Ancient Stuff

So, we thought it’d be helpful to give us all a place to go for the ancient poems, stories and references that we talk about in the podcast! Here you can find a short summary of every single text we’ve talked about and a link to our preferred online translation of it and a link to the original language in case anyone’s interested. You can use those links to look up the definition of every single word in the text. So if you love language, or are just interested in how the ancient languages look, it’s AMAZING! 

 

We’ll add to this list as often as we can, but if we’ve missed anything or you want us to add something just let us know! This isn’t an exhaustive list of all the texts by all the authors included - just the ones we talk about on the pod. There are often more tasty morsels out there for you to sample. We really hope you enjoy these, and that maybe they give you access to texts that are free. We’d love to hear from you about them – what you’ve read, what they make you think of, anything really! 

 

Just a quick note before we dive in: we’re pretty glib in these descriptions, so apologies if anything offends anyone. Myth and the ancient world are full of things that are unacceptable both to us and in today’s world (although, in some cases the world still needs to do some catching up). But it’s in there, and it’s in there a lot. We never want to shy away from that. If anyone is offended, please do let us know! We’re here to bring people and myth together, not to make anyone feel unseen or unheard.

 

With all the love Narcissus had for himself,

Abi and Sarah

xx

Ovid

(43 BCE - 17 or 18 CE).

Latin

 

The greatest poet who ever lived, in our humble opinions. If you want to hear more, our first EVER episode was on him – One Poet to Rule Them All

Epic, Myth, Love Poetry, Augustus.

  • Metamorphoses

    • ​Our canon. We will forever stan the great Ovid’s most famous work. Myth can be convoluted, nuanced and contradictory to be honest. So we always like to start with Ovid and work our way outwards from him. The differences and similarities contained within the Met and other versions of the myth are one of the most interesting things about the epic work (literally and colloquially...it’s enormous). It’s one of those books that you can read cover-to-cover or dip in or out of. Each Metamorphosis is a story on its own, that fits perfectly within the whole. Our favourite myths include Daphne’s and Argus’ from Book One, and of course Narcissus from Book Three and the grim but underappreciated story of Procne and Philomela in Book Six. But there are a whole host of incredible stories – 250 myths in total! Plus, it’s just downright beaut and never fails to bring a tear to our eyes or a smile to our faces. It’s a great place to start in a sea of ancient myth.

    • Original Language

  • Amores

    • Before Ovid became king of the epicists (at least in his mind), he was one of Rome’s most popular elegists (couplet poetry). He wrote thousands upon thousands of lines of love poetry, and the Amores is 39 poems in total. Never satisfied with creating artful poetry, he also had to innovate: Ovid’s love elegy is led by Love (Amor), rather than the poet himself. According to Ovid, he set out to write a great epic, but cheeky Amor stole the last “foot” of the poetic metric rhythm turning it from epic to elegy (hexameter to pentameter) – very cute. Here, Ovid waxes lyrical about his mistress Corinna.

    • Original Language

  • Ars Amatoria

    • Hmmm, possibly the “error” that led to Ovid being banished from Rome by Augustus (check out our Ovid episode from Season One for some fun conspiracy theories). In the midst of Emperor Augustus’ drive to bring back “traditional values” *sigh*, Ovid wrote a didactic three-book extravaganza on seduction - he literally wrote the book on it. The first book details how to woo a woman, the second on how he might keep her, and the third helped women win and keep the love of their suitors. Seriously, he did that. Yes, when one of the most single-minded Emperors in Roman history decided he wanted to sanitise romance. Check it out for such gems as: the place to meet women is the theatre, the joys of simultaneous orgasms, and how to keep a new lover interested by asking someone to run into the room mid-romp screaming ‘Perimus’ (We are ruined!), so that they have to hide in a cupboard … Swoon, right?​

    • Original Language

  • Heroides

    • ​Well, if you like a female protagonist, this one’s for you. You’ll also have to like lamenting, particularly at the uselessness of heroes as lovers and husbands. The first edition of these poems comprised of letters from heroines to their absent male lovers. They include some absolute powerhouses – Penelope, Phaedra, Medea, Dido, Ariadne to name just a few – and are some of Ovid’s most heart-breaking poems in our opinion. There’s a particularly beautiful moment in Briseis’ letter where she talks about their language barrier and writing the letter in Achilles’ own language, which is stunningly recreated in a medieval illumination (check out our Instagram page for a picture of it). Couldn’t recommend these more. Ovid later added three pairs of letters to the group and included an exchange between Helen and Paris.

    • Original Language

  • Medicamina Faciei Femineae

    • ​Not everything of this delight survives, but what does is a serious laugh. It’s written as a parody of didactic poetry and focuses on telling women how to behave and starts whittling off a skincare routine (according to TikTok, nothing’s changed). Having written a “textbook” on finding love, Ovid wasn’t above parodying himself (and probably the Roman equivalent of Cosmopolitan) here.

