By Rick Steves
To learn more about Greece past and present, check out a few of these books and films.
There's no shortage of great books about Greek history. A Traveller's History of Greece (Boatswain and Nicolson) is a compact, well-written account from the earliest times to the present. Fernand Braudel's The Mediterranean in the Ancient World is another marvelous overview. If you'd like a large-format book with many illustrations, your best bet is The Cambridge Illustrated History of Ancient Greece (Cartledge). For the standard text on ancient Greece by a leading scholar (still quite accessible), try The Greeks (Kitto). Readers who want to understand the relevance of Greek ancient culture to today should get Thomas Cahill's Sailing the Wine Dark Sea: Why the Greeks Matter.
Edith Hamilton's The Greek Way and Mythology are classic tomes on classic myths and cultures. For more about ancient war and its warriors, Persian Fire (Holland) is an excellent history of the fifth-century B.C. Persian conflict. Histories by Paul Cartledge cover Alexander the Great and The Spartans. Novelist Mary Renault also wrote nonfiction about the period, including The Nature of Alexander.
A Concise History of Greece (Clogg) is an excellent overview from the 18th century to modern times. Inside Hitler's Greece (Mazower) is a shocking account of the Nazi occupation of Greece and lays the background for the subsequent civil war. Eleni (Gage) is a riveting account by the author of his quest to uncover the truth behind his mother's assassination during that civil war. Though written in 1958, Patrick Leigh Fermor's Mani: Travels in the Southern Peloponnese is the definitive book on the "forgotten" side of the peninsula.
Classics: The classics may be slow-going, but they open a window to the Greek mind and soul. The dialogues of Plato (Apology, Republic) capture the words of Socrates from Golden Age times. The comedies of Aristophanes and the tragedies of Sophocles, Euripides, and Aeschylus explore the great issues of life and death. Plutarch's Lives is an epic attempt to chronicle the ancient world through biography.
Memoirs: Henry Miller's Colossus of Maroussi is a sometimes graphic account of his down-and-out sojourn in Greece in the late 1930s. Patricia Storace's controversial Dinner with Persephone is more than a memoir about living in Athens — it's one writer's critical look at modern Greek culture and family life. On the lighter side, The Summer of My Greek Taverna (Stone) is an American expat's take on running a bar on the island of Patmos.
Western literature begins with Homer. The Iliad is the classic account of the Trojan War; The Odyssey follows Odysseus on his return from that war. Some of the best translations are by Richmond Lattimore, Robert Fitzgerald, and Robert Fagles.
Historical novels about Greece abound, and no one wrote them better than Mary Renault. Try any of her books on Alexander the Great (The Persian Boy, Fire from Heaven, Funeral Games), her re-imagining of the Theseus myth (The King Must Die, The Bull from the Sea), or her account of a 400 B.C. actor (The Mask of Apollo). Gates of Fire (Pressfield) re-creates the Battle of Thermopylae, where 300 Spartans held back the Persian army — for a while. The Walled Orchard (Holt) is an amusing and well-researched pseudo-autobiography of the comic playwright Eupolis.
Perhaps the most famous modern Greek writer is Nikos Kazantzakis. His Zorba the Greek shows how a wily old rogue can teach life's lessons to a withdrawn intellectual. His controversial The Last Temptation of Christ has a main character who is very human. Another favorite author is Panos Karnezis, whose Little Infamies is a fine collection of short stories written in a magical realism style. Apostolos Doxiadis is a mathematician and author who writes in Greek and then translates his own works into English. His popular Uncle Petros and Goldbach's Conjecture is the tale of a Greek genius obsessed with trying to prove one of mathematics' great theories.
British author Louis de Bernières wrote a best seller — Corelli's Mandolin, later made into a movie — about ill-fated lovers on a war-torn Greek island. Another best seller, Middlesex, by Greek-American author Jeffrey Eugenides, explores the Greek immigrant experience in the US — as well as sexual identity. John Fowles' classic The Magus describes an Englishman's psychological games with a wealthy recluse on a Greek island. The Parthenon plays a pivotal role in the lives of Pericles' mistress, Aspasia, and Lord Elgin's wife, Mary, in Stealing Athena by Karen Essex. Mystery fans like to follow Paul Johnston's books about the Scots-Greek private investigator Alex Mavros, such as The Last Red Death and A Deeper Shade of Blue.
Books for Kids
These good nonfiction books help introduce Greece to young readers. The Changing Face of Greece (Osler) weaves first-person accounts from modern Greeks with a summary of today's challenges. Ancient Civilizations: Greece (Bargallo) offers a capsule history. For an illustrated primer on Greek mythology, try The Random House Book of Greek Myths. Kids can put themselves in the sandals of a young Grecian in If I Were a Kid in Ancient Greece (Cobblestone Publishing), and make traditional foods, build a model temple, and put on a play with Ancient Greece! 40 Hands-On Activities (Hart). Greece in Spectacular Cross-Section (Biesty) will fascinate kids and grown-ups alike with its cut-away diagrams re-creating ancient sites. Miroslav Sasek's classic 1966 picture-book, This is Greece, was reissued in 2009.
Hollywood loves ancient Greek history and myths: The audience already knows the characters, and there are no copyrights. A recent flood of "sword-and-sandal" epics includes Alexander the Great (2004), with Colin Farrell as the military genius who conquered the known world; Troy (2004), starring Brad Pitt as the petulant warrior Achilles; 300: Rise of an Empire, the final naval battle of Salamis after Thermopylae, based on a graphic novel as well (2014); and a 3-D version of the myth of Perseus — Clash of the Titans (2010). The earlier Hollywood version of Clash of the Titans (1981) has an all-star cast featuring Laurence Olivier, Claire Bloom, and Maggie Smith. There's also plenty of star power in The Trojan Women (1971) — Euripides' classic tragedy of Troy's female aristocracy in chains — which features Katharine Hepburn, Vanessa Redgrave, and Irene Pappas.
For Greece's WWII experience, try The Guns of Navarone (1961), where a team of soldiers tries to take out a German artillery battery. Another war film, Captain Corelli's Mandolin (2001), is the love story of an Italian officer and a Greek woman. My Family & Other Animals (2005) follows the adventures of an English family relocated to Greece in 1939.
Life in post-war Greece was illustrated in several movies starring Melina Mercouri (who later became Greece's Minister of Culture). She played a beautiful woman with a shady background in Stella (1955) and Never on Sunday (1960). Boy on a Dolphin (1957) is the story of a beautiful sponge diver on Hydra played by Sophia Loren, becoming aware of her cultural heritage. Zorba the Greek (1964) shows how Greek culture can free even the most uptight Englishman. Z (1969) is a thriller about the assassination of a crusading politician — and the rise of the Greek junta — in the 1960s. My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002) is a hilarious comedy about marrying into a Greek-American family. Finally, the ABBA musical Mamma Mia! (2008) has fans seeking out the film's locations in the mainland region of Pelion and on the islands of Skiathos and Skopelos.
NOVA's informative Secrets of the Parthenon episode (2008) is available to watch on hulu.com.