By Elliot Tremlett
Degree: Bachelor of Arts, Classical Studies and History
I’m a Classics major, which means I get to study ancient Greece and Rome. It’s pretty great.
Unfortunately, the public perception of Classics focuses more on those dusty clichés of memorising the dates of battles and the names of long-dead kings – which is a shame, because when you start to learn about the ancient world, the more and more entertaining it gets. This stuff is full-throttle Game of Thrones madness – complete with its own fair share of war, backstabbing, incest, and general chaos and strife. Greece and Rome produced some of the greatest stories – both true and fictional – of all time, which have entertained readers for over two millennia.
So here are a few of my recommendations, from epic poems detailing mythical wars to comedic plays (with fart jokes galore). All of them are in some way exciting, entertaining, or interesting – and all of them have influenced literally all of western society and have shaped the way we think about the universe and each other.
First off: the ‘Iliad’ and the ‘Odyssey’, by the semi-mythical poet Homer. These two ‘epic poems’ are perhaps the hardest for general audience to comprehend out of the list – they detail a society that was old even before the Greek world had properly emerged out of the Dark Ages. But the reason that I put these first on my list is because, quite simply, they are the foundation that all of western literature rests upon (so no big deal).
The Iliad details a particularly brutal section from the mythical Trojan War, where the Greek hero Achilles refuses to fight after being wronged by the Greek commander, Agamemnon. Needless to say, the Greeks soon find themselves on the back foot against the Trojan forces, leading to a series of tragic and horrific events.
The Odyssey, on the other hand, is the story of the Greek hero Odysseus and his journey home from Troy, detailing the problems that he faces along the way and his desire to get back to his wife, Penelope. Both poems deal with themes of love, death, and war – whilst also being highly entertaining reads. Starting here would be the equivalent of jumping into the deep end, so if you feel overwhelmed by the style and density of it all, come back to it later when you feel ready – it will be worth it.
Next up is something a little less heavy. The Athenian philosopher Plato wrote many long and detailed ‘dialogues’ (so named because they detail conversations between different characters discussing the subject at hand) on a huge variety of subjects, from the running of a proper state to the meaning of life itself. If all that sounds daunting, that’s okay. It is. This is why Plato’s ‘Symposium’ is a perfect entry point. In this dialogue, Plato asks “what is love”?
A Symposium, what the poem is named after, was basically a great big party where all the best and brightest of ancient Athens would get together and drink, eat, and discuss. The characters involved are real life people that Plato was familiar with, each one as interesting as the next. Plato’s teacher, Socrates, takes the place of resident know-it-all (which is probably why the Athenian government forced him to drink poison). The comic playwright Aristophanes has a very entertaining vision of love which may have influenced our conception of soul-mates. And, stealing the show completely is Alcibiades, who arrives half-way through to drunkenly confess his love to Socrates. Needless to say, not only does this make for a highly enjoyable read, it also brings up a whole load of interesting ideas about love.
Aristophanes didn’t just sit around discussing love with his friends – his scathingly political comedies were incredibly popular in ancient Athens and would even go on to influence Shakespeare. Whilst the Greek tragedies by Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides are more famous (and highly recommended), Aristophanes is particularly unique. His comedies were performed in ancient theatres, like the one built underneath the Acropolis at Athens. Both rich and poor would view his comedies, which was especially important, as he often made jokes at the expense of the rich and pompous faces in the crowd. Aristophanes wasn’t all political, either – most of his plays have plenty of sexual innuendos.
Aristophanes wrote a large number of plays, of which only a few survive. In one, ‘Lysistrata’ (named after the main character), the women of Greece deny any and all sex to their husbands in the hope that in doing so, they will stop fighting and return home. Because of this, towards the end of the play many of the male characters strut around on stage sporting comically large erections – much to the enjoyment of Lysistrata and the other women. Other recommendations are ‘The Frogs’ – where the god Dionysus must travel into the underworld to retrieve a playwright who will help stop the war tearing Athens apart – and ‘The Knights’ – where Aristophanes attacks the politician Cleon in a way even today’s comedians would be afraid to.
Last – but certainly not least – we turn to the glory of imperial Rome, and its greatest champion: Julius Caesar. What many people might not know is that Caesar was not just a commander and a politician – he also wrote down his great conquests and wars in two books: ‘The Gallic War’ covering his conquest of Gaul, or modern day France, and ‘The Civil War’ detailing the wars against his former friend and ally, Pompey.
These two books are fascinating reads, detailing the plans and logistics behind his conquests. If you ever wanted to learn how to command and lead a Roman legion into battle, this would be the place to start. They are also fairly easy to read and the fact that they are written by Caesar himself lend them a certain power that two thousand years has not diminished.
So there we have it: four recommendations to get you into the wild world that was Greece and Rome. And if you’ve read through those and want more, it just keeps coming – the histories of Herodotus, the biographies of Plutarch – even notes on how to life a life worth living by Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius!