The best books about Athens

12 authors have picked their favorite books about Athens and why they recommend each book.

Soon, you will be able to filter by genre, age group, and more. Sign up here to follow our story as we build a better way to explore books.

Shepherd is reader supported. When you buy through links on our website, we may earn an affiliate commission (learn more).

The Ancient City

By Peter Connolly, Hazel Dodge,

Book cover of The Ancient City: Life in Classical Athens and Rome

This book has the best illustrations of the two main cities of antiquity that l have ever seen. Besides superb photographs (all in colour) of the ruins today, they include Peter Connolly’s brilliant reconstructions of buildings of all sorts: houses, palaces, baths, temples, forums, hippodromes, theatres, amphitheaters, insulae (blocks of flats), bars and aqueducts, plus styles in furniture, clothing, and hair. All are shown in colourful detail, many with cutaway illustrations that recreate city life of 2000 years ago with wonderful vividness. They are complemented by Dr. Hazel Dodge’s lucid, informative text. The first part covers Athens at its democratic peak under Pericles around 434BC, the second Rome at its imperial zenith some 500 years later, when it was the greatest city on earth.


Who am I?

I have been fascinated by ancient Greece and Rome since I first saw Italy and Greece as a teenager, revisiting them whenever I can. I studied ancient history at Cambridge University and have written eight books about it, most recently The Colosseum. After living in Paris, Rome, and London, I am now based in Wiltshire in southwest England, almost within sight of Stonehenge. There is a small megalith outside my own house.


I wrote...

The Colosseum From AD80 To The Present Day

By Nigel Rodgers,

Book cover of The Colosseum From AD80 To The Present Day

What is my book about?

The Colosseum in Rome awed the world when inaugurated in 80AD. It is still Rome’s greatest landmark, a brilliant example of ancient engineering. Inside its vast arena lavish but brutal entertainments were staged for centuries. The Colosseum, my vividly illustrated guide-cum-history, examines the arena’s construction, workings, and checkered history, including the recent partial restoration. One chapter explains the role its games played in the life of the ancient city, another the gladiators’ brief, sometimes glamorous lives. Further chapters outline how the massive structure survived centuries of earthquakes, fires, depredation, and neglect after the fall of the Roman Empire, and its later roles as a palace, fortress, church, tenements, site of black magic, and vegetable garden. There is also a guide as how and when it is best to visit, avoiding the queues and the hottest, most crowded times. Over 200 illustrations include cut-away reconstructions showing how the complex building actually worked.

Before writing the book, I made a special visit to Rome to investigate the recent excavations of the hypogoeum, the network of underground passages and lifts essential to the games.

An Economic History of Athens Under Roman Domination

By John Day,

Book cover of An Economic History of Athens Under Roman Domination

This book is about eighty years old. I’m probably not far wrong in saying almost every other page is obsolete thanks to archaeological finds and interpretations of existing material, epigraphical, and literary evidence since it appeared. But it’s a wonderful book to read and appreciate how the author uses the evidence available to him to paint a brilliant image of Athenian and indeed Greek economic and commercial life in this period with many fascinating insights. The subject matter might seem unexciting, yet the author brings it alive and makes it really interesting!


Who am I?

Ian Worthington, FSA, FRHistS, is a Professor of Ancient History at Macquarie University, and has written and edited 21 books and over 100 articles on Greek history, oratory, and epigraphy. He also has a Great Courses DVD and CD course titled The Long Shadow of the Ancient Greek World. Away from academic work, he is addicted to reality TV and is an unpaid taxi driver for his two children.


I wrote...

Athens After Empire: A History from Alexander the Great to the Emperor Hadrian

By Ian Worthington,

Book cover of Athens After Empire: A History from Alexander the Great to the Emperor Hadrian

What is my book about?

