My favourite books written in Greek (but read in English translation), listed in the order of the year written (from -458 to +100):
Aeschylus, “Agamemnon” (-458) – When Agamemnon returns from the Trojan War his wife plots his murder. Best part: Cassandra! People think she has gone mad, but she speaks the truth. She is a Trojan woman that Agamemnon won from the war.
Sophocles, “Antigone” (-441) – Antigone’s two brothers fight for control of Thebes. They both die. Creon, the ruler of Thebes, makes one a hero while leaving the other to be eaten by the dogs, forbidding anyone to give him a proper funeral. Antigone goes against his orders even though she knows it will mean her death. Because life is more than breathing as long as possible. The Greeks make a big deal of military courage – but this one is about moral courage. The book that got me hooked on the Greeks.
Herodotus, “History” (by -420) – a history of the world known to the Greeks – mainly Greece, Persia, Babylon, Egypt and Scythia – from about -716 to -479. The war of the Persian Empire against the Greeks is the heart of the book: Marathon, Thermopylae (“This is Sparta!”), all of that. Big on the value of courage and freedom. A window onto different parts of the world back then. Herodotus lays out what he has seen or heard and lets you come to your own conclusions. He has a respect for other societies that is rare in Anglo America.
Euripides, “Trojan Women” (-415) – yet more Cassandra! While Troy burns to the ground, its women and children stand on the shore waiting to be taken away by Greek soldiers as slaves. The other side of war, of history. Written when Athens and Sparta were locked in a disastrous war:
Thucydides, “History” (-395) – the war between Athens and Sparta. The best book ever on imperialism. Also touches on the nature of democracy, propaganda and men, of the relationship between truth, power and morals. For me it was an X-ray window onto US society, unlike television or school – or history books written in the US. I love his style of writing (at least in the Hobbes translation).
Aristotle, “Politics” (by -322) – compares the political systems of different Greek cities. Man is a political animal. Politics as rich against poor. Marx and Orwell 2,100 years before Marx and Orwell. Aristotle shows that you need to look at the facts for yourself and come to your own conclusions.
Plutarch, “Parallel Lives” (by +100) – the lives of famous Greeks and Romans compared. Long as the Bible but cut up into short biographies. Studies in moral character and tons of history learned painlessly. I love to read him just to read him (at least in the Dryden translation). Best: Alcibiades, Crassus and, especially, Brutus, he who kills Caesar.
Book of Matthew (by +100) – Even when I was a Marxist I loved this book, especially the Sermon on the Mount. The world tells you one thing, but deep down in your heart you know that Jesus is right.
- Why study the Greeks
- The best American writers live north of 110th Street
- Books and authors listed above
- Jesus Christ
- Seven books that have influenced me most – but not necessarily my favourites