The term classical literature refers to the written works of the ancient Greeks and Romans, as well as various other ancient civilizations. While it can be intimidating to approach such imposing and oftentimes heavy works, reading classical literature opens the doors to the innermost thoughts of some of history’s greatest minds and allows the exploration of civilizations long past.
Here are 10 books that we recommend you read if you’re looking to immerse yourself in the world of classical literature, but don’t know where to start.
1. Elegies of Chu
One of the two surviving collections of ancient Chinese poetry, Elegies of Chu is a must have on the reading lists of poetry and classical fans alike.
The elegies are a key source for the whole tradition of Chinese poetry and contain passionate expressions of political protest as well as shamanistic themes of magic spells and wandering spirits. Because of this they present an alternative face of early Chinese culture; one that does not align with orthodox Confucianism.
2. Estate Management and Symposium
Estate Management and Symposium is a new translation of two of Xenophon’s most famous works.
The Oeconomicus describes Socrates conversing on the topic of successful management of one’s ‘oikos,’ or estate. The focus is a well-to-do Athenian household, which proves a testing ground for the moral qualities of the patriarch, but also a space in which the role of women turns out to be key. Symposium shifts to the men’s quarters of the home, describing an evening of conversation and entertainment at the house of an Athenian plutocrat. The conversation probes timeless questions regarding wisdom, love, and female capacity, and over it looms the deadly serious matter of Socrates’ trial and death.
3. Antigone and other Tragedies
Regarded as one of the greatest dramatists of all time, Sophocles and his works have directly influenced many artists and thinkers over the centuries. As such, we would be remiss to leave him off this list.
Antigone and other Tragedies is comprised of three of Sophocles’ well-known plays: Antigone, Deianeira, and Electra, all of which feature women as their unyielding hero. These three tragedies portray the extremes of human suffering and emotion, turning the heroic myths into supreme works of poetry and dramatic action all with a new and distinctive verse translations which seeks to convey the vitality of Sophocles’ poetry and the vigour of the plays in performance, doing justice to both the sound of the poetry and the theatricality of the tragedies.
4. Epigrams from the Greek Anthology
Encompassing four thousand epigrams, or short poems, this ramshackle classic gathers up a millennium of snapshots from ancient daily life. Victorious armies, ruined cities, Olympic champions and lovers’ quarrels can all be found between its covers – as well as jokes and riddles, art appreciation, potted biographies of authors, and scenes from country life and the workplace.
This selection features more than 600 epigrams in verse and is the first major translation from the Greek Anthology in nearly a century.
Ovid’s poetical calendar of the Roman year is both a day-by-day account of festivals and observances and their origins, and a delightful retelling of myths and legends associated with particular dates.
With tones ranging from tragedy to farce, and its subject matter from astronomy and obscure ritual to Roman history and Greek mythology, the poem relates a wealth of customs and beliefs, such as the unluckiness of marrying in May.
6. Constellation Myths
Constellation Myths is the only comprehensive compendium of the ancient myths of the stars and constellations, including the two main sources, Eratosthenes and Hyginus, together with Aratus’ Phaenomena, the earliest surviving account of the Greek constellations. This fascinating collection of mythological stories covers the constellations of the zodiac, the northern and southern skies, and the Milky Way and includes the stories of Europa, Orion’s pursuit of the Pleiades, the kneeling Heracles, Pegasus, Perseus and Andromeda, the golden ram, and many more.
Together with Aratus’s astronomical poem the Phaenomena, these texts provide a complete collection of Greek astral myths; imaginative and picturesque, they also offer an intriguing insight into ancient science and culture perfect for historians and astronomers alike.
7. The Odyssey
The Odyssey is without a doubt one of the most well-known pieces of classical literature out there.
Homer’s great epic poem encapsulates the power of cunning over strength, the pitfalls of temptation, and the importance of home.
The Odyssey rivals the Iliad as the greatest poem of Western culture and is perhaps the most influential text of classical literature.
8. The Interpretation of Dreams
Artemidorus’ The Interpretation of Dreams is the richest and most vivid pre-Freudian account of dream interpretation, and the only dream-book to have survived complete from Graeco-Roman times. Composed in a time when dreams were believed by many to offer insight into future events, the work is a compendium of interpretations of dreams on a wide range of subjects relating to the natural, human, and divine worlds.
Artemidorus’ technique of dream interpretation uniquely stresses the need to know the background of the dreamer, making this work far more than simply a dream dictionary, but also a fascinating social history that reveals much about ancient life, culture, beliefs, and attitudes to the dominant power of Imperial Rome.
9. Six Tragedies
If you’re in the market for something on the darker side, this compilation of six tragedies by Seneca is exactly what you’re looking for.
Tutor to the emperor Nero, Seneca lived through uncertain and violent times, and his dramas depict the extremes of human behaviour. In these works of his passion consistently wins out against reason, and rape, suicide, child-killing, incestuous love, madness and mutilation afflict the characters, who are obsessed and destroyed by their feelings. In his works Seneca forces us to think about the difference between compromise and hypocrisy, about what happens when emotions overwhelm judgement, and about how, if at all, a person can be good, calm, or happy in a corrupt society and under constant threat of death.
Phaedrus is widely recognized as one of Plato’s most profound and beautiful works.
It takes the form of a dialogue between Socrates and Phaedrus. The two begin by discussing love, which Socrates describes as a kind of divine madness that can allow our souls to grow wings and soar to their greatest heights. Then the conversation then changes direction and turns to a discussion of rhetoric, which must be based on truth passionately sought, thus allying it to philosophy. The dialogue closes by denigrating the value of the written word in any context, compared to the living teaching of a Socratic philosopher.