Ancient Sources

copyright 1997 by Historical Novelists Center

These are the original sources of history in most cases. They can be found in English translation in many different editions, often at the websites that follow the list.

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Many modern descriptions of Greek myth are based on the plays of Euripides, because they make good stories. However, in his own time he was notorious for taking one or two elements of a myth, and making the rest up himself. For example, in tradition, the sons of Medea and Jason were stoned to death by the Corinthians, for which there was annual ritual atonement in Corinth for centuries. Euripides has Medea kill her own children, and the Corinthians gave him ten talents of silver in thanks for the whitewash. Many felt him impious, and that he got his just desserts when he was torn to pieces by dogs. His tales are no guide to earlier history or culture. Read them only if performances of them are part of your action. Think of him as another historical novelist, who bothered with hardly any research at all.

Herodotos, Herodotus
c. 485-425 BC. Herodotos of Helikarnassus traveled around the Near East, from the Nile to the Euxine (Black) Sea, and talked to many who had travelled farther. Finally, he settled in Athens, and was supported at public expense while he wrote his history of the Persian War. Fortunately for us, he was given to long digressions on the history, manners and morals of every national participant, or we would know far less about the ancient world than we do. However, he is not considered accurate even by Thukydides, who in his introduction corrects Herodotos' story of the tyrannicides, proving by a study of family monuments that they in fact only killed a younger brother of the tyrant. Some modern authorities consider a number of his stories to be more folktale than history. It would appear that he compiled his work, not by consulting "hard sources" but by interviewing people who were said to be knowledgeable, much as if we compiled a history of WW2 by interviewing old veterans and their grandchildren who remember the old stories, but ignored (because we did not have) all the government documents and newspapers.

Go To Project GutenbergHistoriae, or History (of the Persian War) ****
The Athenians voted Herodotos a pension on which to live while he was writing, so one must allow a little Athenophilic bias, but it also puts his Athenian sources right at hand. This is in many ways a travelogue of the Ancient World, as he discusses the cultural background of all the allies of all the people involved. Herodotos was from Halikarnassos, travelled as far as the Black Sea, and eventually settled in Athens, which for publishing in its day was like Thirties New York. He is a rare writer in that when he repeats some tall tale, he voices his doubts as to its reality. However, many of his historical stories are more like folktales about the famous, and both Thukydides and Plutarch disliked his lack of accuracy. T2

Hecataeus, Hekataeus
The genealogies that were a common form of writing in the early Greek historical period traced various families (who supported the writer while he was working) back to this or that legendary figure descended of the Gods. Born 550 BC, Hekataeus' skepticism oozes from every line of the one he wrote, and he baldly remarked on the great number of ridiculous stories the Greeks had.


fl. 850 BC. Born in Ascra, and later farming in Orkhomenus, Hesiod's live is the subject of many interesting but suspect tales, including a poetic contest with Homer, probably most safely dead before Hesiod's birth. The ancients thought highly of his didactic poems, but moderns usually find him far inferior to Homer.

Erga kai Hemerai, or Works and Days *****!
Imagine a farmer's almanac in verse. Works and Days is it, for ancient Greece, and will tell you which birds are migrating when plowing should be done, what is good or wasteful household behavior, when it is advisable not to journey by sea, and so forth. Very useful.
Theogony, or Descent of the Gods ***
This is one of the first synthesizing works of Greek mythology -- that is, it takes every tale known to the author and attempts to make them all fit into a logical whole, like a plot or a history, no matter that some of the tales originated thousands of miles apart, and may originally have been about a Hittite or Phoenician Deity only similar to the Olympian to whom Greek retellings have attached it. Certainly this is what later Greeks will consider authoritative, but as a guide to early religion or legend it must be screened into its diverse sources.

fl. 850 BC. The Trojan War was a subject for many poets, but Homer crafted it specifically into a subtle religious weapon to denigrate the Olympian Gods by showing them to be petty and immature. His religious bias is to the ancient worship of the Triune Goddess, and his admirable figures are the doomed Trojans, not the sneaking, lying, treacherous Greeks, who betray and murder each other with facility.
Nonetheless, there is an astonishing admixture of facts on how life and warfare were conducted. Some details are from Homer's time, and yet others have been proved by archeology to be accurately handed down from the Mykenaean age: the size of the warrior's shields and the boar's tooth helmets, for example. Do note that this poem was first written down in Athens at the order of Peisistratos. It is very interesting that an Athenian contingent is listed in the Catalog of Ships, but that no Athenian rates even a momentary mention anywhere else. The Catalog of Ships was obviously emended to include Athens at that time.

