Greek Reading Project - One Year Summary

School of Athens, Rafael

By chance I came across an article on Ted Gioia’s Substack, The Honest Broker, called My Lifetime Reading Plan. I swiftly decided to begin a similar plan. Here’s how it’s gone, one year later. 

 

The Big Idea

To summarise the original article: at a young age Gioia decided to begin a lifelong program of self-education. His approach was to make a list of ten books representing the current holes in his reading, finish them, then begin a new list. Ever since he has spent one hour each morning on the project. 

I’m starting later, and haven’t stuck as obsessively to the daily requirement, though I’ve made a respectable effort. 

I’m also being more linear in the program. My primary aim is to start at the beginning of Western literature and work forwards, incorporating every major work in the process. I’m sticking to primary sources wherever possible. 

Obviously, I’ve begun with the Greeks. I’ll take a Biblical detour before progressing to the Romans, move on through Medieval literature, and so on. 

At this stage there have been no difficult decisions to make, since relatively little Ancient Greek writing remains intact. I’m just reading it all. I’ll have to be far more selective with the Romans, who have a vastly greater volume of surviving literature, but that’s a future problem. 

 

One Year’s Progress

I’ve summarised my overall feelings on the project in another article, to be posted shortly. For now, here’s a recap of what I’ve read. 

 

Herodotus

I’d already studied Homer in-depth at university, and checked back regularly since. I’ll re-read the Iliad and Odyssey at some point, but wanted to get this program going with entirely new stuff. 

Technically, Hesiod is a bit older, but the ‘father of history’ seemed a safe place to start. And, one year on, the first work I read remains the most entertaining. 

I couldn’t care less about Herodotus’ actual credentials or process as a historian. He’s a fantastic writer, more specifically an incredible storyteller. 

Digressional writing can often be frustrating. Here the constant digressions are frequently more interesting than the central history. It’s a brilliant blend of apparent fact chased-down from first-hand sources, complete hearsay, and utter myth. Even the supposedly truthful parts invariably end up neatly resolving themselves in some moral lesson. 

The ‘ending’ (of this tale – the history itself was picked up by others, most notably Thucydides) is one of the greatest instances of literary genius I’ve read. It’s moralistic and likely too neat to true, in classic Herodotean fashion, but you’d expect nothing less. The way in which he circles back to Cyrus the Great’s rise at the chronological start of his tale, decades later and after the subsequent wars have played out, and the precise manner of this final moral’s delivery after such a lengthy work, was so perfectly judged and delivered that it genuinely moved me, and still does now when I think of it. 

Herodotus’ great work is long, but ceaselessly entertaining. An unequivocal recommendation. 

 

Hesiod

The oldest Greek literature after Homer. Tales of Hesiod and Homer duking it out in poetry contests are almost certainly wishful nonsense, but they were very likely contemporaries, or near enough. 

Hesiod’s two most famous works are Theogony and Works and Days. 

Theogony is the oldest complete retelling of the Greek mythology surrounding the world’s creation, the war between the Titans and Olympians, and so on. Works and Days is essentially a ‘how-to’ guide on living a good, honest agricultural life, addressed to Hesiod’s brother who apparently needed an 800+ line poem as a wake-up call. 

By reputation, Hesiod is a writer without flair. This may be true in comparison with Homer, and the bulk of both pieces is workmanlike. 

But I’d say this was likely by design, with the intention in both cases being to inform, not entertain. To see that he did indeed possess enormous artistic gifts, look no further than the invocation of the muse which begins the Theogony. It’s a spectacular, gorgeous piece of writing, which provoked this impromptu gushing piece from yours truly. 

Would I actually recommend him? 

Both pieces have historical value. Theogony as an ‘original’ version of the creation myths, and Works and Days as a window into contemporary life and its concerns. He was also regarded as a great poet in his own day, constantly being referenced in subsequent works, and was influential in the birth of (mystical) philosophy. Neither work is enormously entertaining, however, particularly compared to Homer and Herodotus. 

 

Sapho

By far the most famous female writer (that we know of) in Ancient Greece. Also surely one of the very best writers, full-stop, and she was regarded as such at the time. 

Unfortunately, few fragments survive. What survives is beautiful, and the contemporary (and subsequent, from the Romans) praise about the poetry now lost to us makes that loss doubly unfortunate. 

