The Histories by Herodotus (translated by David Grene)

I’m not going to give this one a rating because to be honest it’s not something I would have read on my own and I did not enjoy it much. It was assigned reading for my Greek Thought & Literature class (as was the Iliad, but I enjoyed that) and we were only assigned certain chapters within it, so I didn’t read the whole thing.

The basic gist is that Herodotus gives us a detailed background on events leading up to the many wars between the Persians and the Greeks. The famous story depicted by the recent movie 300 is also in here (the battle of Thermopylae), as well as a couple of other big battle: the battle of Marathon, the battle of Salamis, etc. etc.

Herodotus also likes to go off on a lot of tangents, and he tells us about how a singer named Arion took a ride on a dolphin, and there’s exhaustive lists on geography (or what the Greek world knew of geograph at that time) and other unrelated things.

However, in Book III Herodotus gives us an interesting debate between three Persian men on the merits and pitfalls of three forms of government: Democracy, Monarchy, and Oligarchy. My professor later said that most scholars agree this did not actually happen, and Herodotus made this section up, or heard about it from someone else who made it up. Anyway, monarchy wins out and Darius becomes king of Persia, followed by Xerxes (the bad guy in 300).

All in all, not exactly my favorite read…

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The Iliad by Homer (translated by Robert Fagles)

Rating: 7 out of 10
Review: The Greeks have been attacking  the city of Troy for 10 long years–in the 10th year of the siege, trouble arises when Agamemnon, the king of the Greeks, steals away a slave woman from Achilles, the greatest warrior on the Greek side. While the 2004 film depicted the relationship between Briseis and Achilles as that of a passionate romance, the original myth (or that of Homer’s version, anyway) paints an Achilles who cares more about his pride and ego than anything else. He sits out on the battles, refusing to fight, spelling disaster for the Greeks and victories for the city Troy and its prince, Hector.

The gods and goddesses of Greece are active participants in the war, with Athena and Hera supporting the Greeks, and Aphrodite on the Trojan side. As an epic poem, the Iliad is about as epic as it gets–battle scenes are bloody, violent, and drawn-out; the warriors and heroes on both sides are painted as larger-than-life characters, occasionally given superhuman strength or speed from gods that favor them.

This translation by Robert Fagles is very poetic, and made what could have been a very dry Greek poem dramatic and easy to read. If all you know about the traditional myth of Troy is the completely inaccurate and horribly scripted movie from 2004, you need to read Fagles’ translation.

Cybele’s Secret by Juliet Marillier

Rating: 8 out of 10
Summary: Marillier follows up on the sisters of Wildwood Dancing. Six years have passed since eldest sister Tatiana joined her true love Sorrow in the Other Kingdom, and Paula, the scholarly daughter, is accompanying her father to Istanbul to act as his assistant. His primary interest is in an artifact called Cybele’s Gift, a relic of an ancient cult. Paula’s father hires a bodyguard for her, a young Bulgarian named Stoyan who accompanies her everywhere, even to the house of Irene of Volos, a Greek scholar who has opened her library to Paula.

While perusing the manuscripts, Paula has odd glimpses of messages and people that seem to call to her from the Other Kingdom. She senses that Tatiana, or Tati, is behind these messages and that she is in need of Paula’s help. Before long, she, Stoyan, and the charming Portuguese pirate Duarte Aguiar are off on a quest that will take them into the heart of the Other Kingdom, where Paula will find that things are seldom what they seem (from bn.com).

My Thoughts: Marillier never disappoints. While I must come out and say that I still prefer Wildwood Dancing over this more recent novel, Cybele’s Secret was full of adventure and romance and all sorts of good things.

Oh gosh, I read this a couple months ago and I’m only getting to talking about it now… I’ve got a huge backlog on reviews. It’s been too long! I might just have to point you to Angieville’s great review of Cybele’s Secret, since I agreed with almost everything she said!

Stealing Athena by Karen Essex

Rating: 8 out of 10
Summary: The Elgin Marbles have been displayed in the British Museum for nearly two hundred years, and for just as long they have been the center of a raging controversy. In Stealing Athena, Karen Essex chronicles the Marbles’ amazing journey through the dynamic narratives of Mary Nisbet, wife of the Earl of Elgin, the British ambassador to Constantinople, and Aspasia, the mistress of Perikles, the most powerful man in Athens during that city’s Golden Age.

At the height of the Napoleonic Wars, the twenty-one-year-old, newly wed Countess of Elgin, a Scottish heiress and celebrated beauty, enchanted the power brokers of the Ottoman Empire, using her charms to obtain their permission for her husband’s audacious plan to deconstruct the Parthenon and bring its magnificent sculptures to England.

Two millennia earlier, Aspasia, a female philosopher and courtesan, and a central figure in Athenian life, plied her wits, allure, and influence with equal determination, standing with Perikles at the center of vehement opposition to his vision of building the most exquisite monuments the world had ever seen.

Commentary: This was a very enjoyable read, with lots of history and adventure and epic stories. It seemed like the author did her fair share of research and everything rang true.

Essex focused more on Mary Nisbet, the wife of the British ambassador to Constantinople, rather than Aspasia, mistress of Perikles. Both women had compelling stories and a lot to say about women’s experiences during their individual time periods. That was very insightful, and both characters were strong and understandable.

I thought the story was well-paced and very engrossing. I wouldn’t say that either of the two women had a traditional happy ending… but seeing as they are both very real historical figures, they did the best with what they had.

Great read.