The classics are easily divided into three categories: Ancient, Medieval, and Modern. Ancient classics are those written before the fall of Rome. Medieval classics were written between the fall of Rome and the Reformation. And modern classics were written after the Reformation.
Since ideas and stories build on each other, the best place to start reading the classics is with the Ancients. And to start you on your way through the ancient classics, here is my list of the seven must-read classics from the Ancient period.
My first experience with the ancient classics was when I read Homer’s Odyssey one summer as required reading for my senior English class in high school. Despite my initial resistance, Homer’s poetry seized my imagination and refused to let go. I finished the entire epic in a matter of days.
Though the Odyssey is a rousing good story, what attracted me to the epic wasn’t its entertainment value, but what it was saying about my own life–about my own wanderings as a teenager casting about for the solid ground of identity, meaning, and purpose. Odysseus’ struggles to reach his wife and homeland became a metaphor for my own storm-tossed desires and anxieties.
Remarkably for me at the time, an ancient poem had deeply affected my vision of the world. It taught me that my struggles and angst could actually lead somewhere, to some solid ground beyond the horizon. My wanderings were meaningless without a destination.
And so, Homer’s Odyssey awakened me to the power and wonders of literature, which is why the Odyssey is always the first classic I recommend from the Ancient period.
The recommendations below are all Greek or Roman, since these cultures have profoundly shaped our own. Though some may object that I’ve ignored important Asian texts, I’m firmly convinced that before you study someone else’s culture, you had better know your own.
In addition to a summary, I’ve included a link to my recommended translation of each book.
- Odyssey–Arguably the most important piece of ancient literature, Homer’s Odyssey is the story of Odysseus’ journey home from the Trojan War. His wanderings through mythic lands teach him the superiority of wits over weapons, and he employs these lessons to rescue his beleagured wife from scores of knavish suitors. The Odyssey encourages us to persevere in our own homecoming as well. Recommended translation: Robert Fagles
- Republic–In a rambling dialogue, Plato lays out his ideal government and his definition of the good man, but the most interesting part of this book is in chapters 8-10 which discuss the philosopher-king, the supremacy of goodness, the difference between forms and matter, and a lot of other ideas central to classical thought. If you can’t make it through the entire Republic, at least read chapters 8-10. If you can’t make it through three books of Plato, read at least the Allegory of the Cave in ch. 9. Then, after thinking about what the Allegory means, read the rest of the Republic. Recommended translation: Robin Waterfield
- Aeneid–Written to celebrate the arrival of worldwide peace under Caesar Augustus, Virgil’s epic story tells of Aeneas’ escapes from the flames of Troy to found the future nation of Rome. Along the way he survives the seductive beauty of Dido, the numbing drug of nostalgia, and the fiery ire of Turnus. And he gets the girl in the end. Recommended translation: Robert Fagles
- Metamorphoses–Ovid’s unusual book is a long poem that weaves together the bulk of Greco-Roman myths. Each story flows seamlessly into the next through some kind of metamorphosis–a shape-shifting of character, plot, or allusion. Underlying Ovid’s stories is the ancient idea that the world won’t tolerate any kind of imbalance, especially the kind brought on by blinding passion. Recommended translation: Charles Martin
- Nicomachean Ethics–The Ethics is Aristotle’s famous investigation of the nature of human happiness. Understanding that all humans seek happiness as their ultimate end, Aristotle seeks to define what happiness is and how humans can attain it. Two elements that are absolutely vital to acquiring happiness are virtue–which we’d expect–and friends. Aristotle spends 20% of his entire book discussing friendship, and he makes many points we moderns desperately need to hear. Recommended translation: David Ross
- Oedipus Rex–The quintessential Greek tragedy: admirable hero with excessive pride tries to outsmart the gods by fleeing from a horrifying prophecy–only to run straight into his damning fate. Themes of blindness and knowledge, fate and choice, justice and atonement fill the lines of Sophocles’ play. Aristotle considered this play to be the most tragic of all Greek tragedies: few readers ever disagree. Recommended translation: David Grene
- The Bacchae–This is Euripedes’ tragic story of King Pentheus, who tries to resist the socially disruptive worship of Dionysus. As with all humans who contend with the gods, Pentheus comes to a gruesome end. Bacchae presents the important theme of the two contrary forces in human beings: a force of reason/order, and a force of desire/disorder. For the ancient Greeks, human happiness depended on finding and maintaining a balance between these two forces. This play also clearly portrays the concept of the pharmakos, or scapegoat: the bloody sacrifice of a single human to cleanse the entire community from its guilt. Recommended translation: Philip Vellacott
- The Next Seven–If seven books isn’t enough (it never is), here are seven more:
So skip the theater this weekend and load your shelves with some great books instead.
Better yet, buy these books for your kids and read them together.