More of a frustrating experience than a rewarding one. 

 

Pindar

When putting this program together, the word I kept coming across for Pindar was ‘difficult’. That was a bloody understatement. 

Pindar’s work – odes, usually written for the victors of athletic contests – is easily my least-favourite so far. I hated reading it. It took forever and I gained almost nothing. 

His odes are historically important – they’ve helped Greek scholars with dates, knowing who ruled where when, and so on. For those of us who aren’t Greek scholars, they’re impenetrable. 

If stopping every sentence to check a footnote or run a Google search for yet another obscure reference sounds like a good time, go right ahead. If not, this is an easy skip. 

 

Aeschylus

Aeschylus comfortably takes the ‘most-Googled-name-spelling’ prize, of the authors I’ve read so far. I’ve had to check literally every time I’ve written about him, including now, and will likely never remember the order of those five central consonants.  

His is the oldest surviving dramatic writing. These are far from the ‘plays’ we’re now used to, however. They usually consist of one long scene. There’s one central story, without subplots. There’s little true ‘dialogue’ – it’s mostly very long monologues from one character, interspersed with short prompts from another. The writing itself is lengthy, convoluted, difficult. 

Prometheus Bound nevertheless remains interesting, investigating tyrannical power and injustice through humanity’s hero’s stubborn railing against Zeus. The famous Oresteia trilogy is technically an interesting story, but one better told by subsequent dramatists.

Similarly to Hesiod, Aeschylus’ work is ‘valuable’ but not particularly entertaining.  

 

Sophocles

Loved it. Herodotus held top spot throughout the year, but Sophocles took an easy second place. 

Greek drama – tragic and comic – advanced extremely quickly during this period. Only a few decades separated Aeschylus and Sophocles, but the development couldn’t be plainer. 

Where Aeschylus is highfalutin and long-winded, Sophocles writes with a human audience in mind. He cares about telling an actual story. There’s true dialogue between characters, and genuinely funny humour. 

This is all intermarried with plenty of brilliant insights and moments of true pathos. He’s not afraid to show old, celebrated heroes like Ajax and Odysseus in a challenging, even negative light. In Elektra, he re-tells the central part of Aeschylus’ Oresteia from a new, far more interesting perspective. 

His crowning glory, and one of the most important works in dramatic history, remains the Oedipus trilogy – Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Kolonos, and Antigone. The first is the most famous, and probably remains the best, the growing horror of Oedipus’ revelation being so brilliantly, perfectly judged. But all three are very different, and absolutely brilliant in their own way. 

His works are close to being another unequivocal recommendation. Oedipus the King certainly is. I’d specifically and heartily recommend the Bagg and Scully translation, which – rather than sticking religiously to a literal translation – instead adopts modern language that surely more closely captures the original spirit. 

 

Euripedes

Across the year, Euripedes was the hardest writer to evaluate. Overall though, I do believe he’s more interesting to read about than to read. 

He took a genuinely original approach in frequently depicting the gods negatively (or ignoring them entirely), and focusing heavily on female characters over male. His work itself has a slightly hysterical, almost unhinged quality; so much so that it’s difficult to follow what the hell his characters are raving about sometimes, particularly as they descend into madness (which happens quite often), but all this is certainly preferable to the stuffier approach of Aeschylus. 

He certainly hits the emotional heights, particularly as he seeks out victims of the Trojan Cycle usually glossed over. The Trojan Women imagines the cattlelike assignation of the wives and children of the recently-butchered warriors following the Greek victory. Better yet is Iphigenia at Aulis, which takes a mere throwaway subplot of the Cycle – Agammemnon sacrificing his daughter to please the gods, change the winds, and allow the fleet to sail for Troy – and portrays, in excruciating detail, the horror for daughter, mother, father alike. 

To actually read, however, his plays lack not only the coherency but the spark, that sheer brilliance, of Sophocles. They’re imaginative and original. There’s just something a little ‘off’, slightly less than perfect, about the execution. 

 

Thucydides

While generally now seen as the next great historian, Thucydides was at great pains to distinguish himself from Herodotus. Early in his History of the Peloponnesian War, he dismisses a certain, nameless ‘storyteller’. 

