Despite its remove from our own day, ancient civilization has a massive influence on modern society, and one of the fundamentals of a well-rounded education, which in this country is a rare thing, is a familiarity with the classics (or to be more specific, Greco-Roman literature). Certain names spring to mind when the classics are mentioned — Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey, Virgil’s Aeneid, and Sophocles’ Theban Cycle — but the ancient world produced many works that are slightly less well-known, which capture the intelligence and passion of its peoples.
‘The Ancient World’ ended with the fall of Rome (476 CE), and all these works will predate that. Not all the works on this list emerged from either Rome or Greece, and some could be said to be pre-ancient, being rather old.
We’d like to think this is a good list to start an education with at 17, round one out at 71 and fill in the holes any time in between.
Works and Days and Theogony
7th Century BCE
Even though some examples of literature predate him, Hesiod is widely considered by Classicists to be the father of Western literature. Like his junior Homer, Hesiod’s primary accomplishment was to take various strands of oral tradition and synthesize them into a consistent written narrative. Theogony, the result of this effort, is a complete history of the Greek mythic universe from its initial, primal state to the victory of the Olympian gods over their rivals, the Titans. Though it reads a bit like the begats, Theogony is a must for any fan of Greek mythology, since it is probably the most important single piece of work on the subject. Despite the singularity of its influence in later Greek culture, Theogony was certainly not a text to be understood literally; Hesiod all but owns up to making up segments and re-purposing older myths to fit his narrative. There is great deal of insight into Greek religion in this work; we can see how even early on their views were complex, flexible, and highly subtle.
Hesiod’s only other complete surviving work, Works and Days, is even more fascinating, despite its decidedly non-mythic subject matter. Written within the framing device of an admonishment to his brother, Works covers subjects as diverse as astronomy, sailing, farming, law and justice and (for the first time ever,) economics. Through Works and Days we get a very real sense of what life was like in those days. Even more than that, we get a sense of who Hesiod was as a person. Moralistic, folksy, and something of a grouch, Hesiod emerges as a unique personality, but as one who could be found anywhere, in any time.
The Epic of Gilgamesh
21st Century BCE
Lost until the 19th Century, the oldest surviving epic poem has had something of a second wind since its rediscovery and now enjoys relatively large readership in the modern world. Gilgamesh is, to put it quite simply, epic. The King of Uruk, Gilgamesh, who is two-thirds god and one-third human (just think about that lineage for a moment…) tyrannizes his people in the name of progress and, to combat the gods, sends the beastman Enkidu. After a knock-down, drag-out fight, Gilgamesh and Enkidu make peace and get bromantic, and together they have many awesome adventures, including fighting giant scorpion-men, forest demons, thunderbirds, and other staples of the 1st edition Dungeons and Dragons Monster Manual. Enkidu dies tragically, and the rest of the story involves Gilgamesh traveling to the most distant points in the universe on an unsuccessful quest to achieve immortality. Like I said: epic. But, also, The Epic of Gilgamesh is surprisingly nuanced, offering a commentary on the issues facing civilization as it first became urban-based. The story contends with issues of morality, civil society, friendship, environmental stewardship, the responsibilities leaders have to their subjects, and finally, it offers a touching meditation on the inevitability of death.
5th Century BCE
Aristophanes is regarded as the first notable playwright to perform comedy, and the genre owes the same debt to him that tragedy does to Sophocles. His plays, of which there are several, are all highly satirical, often bawdy and off-color, and they all offer scathing criticisms of Athenian society (most of which would ring familiar to us today). The Birds, which was a bit of a sensation in its time, offers a Swiftian combination of fantasy and satire and is really quite enjoyable in print, and even more to watch performed. Pisthetaerus, an Athenian everyday Joe, is transported up in to the sky where he encounters the avian denizens of Cloudcukooland. At first an outsider in a comic utopia, Pisthetaerus soon comes to rule through application of common sense, and with his loyal bird subjects he soon overpowers the gods themselves and is declared the supreme monarch of the universe. On top of the play’s absurdity, The Birds is also noted for its unusually realistic character development — all the protagonists are average people with realistic, fully realized relationships.
