Historical Musings #25: Ancient Greece

Historical Musings As discussed in a previous Historical Musings post, despite my love of historical fiction I have never really felt drawn to novels set in the ancient world. I’m not sure why this should be, but I have certainly read very few books set in Ancient Rome, Greece, Egypt or other ancient cultures, and feel much more comfortable with settings from the medieval period onwards. Since that previous post, when I specifically asked for suggestions of Roman novels to try, I have read Robert Harris’ Cicero trilogy (which I loved and can’t recommend highly enough), Margaret George’s The Confessions of Young Nero, and my current read, I, Claudius by Robert Graves, so I think I’m over my aversion to Ancient Rome! Now I need some help with Ancient Greece…

Thinking about books I’ve already read that are set in Ancient Greece, there are some but not many. I have read Homer’s Odyssey (in a translation by TE Lawrence), though not the Iliad yet – it’s debatable whether you would consider those to be historical fiction, I suppose, but they’re obviously a good starting point for exploring Greek history and myth.

Based, like the Iliad, on the Trojan War, there’s The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller, which tells the story from the perspective of Patroclus, and Hand of Fire by Judith Starkston, this time retelling events through the eyes of Briseis. Briseis is also one of the main characters – the other is Chryseis – in Emily Hauser’s For the Most Beautiful, which I read last year and enjoyed. I’ve recently received a review copy of the next book in the series, For the Winner, a book about Jason and the Argonauts and the Golden Fleece.

The books I’ve mentioned so far are all inspired by Greek mythology, some of them including appearances by gods or other mythological beings. Burning Sappho by Martha Rofheart is a bit different, concentrating on the life of Sappho, the Greek lyric poet from the island of Lesbos.

Finally, I must mention Mary Renault, a beloved author of many readers when it comes to historical novels set in Ancient Greece. So far I have only read The King Must Die, the first of her two novels telling the story of Theseus in a way which gives plausible explanations for elements of the Theseus myth. I enjoyed it, but didn’t fall in love with it the way I’d hoped to, and still need to read the sequel, The Bull from the Sea.

What are your favourite books set in Ancient Greece? Have you read any that I’ve mentioned here?

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19 thoughts on “Historical Musings #25: Ancient Greece”

  1. I’ve also read very little from Ancient Greece when compared to my readings set in Ancient Rome or Egypt. I can offer one suggestion though: The Conqueror’s Wife by Stephanie Thornton. It explores the lives of the women and men in Alexander the Great’s life, seeing how they shaped him and how their association with him shaped their lives. As per the par with Thornton, settings and everyday life is lushly described and made real for the reader. It’s one of those visceral reads you’ll experience and not just read. You’ll also get to explore Ancient Persia along with Ancient Greece. So a two-fer!! LOL

    1. A few people have recommended Stephanie Thornton to me, but I still haven’t tried any of her books. Thanks for suggesting The Conqueror’s Wife – I should probably read it, as I know even less about Ancient Persia than I do about Ancient Greece!

  2. I read The King Must Die and The Bull From The Sea when I was a teenager, and I still love them. I also love Mary Renault’s first two books about Alexander, Fire From Heaven and The Persian Boy, though I’m less keen on the third, Funeral Games. But my favourite book set in ancient Greece is The Flowers of Adonis, by Rosemary Sutcliff, which is about Alcibiades. Out of print but well worth the effort of finding it.

    1. The Flowers of Adonis is one of the Rosemary Sutcliff books I’m particularly looking forward to reading, after you recommended it in another comment a while ago (I think it was you). It seems to be available in an ebook version so I might be able to read it soon.

  3. The King Must Die and The Bull from the Sea have always resonated with me, but maybe it’s personal; I thrust them upon my husband after a recent reread and he is puzzled by my enthusiasm. I then went on to try to read Fire from Heaven but got bored by Alexander’s obsession with fighting, though I suppose that’s necessary if you’re going to conquer the world before the age of thirty. I still want to read more of Renault’s books, especially those that go into other aspects of ancient life like music and drama. And Flowers of Adonis sounds wonderful, I will need to seek that out.

    1. Unlike most of Rosemary Sutcliff’s novels, The Flowers of Adonis is written for adults. I’m not sure if she wrote a children’s book about Greece – I can’t think of one offhand.

      1. She did a retelling of the Illiad and the Odyssey aimed at children. That’s all I can think of. I second the recommendation for FLOWERS FOR ADONIS.

        I used to love Renault’s Theseus duo, but when I tried to reread both in the last year, I bounced off, hard. Not sure why.

    2. I did enjoy The King Must Die, but not as much as I’d hoped to, which is why I still haven’t got round to reading the sequel. I’ve been wondering whether I might have better luck with the Alexander books so I would definitely like to try Fire From Heaven, although an obsession with fighting doesn’t sound very appealing!

  4. I did love The King Must Die and The Bull From the Sea. I also read and loved Firebrand by Marion Zimmer Bradley. It is her take on the Trojan War from the female point of view.

  5. I second the comments about The King Must Die, from which I retain strong teenage impressions. Another novel I enjoyed immensely many years ago was by (I think) Henry Treece about Oedipus, powerful stuff as I remember though I seem to have given my ex-library copy away during a house move. Must locate it (the novel, not that particular copy!) again soon. I think you’d enjoy it.

    And how about some of the originals? I recently reread Xenophon’s Persian Expedition — another title from my teenage years — and, given that the author was not an entirely reliable narrator, one could almost regard this as a novel (though without the sort of satisfactory concluding tying up of threads you’d expect from a modern fiction).

    Back in the Roman world, what about that racy classical novel Satiricon? I think it was Fellini who made a curious film out of it, as disjointed as the original was in plot but no less entertaining.

    1. I think the Henry Treece book must be The Eagle King? It’s out of print but there should be secondhand copies available. It does sound good. As for the originals, I’m definitely interested in trying some of them at some point in the future, although I think I would like to increase my general knowledge of Ancient Greece first before tackling anything more challenging. I’ll have to keep Persian Expedition in mind. Thanks for the suggestions. 🙂

        1. Yes, it probably was. I’m not sure why the UK title didn’t show up at first when I searched for Henry Treece on the UK Amazon! It does now. 🙂

  6. I must admit I don’t think I have never read anything set in Ancient Greece. Even though from a young age I have had an obsession with Greek Mythology and I still love many TV shows, films and fantasy books that are inspired by the mythological heroes, gods and monsters. Actually Jason and the Argonauts is still one of my favourite films, so I look forward to your thoughts on For the Winner 🙂

    1. I remember watching Jason and the Argonauts years ago and enjoying it, so I’m looking forward to reading the new Emily Hauser book and reminding myself of the story. 🙂

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