A reader writes:
I was hoping you could recommend a good read about the Greeks. I'm not picky, it could be a biography, an overall history, about a particular event, what have you. I've been pushing myself to read more, but finished up the last book on my (short) list, and feel I better get another one quick, or I'll lose what little progress I've made in my new habit.
I find myself curiously coming up short here, since although I've read a lot of things by ancient Greeks, I haven't actually read many books about them. Thus, I'll make a few suggestions and then ask readers with better ideas to chime in.
First, I have to at least make the case for a couple of primary sources.
If you have the patience to read a book-length work in verse, the Iliad and Odyssey really do remain some of the greatest works in Western culture. My personal preference is very much for the Iliad over the Odyssey -- I like the more novelistic structure and characterization. Many people prefer the Odyssey, which is more episodic and isn't as tightly focused on all the different ways that heroes with bronze age weapons can kill each other. A while back I wrote a piece with some notes on reading Homer the first time and on the different translations available, which might be helpful.
Perhaps a bit more readable, and also a more direct window into Classical Greek culture is Xenophon's Anabasis which is available from Penguin as The Persian Expedition (Penguin Classics) in a readable translation by Rex Warner. Xenophon was a noble Athenian and a student of Socrates, but this book is about an expedition he was on in which 10,000 Greeks were hired as mercenaries by a pretender to the Persian throne. They march deep into Persia and defeat the Persian emperor's army, but in the process the claimant to the throne they are working for is killed. The Greeks thus find themselves very far from home and in unfriendly country, and most of the book is about their efforts to make it back home.
Moving into modern works, I'd definitely recommend Edith Hamilton's Mythology, which covers all the major Greek myths and many minor ones as well. Her The Greek Way is in some ways a good cultural study of Ancient Greece via its greatest writers, but I think it's arguably showing it's age (and a little mid-century primness) at this point. For all of the ways in which the Greeks contributed to our culture they are also very alien in certain respects, and I'm not sure that a book in which Arisophanes' comedy is compared to Gilbert and Sullivan's light operas (even though Hamilton notes that Aristophanes was "more exuberantly Rabelaisian") quite captures the full flavor. That said, Hamilton is a good writer and classicist, and the book is good. I'm just not sure it's the best.
I've enjoyed some of Victor Davis Hanson's work on the Greeks, but his books are all somewhat specialized. My personal favorite is The Western Way of War, but it's a somewhat specialized work dealing with Classical Greek infantry warfare and how it both sprang from and contributed to the political structure of the Greek city states -- as well as the way these ideas have shaped Western concepts of war ever since. His The Other Greeks is also good, dealing with the agrarian side of Greek culture -- as opposed to the doings in the Agora that we normally read about. His A War Like No Other is probably his most readable book on Ancient Greece, but I think that in his effort to draw parallels between the Peloponnesian War and modern conflicts, he perhaps stretches the narrative a bit. It's a good, detailed discussion of the war which was one of the key influences on Classical Greek life and history, I just felt like some of the emphases and parallels were a bit off.
Finally, if you're willing to put up with "a pleasant evening's ultra violence" and are interested in a historical novel, you could try Gates of Fire, a novel about the Battle of Thermopylae. Compared with the comic book 300, and the movie of the same name, (both of which drove me absolutely batty) this is actually a moderately good fictionalized depiction of the battle itself and of Spartan society.