The Golden Ass
2nd Century AD
To my eye, The Golden Ass appears as the most ‘modern’ of the works on this list, containing many of the qualities and details we expect to see in modern and postmodern literature. Written as an epic picaresque, the story starts with the virile and stupid Lucius witnessing a forbidden ritual in witch-haunted Thessaly, and accidentally getting turned into a donkey as a result thereof. For the remainder of the story we witness Lucius in various forms of servitude and degradation, until eventually, and after many interludes, the Goddess Isis intervenes to restore a wiser Lucius to his human form. The Golden Ass is perhaps the only work in the Roman canon to examine the condition of the lower classes with any sympathy, but is also filled with (very bawdy) humor, biting satire, realistic and in-depth detailing of events and customs, archaic (even for the time) and elaborate choice of words, and a hearty dose of esoteric mysticism. Robert Graces does a superb translation, but many other more recent interpretations are also worth a look.
Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor
Amenaa the Excellent of Finger (attributed)
Middle Kingdom Period (2055 BCE to 1650 BCE)
Generally regarded as the first fantasy story, Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor is an Ancient Egyptian piece of literature that stands separate from either folk stories or religious myths. Relatively simple in its telling, the story follows a sailor shipwrecked on an island in the Nile and his extended parlay with a wise bearded serpent. The sailor is eventually rescued, and the serpent rewards him with a treasure to bring the Pharaoh. This story obviously predicts future tales with a similar theme, Sinbad the Sailor and Robinson Crusoe springing to mind, and it also contains a notable example of that ultimate staple of fantasy, the Dragon.
4th Century AD
It’s sort of silly to pass The Ramayana off as a ‘lesser-known’ classic, since billions are intimately familiar with it not only as a religious text but also as an adventure story. Even more impressive than Gilgamesh in terms of its blockbuster epic-ness. Over 1,300 pages long (making it the same length as a medium-sized fantasy novel,) The Ramayana is the life story of the legendary Indian king and avatar Rama as he matures and establishes his kingdom, reaching its climax with the war between Rama’s forces and those of the demon-king Ravana. Huge battles, complex political drama, and a phantasmagorical cast of characters all make The Ramayana the Star Wars of classic literature. If you like Bollywood cinema, there are some cheestastic television adaptations worth watching.
Hymn of the Robe of Glory
Judas Thomas (attributed)
1st Century AD
The Hymn of the Robe of Glory, commonly ascribed to the Apostle Thomas (Doubting Thomas), but probably not written by him, represents a rare and fascinating example of ancient gnostic literature. Devotional, and certainly spiritual but not necessarily religious in tone, Hymn of the Robe of Glory is the account of a traveler who travels far from home and gets lost in Egypt, forgetting his past and his familial connections. Metaphorically, the hymn represents the gnostic attitude towards the world and the human condition, emphasizing humankind’s forgetting of its true spiritual nature as a chief cause of evil. More than that though, the story is immediately visceral, and gives the reader a heartbreaking sense of the loneliness and desolation the author experiences.
5th Century BCE
It’s probably not inflammatory to note that for all their sophistication and enlightened thinking the Ancient Greeks were not big on feminism. Medea, which was not a big success in its time, is a notable exception, acknowledging the unequal treatment women faced in Greek society. Medea, barbarian princess and granddaughter of the Sun, is betrayed by her husband (Jason the Argonaut, who like most Greek heroes, was apparently not a nice guy). Choosing to avenge herself on her wayward ex, she kills Jason’s new wife and murders her own children, and that’s the story of Medea. Of all the various Greek tragic plays, this is my favorite. Besides Medea being all-around one of my favorite women of Greek Mythology, the story is dark, tragic and poignant without excessive moralizing, and it addresses issues of social justice and equality in society (though some critics would say we in the modern day make too much of this).