Recommended Reading List: Top 3 Classical Study Books of All-Time

Ancient Greek Civilization

The article is a reading list sharing the best books to read in various categories based on many hours of reading and research. You'll find many good books to read, organized by category.


This is a reading list for people who don't have time for unimportant books. We only list the best books to read in each category. You can be sure that each one is fantastic and will be worth your time.


Want to keep things simple? Check out the “Top 3” lists in this article to get some great book recommendations without feeling overwhelmed by all the options.


Every day, we will roll out 6 books in different categories to cater to different interests and needs of our readers.

Empire of the Romans

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Paperback / softback by John Matthews
 
John Matthews is an historian, folklorist and author. He has been a full time writer since 1980 and has produced over ninety books on the Arthurian Legends and Grail Studies, as well as short stories and a volume of poetry. He has devoted much of the past thirty years to the study of Arthurian Traditions and myth in general. His best known and most widely read works are ‘Pirates’ (Carlton/Atheneum), No 1 children’s book on the New York Times Review best-seller list for 22 weeks in 2006, ‘The Grail, Quest for Eternal Life’ (Thames & Hudson, 1981) ‘The Encyclopedia of Celtic Wisdom’ (Element, 1994) and ‘The Winter Solstice’ (Quest Books, 1999) which won the Benjamin Franklin Award for that year. His book ‘Celtic Warrior Chiefs’ was a New York Public Library recommended title for young people.

Empire of the Romans, from Julius Caesar to Justinian provides a sweeping historical survey of the Roman empire. Uncommonly expansive in its chronological scope, this unique two-volume text explores the time period encompassing Julius Caesar's death in 44 BCE to the end of Justinian's reign six centuries later. Internationally-recognized author and scholar of Roman history John Matthews balances broad historical narrative with discussions of important occurrences in their thematic contexts. This integrative approach helps readers learn the timeline of events, understand their significance, and consider their historical sources.

Defining the time period in a clear, yet not overly restrictive manner, the text reflects contemporary trends in the study of social, cultural, and literary themes. Chapters examine key points in the development of the Roman Empire, including the establishment of empire under Augustus, Pax Romana and the Antonine Age, the reforms of Diocletian and Constantine, and the fall of the Western Roman Empire. Discussions of the Justinianic Age, the emergence of Byzantium, and the post-Roman West help readers understand the later Roman world and its impact on the subsequent history of Europe. Written to be used as standalone resource or in conjunction with its companion Volume II: Selective Anthology, this innovative textbook:

Combines accessible narrative exposition with thorough examination of historical source material Provides well-rounded coverage of Roman economy, society, law, and literary and philosophical culture Offers content taken from the author's respected Roman Empire survey courses at Yale and Oxford University Includes illustrations, maps and plans, and chapter-by-chapter bibliographical essays Empire of the Romans, from Julius Caesar to Justinian is a valuable text for survey courses in Roman history as well as general readers interested in the 600 year time frame of the empire.

Sport and Spectacle in the Ancient World

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Paperback / softback by Donald G. Kyle

This is a readable, up-to-date, illustrated introduction to the history of sport and spectacle in the ancient world from the Ancient Near East through Greek and Hellenistic times and into the Roman Empire. It covers athletics, combat sports, chariot racing, beast fights and gladiators. It traces the precursors of Greek and Roman sports and spectacles in the Ancient Near East and the Bronze Age Aegean. It investigates the origins, nature and meaning of sport, covering issues of violence, professionalism, class, gender and eroticism. It challenges the notion that Greek sport and Roman spectacle were polar opposites. It approaches sport and spectacle as overlapping and compatible features of civilized states and empires.

If a group of athletes competed against each other and no one was there to watch, was there a sporting event? In a world where the spectators of major sporting events such as the modern Olympic Games or the World Cup number in the billions, the link between sport and spectacle seems natural. This is especially so for the modern Olympics, with the increasingly complex and expensive Opening and Closing Ceremonies that accompany the athletic events. More and more, sporting events of all sorts are wrapped up and presented to a viewing public as an entertainment package designed to separate people from their precious “entertainment dollars.”

