Some useful texts for Ancient Historians and Archaeologists

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As the beginning of the academic year commences, I thought it worth thinking about what books a student hoping to do Ancient History or Classics might need. By the end of my first year at uni, my straining shelves held over one hundred books, so I know which are essential and which are a waste of space which could be put to better use holding empty vodka bottles and the box your iron came in.

The books I’m going to recommend are a mixture of primary and secondary sources are often the essential texts of many modules (which have many differing applications in the realm of Ancient History) and are good reading to reinforce your background knowledge.

Due to the wonderful way academic publishing works, some of these books are incredibly expensive, I would recommend taking advantage of your library and the access your university provides to download copies for your own use.

Edit 1: I have updated the list to include more women and people of colour, as it was embarrassingly lacking. Classics as a discipline should strive to be more inclusive in how texts are assigned, whilst taking into account how the origins of the discipline are immersed in white-supremacy and colonialism.

Edit 2: I am included the link to the website Perseus and Loebolus so the primary sources can be accessed for free.

Edit 3: This link to Ancient World Magazine’s resources page includes lots of useful websites for Classicists, Ancient Historians and Archaeologists

The Iliad and Odyssey by Homer: The two cornerstones of western literature and of the Classical Tradition. There will be plenty of opportunities to use these texts, whether you are discussing poetry, the Mycenaeans and the dark ages or Greek religion. Since the poems are the product of an oral tradition they are a mish mash of various Greek time periods they are useful for many aspects of Classical Studies. They’re very fun to read too.

The Histories by Herodotus: The first surviving work of History is must for all students of ancient history. Herodotus’ telling of the Persian War and the deeds of the Greeks and Barbarians is an amazing feat that brings together many different styles of Greek literature. Useful for covering historical events from the Archaic and early Classical periods as well as how the Greeks viewed those they called ‘barbarians.’ Herodotus’ inquiries into the people beyond the Greek world is truly fascinating as it shows how truly interconnected the ancient world was.

The Peloponnesian War by Thucydides: Thucydides is often hailed as the founder of political science in his detailed analysis of the cause and effects of the actions of the Greek states before and during the Peloponnesian War.

Histories of Polybius: An excellent source for the Hellenistic Period and the Roman Republic, Polybius was at the heart of the action, witnessing the destruction of Carthage and being a key member of the Greek Achaean League. His constitution of the Roman Republic was part of his argument as to why Rome became the dominant power in the Mediterranean   

Annals and Histories of Tacitus: Covering the period from the death of Augustus to the death of Domitian, Tacitus outlines his point that the success of Rome is down to the emperor being a point of cohesion between the unstable mix of a large empire and rebellious legions.

Twelve Caesars by Suetonius: If Tacitus is all serious, Suetonius is all gossip. This is an unfair assessment of his work, but the titbits and little details he has about the lives of the emperors is certainly interesting and often a contrast to his near contemporary Tacitus. Suetonius’ role as correspondence secretary to the emperor Hadrian meant he had unlimited access to the imperial achieves, and it shows, since he is often a very reliable source.

The Hellenistic World: Using Coins as Sources by Peter Thonemann: This book provides a history of the Hellenistic period using coins. Covering the entire period and going beyond the tradition borders of the Hellenistic World (what was Alexander’s Empire) into the Arabian Peninsula, Western Europe and Africa. An excellent resource for talking about royal propaganda and the freedom of the Poleis during this period.

Pompeii: Life of a Roman Town by Mary Beard: Beard’s examination of the material recovered from Pompeii is a joy to read. It covers themes from the family, gender, the history of archaeology, and daily life in the ancient world. A highly informative read that feeds into many part of the study of Rome, not just Pompeii, since Pompeii and Herculaneum make up the majority of finds that help us understand the Roman period.

Classical Archaeology edited by Susan E. Alcock and Robin Osborne: A collection of essays that examine the question of what Classical Archaeology is and how is differs from just ‘archaeology’. The main point being that it combines elements from art history, and philology. In my view, Classical Archaeology is what you make it, from the study of Greek vases in a Museum to looking Roman Earthworks from a drone in Scotland.

Courtesans and Fishcakes: The Consuming Passions of Classical Athens by James Davidson: A work that tackles the pleasures of food, drink and sex. Davidson uses the literature as artefacts that illustrate and explain, but which also have their own biases. Doing this doesn’t just show us what the Greeks thought about these things, but also their own stereotypes and how they wanted these things to be presented.

Antiochus III and the Cities of Western Asia Minor by John Ma: This book is a useful text for those interested in Ancient Turkey, the Seleukids (plus general Hellenistic History) and epigraphy. Ma tackles relations between the Seleukid Empire and Hellenistic Poleis of Asia Minor, and examines how power was shared and expressed.

Rome, Empire of Plunder: The Dynamics of Cultural Appropriation edited by Dan-el Padilla Peralta, Carolyn Macdonald and Matthew P. Loar: This book applies a modern term to an ancient phenomena, with interesting results. It seeks to analyse and examine how Rome took parts from all across its empire to make and remake itself, and charts the violent interactions that made this possible.

The works of Zena Kamash:
– ‘Remembering Roman Syria‘ Bulletin of the Institute of Classical Studies, vol. 62, no. 1
Kamash, Z 2018, ‘‘Sweet and Delicious, he who Tastes it will Go Back to it’: Food, Memory and Religion in the Roman Middle East‘ Theoretical Roman Archaeology Journal, vol. 1, no. 1, pp. 1-15
Kamash is an Classical Archaeologist who specialises in studies in Roman Britain and the Roman Levant, she examines various sites and how people lived in the ancient world. The wide ranging geographic range of her work allows comparisons within the Roman cultural sphere.

Trade and Taboo: Disreputable Professionals in the Roman Mediterranean by Sarah Bond: By tackling those professions that seem disruputable, Bond opens the ancient world up and examines the prejudices that existed back then. She asks questions such as why do some professions come with such dishonour and were these people self-aware of it?
She has also published multiple articles about the decolonisation of the Classics and the reception of Classics in the modern world in magazines such as Hyperallergic and Eidolon.

Not All Dead White Men: Classics and Misogyny in the Digital Age by Donna Zuckerberg: Speaking of Eidolon, the magazines founder and lead editor recently wrote a book that addresses the increasing number of alt-right figures who cite precedent in the ancient world. Zuckerberg gracefully examines both the offending individuals and the offending texts and then offers an excellent feminist rebuttal of the arguments put forward by the ‘manosphere.’

Handbook for Classical Research by David M. Schaps: This is guide book about all the various sub-disciplines in Classics and argues that it is always best to take the approach of a generalist in order to avoid being boxed into a corner. It also contains an excellent further reading list for all the various disciplines, and offers help in how to approach all the different topics that are under the umbrella of Classical Studies.


This article is part of a series, Study Guides


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