Great Books for the Classics Lover

Posted by Cybil on November 13, 2017
The Odyssey into English. Here the expert on the ancients helps find the perfect books for your friends and family who like to keep it very old school.

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"My favorite television show when I was very small was The Clangers, a wonderfully low-tech British series about strange pig-like creatures who lived on a planet far from ours, ate blue string pudding, and spoke in unintelligible squeaks. As I grew older, I loved books about other worlds (like the Earthsea trilogy, the Narnia books, the Lord of the Rings, Elidor, or the Chrestomanci books of Diana Wynne Jones). I loved the idea of going through a looking-glass, through a wardrobe, or through my own drawings (as in Marianne Dreams) to find an entirely different, but still comprehensible, way of life.

"The past is another country"—as the great novelist L. P. Hartley famously wrote (in The Go-Between, another highly recommended novel). I love reading and studying the literature of ancient Greece and Rome because it takes me to worlds that seem in some ways even more distant and strange than the planet of the Clangers—and yet, like the Clangers, these people's stories can be touching, funny or terrifying, and can give us a quite different perspective on our own culture and world.

Part of the joy of watching The Clangers is the soothing, gentle voice-over style of the narrator, the late great Oliver Postgate, who interprets the utterances and actions of the characters for the viewer. Translators are often unnoticed or invisible, but a good translator can bring as much to the reading experience as Postgate's voice brings to his strange creations—to interpret, contextualize, and bring to life the words and actions of these strange beings from another time and place. This is a great time to read or re-read classical literature in translation, because there are so many great new versions of ancient texts, which bring them to life in entirely unfamiliar ways."

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"This is a collection of new translations of some of the greatest tragedies staged in fifth-century Athens, including famous works like Sophocles' Oedipus Tyrannus and also lesser known but equally fascinating plays like Euripides' Helen (in which the beautiful wife of Menelaus turns out to have spent the whole Trojan War innocently stuck in Egypt, waiting to go home)."

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"This is the entertaining, twisty traveler's tale of a man who gets turned into a donkey by some witches—with hilarious, scary, and sexy results. Written by a North African living in the Roman Empire in the second century CE, this gripping, influential, wonderfully meandering, and funny novel has also been read as a philosophical or religious meditation on the journey of the soul. It includes the famous story of Cupid and Psyche, Love and the Soul, which is echoed in the later fable of Beauty and the Beast. Ruden's carefully-crafted translation brings out the stylistic range and downright zany weirdness of the original in all its crazy glory."

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"What we tend to think of as 'Greek Myth' can also be called 'Stories from Ovid.' This subversive anti-epic poem, which probably infuriated the then-emperor Augustus, tells the story of the world from the time of the Flood, weaving in tales of gods, goddesses, and mortals. Ovid's tone is smooth and sly, but his poem—which is about power, art, time, change, sex, and power—includes many brutal acts of violence or rape; readers should be careful of possible triggers. The Charles Martin translation is fluent, metrical, and wonderfully readable as it takes you on Ovid's circuitous journey through the dark woods of mythical fantasy."

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"This absorbing novel, set in Athens in the time of Socrates, brilliantly evokes the period of the Peloponnesian War and provides a dense portrait of classical Athenian culture, including a sympathetic and intimate treatment of the relationships between elite men and teenage boys."

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"The great poet-classicist Carson provides a precise and bittersweet version of the poems and fragments of the only surviving female poet from archaic Greece—with the Greek text printed on the opposite side of the page."

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"If you like tales of adventure and true love foiled by pirates, abductions, shipwrecks, and misunderstandings, you'll love this absorbing collection of romances and melodramas from around the second century CE—which gives us a rare glimpse of what people in antiquity read for fun. The collection also includes the ancient sci-fi/fantasy novel Lucian's True History, which features a journey to the moon."

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"Often dubbed the 'father of history,' Herodotus was also the first anthropologist; his entertaining, richly anecdotal account of the wars between the Greeks and Persians shows a deep curiosity about the cultures and customs of non-Greek people, including the Egyptians."

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"Plutarch, a Greek who lived under the Roman Empire (first to second centuries CE), was one of Shakespeare's favorite authors; this set of five of his Roman biographies tells the story of Rome's dramatic and violent shift from republican government to one-man rule, with Plutarch's usual keen psychological insight."

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"Logue knew no Greek, but his wonderfully anachronistic poetic 'account' of Homer's Iliad brilliantly evokes the ancient Olympian gods and makes vivid cinematic use of the Homeric simile."

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"Seneca—a philosopher who was Nero's tutor and then political advisor and speechwriter—wrote the only surviving tragedies from ancient Rome. These bloody, bombastic, often darkly funny plays trace characters whose emotions and behavior are wildly out of control—providing a terrifying picture of the horrors that humans are capable of."

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"Virgil's great epic, about the founding of Rome and the tension between duty and love, has been translated many times, but one of the greatest versions is still Dryden's (1697), which maps the struggles of imperial Rome onto the Britain of his time."

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"A beautifully illustrated retelling of some central classical myths; sex and violence are kept to a minimum, so kids of any age, and parents of any ideological persuasion, should be able to enjoy it."

What books would you recommend for fans of the classics? Share them with us in the comments!

See the complete coverage of our Gift Guide including:
Thought-Provoking Books for the Business-Minded Reader
Books that Celebrate the Spirit
Irresistible Books for History Buffs

Comments Showing 1-17 of 17 (17 new)

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message 1: by Sarah (new)

Sarah I had to read The Argonautica by Apollonius of Rhodes for a class this spring and found it very enjoyable and underrated. The Aeneid, especially the Fitzgerald translation, is also excellent.

message 2: by Driving (new)

Driving Directions Thank you for sharing this article with us! I believe there will be more people like me, they can find many interesting things in this article of you!
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message 3: by Nocturnalux (new)

Nocturnalux I am very curious about this new translation of The Odyssey, I never read it in English but in my mother tongue.

message 4: by Ruben (new)

Ruben I would also absolutely recommend "The Song Of Achilles" by Madeline Miller ( for a different, human and very touching perspective on the Trojan War.

message 5: by Mizloo (new)

Mizloo I was utterly rapt reading Margaret Atwood's "Penelopiad" - not a translation of the Odyssey, but an anachronistic re-telling of the story from Penelope's (and other women's) point of view. Chilling.

message 6: by Beth (new)

Beth Herodotus but no Thucydides???!

I'll second War Music: An Account of Books 1-4 and 16-19 of Homer's Iliad though. The Aeneid and Metamorphoses and maybe The Golden Ass are on my list for 2018.

message 7: by Valerie (new)

Valerie Panosian I would add Tolstoy's War & Peace and Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell. These are two classics!

message 8: by Lizzi (new)

Lizzi Valerie wrote: "I would add Tolstoy's War & Peace and Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell. These are two classics!"

That's the wrong kind of classics.......

message 9: by Danie (new)

Danie all books are very informative but i really enjoy to read Six Tragedies by Seneca. It is very interesting book i like it very much.

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message 10: by Drake (last edited Feb 01, 2018 01:12PM) (new)

Drake Wyvern i would add Tolstoy's War & Peace and Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell. These are two classics!

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message 11: by Soffy (last edited Sep 26, 2018 08:21AM) (new)

Soffy shivkant Thank you for sharing this article with us! I believe there will be more people like me, they can find many interesting things in this article of you.
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best packers and movers in chandigarh i would add Tolstoy's War & Peace and Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell. These are two classics!
packers and movers ludhianaall books are very informative but i really enjoy to read Six Tragedies by Seneca. It is very interesting book i like it very much
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message 15: by Linda (new)

Linda Rose good book
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