If you’ve ever been curious about the stories of the ancient Greeks, but felt intimidated by the prospect of tackling literature written so long ago, you’re not alone. It can be daunting to approach texts written in a language we don’t know, for an audience so different from ourselves. But if you’re willing to take the plunge, there are some great options out there.
The Iliad and Odyssey are two of the most famous works of ancient Greek literature, and while they’re both worth reading, I would actually recommend starting with the Odyssey. Its episodic nature and the various characters met along the way make it remarkably digestible for such a long and ancient work. Plus, there is a recent and highly acclaimed English translation by Dr. Emily Wilson.
If you’re not quite ready for a 12,000-line epic poem, then why not try out an ancient play or two? Consumable in a few hours and full of gripping drama, they offer an insight into Greek literature and culture through stories that may be familiar or completely unknown to you. Most Greek plays are easily available to buy in translation, in the form of Penguin Classics or similar. These editions will usually include helpful notes for obscure references or details that don’t easily translate, as well as introductions to the plays, their writers, and the context in which they were created.
I’ve read my fair share of ancient Greek plays over the years, and I’ve put together a list of my top five recommendations for those looking to explore this timeless literature. Content warning: murder, child murder, incest, self-mutilation, suicide, extreme violence, gore.
Sophocles’ Oedipus the King is one of the most iconic pieces of tragic theatre, and its dramatic irony is both tragic and delicious. Antigone is another classic from Sophocles, with a simple plot that escalates into an intense battle of wills between the new king Creon and his headstrong niece Antigone. Euripides’ Medea is a divisive character, an anti-heroine if there ever was one. Her portrayal by Euripides shows her both at her brilliant best and diabolical worst. Bacchae is named for its chorus, a group of singers and dancers that appears throughout Greek drama. The god Dionysus is a key character in this play, and when the puritanical King Pentheus refuses to recognize his divinity, Dionysus reveals just how dangerous a disrespected god can be. Lastly, Aristophanes’ Lysistrata is an example of Greek comedy—and it is genuinely funny! After years of war between Athens and Sparta, the women of both cities are tired of conflict and decide to take matters into their own hands by organizing a sex strike.
So if you’re looking to explore the stories of the ancient Greeks without a modern lens, then these five plays are a great place to start. They will not only give you an insight into Greek literature and culture, but also enrich your understanding of the history of storytelling.