Readers new to the Homeric epics do not enter a single, self-contained story; rather, they enter an oral tradition of interconnected stories that embody an ancient value system. The poems that modern people experience by reading, likely alone, would likely have been experienced by ancient people communally as a song embedded within a larger ritual. To appreciate how the Homeric poems interacted with and what they may have meant to those people requires some exploration of their historical and cultural contexts. The following books provide that context in a way that is accessible for readers at all levels.
Written in accessible, engaging prose, Graziosi’s book provides a concise introduction to the Homeric epics and their challenges and rewards for modern readers. This is highly recommended reading for nonspecialists looking to gain deeper understanding of the epics.
The Penguin Books of Classical Myths by Jenny March
March covers major ancient Graeco-Roman myths by family in a lively, conversational voice. What makes her book stand out among the many summaries and retellings available is that March provides ancient sources for the myths she discusses via translated passages and line references. Her book is a useful resource for readers who would like to trace myths to their ancient sources.
Greek Mythology: A Traveler’s Guide from Mount Olympus to Troy by David Stuttard
Like The Penguin Book of Classical Myths, Stuttard’s book provides retellings of mythical stories, but his angle is different. If you’re interested not only in the stories but also in the geography of myth, Stuttard’s book is a illuminating read. He takes readers to the sites of myth, providing descriptions—both his own and from ancient sources. He talks about the gods and heroes associated with specific places and includes illustrations.
The Gods of Olympus: A History by Barbara Graziosi
Written for a general audience, The Gods of Olympus addresses both what the gods and goddesses of Hellenic myths may have meant to their earliest known audiences and how those meanings evolved across history. Graziosi begins in archaic Greece, then follows the gods and goddesses through classical Athens, Hellenistic Egypt, the Roman Empire, the middle ages, and the Renaissance. I recommend this book especially for readers who are interested in the history of mythology and its transmission across time.
Homer: A Beginner’s Guide by Elton Barker and Joel Christensen
This short book provides an thought-provoking, insightful introduction to the Homeric epics’ characters and themes. It includes a brief introduction and three chapters on each poem, moving through them chronologically. One of the book’s most valuable assets is its authors’ comfort with duality and paradox, qualities that suffuse the Homeric epics. The book is accessibly written and jargon-free without losing depth and profundity. The authors do not front-load cultural context but draw on it as they go, performing an organic internal reading.
Introducing the Ancient Greeks by Edith Hall
Hall’s history of ancient Greece covers the Bronze Age through 391 AD, when the oracle at Delphi was shut down, through the lens of ten qualities she believes enabled the Greeks to achieve what they did. Her obvious passion for the topic makes this not only an informative but also an enjoyable read.
Eureka! Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Ancient Greeks But Were Afraid to Ask by Peter Jones
Jones’ book is a lively and fun collection of bite-sized information, proceeding chronologically and covering everything from myths, key intellectual and artistic figures, and cultural life, to war and political systems. This is an entertaining guide to ancient Greece.
Translations & Introductions
Along with the challenge of understanding ancient contexts, English readers of Homer’s epics face the challenge of negotiating translators’ interpretations of the Homeric poems and their world, which have been mediated by more than two thousand years of reception. Vigorous debates over how the poems should be translated continue. Should the translator prioritize reproducing the Greek text’s aesthetic qualities or meaning?
The Institute takes the position that, since neither the epics’ poetic effects nor their performance contexts can be reproduced in English, attempting to convey the meaning as closely as possible takes priority over aesthetic effects. As such, the following translations are recommended, along with their introductions, when noted.
The Iliad translated by Anthony Verity, introduction by Barbara Graziosi and The Odyssey translated by Anthony Verity, introduction by William Allen.
Verity’s translations stay very close to the Greek text, translating line by line as much as is possible. He explains in his translator’s note that his concern was to reproduce the meaning, not create a poetic effect. The introductions by Graziosi and Allen both provide brief overviews of the poems’ themes and cultural contexts without overloading readers.
The Iliad and The Odyssey translated by Richmond Lattimore.
Lattimore’s translations have been valued as a faithful, poetic translations and used widely in university classrooms. For younger students, his language may present an obstacle to engagement as it can present as slightly more stilted and dated.
The Iliad and The Odyssey translated by Robert Fagles.
Fagles’ translations tend to be longer than others, as he at times embellishes and expands on meanings. Some find his language more accessible than Lattimore’s and more poetic than Verity’s.
The Iliad and The Odyssey translated by E. V. Rieu
Rieu’s translations have been called by some scholars the most successful English-language translations. The benefits for younger readers are the translations’ accessibility, as the clear prose makes them feel like reading novels.
The Iliad and The Odyssey translated by Samuel Butler
Other accessible prose editions, which are also available online for free, are those of Butler, dating to 1899 and 1900 respectively. They bear the stamp of their time, reading like 19th century novels with which students may be familiar, if not comfortable.