5 Best Books About Ancient Greece Update 05/2022

Books About Ancient Greece

People in ancient Greece had a lot of different ways of living. Between the Homeric Age (around 1100 BC) and the end of antiquity (around 600 AD), the small population of Greece learned a lot of new things. Greece’s many city-states, as well as its vivid tragedies on stage, helped to grow Western civilization into what we know today as Western culture.

It’s impossible to put all of Greece’s long-term contributions into one book. This is not the end of the world, though. Here are 10 books about ancient Greece that cover a wide range of their culture and history.

The Histories

By Herodotus

The Histories

The Histories by Herodotus of Halicarnassus was written around 440 BC. It is one of the oldest nonfiction works that still exists. In this text, Herodotus starts by talking about the Trojan War. He then talks about the Greek war against the Persian empire in the fifth century BC. Though this book shows Herodotus’s own personal biases, his record of important events and their causes came from a point of view that was based on the politics of the time.

A Chronology of Ancient Greece

By Timothy Venning

In order to get a more objective look at the history of ancient Greece, this book written by Timothy Venning is a great place to start. This text is filled with a lot of information. At times, it goes into a day-by-day story. Venning’s book is organized both chronologically and geographically, making it easy for anyone who wants to learn more about the military and political events of ancient Greece. This book has never done a good job of explaining how Greece grew so elegantly before. It draws on the knowledge of many historians to back up its claims.

Ancient Greece: A Political, Social, and Cultural History

By Sarah B. Pomeroy, Stanley M. Burstein, Walter Donlan, Jennifer Tolbert Roberts, David Tandy, and Georgia Tsouvala

A group of six top experts on the classical world worked together to write this authoritative fourth edition text, which is now in its fourth edition. From the Bronze Age to the Hellenistic Era, Ancient Greece covers a lot of things that people don’t think about, like family life, homosexuality, slavery, and life in the country. Among other things, it includes excerpts from historical documents, suggestions for more reading and diagrams that show how things work. It is a book that is both unique and multidimensional. Ancient Greece gives its readers a deeper look into ancient society.

The Iliad

By Homer, Robert Fagles

The Iliad

Because this book is interesting.

In this case, I’m a little bit of a cheater because “Homer” can refer to either the Iliad or the Odyssey or both. Any way you look at it, those are the two most important works of Western literature and a good deal more “world” literature, too. They are both very very long verse epics that were originally written and passed down orally through a mix of memory and performance improvisation. They were then written down in the Greeks’ then-new alphabetic script.

It was Homer’s genius to choose a single common theme for both monumental poems: Achilles’ anger in the Iliad, and Odysseus’ ten-year journeys through Greece’s small island kingdom (Odyssey). But most of us think that two different “monumental composers” did the job, not just one person.

The Iliad and the Odyssey both spoke to and helped shape the ancient Greeks’ sense of who they were as a people. The Iliad was mostly about battle, and the Odyssey was mostly about violent encounters between Greeks and a variety of non-Greek people (including monsters and cannibals). The Iliad is more like a “boy’s toy” type of story. There is a lot of fighting, blood, and guts, and it is described in great detail. One strange thing about the poem’s title is that it doesn’t end with the capture and sack of Troy and the return of Helen, the wife of King Menelaus of Sparta, who had been having an affair with another man. (To see how it ends, you’ll have to read it.) The Odyssey, on the other hand, is a “boy’s own” adventure story full of storms, shipwrecks, and magic. It includes two passionate love stories (one between Odysseus and his long-suffering wife Penelope, and the other between Odysseus and the beautiful immortal Calypso), and it ends with a nasty revenge drama and a sweet marriage reunion.

From Chapman and Pope to today, there have been many, many English translations or versions of the Bible. Most of the time, the translations were done by men. If you’re a grown-up, I’m going to recommend the two verse translations by American Robert Fagles, not only because they come with great introductions by Bernard Knox. Jeanie Laing’s “told-to-the-children” versions are great for younger readers, and W. Heath Robinson’s illustrations are amazing. My journey into Classical music began with those people.

Thucydides: The War of the Peloponnesians and the Athenians

By Thucydides, Jeremy Mynott

Because this book is interesting.

Thucydides of Athens, who lived between 455 and 400 BC, was an Athenian aristocrat who had great intelligence and was a bad politician. He spent 20 years in exile, but he used that time to become the best historian and analyst of the great Atheno-Peloponnesian War of 431 to 404. It was in the world’s first democratic political state that Thucydides was born, but he didn’t like when people were kept in line and did what a great politician like Pericles told them to do, like when they did what they were told (c. 493-429).

Thucydides lived long enough to see the end of the war, which was a big defeat for his home city, Athens, helped by the Spartans and the Persians. That’s why he didn’t write the whole thing down. It stops in 411 BC, which he called “his” 20th summer of “his” war. This is because Thucydides’s idea that there was only one war, which was interrupted by a fake peace, was not shared by everyone who knew him. There were only two wars in Herodotus’ history: one in 480 and one in 479. He wanted it to be a single, 27-year conflict because that made it so much longer than both of those wars and also Homer’s 10-year Trojan War. A historian of his quality and stature would have to write a lot more to be as good as him. Angry and competitive are two traits that are very common in Greek people, and Thucydides had both of them.

But he was a lot more than just a historian who wrote about things that happened. To get at the constants in human behavior, not just individual but collective, he saw his war as a kind of lab sample that should be dissected and studied. What made states act the way they did, especially when it came to peace and war, was what he saw. As far as I can tell, he thought there were three main reasons people did what they did: fear (in the sense of security), money, and “honor.” Rather like a dramatist, he wrote speeches that he put in the mouths of the main actors at important points in the story. As a historian, he made sure to say that he didn’t just make these speeches up on the spot, but that he used as many eyewitness accounts as he could get his hands on. He also used his own memories of the speeches he had heard, like those by Pericles, to make sure they were accurate.

People in Athens died of a terrible disease called typhus or typhoid fever. Pericles died, as did many other Athenians. Thucydides, too, got the plague, but he lived to write about it in horrifyingly detailed terms. In fact, for Thucydides, the death of Pericles had a much bigger impact. He used it to explain why the Athenians lost the War 25 years later. He thought this was because after Pericles died, the Athenians didn’t have a leader of genius anymore, and they were convinced by lesser, self-serving democratic politicians (called “demagogues”) to stop following the strategy and policy that Pericles had set out so well and in advance. That’s not entirely true. Things weren’t as simple as that. Thucydides is guilty of being blinded by his excessive admiration for his fellow aristocrat and by his class prejudice both against democracy and against lower class politicians.

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