His approach was much more historical, as we’d now see it. He was obsessive about gathering actual facts. Nor would he offer two or three versions he’d heard, as Herodotus did, instead relating only the ‘correct’ version as best he could tell. 

This gives him more historical credence, but makes him less entertaining. His writing is deliberately workmanlike – a recounting of the facts, without artistic embellishment or moralising. 

His only concession is the famous ‘speeches’ which litter the earlier part of his history, where – based on what he’d heard, and what he knew of the person – he imagines what they would have said at a particular moment; when the Athenians are deciding whether to declare war on Sparta, for example. 

On extremely rare occasions, his own thoughts slip through, usually when describing the worst events. Most poignant is the disastrous Athenian attack on Sicily, in which the would-be invaders are hunted down and slaughtered like animals. 

The story zips along, speeches aside, and there’s a nice rhythm to it (mostly) being divided into years. The writing is dry – again, this is deliberately a simple recounting of facts – but all this actually makes it quick and easy to read. 

You do lose track of what’s going on, since everybody is attacking everybody else all the time and all across Greece. But that in itself likely gives an accurate feel for what it really was like during this horrendous, violent period. 

 

Xenophon

Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War ends quite literally mid-paragraph and mid-war, and nobody’s sure why. Regardless, Xenophon picks up exactly where Thucydides left off. 

His style mirrors his predecessor’s nicely. His historicity comes nowhere close, as the footnotes of any respectable translation will constantly tell you. Xenophon was many things – general, philosopher, mercenary – but he was not a historian. 

His lackadaisical approach – there are apparently constant inconsistencies, incorrect names and dates, and so on – would understandably drive a scholar mad. I couldn’t care less. He gets the job done, seeing the story through to its ‘conclusion’ (for now), at a similarly speedy pace to Thucydides. 

That conclusion puts a rather depressing bow on this entire period. 

Herodotus’ history ended in (from his enormously biassed perspective) a mighty triumph against the odds, over the dastardly Persians. But the Greeks loved nothing better than to fight each other, and – by the end of Xenophon’s Hellenica – the Athenian Empire is over, the Spartans are in decline, and the Persians are running the whole show through sheer economic might, without needing to risk a single soldier of their own. 

We, of course, know what Xenophon didn’t. The death knell for Hellenic liberty had already sounded. First would come the Macedonians (fascinatingly peripheral in Herodotus, Thucydides, and Xenophon), then the Romans. The freedom for which Greeks had nominally striven all along was now gone for good. 

 

Aristophanes

He couldn’t come close to dethroning Pindar, but Aristophanes was still comfortably my second-least favourite writer from this year. 

Far more so than Euripedes, Aristophanes is vastly better to read about than to read. A whip-smart, wise-cracking comic writer who skewered all manner of fascinating topics – philosophy, democracy, justice? Sounds good! 

Well, it’s not. Almost all of the ‘humour’ is puerile. If the peak of Ancient Greek comedy consisted largely of fart jokes, that’s not a ringing endorsement of their sense of humour. The plays go on far, far too long. He makes his point, then makes it again, and again, all through needlessly overlong dialogues stuffed with allusions (usually petty insults against his contemporaries) half of which even Greek scholars can’t work out. 

His actual points, in criticising the aforementioned topics, are fine. They’re smart. But you can read summaries of those in a minute, and spare yourself the slow torture of actually battling through this boring, self-indulgent, juvenile ‘comedy’. 

 

The Presocratics

This was the only topic for which I read a modern book, rather than the primary sources… simply because the primary sources hardly exist. Occasionally, lengthy passages remain from the Presocratic philosophers. Mostly it’s just scattered fragments – a line here and there. 

Thus I read The Presocratic Philosophers, by Kirk and Raven. This collects all these fragments together, along with quotes from longer works by the likes of Aristotle or later Roman writers (who did have access to the original texts, or somewhat reliable copies), on whom we largely rely for any knowledge at all of what these guys talked about. 

The book itself was tough sledding. It seems to be targeted more at university students in Ancient Greek, or Philosophy, rather than casual, know-nothing investigators like myself. 

Still, I’m glad I read it. Most importantly – more so than the endless nitpicking details about Ancient Greek vocabulary – it gave a broad and intriguing overview of the development of Greek thought. 

It begins a very long way from where Plato would pick up. The ‘human condition’ wasn’t even a consideration. The original aim of philosophy was to work out how the universe came to be. 

