Every book I've run across that talks about ancient Greece in any useful detail assumes that you've already had a course in ancient history, and at the very least that you're pretty familiar with the historical events of roughly 775 BCE to 330 BCE. I suspect that most of you aren't. Almost any history on the time period will do, but this is the best one I've found: Thomas R. Martin, Ancient Greece from Prehistoric to Hellenistic Times.
It's brief. It's clear and easy to read. It's broad in scope. It's up to date. It's commonly assigned reading, so used copies are available from around $5. And best of all, if you can stand to read it online, it's available for free online
through the Perseus Project, and the Perseus web site also includes links from the text to relevant primary historical passages online. So definitely, unless you already are pretty fluent in Greek history, start here.
Speaking of which, there is one web site that you absolutely must bookmark if you're interested in any of this, any of it at all, and that's the Perseus Project
. The Perseus Project is a product of the classics department at Tufts University, and it has every surviving ancient Greek and ancient Latin text online in both the original language and translation. The original language versions include lexical links to help you in translation. In addition to Thomas Martin's book as an online historical overview, it also includes searchable Greek and Latin dictionaries, the Perseus Encyclopedia which is a topical index of the texts, and a huge searchable library of archaeological images and maps. It's your one-stop shop for primary source material.
If you like to get your history from fiction, there are two books that I absolutely adore, and can't recommend highly enough. Oddly enough, both of them involve devotees of Dionysus, an actor and a comedic poet, and both mostly take place between the Peloponnesian War and the invasion of Syracuse. Mary Renault is most famous for her Theseus trilogy and her Alexander trilogy, but I liked one of her stand-alone novels even better: The Mask of Apollo.
It's the story of a professional actor at the top of his craft, an award-winning protagonist. Because he travels, the city wants him to act as a spy sometimes, as an informal envoy others. What he wants is to walk the tightrope between being too traditional for modern audiences, and pandering to the increasingly irreverent audiences so much that he feels he's betrayed the gods. But what he mostly really wants is just to be the best. Tom Holt, who's more famous for modern and fantasy satire, wrote a serious two-volume series set during the same time period, a fictionalized life of the comic poet Eumolpus, a contemporary, neighbor, and competitor of Aristophanes, called The Walled Orchard.
Fortunately for him, the god Dionysus saved him from the great plague of Athens. Unfortunately for him, the god tells him in a vision, it's because they have an appointment at the walled orchard, where he's going to save the life of the god's favorite comic poet. Note that I got my copy of The Walled Orchard
as a combined two-in-one volume that Amazon US doesn't seem to have listed, only Amazon UK. If your copy of The Walled Orchard
does not also include it, make sure you pick up volume 1 in the series, Goatsong,
first. The Mask of Apollo
is more serious, more sober, and more historical, and a lot more dramatic. The Walled Orchard
's got more funny bits, especially about the great universals of the theater business. I loved them both.
Now, to religion. There are two absolutely essential secondary sources. The standard official textbook on ancient Greek religion is called, unsurprisingly, Greek Religion
by Walter Burkert. It is clearly intended to be a postgraduate college textbook. It covers an awful lot of material, and it covers it in a hurry. It assumes that you can keep up, that you're already fluent in Greek history and accustomed to reading college textbooks. It's useful, maybe even essential, but it is neither an easy nor a pleasant read. What's more, if you're any kind of a modern Hellenic Reconstructionist, it doesn't really answer the question of what it was really like
to worship the gods in that time and place. That's why I'm glad I found another book which I consider not only more readable, but more important and more useful. After Martin, start with this one!
It's Jon D. Mikalson, Athenian Popular Religion.
Through various bits of luck, I stumbled across some absolutely fabulous secondary sources for cultural information. The one absolute must-read volume in this set other than Mikalson, and one of the best books I've read in years period, is James Davidson's Courtesans and Fishcakes: The Consuming Passions of Athens.
In fact, if you don't read anything
else I recommend in this article, read this one. You'll thank me later. There are other books on the Eleusinian Mysteries, but it is well worth your trouble to track down a copy of Gordon Wasson, Albert Hofmann, and Carl Rucks' The Road to Eleusis,
especially if you can get your hands on a copy of the second edition. There are some amazing works of art, and even more importantly some insights into ancient Greek history and culture that you can not find anywhere else because the necessary artifacts are in Secret Museums or involve Forbidden Lore, in Catherine Johns' Sex or Symbol? Erotic Images of Greek and Rome.
More marvelous art can be found, along with an excellent set of insights into the history and sacred context of theater from the epic poets to "new comedy" in Richard Green & Eric Handley's Images of the Greek Theater.
A bad translation can put you off of the whole text. For example, most people think that Works and Days
is deadly dull. That's because they haven't read the only really, really artfully good translation I've found yet, and that's the one by Stanley Lombardo (edited by Robert Lamberton). It's the only translation I've seen yet that actually understands that this isn't just a famer's almanac, but that it was written as a performance piece, and it captures the tone of such a performance just marvelously. (It also includes Theogony.) For the Iliad
and the Odyssey,
your choices are a lot wider and run to personal taste. If you don't like the one you're reading, put it down and try another one. Personally, I think that Barnes & Noble's "Collector's Library" set of $5 pocket-sized hardcover editions (which are beautiful things in and of themselves) made the right choices from the public domain texts, Andrew Lang for the Iliad
and T.E. Lawrence for the Odyssey.
I don't have favorite translations for the plays, I just read whatever I could get my hands on, mostly public domain texts through Project Gutenberg
and whatever I could get my hands on through libraries and used book sales. I know that I feel that I learned more about the society from the comedies than I did from the tragedies, and in particular, if you get this far, it is worth your while both for sheer entertainment value and for the insight into the society to track down all of the Aristophanes
you can get your hands on. Don't pass up Euripides
either. Save the classic tragedies of Sophocles
for when you're already feeling depressed.