    • Original Language

  • Fasti

    • ​This always felt like the odd one out for us; but, if we think about how much Ovid enjoyed a new challenge, we’re not overly surprised. Ovid only managed six books of this ambitious project before being exiled, but it was intended as a long-form elegiac work about the year, dedicating a book to each month of the Roman calendar. Apparently, this seems to be unprecedented in Roman literature. Ovid had clearly got to a point where outdoing his predecessors (Virgil, Homer) was no longer of interest to him. He’d officially outgrown them. He did revise certain sections when exiled in Tomis, but sadly never finished it (as far as we know – fingers crossed for an extremely unlikely and random find – it’s called denial, we know).

    • Original Language

  • Tristia

    • ​Here, Ovid seems to be going through the five stages of grief after being exiled by Augustus. He starts Book 1 telling the book how to behave on arrival in Rome, moves to describe his final night in the city, laments the betrayal of a friend, praises the loyalty of his friends and wife, describes his voyage to Tomis and apologises for the quality of the poetry. He defends himself and his poetry in Book 2, tries to justify his work, and then finally begs Augustus for forgiveness. The third book focuses on Ovid’s life in Tomis and describes the moment that his book arrives in Rome to find his poetry has been banned. If anyone’s seen The Pagemaster (obscure Macauley Culkin film – watch it, it’s cracking!), I’m imagining Ovid’s book fitting right in with Macauley’s book friends. Ovid ends this series of poetry focusing on his wife, his friends, an enemy and with prayers to Augustus and Bacchus (we’d pray to the god of wine too, if we were exiled from our home ☹)

    • Original Language

  • Epistulae ex Ponto

    • ​That brings us finally to the Epistulae - four more books of poetry from exile. *sigh* - seriously, these five books of elegiac poetry are all a bit of a sad, mournful, longing, dramatic, despondent sigh from Ovid. He desperately wants to come home, and unfortunately, he never does.

    • Original Language

Homer

Greek.

There's a lot of debate about who Homer was. Was he one man? Was he many? Was he real? These poems were birthed in a period of oral tradition, where ancient bards would travel the ancient world singing sections of the Iliad to audiences. When they were first written down, and by who, is the enigmatic glory of 'Homer'.

If we had to date it though, it'd be 8th Century BCE, supposedly. Herodotus places him as 400 yrs before him, so roughly c. 850 BCE. 

The terminus ante quem (or last possible moment for an event) is taken as late as 630 BCE. The Cup of Nestor - sometimes taken as the first direct reference to the Iliad - dates to 750-700 BCE. As the author (*shrug*) of both poems, this also applies to the Odyssey.

Trojan War, Myth, Epic, Epic Cycle.

  • The Iliad

    • The madness, the myth, the legend. It literally starts with how mad Achilles is that Agamemnon stole his prize (an actual human being is a prize in ancient heroism, yes). This is the story of the last year of the Trojan War, after the two sides have been battling on the beaches of Turkey for nine years. Plague is ravaging the Greek camp and it seems like the Trojans, if they can just hold out, might survive the war. It has the pettiest first sixteen books of an epic we’ve ever read, but it’s just *so* *good*. Then the next eight books take you on a rollercoaster of emotions. It starts with petulant rage, and ends with such a mature sadness. The masterful tonal shift, character development and insight into hero culture in the ancient world make this a must-read (after Ovid’s Metamorphoses obviously). Scattered throughout big set piece battle scenes filled with the horror of war are quiet moments between husbands and wives, families joining together, and even enemies sharing a common ground.

    • Original Language

  • The Odyssey 

    • If the Iliad is the big kahuna of epic, then the Odyssey is it’s delightfully witchy and supernatural cousin. Whilst Odysseus is possibly the worst leader in the history of feudal system war-mongering (there’s a double-episode rant about Odysseus in Season Two if you want to know why), the things he and his men encounter along their journey home from Troy are some of the most famous episodes in ancient myth: the blinding of the Cyclops, the witch Circe, the Sirens, the Charybdis whirlpool, and Penelope sitting at her loom night after night waiting for Odysseus to come home. This also has the most incredible moment between a dog and their human in all of ancient myth. Reading that passage was the first time where we felt a commonality between epic and our lives now.

    • Original Language

Herodotus

Greek.

5th Century BCE, c. 484-425 BCE. 

History.

  • The Histories

    • Well, to start this blurb we’re going to have to quote a much later author – Cicero. He called Herodotus the “Father of history, father of lies”. Herodotus is a super interesting literary figure. Born in Halicarnassus in the 5th Century BCE, his hometown straddled the Greek and Persian worlds, which were so at odds with one another at the time. In Athens he wrote the first discernible ‘historia’, which means inquiry in the ancient language. Our ideas of history as a genre don’t leave much room for inquiry, even though all histories start there. Objectivity is key in modern history. Not for Herodotus! The man travelled all over the Greek world, reporting stories and events that were related to him by the people he met. One of our favourites is the story of Gyges, or the report of gold-digging ants in northern India. Herodotus is such a pleasure to read, and in reality (for us) he can’t be limited to history. He’s a travel writer, historian, investigator, myth-teller, anecdote-lover, geographer and fallible human who just wanted to share information. (All) People and their culture were his bread and butter.​

    • Original Language

Thucydides

Greek.

 

5th Century BCE, 460-400 BCE.

History.

  • History of the Peloponnesian War

    • Thucydides wrote his History of the Peloponnesian War around the same time as Herodotus and their approaches to recording history couldn’t be more chalk and cheese. Thucydides writes about the war between the two great powerhouses of the 5th-Century Greek world – Athens and Sparta. You know 300, and 300: Rise of an Empire? Where Sparta spearheads the Greek efforts to defeat Persia, and then utterly defeats them with the help of Athens? Yeah, just a few years later they were at each others’ throats (in our opinion, Athens had it coming). The war devastated Athens, and not just their military. A plague spread through the city like wildfire, killing their leader. Thucydides’ history of the Peloponnesian War is...long...and...full of marching; however, the imagined speeches he includes are incomparable, and we couldn’t recommend reading them more. His most famous is Pericles’ Funeral Oration.

    • Original Language

Nonnus

Greek.

 

Probably 5th Century BCE

"Biography".

  • Dionysiaca

    • Praise Dionysus! Nonnus kindly gifted the world 48 books of epic poetry *just* about the god of wine. For the longest surviving poem (20,000 lines!) from antiquity, this behemoth isn’t given nearly enough attention. We can’t get over how much love Dionysus gets in this poem. As one of the most ancient of the Greek gods, it’s high time we all took another look at what made him so universal (aside from the spiritual experience that has been enjoyed in his name for millennia - drinking wine). If you want another myth-telling text, look no further than this! It’s so jam-packed full of the myths we can’t even begin to tell you.

    • Original Language

Hesiod

Greek.

 

8th Century BCE. As with Homer, Herodotus places him as 400 yrs before him, so c. 850 BC

Early Myth.

  • Theogony

    • Birth of the GODS! Hesiod details the birth of the gods and the genesis of the Olympians. How kind of him to do all the work for us! I don’t know about you guys, but when we try and unpick the tangled web that is chaos to celestial order in the Greek world we kind of short-circuit, cry a bit and then pretend we hadn’t tried in the first place. Thanks to Hesiod, we can just start there and work outwards. It includes the great “succession myth”, of how Cronus overthrew Uranus and Zeus, in turn, overthrew him. It’s also a fab resource for trying to work out who’s related to who and how.

    • Original Language

Homeric Hymns

Greek.

 

Possibly 8th-6th Century BCE, author unknown, but Thucydides related them to Homer in the 5th Century BCE and the name stuck.

Early Myth, the Pantheon.

  • The Hymns

    • We have to admit that we definitely used to overlook these beauties. Because they’re now just fragments, you’re not really introduced to them in classical education until you start researching your own topics. Can confirm that these contain some of the earliest myths, and – hooray for us – metamorphoses. They include hymns dedicated to an enormous amount of the Greek gods, not simply the Olympians. 

    • Original Language

Aristophanes

Greek.

5th Century BCE.

 

Invented comedy. All jokes aside, this guy is hilarious.

Ancient Comedy, Greek Society.

  • Lysistrata

    • Sex strike! Aristophanes wrote this comedy play in 411 BCE about the Peloponnesian War. In her efforts to end the war, Lysistrata encourages the women of both Athens and Sparta to abstain from nookie with their husbands and lovers until they agree to end the war. Hilariously, the embodiment of Peace at the end of the play is a very sexy lady that these stereotypes of men trot after when going to negotiations. This play is filled with so much humour, we can’t recommend it enough.

    • Original Language

  • Birds

    • ​Aristophanes delivers another cracking comedy here, with a very different tone. Whilst Lysistrata’s a straight-up sex ploy parody, the Birds is a comical look at society, democracy and social mores. Two Athenians – sick of the city and all its rules – decide to encourage the birds to found their own city in the sky between the mortals and the gods, effectively cutting them off on both ends: the mortals are sacrificing, but that juicy, juicy prayer isn’t reaching the gods for them to nom on and then reward. Over the course of the play, what starts off as a law-less society slowly starts to look vaguely familiar.

    • Original Language

Plato

Greek.

 

4th Century BCE

Philosophy.

  • Timaeus

    • A long-form monologue for a bit of a change, with a few characters thrown in for good measure and bare bones dialogue contribution. Plato’s works are usually straight-up dialogues. Here Timaeus muses on the nature of humanity and the physical world it inhabits.

    • Original Language

  • Critias

    • ​One of Plato’s later works, which gives us all the juicy gossip on Atlantis – a (supposedly) ancient mythological city that Plato pitted as the antagonist of a golden age ancient Athens. Their culture seems positively idyllic, before the inevitable descent of man and desire to control vast swathes of land. Athens is the only city that’s able to fend off their attacks, and thus the Athenian myth of supremacy is born. And now we can see how they turned into such knobs (and ultimately tried to do the same thing as Athens in the 4th Century BCE – we see you Athens, and apparently so does Plato!). Here is where we learn of the great natural disaster that enveloped Atlantis, causing it to sink to the depths of the ocean never to be found again. Is this...a warning? Will those who live their lives by greed and for power be reminded of the awesome force of nature?

    • Original Language

  • Republic

    • ​To be honest, we haven’t read the Republic in its entirety; but, it’s Plato’s best-known and most influential work! He focuses on justice, the city-state and the just man, mostly in conflict with the democracy of Athens. Brief synopsis: the group of characters consider with Socrates a number of hypothetical states, and end at the fictional Kallipolis, or best city, ruled by a philosopher King – a vast difference from Plato’s contemporary Athens! Along the way, they discuss a number of philosophical ideas, such as the soul and poetry.

    • Original Language

  • Symposium

    • ​Our faaaaaavourite Plato. Here, Plato has a few characters debate the meaning of love at a symposium – a social event for Athenian men (very exclusive *eye roll*) and their well-versed hetairai (intellectual escorts). Socrates uses his usual – yet frustrating – dialogue process in order to tease out what love is. Whilst the love Socrates champions isn’t our cup of tea (it’s pretty restrictive in who can participate, and based on reciprocity rather than respect), we’re obsessed with fictional Aristophanes’ stab at it. Mainly we like to pretend this dinner party actually happened, particularly because it’s guests were to die for. Also, we don’t know about you, but the drunk Alcibiades at the end is something we can relate to.

    • Original Language

Euripides

Greek.

c.480-405 BCE.

One of the three great Athenian tragedians, which also includes Sophocles and Aeschylus.

Greek Drama, Comedy, Tragedy.

  • Medea

    • OUR ONE TRUE LOVE! We know, we know – slightly controversial, because of how this tragedy turns out. This play is about the great witch Medea, exiled from her homeland after committing a heinous crime for her new husband Jason. Whilst Jason was very on board with his Colchian wife during his travels, and when he needed her witchy ways to punish the usurper of his father’s throne, once he himself becomes a refugee he craves the simple, Greek life. And he does the totally sensible thing and...trades. Medea. in. for. a. younger. Greek. model. We can’t even with him. Possibly the worst cretin of all Greek mythology, and he honestly has some serious competition. Euripides gives us a masterclass in nuance here *chefs kiss*. He writes her heartbreak, desolation and loneliness so extraordinarily well (for a 5th Century BCE Athenian), that maaaaaaaybe she has to kill her children or the male audience would have left the theatre having spent the past two hours with a very uncomfortable mirror being held up to their behaviour. We’ll just leave that there *checks nails*. Anyway, either way, Medea is driven so far past the realms of sensible thought that the logic behind her unnatural crime makes perfect sense to her. This is a must-read!

    • Original Language

  • Helen

    • ​In this fabulous tragedy, Euripides serves us this alternative ending for Helen of Sparta. That’s Sparta for the people in the back. This play builds on rumours reported in Herodotus thirty years beforehand – Helen never actually made it to Troy. Prior to the play, she was spirited away from Paris’ ship by Hermes (on Hera’s orders) to Egypt and an eidolon or apparition-meets-phantom was sent to Troy in her place. I think it speaks volumes that neither Paris nor Menelaus (when he finally stormed into Troy looking for his wife after ten years of fighting) realised she wasn’t real. Euripides’ play opens with Helen fighting an Egyptian suitor and the Trojan War having ended. Menelaus comes to Egypt and can’t believe his eyes when he sees his wife (mainly because he’s imprisoned fake Helen in a cave somewhere *eye roll*). What ensues is the greatest romantic reunion in Athenian literature, but we mean this in a “best of a bad bunch” kind of way. It is a tragedy after all...

    • Original Language

  • Cylcops

    • ​This is not only Euripides’ one surviving satyr play, but it’s the only complete and extant satyr play we have. A satyr play usually came after a trilogy of tragedies, so we like to think of them as the theatre equivalent of a palette cleanser. Imagine three back-to-back tear jerkers...what’s the point without a palette cleanser to walk away with, absolving yourself of the emotions and complex questions the sad trilogy may have raised? This palette cleanser gives us another example of our beloved Polyphemus, although it’s one of his worst angles. It’s a “comedic” retelling, with some questionable sexual relations thrown in for good satyr measure.

    • Original Language

  • Trojan Women

    • ​Produced in 415 BCE, this play was part of a tragic trilogy about the Trojan War. It followed the plays Alexandros (about the reunion of Paris and the Trojan royal family...surprise!) and Palamedes, which dealt with the sticky end of the play’s namesake. This play is one of Euripides’ most female-centric, and focuses on the fates of the royal women of Troy. This heartbreaking play feels in today’s world like it just tracks an inevitable ticking down of time between the destruction of Troy and the destruction of its women. A heartbreaking read, and an interesting play to look at when considering the way ancient men wrote about women.

    • Original Language

  • Bacchae

    • ​And now we come to what is probably Euripides’ most famous play. Performed first in 405 BCE, it’s full of tension, Dionysian ritual and gore (you know we love it). It’s another fantastic play about the balanced worship of the gods – note to self: worship all gods equally all the time. It’s easy, and definitely not a tightrope that ends in certain death if you lean either way...Here Dionysus displays his more vicious side after Pentheus refuses to accept him as a god (there’s also a great myth about Perseus doing the same, which ends in even more heartbreak – look it up, if you have time!). We love Dionysus here at Myth Dynamite, so you know we have so much time for this. No spoilers (promise!) but the moment of realisation in this play is unparalleled. The audience knows exactly what’s happened, and just waits for the inevitable tragic lightbulb.

    • Original Language

Virgil

Latin.

 

70-19 BCE.

 

Virgil was the most celebrated Roman poet, and will forever be defined as an Augustus’ main man when it comes to writing.

Early Myth, Mytho-history, Augustus.

  • The Aeneid

    • We have to admit that we definitely used to overlook these beauties. Because they’re now just fragments, you’re not really introduced to them in classical education until you start researching your own topics. Can confirm that these contain some of the earliest myths, and – hooray for us – metamorphoses. They include hymns dedicated to an enormous amount of the Greek gods, not simply the Olympians. 

    • Original Language

  • Georgics

    • ​Ok, the Georgics. If you like bees, you’re in the right place. Well, Book four is the right place at any rate. Just a sample of the Georgics, Book four is split into two parts. The first half is didiactic poetry on the lives and habits of bees, who live their lives for the community and play their part in the great machine of society. He speaks about the way in which bee colonies can rebirth themselves spontaneously from the carcass of an ox (this would be so cool...) and that leads us into the second half of Book four – the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. This is a great example of what the Georgics is all about: a bit of countryside practicality, mixed with gloriously rich myth. Enjoy! If you’re inside on a cold, rainy day. This does provide some lovely bucolic escapism.

    • Original Language

  • Eclogues

    • ​These are also called the Bucolics, so you may see them referred to as that elsewhere. These are modelled on the Idylls of the great Hellenistic poet Theocritus (see Theocritus’ entry). The fun update Virgil adds, however, is a turbulence in these beautiful bucolic settings that mirrored the political upheaval that occurred in Rome during the Civil War. Eclogue 10 is the origin of the phrase ‘omnia vincit amor’, or love conquers all. It mostly features rustic shepherds sitting in an idyllic landscape (or locus amoenus if you’re being fancy) playing poetry on panpipes about giving goats to their beloved. All of this is placed on a background of land confiscation and the politicisation of an unreal rural ideal. Think Poussin’s ‘Et in Arcadia Ego’ in Roman poetry form. 

    • Original Language

Theocritus

Greek.

 

3rd Century BCE.

Poetry, Myth, Pastoral. 

  • Idylls

    • The OG of pastoral poetry. Theocritus is a Hellenistic poet which means he’s writing in the context of big Greek palaces and court-life (or Sicilian, if we’re being specific). He’s the main man for inspiration when Virgil comes to write his own Eclogues and he’s crucial as a model for pastoral motifs throughout Roman poetry in general. Our faves are (predictably) Idylls 6 and 11 which feature our babe, Polyphemus (the Cyclops) and his courtship of a sea-nymph. In the eleventh poem, a shepherd uses Polyphemus to explain that song is the best medicine for love and verbalises the love-song the one-eyed (possibly) monster sings for his beloved. It’s clumsy and adorable and we love it. Give them a read to transport yourself to the Sicilian countryside and escape city-life.

    • Original Language

Propertius

Latin.

 

50-15 BCE.

Love Poetry, Augustan.

  • Elegies

    • These are now Rome’s most famous love elegies, although he was a bit of a Van Gogh in his own time – in the under-appreciated sense, rather than the manically depressed sense (to our knowledge, but realistically who knows). Contemporary of Virgil and another of Augustus’ poets, he wrote four books of poetry written in the elegiac couplet – a very popular poetic form in Augustan 1st-Century BCE Rome. As is typical in elegiac poetry, Propertius pines for a single woman throughout his poetry. She is given the name Cynthia, but who she actually was is still unknown. His first book has the informal title Cynthia Monobiblos, named for its complete devotion to his older lover. It seems it caught the notice of Maecenas -  Augustus’ unofficial culture minister who acted as patron of all the Augustan poets. From this point on, and in Books two through four, Propertius peppers in poems (still in elegiac love poetry’s couplets!) on Augustus and Rome, the end of his torrid affair with Cynthia and several aetiological poems. He’s also the poet from which we get the phrase “absence makes the heart grow fonder.” (Book 2, Elegy 33)

    • Original Language

Lucan

Latin.

 

39-65 CE.

Epic, History, Mytho-history, Nero. 

  • Pharsalia

    • Lucan’s Pharsalia is one of Sarah’s absolute favourite things to read (maybe even tying with Ovid’s Met for number 1). The epic tradition that started with Homer, and worked its way down to Virgil, culminates in Lucan’s epic about the 1st-Century BCE Civil War in Rome. Writing under the Emperor Nero some 100 years later, no-one comes out of this one well. Literally no-one. Caesar is a sacrilegious, bloodthirsty warmongerer; Pompey is past his prime, useless and doomed. Amazingly, Lucan plays out the dramatic irony of his audience (now being ruled by Caesar’s descendant) knowing the outcome of the war with two simple similes: Caesar is an earth-shattering, sky-splitting and rageful thunderbolt whilst Pompey is a loft old oak, tottering and ready to fall in the slightest breeze. The violence of Caesar’s hard-won victory is so succinctly conveyed. The greatest part of this epic, though, is Book six. If you’ve always wondered who was the first witch in the western tradition (that we know of!) that was disgusting and vile and completely amoral you’re in the right place. Erichtho is one of the greatest written women in all the ancient world. She is unapologetically her own (and incredibly gross).

    • Original Language

Lycophron

Greek.

3rd century BCE

Epic, Myth.

  • Alexandra

    • Strap in, we’re in for a wild ride here! So you know how the Greek name for Paris (fateful Prince of Troy; lover/kidnapper of Helen) is Alexander?ell he had a sister. A very important sister named Cassandra. For Lycophron’s text, she’s named Alexandra. We have very mixed feelings about this. Is she being elevated to the status of Paris? Is she being cast in the same terrible light as him? Why is she being defined by his name in the first place? Anyway, we’ll never know now BUT this is an awesome Hellenistic text that contains all of Cassandra’s prophecies and foresight. That’s right – she had the power of seeing the future! Unfortunately, she was also cursed never to be believed. Surprise surprise, this led to everyone around her believing she was insane, which may explain this extraordinary poem – it’s entirely confusing in English let alone Greek (native English speakers in mind here). *Insert overused “It’s all Greek to me” ghost of a joke here*. Lycophron references obscure myths, and uses lesser known names for characters; he employs strange vocabulary and words not seen anywhere else. In other words, it’s entirely unique. It ends with a prophecy about Alexander the Great, maybe explaining the title of the poem (great, it’s just a different man she’s been cast in the image of *eye roll*). NB. Read this with the footnotes!

    • Original Language

 

Lycophron was actually entrusted by Ptolemy Philadelphus (Pharaoh of Egypt at the time) with cataloguing the comedies at the Library of Alexandria. His work led to him writing his most famous work On Comedy. The library of Alexandria was an extraordinary ancient place that celebrated learning, literature and intellectualism and is said to have housed the equivalent of 100,000 books in scrolls. Unfortunately, some of those were accidentally burned by Julius Caesar during the civil war in 1st Century BCE *insert eye roll paired with blood-curdling scream*. The rest of the library was destroyed in the late 3rd Century CE when Queen Zenobia of Palmyra invaded and annexed Egypt. RUDE.

Apuleius

Latin.

 

2nd Century CE

Myth. 

  • Metamorphoses

    • This Metamorphoses is the only Latin novel that has survived in its entirety (*squeal*).  Apuleius was an exceptionally well-travelled ancient – he studied in Athens, travelled throughout Italy, saw large parts of Asia Minor and went to Egypt. He was also famous for having been accused of using magic to seduce a wealthy Roman widow *clutches pearls*. He wrote his own defence, known as the Apologia or The Defence. But this text – Metamorphoses, or The Golden Ass – is an absolute cracker and a fab follow-up of Ovid’s poem. It’s a joyful and irreverent novel that follows Lucius, who experiments with magic and accidentally turns himself into an ass (SO. Many. Jokes...). Inspired by the farce of having to defend himself from a charge of magic maybe...? His metamorphosis leads him to witness many odd things he wouldn’t have otherwise seen, and the text is peppered with delightful digressions. The most famous of these is the story of Cupid and Psyche. These inset stories (the Fuller’s wife, the Tale of the Jealous Husband) have us thinking of Chaucer and Boccaccio if you’re interested. If you’re here for the weird though, it fits in nicely with Lucan’s Pharsalia and Lycophron’s Alexandra.

    • Original Language

Sophocles

Greek.

 

5th Century BCE.

 

Supposedly the innovator of in-depth characterisation.

 

He wrote over 120 plays whilst alive – and lived to the ripe old age of c.90 – but only seven have survived completely, and they’re some of the most famous Greek tragedies ever.

Greek Drama, Tragedy, Myth.

  • Oedipus Rex

    • This is the first of the three Theban plays – Oedipus Rex, Oedipus at Colonus, and Antigone – and it’s probably his best-known play in today’s world. Freud’s Oedipus complex made sure of that *eye roll*. Ugh, Freud – don’t get us started on him. Anyway, this is the story of how Oedipus realises that he’s killed his own father, married his own mother and ended up with a brood of sibling-children. This is a plot about the consequences of trying to avoid a prophecy. Okay, this one needs some backstory. When Oedipus was born, all this was foretold and so his father had his feet pierced and tethered so he couldn’t crawl and he was left out on the mountainside to die (cheers, Dad). Obviously, he didn’t die. Instead he was taken in by an old shepherd, who gave him the name Oedipus (“swollen foot”). Hilariously, he’s adopted by the King and Queen of Corinth and at some point he hears a prophecy that he’s destined to kill his father and marry his mother. He leaves Corinth to protect them, and happens upon a man driving a chariot. After a short argument he kills him. Literally they were at a crossroads and argued who should pass through first *eye roll*. The man turns out to be Laius of course, his father and King of Thebes. When the play opens, Oedipus is searching for the man who killed Laius so he can end a plague that’s been ravaging Thebes since the murder. Ironically, he’s searching for himself. Irony is the lifeblood of this play, and its main theme is sight and blindness. Oedipus can’t see the truth even when it’s entirely obvious. He pays for it in a similar vein, but that we won’t ruin! Phew, that was a long one.

    • Original Language

Livy

Latin.

 

1st Centuries BCE and CE.

 

Created an enormous and detailed history of Rome.

History, Myth. 

  • Ab Urbe Condita

    • This is one of the most comprehensive histories of Rome ever written (even if it is now fragmentary), melding myth with history and legend with rumour, compiling a text that conveys the lifeblood of Roman society. See stories like the rape of Lucretia – never has a woman been so absent from the aftermath of her own rape *eye roll*. Well, actually, we suppose that’s not true unfortunately. It’s ok though guys! It led to the founding of the Republic, so she’s just collateral anyway. It’s an honour, really. She should be grateful to go down in history. Sorry, sorry – that story really gets our goat. But to be honest it’s just one of a few rapes that decided the destiny of Rome. The Sabine women were another story of collateral damage: the men who had followed Romulus to found Rome had forgotten they’d need women to procreate and continue their city. It’s fine, they said, we’ll just steal the ones from the next town over. And so, Rome was born and it seems its violent delights have violent ends...over and over again. This story spans the ages from Aeneas leaving Troy to the founding of Rome in 753 BCE to the expulsion of the Kings in 509 BCE to the imperial rule of Augustus. It’s 142 books long (or at least it was in its full, original, form ... single tear) and it’s extraordinary.

    • Original Language: Books 1-10; Books 21-30; Books 31-38; Books 39-40; Books 41-45; other fragments

Suetonius

Latin.

 

1st and 2nd Century CE

History, Gossip. 

  • De Vita Caesarum

    • This is another fab Roman history, but this time it’s just about the juiciest Emperors. We’re talking Caligula, Nero, Domitian – all the sociopaths...or so we’ve been led to believe. This history is chock full of rumour, gossip and physiognomy. That’s right, these are like the literary version of the Roman bust. If he had a strong nose, he was noble and all that rubbish. For that reason, we can’t trust the descriptions for what they looked like physically but they’re sure as hell a great reference for how they were perceived by Rome and her empire. We LOVE a good bit of Suetonius, but we do caution you on believing everything this old gossip includes in his Twelve Caesars. We always imagine him on his way to the forum: “Did you hear this delicious new rumour about Agrippina? No? Well, let me tell you about it!” Honestly, this is a whole lot of fun, and a really valuable contemporary litmus test on what the rumour-histories were in the 1st – 2nd Century CE for each of the emperors.

    • Original Language

Augustus

Latin.

 

1st Century CE.

 

Yes, that Augustus (lord and saviour of all Rome, king of the first men(tion of an Emperor), mother of propaganda, creator of chains, unburned (like, socially).

History.

  • Res Gestae Divi Augusti

    • These are the equivalent of a long, long series of Trump tweets talking about all the things he achieved as Emperor, but like, actually true. It’s an inanimate, unbreathing yet timeless monument to the foundation of the Julio-Claudian dynasty. Never has a “king” (oop, controversial...) been so successful in making his people forget about democracy, or at least ok with a charade of a senate. Standing ovation for the greatest political mastermind of European history. Gotta thank his wife here too though. Behind every great man is a great woman? Oh yeah, she was as great as they come. When have you ever heard of a dynasty being founded and its founder being fine with not having a legitimate heir? Huh? We’ll wait. Considering how Romans divorced their wives for such a “flaw” like there was no tomorrow, this is exceptional. Anyway, it’s a pretty dry read, but it’s straight from the horse’s mouth – a fascinating read! Plus some SPECTACULAR humble (or not) brags throughout … cue a Gretchen Wieners’ style “I can’t help that I’m popular”.

    • Original Language

Cicero

Latin.

 

1st Century CE

History, Philosophy, Letters, Speeches, Law. 

  • De Inventione

    • This list will definitely grow – we can promise you that! We love and loathe this man. He was the last man to truly hold power in Republican Rome (in our humble opinion), and his story is fascinating. If you want a great (and accurate) historical fiction novel about him, his career, and his rivalry with Julius Caesar then please, please, please check out Robert Harris’ Imperium trilogy. Cicero is known as one of the greatest orators in the Western tradition, and he doesn’t disappoint. The drama, the pettiness, and the calculated cunning are masterful to read. This text – De Inventione – is a handbook Cicero wrote when he was a young man for orators learning the trade. It was later revised by texts such as De Oratore, but it’s a really interesting read if you’re interested in Cicero, his methods, and his younger years as a lawyer/orator.

    • Original Language

Pliny the Elder

Latin.

 

1st Century CE

History, Natural History. 

  • Naturalis Historia

    • Wow, this is a beast! It’s a thoroughly researched, expansive 37 books on the natural world. It draws on his personal experience, his own works and extracts from other authors. It’s a very modern history in that respect. He used to dictate his works, and even dictated them in the bath. Even though he was once offered 400,000 sesterces (roughly $800,000) for the purchase of all 160 volumes of his dictated extracts, he bequeathed them to his nephew – Pliny the Younger. The published 37 books cover astronomy, botany, zoology, mineralogy and many more natural wonders. Pliny the Elder is also known for being a hero in 79 CE when Mount Vesuvius erupted so violently. He had been made praefectus classis (or an admiral equivalent) of the navy, and had been stationed at nearby Misenum. He sent the fleet to evacuate as many inhabitants as possible. Unfortunately, the boat he boarded got trapped at Herculaneum and he died on the shores of Italy.

    • Original Language

Konon

Roman Empire Greek.

1st Centuries BCE and CE. 

History, Myth.