What was Athens’ place in the long Hellenistic period (323-30 BC), during which the Mediterranean world open up to the east like never before and Greek culture spread as far afield as India? Usually post-classical Athens is viewed as a postscript to its great classical self, a dreary picture of decline and fall. I argue that view is wrong. Athens continued to be a vibrant city, respected in the Greek world and by the Romans, who appropriated aspects of its culture for their own civilization. Later Athens should no longer live in the shadow of its famous forerunner.

The Agora of Athens

By Homer A. Thompson, R.E. Wycherley,

Book cover of The Agora of Athens: The History, Shape, and Uses of an Ancient City Center

Another book getting on in years, but which remains an essential resource for the history and topography of the Agora, the economic and social heart of Athens. Here people came to shop, trade, chit-chat, discuss political affairs, attend some public institutions including the law courts, and ‘hang out’. The time period covered is very wide, from 600 BC to AD 267. The authors’ discussion of the buildings and monuments in the Agora with copious and detailed drawings brings alive what this vital area was like and what its architecture tells us about the Athenians.


Who am I?

Ian Worthington, FSA, FRHistS, is a Professor of Ancient History at Macquarie University, and has written and edited 21 books and over 100 articles on Greek history, oratory, and epigraphy. He also has a Great Courses DVD and CD course titled The Long Shadow of the Ancient Greek World. Away from academic work, he is addicted to reality TV and is an unpaid taxi driver for his two children.


I wrote...

Athens After Empire: A History from Alexander the Great to the Emperor Hadrian

By Ian Worthington,

Book cover of Athens After Empire: A History from Alexander the Great to the Emperor Hadrian

What is my book about?

What was Athens’ place in the long Hellenistic period (323-30 BC), during which the Mediterranean world open up to the east like never before and Greek culture spread as far afield as India? Usually post-classical Athens is viewed as a postscript to its great classical self, a dreary picture of decline and fall. I argue that view is wrong. Athens continued to be a vibrant city, respected in the Greek world and by the Romans, who appropriated aspects of its culture for their own civilization. Later Athens should no longer live in the shadow of its famous forerunner.

The Hemlock Cup

By Bettany Hughes,

Book cover of The Hemlock Cup: Socrates, Athens and the Search for the Good Life

I have collaborated with Bettany over many years—in her scholarly documentary filmmaking, including programmes on Socrates of Athens (469-399). Socrates never wrote or published in written form a word of his philosophy, yet through his immediate and succeeding disciples (above all Plato and Aristotle) has been hugely influential. But was he a democrat, as his fellow Athenians understood that term? In 399 a jury of 501 of his peers, chosen randomly by lot, delivered their resoundingnegativeverdict, and condemned him to death by hemlock poison for being undemocratically irreligious and for teaching his pupils undemocratic values. Plato violently disagreed, and the debate over Socrates has continued ever since. Since it can be made to appear that he was convicted by an illiberal jury on grounds of his use of (democratic) freedom of speech, his condemnation has often been used as a stick to beat the ‘tyranny of…


Who am I?

My Democracy book was the summation of my views to that date (2018) on the strengths and weaknesses of democracy as a political system, in both its ancient and its modern forms. I’d been an activist and advocate of democracy since my undergraduate days (at Oxford, in the late 1960s – interesting times!). As I was writing the book the world of democracy suddenly took unexpected, and to me undesirable turns, not least in the United States and my own U.K. An entire issue of an English-language Italian political-philosophy journal was devoted to the book in 2019, and in 2021 a Companion to the reception of Athenian democracy in subsequent epochs was dedicated to me.


I wrote...

Democracy: A Life

By Paul Cartledge,

Book cover of Democracy: A Life

What is my book about?

Democracy today, globally, is in crisis—both in the liberal democratic West and in the vast tracts of the globe where authoritarianism or dictatorship are the preferred modes. All democracies today are representative, not direct, and inclusive. The word democracy and the original forms of democracy were invented in Ancient Greece, together with the fundamental concepts of freedom to participate and freedom of political speech. But ancient democracies were direct and exclusive. What if anything can we learn from an accessible study of the ways ancient Greeks did democratic politics? What has immediately prompted me to choose this book and theme is, of course, the near-murder of Salman Rushdie, a victim of the frighteningly illiberal current that dominates especially in non- or anti-democratic cultures today.

The Light of Day

By Eric Ambler,

Book cover of The Light of Day

Most people came to know the story of Eric Ambler’s 1962 nail-biter through its smash-hit film adaptation—Topkapi. Melina Mercouri played Elizabeth Lipp, who, on a trip to Istanbul, spots a replica of the famous jewel-encrusted Sultan’s Dagger at a fair. She visits the Topkapi Palace museum to view the original. Enter a dashing Swiss master criminal played by Maximilian Schell. They cook up a plot that involves lowering an acrobatic, mute thief from a window in the roof, to steal the dagger from its vitrine. Crucial to the scheme is that the dangling man does not touch the floor, where the slightest weight would trigger the alarm. The scheme goes astray through the ineptitude of an accomplice, but I won’t spoil it by telling you what happens. When I saw this as a kid, the star was the dagger. The biggest jewels—on the hilt—were emeralds, but I’m including it in…


Who am I?

I live in New York City, where I write thrillers about diamonds. My interest began when news broke of a diamond discovery in the Canadian Arctic. A reporter looking for a story, I climbed on a plane the next day. The discovery made Canada the world’s third largest diamond miner—one of the stories told in my non-fiction book, Diamond: the History of a Cold-Blooded Love Affair. I went on to write about diamonds for many publications, including Vanity Fair and the London Times, until finally, seduced by the glitter of the possibilities, I turned to fiction. The Russian Pink appeared in November 2020. The next in the series, Ice Angel, comes out in September.


I wrote...

The Russian Pink

By Matthew Hart,

Book cover of The Russian Pink

What is my book about?

The Russian Pink sends Treasury agent Alex Turner and his lover, the Russian femme fatale and diamond thief known as Slav Lily, on a chase from the old diamond city of Antwerp to the dangerous beaches of the South African diamond coast as they rush to discover the truth behind a fabulous pink diamond. Racing against time, they must unravel the secret scheme of Harry Nash, an unscrupulous, dashing titan, and Matilda Bolt, a powerful U.S. Senator—an intrigue that entangles the dark forces of government and a transnational business empire with the megawatt allure of the stunning jewel. It’s a scorpion of a plot with a stinger in the tail!

The Athenian Experiment

By Greg Anderson,

Book cover of The Athenian Experiment: Building an Imagined Political Community in Ancient Attica, 508-490 B.C.

At the very end of the sixth century BCE, the Athenians took a leap of faith and turned their city into the first democracy – or proto-democracy, anyway: much tweaking went on over subsequent decades. In terms of European history as a whole, this has probably been the most important event to come out of ancient Greece. It has of course been much studied – so it is remarkable that Anderson’s book is filled with fresh insights into the background of the “Athenian experiment,” what actually happened, and why. The results are often surprising. Above all, he demonstrates that it was not a bottom-up spontaneous revolution by the masses, but a deliberate piece of social engineering by members of the Athenian elite.


Who am I?

I’m a British scholar – a former university lecturer, many moons ago – now living in rural southern Greece. In fact, I have Greek as well as UK citizenship, which really pleases me because I’ve loved Greece and things Greek since boyhood. I started to learn ancient Greek at the age of ten! I’ve written over fifty books, mostly on ancient Greek history and philosophy, including many volumes of translations from ancient Greek. But I’ve also written children’s fiction in the form of gamebooks, a biography, a book on hypnosis, a retelling of the Greek myths (with my wife Kathryn) ... I’ll stop there!


I wrote...

Creators, Conquerors, and Citizens: A History of Ancient Greece

By Robin Waterfield,

Book cover of Creators, Conquerors, and Citizens: A History of Ancient Greece

What is my book about?

