Most helpful positive review
144 of 147 people found the following review helpful
best short, complete book on ancient Greece
on September 7, 2006
If you don't know much about ancient Greek history or culture, this is the best short book I know of. On every page, in every sentence, the author gets straight to the point, with no fancy obfuscations, assuming no prior knowledge. I've never seen a better organized history of ancient Greece. Besides that, I strongly approve of the map selection and the timelines. He gives just enough depth to be a solid introduction--just a little bit more than "what you're supposed to know."
Some teachers I know prefer a book titled "Ancient Greece" written by a team of authors led by Sarah Pomeroy. It has just a bit more depth than this book, but it isn't nearly as well written. It seems that they wanted it to be easily comprehensible, but I'm not sure they succeeded. It does have the advantage of a little more depth, but if you're reading for pleasure, I recommend this one rather than that one.
It is, though, only an introduction; that's the obvious downside of being short. You might want more information about the culture: more excerpts from the poets, the thoughts of the philosophers described in more detail, more plates (or plates in color) about the art. Actually the book is amply illustrated in black and white. But of course a book dedicated to Greek culture would have better information on any of these aspects, and that would be a book worth reading. This one serves only as an introduction. I strongly recommend reading the Norton Critical Editions of the Iliad and Odyssey, Hesiod, a couple famous tragedies (in my opinion, Euripides' Medea is the one to read first), and a few of Plato's more famous dialogues. THAT is an introduction; but if that's the kind of thing you intend to do, this book will be a great place to start.
On the historical/political/social matters, this book is again a great introduction, but only an introduction. If you want more detailed information, especially a look at the reasons historians believe such and such happened, I very strongly recommend John V. A. Fine's "The Ancient Greeks," one of the very best history books I've ever read. Of course it's a lot longer, but it's worth it. Once again, if you're reading for pleasure, I recommend this one first, and then Fine's book, which is a bit harder to follow.
If you want to read about Greek religion, I would once again start here; but then you should read the classic, Walter Burkert's book, and follow it up with Jan Bremmer's book, both titled "Greek Religion."
Of course, why not a little cheerleading for learning about ancient Greece? Since the Renaissance and even more since the Victorian era, anyone in the West who would call themselves educated has had to have basic knowledge of ancient Greece. They were certainly very influential on Western culture, and via Bactria even had some considerable influence on East Asia.
I've found that Greek history somehow arouses more curiousity in students than modern European or American history. I think it's because of the nature of the ancient Greeks themselves, because they reflected on human nature via their own history, so as we study ancient Greece, we get to reflect on the nature of power, why governments take forms such as aristocracies or democracies or monarchies, why wars are won or lost, why empires rise and fall, how much blood and misery flow through history, and so on. Students don't merely have to memorize lists of events and prepared ideas, but they get to reflect about life, why the world is the way it is, for themselves. And that is what most people, young or old, are all about.