  • Narrations

    • Konon was known as a mythographer during the reign of Augustus, and wrote his Narrations in Greek. It hands down 50 myths that relate mainly to the foundation of colonies, and was written specifically for Archelaus Philopator, King of Cappadocia. They survive as summaries handed down in the Bibliotheca of Photius. The main reason Konon appears in our (ever-growing list) is because of his telling of the myth of Narcissus. In this version, a young man – Ameinias – had fallen in love with Narcissus. As with all those who had a passion for him, he rejected Ameinias and instead gave him a sword. Probably some f***ed up version of, “I’m doing you a favour. Don’t fall in love; hunt instead”. Unfortunately, the lovesick man killed himself on Narcissus’ doorstep, and yes it was with the sword he’d given him. He prayed to the gods to teach Narcissus a lesson, and so we end up with Narcissus becoming entranced by his own reflection and killing himself because he can’t fulfil his desire. Karma, you prick.

    • Original Language of Photius' Bibliotheca (the only online version we could find is paired with a French translation - see above for the English)

Pausanias

Roman Emperor Greek.

 

2nd Century CE

History, Travel Writing, Myth. 

  • Descriptions of Greece

    • This is a great follow-up to Herodotus’ Histories, despite their  enormous gap in publication. It’s another travel writer, giving us culture rather than just history. A favourite story of ours from here is that the egg that Helen of Sparta hatched from supposedly hung from the pediment of her cult temple in Sparta. Myth, history and culture play in glorious tandem here. Pausanias’ text has also kept alive some of the most exceptional (apparently, there’s no way to tell we guess) works of ancient art. He describes countless things that have since been lost to us. He hands down ten books’ worth of value, with each one describing a certain area of Greece. Check this out for the original Grand Tour!

    • Original Language

Philostephanus

Greek.

 

3rd Century BCE

History, Myth. 

  • De Cypro

    • Sadly, we no longer have this history of Cyprus. Rude. However, two authors preserved the existence of this text – Clement of Alexander and Arnobius. The main relation he bears to what we talk about is that Ovid used his account of the great sculptor Pygmalion when creating his own version of the myth. This Pygmalion was tasked with creating a cult statue of Aphrodite for Cyprus, which suddenly came to life. Ovid – in true Ovidian form – makes this story entirely his own, using it to explore the limitations and potential power of art.

Tacitus

Latin.

 

1st and 2nd Centuries CE

History, Gossip.

  • The Annals

    • This text is incredibly important to understanding the Julio-Claudian dynasty, and Tacitus is seen as one of the most important Roman historians of all time. It is the most comprehensive (almost contemporary) history of the emperors that followed Augustus – Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius and Nero. Unfortunately, some books are missing. But, for us this is a treasure trove of fact and rumour for the Emperor Nero. It has one of the best re-tellings of his attempts to murder his own mother. It hands down the political intrigues of his reign, and seems to document his descent into debauchery and amorality. It also includes the fantastic story of Boudicca – a Briton who revolted after her husband’s treaty with Nero’s predecessor, Claudius, was violated by Rome and she and her daughters were raped. Honestly, all of the Annals are an insightful read, but nothing compares to the last four books on Nero’s reign.

    • Original Language

Pseudo-Apollodorus

Roman Empire Greek.

 

1st or 2nd Century CE

Myth.

  • Bibliotheca

    • This is a compendium of Greek myth originally attributed to Apollodorus of Athens. It’s author is now named Pseudo-Apollodorus to acknowledge that it looked, sounded, and seemed like an original Apollodorus but wasn’t quite an original Apollodorus. These tellings of the myth get straight to the point! They’re without the dramatisation that we see in Ovid’s Met. An epigram – from Patriarch Photius I of Constantinople in 9th Century CE – lends itself to this reading. He summarises that these are without pomp and circumstance, without the “epic stain” (RUDE!), but they’re a great encyclopaedia!

    • Original Language

Proclus 

Roman Empire Greek.

 

412-485 CE

Philosophy.

  • Chrestomathy

    • This is the great Epic Cycle; the one text that pulls it all together into one narrative. It’s currently authorless and includes stories like the Titanomachy, Oedipus, the Thebaid, the Little Iliad, the Sack of Ilium, and the Telegony.. This was important to us because of its preservation of the Telegony in particular: a strange story that has Penelope and Telemachus go to live with Circe and her son Telegonus, after Telegonus accidentally killed his father Odysseus, who also happened to be Telemachus’ father and Penelope’s husband. It’s an odd fish for sure, but we like to joke that after an encounter with Odysseus you might want to find a support group. Telemachus then marries Circe, and Telegonus weds Penelope. It’s an...interesting end to their stories. For us, we like to imagine Circe and Penelope riding off into the sunset together instead *heart eyes*.

    • Original Language

Pseudo-Lucian

Roman Empire Greek.

 

Probably 4th Century CE but definitely after the 2nd Century CE

History, Travel Writing, Myth, Sexuality. 

  • Erotes

    • Another authorless text written in the style of a previous author (Lucian) and so has been half attributed to him. These Erotes, or musings on desire, are two dialogues arguing whether the love of men or the love of women is a greater pursuit for men. Our favourite part of this text is when, in the first dialogue, this argument plays out between three friends visiting the statue of the Aphrodite of Knidos. We won’t spoil the story, but it has an interesting anecdote attached to it!

    • Original Language (this is with a Danish translation, but you'll find the English linked above!)