What are the Best Books About Ancient Greece?

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The roots of modern western culture can be found in Ancient Greece, including government, philosophy, science and literature. There are lots of books out there about Ancient Greece.  You are at the right place to whittle things down to around twenty with some helpful information to help you decide what ones are best for you.  

Ancient Greece 

Greece is a country in southeastern Europe with Africa to the south and Asia to the west, thus is in the crossroads of three continents.  

Ancient Greece is a popular subject for those who want to learn about the past.  This is true for a range of reasons.  Many people like to learn about myths full of heroes and gods and goddesses, including the great stories of Homer (maybe, after watching movies with Brad Pitt) and many other classical Greek authors, rich with symbolism.  

Ancient Greece is also an important source of Western civilization.  Accounts of Ancient Greece are full of accounts of philosophy, history, and art and culture. The Jewish Bible ends with stories in these times and the Christian New Testament was first written in Greek.  

Read All About It 

And, thanks to a range of people, including Arabs in the Middle Ages, all of this need not be read in the original Greek.  But, if you have that skill, go right ahead.  

For the rest of you, my purpose here is to provide some of the best books in English out there about Ancient Greece.  I will provide you with a link to where you can buy them, providing basic information to help you decide if they are good for your needs.   

Things to look for: the author’s expertise, the specific subject matter, what others are saying about them, the skillset of the intended audience, and any deficits that might be red flags.

TOP TEN ANCIENT GREECE BOOKS 

[1] The Greek Way by Edith Hamilton 

Edith Hamilton (1867-1963) was an educator at a leading girl’s college prep school for over twenty years. She then was a best-selling author of books about the ancient world.  Her obituary praised how Hamilton “brought into clear and brilliant focus the Golden Age of Greek life and thought.”  Hamilton’s books both educate and themselves are works of literature.  

The Greek Way discusses the Ancient Greek culture at the height of its glory in the fifth century BCE.  Her love of Ancient Greek is shown while the reader learns about both the many aspects of Ancient Greek culture and how it influenced the modern world.  The book is geared to the general reader and is still valuable today.  

Possible Problems:  Some readers might not like her literary style and her personal sentiments on certain subjects. More updated scholarship is also available on various issues covered.  

Also useful: Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes. This book, which I myself own, is a useful summary of the many tales of Greek mythology.   

[2] Searching for Sappho by Phillip Freeman

Sappho is an Ancient Greek poet, who is particularly now associated with lesbians.  Very little is known about her life, even most of her writings known to us from fragments of wider works.  

This book, written by a professor and chair of the classics department at Luther College, works around this by looking at the lives of typical Greeks over a span of hundreds of years. So, it is literally a “search” for Sappho.  In the process, you learn all about Ancient Greek life.  The book also helpfully provides basically every scrap of writing we still have of Sappho herself.

Possible Problems:  The core of this book is about 150 pages long.  Some readers might expect more detail, especially about Sappho herself, and her works.  

[3]  Iliad and The Odyssey by Homer

Anyone wishing to read about Ancient Greece should have a good translation of the most important pieces of literature of that age.  These would be the two long poems involving the war between the Greeks and the Trojans as well as one of the hero’s long trip (odyssey) home.  

People have been translating these words into their natural tongues since ancient times. There are various translations available.  A good translation should be accurate and provide clarity.  It should read like a normal poem or novel.  And, it is helpful if there is a good introduction and discussion of the text.  It’s okay to need a bit of help to read 2800 year old material.  

Emily Wilson’s translation of The Odyssey, the first English translation by a woman, is a clear, crisp translation that has received high praise, including for its “plain, contemporary language.”  She is working on a translation of The Iliad (scheduled 2023), but while you wait, check out Caroline Alexander’s version.  One review speaks of how the “poetry itself sizzles on the page.”  

Possible Problems:  Translation is as much an art as a science.  The best translation is a matter of taste.  And, if you are not interested in the original content, you might like any of them! 