I had two main objectives in writing the book. In recent decades, there has been a great deal of movement in the various disciplines that fuel such a book – history, archaeology, art history, and so on – and it was time to catch the general reading public up with ancient Greece’s new look. So my book is, firstly, an accessible and up-to-date history of ancient Greece from about 750 BCE to 30 BCE. But, secondly, I raised the question: seeing that the Greeks recognized themselves as kin, as all Greeks together, why were they so often at war with one another? Why did it take them so long to achieve any degree of unity, and what factors brought it about? I’ve written the book as a chronological history, and the issues relating to these questions are a kind of golden thread throughout the book. 

Courtesans and Fishcakes

By James Davidson,

Book cover of Courtesans and Fishcakes: The Consuming Passions of Classical Athens

Davidson demonstrates that sexual relationships with courtesans and youths in ancient Athens paralleled the markets in other luxuries such as fish and wine rather more than resembling the modern ideal of romantic love. In a society where marriages were mainly business arrangements made between families to ensure the production of legitimate heirs to their estates, such formal relationships were frequently loveless. This led the male partners and those as yet unmarried to resort to employing mistresses, courtesans, and youths as luxurious distractions from the mundane matter of marital maintenance of the bloodline.


Who am I?

When I voyaged into the ancient world in the readings of my youth, it led me to realize that the gay-straight divide in modern perceptions of sexuality and relationships is an artifice. It was constructed by the conceit of the ascetic religions that the only legitimate purpose of sex is the production of children within a sanctified marital relationship. In Antiquity, the divide followed a more natural course between the groups who were the sexually active partners (mainly adult men) and those who were sexually passive (mainly women, youths, and eunuchs). My hope is to disperse some of the confusion that the obscuration of this historical reality has caused.


I wrote...

Alexander's Lovers

By Andrew Chugg,

Book cover of Alexander's Lovers

What is my book about?

Alexander's Lovers reveals the personality of Alexander the Great through the mirror of the lives of his lovers, including his companion and deputy Hephaistion, his queen Roxane, his mistress Barsine and Bagoas the Eunuch. It includes all the intimate details and obscure references that standard modern accounts leave out and reveals a more convincing, realistic, and human picture of the king as opposed to the fake persona of a rampaging conqueror conjured up by many modern accounts. If you would like to get to know Alexander on a more personal level, then this book provides you with a unique opportunity.

Athens

By Bruce Clark,

Book cover of Athens: City of Wisdom

Athens is where I lived as a student in the 1970s, and I’ve loved the place ever since! People who visit Greece often miss out on the capital or find the modern city ugly and noisy. But this book explains the magic effect that Athens has exercised on natives and visitors for at least two thousand years – all the way from the legendary wisdom of Solon the lawgiver to the gritty problems of a decade of enforced austerity (only recently overcome), and of a new multi-culturalism that comes with mass migration across Europe’s front line into Greece.


Who am I?

I was only thirteen when I first travelled to Greece and began to learn the ancient Greek language at school. That double impression of a vibrant, living country and its people, and the extraordinary fact that there they still speak a language that was first written down more than 3000 years ago, set me upon a lifetime of studying and teaching, and inspired me to communicate my love of Greece and Greeks to others. I’ve written several books, all of them Greek-themed in one way or another. These are some of the books that have accompanied me along the way – and new ones that may inspire you too.


I wrote...

The Greeks: A Global History

By Roderick Beaton,

Book cover of The Greeks: A Global History

What is my book about?

More than two thousand years ago, the Greek city-states, led by Athens and Sparta, laid the foundation for much of modern science, the arts, politics, and law. But the influence of the Greeks did not end with the rise and fall of this classical civilization. As historian Roderick Beaton illustrates, over three millennia Greek speakers produced a series of civilizations that were rooted in southeastern Europe but again and again ranged widely across the globe.

In The Greeks, Beaton traces this history from the Bronze Age Mycenaeans who built powerful fortresses at home and strong trade routes abroad to the dramatic Eurasian conquests of Alexander the Great, to the pious Byzantines who sought to export Christianity worldwide, to today’s Greek diaspora, which flourishes on five continents. 