Go To Project GutenbergThe Iliad ****
If you actually read this, it can be very illuminating, but much is often lost or changed in just reading modern tellings of the Trojan War. For example, neither the Judgement of Paris nor any magical invulnerability on Achilles' part is ever mentioned in Homer. Much of the Trojan War tale comes from later authors with the Classical bent for the spectacular, rather than from Homer from the Greek Dark Age. T2
The Odyssey ***
A good case has been made for a couple of centuries for this being the work of a completely different person than the author of the Iliad, specifically an unnameable young Sicilian noblewoman. Its reflection of life in the Greek Dark Age is much less valuable, as the author seems to know little about life outside of court. T3

Thukydides, Thucydides
c. 471-400 BC. Thukydides realised early that important events were transpiring in his life, and kept notes of events as they happened, and as they were most recently or accurately reported. He had no respect for mere hearsay that could not bear the closer digging of checking records or applying logic. As one of the naval leaders of Athens, he was in an excellent position to record the central facts and planning of the Peloponnesian War. However, he kept a very tight focus, and we can learn relatively little about social structures from his work -- but what there is, you can trust! This includes, in his introduction, such interesting facts as that only in his own lifetime were the races and such at the Olympic Games conducted entirely in the nude, many participants until then wearing loincloths.

History (of the Peloponnesian War)
Gives a remarkably balanced view for someone who fought on one side, but after the Athenians had ungratefully exiled him, he went down to Sparta to get their side of things. Still biased, but not as much as one might expect. T3

c. 430-354 BC. An Athenian aristocrat who hated his home city, Xenophon hired out as a mercenary in the Persian civil war, on the side of Cyrus the Younger. When they won the battle of Cunaxa, but Cyrus was slain, the other side managed to murder most of the Greek leaders by treachery. Then Xenophon was elected one of the commanders to get the survivors back to civilization, no mean feat. He then hired himself and many men to the Spartan forces in Caria under King Agesilaos. When the Persians financed Theban and Athenian attacks on Sparta, Xenophon was part of the astonishingly swift march around the Aegean and fought with the Spartans against Athens. This earned him exile from his native city and the friendship of Agesilaos, who settled him in an estate not far from Olympia. Most of Xenophon's writing is better classed as memoire rather than history, as he is working largely from his own memory of events, and what he remembers being said about others.
After the collapse of Spartan hegemony following Leuktra, he moved to Corinth, though his proscription from Athens had been lifted. Said to be the handsomest man of his time in youth and age. Prolific scribbler in his settled years, though most date most of his works from 350 BC. All of his works are on Project Gutenberg, free.

Go To Project GutenbergAgesilaos
His biography of his long-term patron. Must be taken at higher value than those written by people who never knew this Spartan king. T2

Anabasis, aka The Persian Expedition ****
Record of his march, in command of the thousands of surviving Greek mercenaries of the Persian Civil War, from the depths of Mesopotamia to the Black Sea, through hostile country. Still considered THE text on retreat tactics through mountainous country. T3

Cyropaedia: the education of Cyrus ****

The Economist *****!


Hellanika, aka History of My Times ****
A memoir, taking up where Thukydides leaves off, finished late in life, though large sections were written much earlier. Disagrees in details with the Oxyrhyncus Historian (darling of the Classicists, but writing 600 years later), and reports what was to him important and memorable. Unlike Thukydides, he was not keeping a diary at the time of events, so there are lacunae resulting from his writing this often fifty years after the fact. Spartocentric, so it infuriates the Athenophilic Classicists by skipping what THEY consider important. No internal dating system worth noting: keep a chronology of major battles, etc., in hand. T3

Lakedaemonian Republic, aka Constitution of the Spartans ****
Describes life among the Spartans during the years he lived and fought with them. Valid for about 700 to 300 BC. Does not have to agree with Plutarch's Life of Lycurgus, which is based on the neo-Spartan revival of three hundred years later. T1, because there is so much Plutarchian nonsense out there by "top men in the field."

Memoire of Sokrates


Go To Project GutenbergOn Horsemanship *****!
Very detailed as to conformation desired, best training practices (therefore mentions bad practice), stable construction, how to mount, etc. T3

On Hunting *****! (aka The Sportsman)
Primarily dedicated to the pursuit, habits, and types of hares (rabbits were still confined to a small range in southern Spain), but also has sections on deer and boar. Lots on the dogs, including a list of recommended names. T2

On Revenues ***
Suggestions for taxation for the cities.

The Symposium ****
A Greek dinner party with Socrates.

On the Cavalry Commander ****
Takes up where On Horsemanship leaves off, with the military use of riders. T3

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Official and Original Project Gutenberg Web Site and HomePage*****!

"Fine Literature Digitally Republished. Since 1971 putting classic books into electronic form." You can download all the major classics for free, each as a single big text file. MUCH better than Perseus. Burn your own reference CD-R.

The Internet Classics Archive: English Language Translations of Classical Texts Online *****!

MIT Classics department compiles the Perseus Project and other sources. Includes Hippocrates, Homer, Xenophon, and a lot of others. Each work (play, essay, epic) loads as a single page, making it easy to Search for specific words, and has a Download option. Very large works are available as one page or three, to cut time. Get the "unlimited time for $20" deal from a direct web service with a local access number for you, and you can consider this site part of your home library that doesn't have to be dusted. This is what we all hoped the Internet would be!

Online Medieval & Classical Library ****

Exceedingly large index page takes a long time to load, so you can guess how many entries it has! This is one of those online libraries, with texts in translation, not just a linksite.

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