It is not surprising, then, that contemporary scholars have turned to antiquity and have seen similar forces at play in the Greek and Roman past. After all, the modern Olympic “Movement” obviously pretends to have a connection to ancient Olympia (as we are reminded every four years). And what could be more emblematic of mass spectacle than Rome’s still towering Colosseum? As with much else in our world, we inevitably look back to Greece and Rome for the roots (real or imagined) of contemporary—western—institutions, sport included. In his new book, Sport and Spectacle in the Ancient World, Donald Kyle observes of contemporary scholarship that we have always followed our interests back to antiquity (ix).

Few scholars are as well positioned to explore these interests—sport and spectacle—as Kyle: he has been a leader not only in the development of the study of ancient athletics, especially in early Greece (Archaic and Classical), but also in the study of Roman blood spectacles. Among a host of articles, the titles of two of his previous books stand out: Athletics and Ancient Athens (Leiden 1984) and Spectacles of Death in Ancient Rome (London 1998).

Properly enough, Kyle begins with an explanation for his study. Why “Sport and Spectacle”? To the contemporary reader beset with the spectacle of modern sport, the question hardly needs posing. But classicists will know its origin. Such a study must be set against a scholarly background which tended to idealize Greek sport along with much of Greek culture, while at the same time demonizing that of the Romans. The Greeks gave the world democracy, philosophy, historiography, the sciences, breath-taking works of art, and the purity and beauty of amateur athletics; the Romans gave us empire, decadence and debauchery, knock-offs of Greek statues, and the blood and gore of the arena. Greeks good. Romans bad. Here, it was the Greeks who gave us sport, the Romans who gave us spectacle.

My example above was most natural: we think of the Greek Olympic [End Page 96] Games on the one hand and the Roman Colosseum on the other. Of course, no one really believes all of this anymore, and there is everywhere a conscious effort to put aside these preconceptions. For example, we now know that the Greek athletic world was not the preserve of idealistic amateurs and that professionalism was typical. Similarly, Roman gladiatorial combats were not the homicidal free-for-all that some have imagined but were instead governed by rules and overseen by referees.

In such a study the definitions are critical: what is meant by “sport” and what meant by “spectacle”? Because it is a modern term loaded with contemporary associations, our word “sport” is less than ideal; nevertheless for Kyle it satisfies. For his purposes, “sport” refers “more narrowly to public, physical activities, especially those with competitive elements, pursued for victory or the demonstration of excellence” (10). This definition is satisfactory, but perhaps not wholly. As Kyle himself observes (11), he thus leaves out a great variety of related competitive events, such as, music, poetry, dance, and drama. These, he says, “were seen as artistic rather than athletic.” But by whom? Would the ancient Greeks (and Romans) have necessarily separated out the athletic so absolutely? Olympia had no musical events, true, but Delphi did and so did the Athenian...

Ancient Greek Civilization

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Paperback / softback by David Sansone

If you've ever wanted to do a deep dive, or at least a medium dive, into a history of ancient Greek Civilization, We would recommend this book by David Sansone. Classical civilization has been a woeful gap in my learning. I know Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, Sophocles, and Homer, but Hesiod, Euripides, Aeschylus, Aristophanes, Solon, Herodotus, and Thucydides were just names we had heard and bore no context for me. Sansone's book is as brief as any 1,000 year history could be and puts it all in context and in a proper timeline. The Persian wars, the Peloponnesian War, the developments of democracy, rhetoric, and drama are all there.


The second edition of Sport and Spectacle in the Ancient World updates Donald G. Kyle’s award-winning introduction to this topic, covering the Ancient Near East up to the late Roman Empire.

  • Challenges traditional scholarship on sport and spectacle in the Ancient World and debunks claims that there were no sports before the ancient Greeks
  • Explores the cultural exchange of Greek sport and Roman spectacle and how each culture responded to the other’s entertainment
  • Features a new chapter on sport and spectacle during the Late Roman Empire, including Christian opposition to pagan games and the Roman response
  • Covers topics including violence, professionalism in sport, class, gender and eroticism, and the relationship of spectacle to political structures