Athens from Alexander to Antony

By Christian Habicht, Deborah Lucas Schneider,

Book cover of Athens from Alexander to Antony

The late Christian Habicht was one of the foremost authorities on Hellenistic Greece. His book is both a synthesis of his research and publications on this period and an incisive and in-depth narrative of Athens down to 30 BC, anchored in the ancient, especially inscriptional, evidence. He shows among other things how Athens remained a vital city in Greece and how its intellectual and social life continued to flourish but how limited its democracy was. Habicht’s book could not take into account recent and much-needed epigraphical publications of the city’s major state decrees and laws and new insights into chronology, but it is still an indispensable read.


Who am I?

Ian Worthington, FSA, FRHistS, is a Professor of Ancient History at Macquarie University, and has written and edited 21 books and over 100 articles on Greek history, oratory, and epigraphy. He also has a Great Courses DVD and CD course titled The Long Shadow of the Ancient Greek World. Away from academic work, he is addicted to reality TV and is an unpaid taxi driver for his two children.


I wrote...

Athens After Empire: A History from Alexander the Great to the Emperor Hadrian

By Ian Worthington,

Book cover of Athens After Empire: A History from Alexander the Great to the Emperor Hadrian

What is my book about?

What was Athens’ place in the long Hellenistic period (323-30 BC), during which the Mediterranean world open up to the east like never before and Greek culture spread as far afield as India? Usually post-classical Athens is viewed as a postscript to its great classical self, a dreary picture of decline and fall. I argue that view is wrong. Athens continued to be a vibrant city, respected in the Greek world and by the Romans, who appropriated aspects of its culture for their own civilization. Later Athens should no longer live in the shadow of its famous forerunner.

Love, Sex and Tragedy

By Simon Goldhill,

Book cover of Love, Sex and Tragedy: Why Classics Matter

Simon Goldhill powerfully demonstrates why we remain indebted to the ancient world in so many ways. It is not just that classical columns often decorate our buildings or that classical legends inspire our films and books, our whole life still bears the cultural and psychological imprint of ancient Greece and Rome. Our current obsession with gyms, for example, stems from the Greek passion for exercising in public (and they did so naked). Gymnasium is in origin a Greek word. While Greeks and Romans took different views from us on numerous things, from romantic love to slavery, the issues they first confronted and debated still matter. Unsurprisingly for the ancient world, far from being peopled with dead white marble statues gathering dust in museums, throbbed with impassioned life. The echoes of their tumultuous lives haunt us still.


Who am I?

I have been fascinated by ancient Greece and Rome since I first saw Italy and Greece as a teenager, revisiting them whenever I can. I studied ancient history at Cambridge University and have written eight books about it, most recently The Colosseum. After living in Paris, Rome, and London, I am now based in Wiltshire in southwest England, almost within sight of Stonehenge. There is a small megalith outside my own house.


I wrote...

The Colosseum From AD80 To The Present Day

By Nigel Rodgers,

Book cover of The Colosseum From AD80 To The Present Day

What is my book about?

The Colosseum in Rome awed the world when inaugurated in 80AD. It is still Rome’s greatest landmark, a brilliant example of ancient engineering. Inside its vast arena lavish but brutal entertainments were staged for centuries. The Colosseum, my vividly illustrated guide-cum-history, examines the arena’s construction, workings, and checkered history, including the recent partial restoration. One chapter explains the role its games played in the life of the ancient city, another the gladiators’ brief, sometimes glamorous lives. Further chapters outline how the massive structure survived centuries of earthquakes, fires, depredation, and neglect after the fall of the Roman Empire, and its later roles as a palace, fortress, church, tenements, site of black magic, and vegetable garden. There is also a guide as how and when it is best to visit, avoiding the queues and the hottest, most crowded times. Over 200 illustrations include cut-away reconstructions showing how the complex building actually worked.

Before writing the book, I made a special visit to Rome to investigate the recent excavations of the hypogoeum, the network of underground passages and lifts essential to the games.

Or, view all 35 books about Athens

New book lists related to Athens

All book lists related to Athens

Bookshelves related to Athens