Greek-American Library Essentials

Greek writers have been inspiring Western civilization since ancient times. From Homer and Herodotus to modern Greek poets, including Giorgos Seferis, there are writers for every taste and temperament. Here are seven essential Greek books that should be on everyone’s bookshelf.

The Iliad by Homer recounts how the Greek forces came together to attack Troy after the abduction of the famous beauty of her day, Helen. The Trojan War is depicted in all its gory detail with no two warriors dying the same way. This epic poem is a classic of world literature and continues to influence the ways in which war is portrayed in the media and in art. Once thought to be purely a mythical creation, the burning of Troy is now supported by archeological evidence.

The Odyssey, also by Homer, follows Odysseus and his men on their way home from the Trojan War. The seemingly simple trip ends up taking twenty years with numerous adventures along the way including encounters with the Cyclops and sea monsters. The powerful theme of returning home continues to resonate with readers today even though this epic poem is over two thousand years old.

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Histories by Herodotus focuses primarily on the Persian War, with information on ethnography and geography as well as fables included. Herodotus compiled numerous sources to create his history and presented the findings for readers to judge. Criticized even in his own lifetime for being a storyteller, Herodotus wrote a compelling narrative recording his findings and preserving history for future generations and earning the title Father of History.

The History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides is a political history of the fighting between Sparta and Athens. Thucydides served as a general for his native Athens in the war. He is often compared and contrasted with Herodotus for their particular methods of writing history. Though Thucydides is preoccupied with the facts, he wrote stirring speeches like Pericles’ Funeral Oration to highlight key moments in history, capturing the essence of what Pericles must have said at the time. Unlike Herodotus, Thucydides does not include the intervention of the Olympian gods in his history.

The Alexiad, by Anna Comnena, is an extraordinary account of the Byzantine emperor Alexius I written by his daughter Anna in about the year 1148. This political and military history of 12th century Byzantium also includes an account of the First Crusade. Though written about fifty years after the First Crusade, The Alexiad records the Byzantine reaction to the Crusaders whom Anna Comnena viewed as uneducated barbarians.

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The Secret History by Procopius was never published in the lifetime of its author, who was a historian during the reign of Emperor Justinian. If it had surfaced during that time, Procopius would most certainly have faced a strict punishment, probably death. The claims he makes about the Empress Theodora alone would have sent him to his grave after a requisite amount of torture no doubt. Yet, someone thought this manuscript important enough to be hidden away over the centuries until it was found in the Vatican Libraries and first published in 1623. Procopius gives us a remarkable picture of the Byzantine court in late antiquity.

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Collected Poems by Giorgos Seferis is an essential volume for poetry enthusiasts and anyone interested in the imagery and character of the Greek soul. Seferis manages to capture what it means to be Greek in his honest and powerful voice. The quintessential 20th century Greek poet, Seferis was born in Asia Minor and was also a diplomat. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1963.