Book Review: Greeks (Ancients In Their Own Words)

Greeks (Ancients In Their Own Words), by Michael Kerrigan

This book is a very short one (barely over 50 pages) and meant for younger readers, but for older readers who want to read about what the ancient Greeks said and wrote about themselves, this book is certainly a worthwhile, if rather simple, read.  Although the book is aimed at a young audience, the author does a good job at providing a broad scope of material from over a millennium of Greek history, all of which should encourage those who like this book to read more.  The author blends solid translations of Greek texts, pictures of artifacts, and his own intriguing comments into the text, and the book is definitely one that students of Greek history would do well to check out.  There is sometimes, I think, a marked reluctance on the part of people to read books that are aimed at audiences other than what they are part of, but it is likely that many readers would be very unfamiliar with the people talked about in this book unless they happen to be students of Greek history or literature, and there are not many of those students these days.  Doing a bit of self-study like this can be helpful in improving one’s knowledge of the classics.

This book is filled with a variety of short chapters arranged in a chronological fashion.  After an introduction the author looks at the mysterious and untranslated phaistos disk [1], before looking at Mycenae and its mysteries.  Then there are chapters on Kleombrotos and Archilochus (that anti-hero of Greek letters), as well as the Athenian agora and its importance.  The author talks about the disconcerting writing on the wall in Gortyn, the roughness of democratic justice in Athens, and about how Themistocles became an enemy of the people of his city.  The author examines the price of freedom in ancient Greece, the tribute Alexander gave to his teacher Aristotle, a temple glorifying Alexander that ended up being paid at taxpayer expense, the Parian marble, and the denial of Delphi that they were sacked by the Gauls, who sadly did not leave any texts of their own to tell their side of the story.  Although this is a short book, it really does look at some very worthwhile texts of the Greeks so that we can see them in their own words, unmediated by anything but translation and some worthwhile interpretation.

The end result is that the Greeks end up looking far less remote even though they are mysterious.  What text is written in the Phaistos disk in that unknown linear A.  No one knows, but something was there, obviously.  Why does the wall of Gortyn contain a mixture of truth with bizarre whimsy?  Why did Alexander want to glorify himself by commissioning a temple while making the town it was in pay for the bill, in what is a strikingly modern demonstration of government “generosity.”  Why did the Hellenistic Greeks of Delphi not admit that they were militarily weak, seeing as the Romans would soon conquer them anyway and so their lies about divine favor and protection were soon to be exposed for what they were.  All of these and other aspects of this book demonstrate that even a short book aimed at younger readers can contain genuinely important information that adults, and even serious students of Greek history and literature, should care about deeply.  This book is a surprisingly ambitious one given its modest size, and that sort of ambition should be celebrated and appreciated.  The fact that it is a short book, moreover, should make it more easily read.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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