries before technology made self-moving devices possible, Greek mythology was exploring ideas about creating artificial life-and grappling with still-unresolved ethical concerns about biotechne, "life through craft." In this compelling, richly illustrated book, Adrienne Mayor tells the fascinating story…


You might also like...

Holy Food: How Cults, Communes, and Religious Movements Influenced What We Eat - An American History

By Christina Ward,

Book cover of Holy Food: How Cults, Communes, and Religious Movements Influenced What We Eat - An American History

Christina Ward Author Of Holy Food: How Cults, Communes, and Religious Movements Influenced What We Eat - An American History

New book alert!

Who am I?

For me, history is always about individuals; what they think and believe and how those ideas motivate their actions. By relegating our past to official histories or staid academic tellings we deprive ourselves of the humanity of our shared experiences. As a “popular historian” I use food to tell all the many ways we attempt to “be” American. History is for everyone, and my self-appointed mission is to bring more stories to readers! These recommendations are a few stand-out titles from the hundreds of books that inform my current work on how food and religion converge in America. You’ll have to wait for Holy Food to find out what I’ve discovered.

Christina's book list on the hidden history of America

What is my book about?

Does God have a recipe? Independent food historian Christina Ward’s highly anticipated Holy Food explores the influence of mainstream to fringe religious beliefs on modern American food culture.

Author Christina Ward unravels how religious beliefs intersect with politics, economics, and, of course, food to tell a different story of America. It's the story of true believers and charlatans, of idealists and visionaries, and of the everyday people who followed them—often at their peril.

Holy Food explains how faith pioneers used societal woes and cultural trends to create new pathways of belief and reveals the interconnectivity between sects and their leaders.

Holy Food: How Cults, Communes, and Religious Movements Influenced What We Eat - An American History

By Christina Ward,

What is this book about?

Does God have a recipe?

"Holy Food is a titanic feat of research and a fascinating exploration of American faith and culinary rites. Christina Ward is the perfect guide – generous, wise, and ecumenical." — Adam Chandler, author of Drive-Thru Dreams

"Holy Food doesn't just trace the influence that preachers, gurus, and cult leaders have had on American cuisine. It offers a unique look at the ways spirituality—whether in the form of fringe cults or major religions—has shaped our culture. Christina Ward has gone spelunking into some very odd corners of American history to unearth this fascinating collection of stories…


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5 book lists we think you will like!

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