The fact that we, for all our modernity, are still fascinated by the classical era is not surprising – the ancient world was one still full of possibilities, art and philosophy were flourishing, dramatic battles were fought, the foundations of urban planning were being laid, and the gods could come down and meddle in human affairs at any moment. The contradictions and cultural richness of the period offers a wealth of literary and artistic possibilities and have inspired works as varied as the Coen Brothers’ film O Brother, Where Art Thou?, James Joyce’s novel Ulysses, and the very successful Percy Jackson children’s book series.
The focus of this list is specifically the Graeco-Roman world, and covers books that are either set in these ancient times or are modern adaptations of Classical literature.
Homer’s epic poems The Iliad and The Odyssey serve as jumping-off points for many of these books. Some, like David Malouf’s Ransom, are fairly faithful to their source material, but with titles like Ben Ehrenreich’s The Suitors or Janice Clark’s The Rathbones, you have to squint to see The Odyssey in their wildly revamped tales.
Many authors have taken the opportunity to offer a female perspective of events traditionally dominated by male voices. Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad gives voice to Odysseus’ wife Penelope, as well as to the twelve maids Odysseus had hanged upon his return. Margaret George’s Helen of Troy fleshes out the enigmatic woman whose face “launched a thousand ships,” while Marion Zimmer Bradley’s focus in her novel The Firebrand is on Kassandra, “priestess, princess, and passionate woman with the spirit of a warrior.”
The interference of the gods into mortal affairs has also been an inspiration to many authors. In John Banville’s The Infinities, Zeus, Pan, and Hermes observe and circle around a modern family, causing domestic strife. The Age of Zeus is the second book in James Lovegrove’s standalone Pantheon “series,” and offers a very different treatment of that theme. His is an action-packed military science fiction/dystopian novel featuring Zeus and the other Olympians living on Earth in order to subjugate and enslave mankind with all their powers and mythological beasties at hand. Pier’s Anthony’s On a Pale Horse, the first in his Incarnations of Immortality series, offers a cheeky spin on divine intervention, where primordial deities such as Thanatos, Chronos, and Gaia, among others, are offices held by former mortals who find themselves elevated to supernatural status and in charge of overseeing the deployment of death or war or fate as a result of their actions during their mortal existences.
So, whether it’s a fantasy version of The Iliad set on Mars in which John Keats is a character (Dan Simmons’ Ilium) or a reworking of the Theseus myth that actually removes the mystical elements by offering real-world explanations for the supernatural (Mary Renault’s The King Must Die), there is a near-infinite number of approaches when it comes to reworking the themes and stories of Ancient Greece and Rome.
Here are twenty-five.