[4] The Trial of Socrates by I.F. Stone 

Socrates is the most well known ancient Greek philosopher, a lover of wisdom.  Socrates lived in the fifth century BCE and (like Jesus) did not leave anything written by himself.  He also was a “gadfly,” who caused trouble, ultimately put on trial for sedition, and sentenced to die.

I.F. Stone, himself a well known journalist, was a self-taught Greek scholar.  He wrote this very interesting account on the trial of Socrates as well as posing his own theory on why Socrates was seen as such a threat.  The book provides a nuanced view of Socrates and his legacy.

Possible Problems: I.F. Stone is an amateur historian and the book does not provide detailed source notes to check his work.  

[5]  Why Socrates Died by Robin Waterfield

Those interested in Socrates and wishing to read more about his times from the point of view of a trained classical scholar will enjoy this account.  

Waterfield attempts to understand Socrates’s trial and execution in light of the political and social upheaval of his era.  The book argues the whole story requires us to go back thirty years to the start of the Peloponnesian War, a major battle between Athens (known for its democracy) and Sparta (more militaristic).  

Possible Problems: The book makes some conclusions from the limited material we have available that some readers might deem not convincingly proven.   

[6] Ancient Greece: From Prehistoric to Hellenistic Times by Thomas R. Martin 

The author is a classics professor at the College of the Holy Cross and has written various books on the ancient work.  This one is a good one-volume history of Ancient Greece, providing details on its political, military, social, and cultural history.  The book should appeal to students of all types, in school and out.  Many helpful maps and illustrations.   

Possible Problems: Some readers found the book too dry and academic.  

[7]  National Geographic The Greeks: An Illustrated History by Diane Harris Cline

Diane Cline is an associate professor of history and classics at George Washington University.  This is a good summary of Ancient Greece from 6000 BCE to the times of Alexander the Great.  It is beautiful to look at the volume with many colorful illustrations, maps, and photos.  Not only would it make a good addition to your historical library, but it has coffee table book potential.  

Possible Problems: The book does not provide an in depth examination of Greek history, covering a long span of time in around two hundred pages.  

[8] The Ancient Greeks For Dummies by Stephen Batchelor

Steve Batchelor is a lecturer in Classics at Richmond College. 

He provides an expert touch while still writing in the down to earth, at times bemused, style of this series. As one reviewer notes, Batchelor has a “tremendous ‘feel’ for what the ancient Greeks were like and how their world fitted together.”  There is a lot of material here, divided in easy to consume chunks.  A good resource for all things Ancient Greece.

Possible Problems: Material a bit too basic at times.  

[9]  Daily Life of the Ancient Greeks by Robert Garland 

This is the updated second edition of Robert Garland’s, professor of classics at Colgate University, comprehensive account allows you to imagine living day-to-day in Ancient Greece.  Topics include food and drink, literacy, the treatment of the elderly, slaves, and many more aspects of daily life. The book has many illustrations, maps, a chronology, and a glossary of Greek terms.  Good both as a scholarly work as well as for the general reader.

Possible Problems: Some readers found this book too boring and basic.  

[10]  Ancient Greece: A Very Short Introduction by Paul Cartledge 

I have found the “very short introduction” series a helpful way to obtain a quick understanding of a range of topics.  They are excellent condensations of broad topics, each written by an expert in the field.  This one is written by a professor of Greek culture at Cambridge.

This short introduction uses eleven city-states to inform the reader about the basics of Ancient Greece.  A good technique in part because it does not unduly focus our attention on places like Athens,  which often receive much of the attention.   

Possible Problems: It is a “very short” introduction, requiring leaving some stuff out.  

OTHER GOOD BOOKS TO CHECK OUT 

[11]  Great Dialogues of Plato by Plato (Author), W. H. D. Rouse (Translator), Matthew S. Santirocco (Introduction)

We largely know about Socrates from the writings of Plato, his student. This collection of writings, with a helpful introduction, is a set of major works of Plato in convenient paperback size.  The book does not provide analysis of the works, but provides complete texts.  