This investigation started entirely in myth. Hesiod’s Theogony, for example, was a primary source (although even this and other contemporary mythology, when read allegorically, takes on a much more interesting and intelligent aspect). 

Subsequently though, it came to be more ‘scientific’. All about original matter, what the universe was actually made of, what the smallest particle was, whether the world was a single whole or a great mix of divided elements, and so on. 

There’s a temptation to be sniffy at ancient beliefs in such areas, now that we (largely) know the answers. But with logic and observation their only scientific apparatus, the conclusions these guys reached – even if ‘wrong’ – were often incredibly smart. 

Latterly, you see the move beginning towards the more humanistic approach Plato would perfect. There are questions over logic and truth. Also like Plato, these are often couched within intriguing frameworks, rather than just being lengthy diatribes. Parmenides’ allegorical tale of being whisked to heaven on a chariot, where a goddess explains mortal and immortal truths to him, is literature of the highest order even aside from its philosophical merit. 

In summary, I wouldn’t recommend the book I read, but I’d absolutely recommend learning about the Presocratics. Parmenides is the most interesting, Zeno’s logical disproving of motion is the most fun, and the stories surrounding Pythagoras (who basically ran a cult) are the strangest. 

 

Plato

I’m still reading Plato, and will be for a good while yet. He had quite a bit to say for himself, that guy. 

I started – as most likely to do – with Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, and Phaedo. It’s a brilliant framework around which to build philosophical discussions. Even aside from the philosophising, you can’t help but get wrapped up in the narrative of Socrates first arriving to hear his charge, defending himself at his trial, refusing to be bundled out of prison since it would compromise his principles, then reflecting on the afterlife and the immortality of the soul before – at last – drinking the poison and dying surrounding by several characters who have also appeared or been referenced in the preceding dialogues. 

It’s also a perfect introduction to Plato’s approach. He won’t simply give you the answers. He’ll investigate the theme through discussion. Sometimes this will result in a conclusion, other times it won’t. It is very much about the journey, not the destination. 

I’ve since read Cratylus (about etymology), and Theaetetus (about knowledge). Now I’m onto The Republic, with which I’m very much taking my time. 

It’s all not merely fascinating philosophy, but incredible literature. Plato’s brilliant decision to frame his work as dialogues not only makes it far easier to read than most philosophy, but also gives him chance to pepper his work with fun asides, little jokes and banter, all of which – while there are certainly difficult parts – generally make his work a joy to read. 

 

Next Steps

The complete works of Plato, and (perhaps) the complete works of Aristotle, will see me through the true Hellenic phase. 

The surviving literature on Alexander will round out this specific period. I was tempted to go straight to them, after Xenophon’s Hellenica, having become invested in the historical ‘story’ of the period. But I’ve stayed chronological for now and stopped with the philosophers. For the sheer purpose of keeping things fresh, however, and myself entertained, I’ll likely work the aforementioned in between Platonic dialogues or Aristotelian works. 

Per my research, there are three main works telling Alexander’s story:

– Books 16-20 of Diodorus’ ‘Library’
– Arrian’s Anabasis and Indica
– Rufius’ History of Alexander

All three were very much written after the fact. Which, again, I’m trying to avoid. But which, again, is unavoidable when it comes to primary works on Alexander – these are the closest we can get. 

After that, I’ll be on to the Romans. Whether that happens this year or next remains to be seen. 

Either way, I’m excited. It was interest in the Romans, combined with the fortuitous timing of reading Ted Giola’s article, which sparked this whole idea in the first place. For whatever reason, I find the Romans more interesting than the Greeks; but, if I wanted to be comprehensive, clearly I needed to lay the foundations first. 

 

Final Thoughts

I’d originally intended to have a General Summary, ‘what did it all mean?’ section here. But the piece was already running long, as you may have noticed. 

So, I’ve split that off. You can read my overall thoughts on the project so far in a separate article. 

To be clear though, I’ve enjoyed this project immensely. Rarely – only really with Pindar and Aristophanes – have I needed to force myself to sit down and start each day’s reading. Normally I look forward to that hour, and it passes quickly. 

As to whether this project has made me ‘wise’, as Ted Giola promised it would… well, not yet, but there’s still time. 




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