A Reading List for Self-Guided Study of Ancient Literature
So you want to learn about ancient literature* but no class on the subject is being conveniently offered for you? Well, I can help! I had the chance to study in ancient literature in a few different courses, and I decided to compile a list of the reads I found most interesting. To spice it up a bit, I'll pair a few of these an
*For clarity, "ancient" in this case spans from the beginning of literature to about 600 C.E., thanks to the arbitrary divisions we've made in categorizing literature.
A few disclaimers about my list.
- I owe a number of professors a debt of gratitude for introducing me to these works, but their names here would be meaningless to you—and I'd have to look up some of them—so I'll just give a blanket "thanks" at this point.
- I hesitate to bring in religious texts because I can't cover them all. For those specifically interested in exploring the religious elements of ancient literature, a few texts to add would include The Diamond Sutra (Buddhism), The Book of Matthew (Christianity), The Upanishads (Hinduism), The Bhagavad Gita (Hinduism), The Qu'ran (Islam), and The Book of the Dead (Ancient Egyptian polytheism).
- This is by no means a comprehensive list. There's far more to explore to understand the mythologies that shaped the ancient world: This list is meant to be nothing more or less than a solid start.
So let's get to it, then.
Origin: Sumeria, circa 1900 B.C.E.
A complex narrative stemming from the bronze age, Gilgamesh is widely reputed as the oldest recorded story we have. The story is an action-filled tale of a mighty hero who, among other things, is trying to lock down immortality. Alas, he is finally forced to accept the same thing all of us have to accept: Death doesn't make exceptions.
While not the most brilliantly written piece of the lot, it shows that rich narratives have been around for thousands of years. The work's translations are old enough to be in the public domain and the story is short enough to be worth reading online (here's the full thing). Considering it's just 20,000 words (the length of a short novella), it's well worth checking out.
2. The Iliad
Origin: Greece, circa 1250 B.C.E.
I chose the Iliad over The Odyssey for this list largely because I expect that far more of you were exposed to The Odyssey during one course or another. (If not, it's worth a read too—and fun to pair with the modern rendition, O Brother, Where Art Thou?) While The Odyssey is an epic journey where a lone hero must overcome obstacles, both man-made and mythical, The Iliad is a war story with a large lineup of major characters, including both Gods and men.
This story pairs well with Frank Miller's 300. When I first encountered the film version of 300, I assumed it was stylized in a thoroughly modern way. After reading The Iliad, however, I realized I was mistaken. The blood, guts, and gore are quite loyal to war stories of Ancient Greece. Indeed, The Iliad does a stellar job at balancing poetic language with "holy shit"-level violence.
3. The Art of War
Origin: China, circa 500 B.C.E.
While it's not a narrative or poetic piece, Sun Tzu's The Art of War is one of the most fascinating documents of its era. According to historian Ralph D. Sawyer, it was the single most important military work in China for at least two thousand years. It's still taught today, and not just in military groups: Those involved in a variety of competitive tasks, from sales to negotiations, often read this seminal work that combines strategy with philosophy—and a dash of psychology to boot.
This one's worth reading if only for its myriad catchy quotes, like "Victorious warriors win first and then go to war," "In the midst of chaos, there is also opportunity," and "The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting."
4. The Book of Genesis
Origin: Debated. Traditional estimates opt for circa 1400 B.C.E. while modern scholars tend closer to 400 B.C.E.
As a traditional work passed down and recompiled over the course of centuries, the books of the Hebrew Bible are a little hard to pinpoint on the ancient literature map. They were written in a variety of locations in what we now think of as the middle east, they were written by a variety of people, and they embody a number of diverse philosophies.
Genesis itself seems to be a compilation of existing texts, which were likely around in written or oral forms prior to being synthesized into the book we know today. Individuals of any of the religions that subscribe to the old testament may be in for a surprise when they take a look past the creation of the earth and the fall from Eden. The events and people described are pretty fubar, and God isn't exactly kind or gentle.
I specifically recommend the graphic novel version illustrated by comic book legend R. Crumb.
5. The Tao Te Ching
Origins: China, circa 500 B.C.E.
No translation can truly do the Tao Te Ching justice, since any English translation must offer a grammatical structure that lends itself to a specific interpretation of passages that are intentionally ambiguous in their original Chinese. Even so, this remains a beautifully poetic text.
The Tao Te Ching discusses (among other things) politics, daily life, humankind's primordial nature, and the difference between knowledge and wisdom. This pairs well with works by T.S. Eliot; they share some stylistic elements and philosophical preoccupations, which makes it easier to see where modern poetics diverged in style and, at least for Eliot, foundational beliefs.
6. The Republic
Origins: Ancient Greece, 380 B.C.E.
Plato uses the medium of back-and-forth dialogue to show Socrates arguing a major philosophical point: That being just is superior to being unjust, even if being unjust gives short-term rewards. Rather than just arguing this directly, though, Socrates goes off on one of history's longest tangents, describing how an ideal city-state could be organized and governed. This theoretical republic condones slavery and sexism, is founded on classism, and is perpetuated through lying to its people—but the greater good is accomplished.
The single most fascinating thing about the work is how relevant many of its ideas are today. It discusses the dilemmas of democracy and consumerism, contrasts the values of individualism and communalism, and covers a number of philosophical issues that continue to occupy us in the modern era.
This book pairs well with The Giver, which presents a dystopian version of a society quite similar to the utopian society that Plato describes.
Again, this is far from a comprehensive list, but hopefully it gets you started on understanding some of our ancient roots—both culturally and as storytellers. I'm sure there are plenty of fine works of literature I missed. Share your own recommended reading in the comments, below.
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