by Jordanna Max Brodsky
The epics of Homer, written some 2800 years ago, became the Western world’s first adventure stories. The stirring tales of gods and heroes, battles and quests, continue to inspire many authors today, myself included. My debut novel, The Immortals, follows Artemis, the Greek Goddess of the Hunt, as she tracks a serial killer through Manhattan, solving mysteries both ancient and modern along the way.
Artemis and her Olympian family may exist only in our imaginations, but to the people of antiquity—and to those of us still moved by their stories—they seem very much alive. The vitality of the myths is due in large part to the excellence of the literature itself, much of it first written down in Golden Age Athens or Augustinian Imperial Rome, two brief eras that represent the greatest heights of classical civilization.
Here are ten of my favorite books, both ancient and modern, that conjure the Olympian world most vividly.
D’Aulaires’ Greek Myths by Ingri d’Aulaire and Edgar Parin d’Aulaire
Let’s be honest. It can be hard to jump into classical Greek literature without at least some background knowledge. (The Immortals has a glossary in the back, but not all other Greek-themed books do.) D’Aulaires’ aims at younger readers, but adults find it equally appealing. You could certainly tackle Edith Hamilton’s Mythology instead, but it reads more like an encyclopedia. For narrative flow and lovely illustrations that bring the gods to life, this compendium of myths is the way to go.
The Iliad by Homer
If you’re looking for the full story of the Trojan War, be warned: The Iliad only covers part of the last year of the decade-long war. Nonetheless, this tale of the warrior Achilles and his fury is as action-packed as any modern blockbuster. Heroes fight heroes, gods fight gods, and heroes fight gods in every possible permutation. At its heart, however, this is the story of Achilles’ own inner struggles with pride, jealousy, love, and despair. Robert Fagles’s fantastic translation in modern verse is readable and rhythmic, capturing the spirit and driving power of the original text.
The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller
My favorite contemporary retelling of an ancient Greek tale. The narrator is Patroclus, the best friend (and more?) of Achilles. Though thoroughly accessible, the prose captures the strength and beauty of Homer’s style. The two warriors—one mortal and unimposing, the other half-divine and gloriously powerful—share a deep love that begins with their storied boyhood and reaches its apex amid the bloody conflict beneath the walls of Troy. The story is shatteringly beautiful. A perfect, deeply personal counterpart to The Iliad.
The Odyssey by Homer
After ten years of fighting the Trojans, it takes Odysseus (a.k.a. Ulysses), the war’s wiliest hero, even longer to make his way home to his wife and son. Even if you’ve never read the poem, you probably know more of it than you realize: the lure of the sirens’ song, the passage between Scylla and Charybdis, the lethargic Lotus-Eaters. Once again, Robert Fagles’s translation makes for a stirring read from the very first verse: “Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns… / Launch out on his story, Muse, daughter of Zeus, / start from where you will—sing for our time too.”
Theogony by Hesiod
Although less well-known to contemporary readers than Homer, Hesiod ranks right up there as one of antiquity’s most revered poets. His Theogony tells of the gods’ origins, beginning with the abyss of Chaos and ending with the Muses. Amid the rather impenetrable lists of divine genealogies (a bit like the Bible’s so-and-so begot such-and-such) are the bloody, brutal tales of revenge and usurpation that underlie Greek cosmology: Kronos’s castration of the Sky itself, Zeus’s devious overthrow of Kronos in turn, and the ensuing battle between the Olympians and Titans. Throw in some one-eyed Cyclopes and hundred-armed monsters for good measure and you can’t go wrong.
Metamorphoses by Ovid
A series of short stories by Ovid, a Roman poet retelling ancient Greek myths and Latin folklore (and often adding his own spin). The title refers in part to the gods’ penchant for transforming impious humans into animals, stones, flowers, and constellations—so there’s plenty of drama. Metamorphoses contains some of our most compelling versions of perennial adventure-quest tales, many of which were later turned into movies (with various degrees of success). Perseus and the Gorgon, Hercules’ labors, Jason and the Golden Fleece, the Trojan War—they’re all here. Ovid starts with his own version of the creation story and brings us all the way up to the murder of Julius Caesar (and his subsequent transformation into a star…of course).
The King Must Die by Mary Renault
With its sequel, The Bull from the Sea, Renault’s novel relates the life of Theseus, the Greek hero most famous for defeating the Minotaur in the Labyrinth. Later, Theseus becomes the king of Athens. Mixing historical evidence for early cult worship with traditional Greek lore, Renault creates a novel of adventure, romance, monsters, and intrigue that remains one of the most popular modern retellings of classical myth.
Medea by Euripides
The surviving Greek plays of the Classical Era give us an unparalleled glimpse into how the citizens of Athens saw their own history, religion, and culture. They also serve as the foundation for our own theatrical traditions, introducing the Western world to both heart-wrenching tragedy and ribald, riotous farce. My favorite remains Euripides’ Medea, the story of a woman scorned by both her society and her own husband, who will do anything (and I mean anything) to have her revenge. With a horror-movie ending sure to disturb even the most jaded, Medea is a fantastic introduction to the power of Greek tragedy.
Helen of Sparta by Amalia Carosella
A recent addition to the genre, Carosella’s novel (the first of a two-book series) follows the eponymous princess through her childhood and her first marriage—years before she becomes the famous “Helen of Troy” whose abduction starts the war. With its first-person female narrator, the novel provides a welcome corrective to the usual male-dominated myths. Fast-paced, full of action and romance, Helen of Sparta is a fascinating glimpse into the inner life of a woman everyone’s heard of and no one really knows.
The Aeneid by Virgil
Another Roman retelling of Greek myth, Virgil’s epic poem follows Aeneas, a prince of Troy, as he flees his destroyed city and eventually makes his way to Rome, where he becomes the ancient forebear of the Caesars. It is through Aeneas’s blood-soaked flashbacks (not through The Iliad, which ends before the war does) that we witness the carnage that the Trojan horse wreaks on Troy. The rest of the story is an adventure-quest, not unlike The Odyssey, in which Aeneas battles needy princesses, vindictive gods, and horrifying monsters to find his way to safety.