[12]  Hands-On History! Ancient Greece by Richard Tames

This is a good book for elementary school age students.  It allows children to step into the world of Ancient Greeks with 15 step-by-step projects and 350 pictures.  Children can learn and do various fun projects as well.  Good homeschooling potential.   

[13] The Riddle of the Labyrinth: The Quest to Crack an Ancient Code by by Margalit Fox

Linear B was an ancient form of writing, the earliest version of Greek available.  This is a fascinating account about the attempt to translate this long obscure language.  The book is a linguistic mystery thriller as well as a window into a lost world.  

[14]  Alexander the Great by Philip Freeman 

This was the first expert biography of Alexander the Great in a generation, and it was worth the wait. This great Ancient Greek conqueror is given the biography he deserves, Alexander’s personality shining from the page.  Available now at a low paperback price as well.

[15] The Plague of War: Athens, Sparta, and the Struggle for Ancient Greece by Jennifer Roberts

Athens and Sparta were two rivals in Ancient Greece. Their rivalry led to a long war, involving a horrible plague, a lot of treachery, the death of Socrates and a lot more.  This book provides good account that is a mixture of scholarship and just plain good story-telling

And Also:  History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides is an account of the battle by a Greek historian writing while it was still going on.  His account cuts off in the middle of things. Xenophon’s Hellenica is  a continuation of the narrative, written by a Greek military leader who observed many of the events.  Xenophon is a well known writer of that era.  

[16] The Trojan War: A New History by Barry Strauss

The Trojan War is the subject of many tales, but what is the actual history behind them? This book by a professor of history and classics provides the most up to date information we have about the era, how battles would have been fought, and modern day discoveries that provide more insights.  The book provides history without losing the poetry of the works of Homer.

[17]  Ancient Greece for Kids Through the Lives of its Philosophers, Lawmakers, and Heroes by Catherine Fet 

This is a collection of stories of the lives of many great names in Ancient Greece such as Homer, Aesop (of the fables fame), Hippocrates (the doctor), Socrates, and a lot more.  Many colorful pictures and photos of the sculpture, artifacts, and architectural monuments of Ancient Greece.  The book is appropriate for elementary school readers.

[18]  Readings in Ancient Greek Philosophy: From Thales to Aristotle by S. Marc Cohen (Editor), Patricia Curd (Editor) 

Ancient Greece is particularly known for its great philosophers, particularly Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle.  But, there are many philosophers whose writings remain.  This collection provides readings from many of them, adding useful commentary to help put them in context.  The book is geared to a college level reader.  The book includes maps and a timeline.  

[19]  Controlling Desires: Sexuality in Ancient Greece and Rome by Kirk Ormand

This book is a helpful way to be accurately informed about one area of Ancient Greek culture that definitely gets some attention: matters of sexuality.  This is a reader-friendly account, not just some dry academic volume, that uses a range of materials from texts and arts (including vases), to provide a comprehensive look at this important subject.  

[20]  Greek Sculpture: The Classical Period: A Handbook by John Boardman

A complete study of Ancient Greece includes learning about its art, plays, and sculpture.  This book, with nearly 500 illustrations, examines Greek sculpture from the 8th Century to 5th Century BCE.  It is full of information, a good basic resource on the subject.  

Bonus: Alcestis: A Novel by Katharine Beutner

This is a bonus book that I tossed in because I personally found it a good read. 

Alcestis is a mythical heroine, who sacrificed herself to protect her husband.  This retelling of the famous story gives her more agency and tells things from her point of view.  In the process, the reader gets a taste of Ancient Greek culture.  

Conclusion 

These books are a good introduction to Ancient Greece.  Hope you enjoy them and when you say “it’s all Greek to me,” you now will mean all the information at your fingertips.