Classics for the Non-Classicist: 10 Books to Start

I think that it would do anyone living in a country of the North/West a lot of good to become acquainted with the Classical world to some degree — acquainted with its literature, mythology, history, art, philosophy, and, if possible, languages.  Not to a super-intense degree.  But a certain familiarity, I think, would do a lot of people some good.

Here’s a list of 10 books you can use to help start your journey into Classics:

The Iliad by Homer (Greek).  I recommend Robert Fagles‘ translation or EV Rieu’s, both by Penguin.  To learn why you should read this poem, click here.

The Odyssey by Homer (Greek).  Ditto for translations.  This recounts the wanderings of Odysseus following the sack of Troy and his eventual homecoming; it is the basis for much of the adventure and journey literature that follows.

The Aeneid by Virgil (Latin).  I recommend WF Jackson Knight’s translation for Penguin; I haven’t read Fagles’ yet.  This is the national Roman epic following the adventures of Aeneas the Trojan after he escapes his city’s ruin and his arrival in Italy where he founds a city that is the forebear of Rome.  Notable for Dante-lovers for its descent to Hell in book VI.

The Oresteia by Aeschylus (Greek).  I recommend (guess!) Fagles again (Penguin Classics), as well as Richmond Lattimore’s translation from The Complete Greek Tragedies published by the University of Chicago Press.  Aeschylus follows the movement from revenge/vendetta justice to the justice established by civilisation and the polis.

The Last Days of Socrates by Plato (Latin).  This is a publication by Penguin Classics including Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, and Phaedo, translated by Hugh Tredennick and Harold Tarrant.  The selection manages to cover a wide period of Platonic thought and has some mind-bending passages that flex the logic muscles in the brain as you grapple with the issues at stake.

The Metamorphoses by Ovid (Latin).  I have the Penguin Classics translation by Mary M. Innes.  My brother Michael reviewed the copy I gave him here.  This epic poem is a mythological history of the world up to Ovid’s day (the Augustan age around the turn of BC-AD), wending its way along through various metamorphoses.  It is a brilliant source for Graeco-Roman myth.

A Loeb Classical Library Reader (Greek & Latin).  To make up for how few books fit into a list of only 10, I recommend this anthology of both Greek and Roman authors, including poetry, philosophy, biography, theology.  There are doubtless larger anthologies, I just don’t know what they are.  Anthologies are actually not a bad place to start wading into a new body of literature.

A History of the Roman People by Ward, Heichelheim, and Yeo.  This was my Roman history textbook and a great place to go to read the history of this great city from foundation to fall and legacy, from regal period to late antiquity.

Greek Society by Frank J Frost.  This was my textbook for Introduction to Greek Civilization.  It is much slimmer than A History of the Roman People, but I have no inclination to recommend my less-than-easy-to-read Greek history textbook to whet someone’s appetite.  It covers ancient Greece from Mycenae (1200 BCish) to the later Roman period (after AD 200).

Classical Mythology by Morford and Lenardon.  This readable introduction to the subject provides ample references to the original sources for the myths, something which I value highly.

My only regret from this list is that only 2 Romans made it in.  This is partly because ancient historians are not always for the faint of heart but also because Homer is two books long and so foundational, Plato is so foundational, and you need at least one tragedian to begin.  I promise multiple lists to come with more stuff on them.

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