A Crash Course into Feminist Lit: Ancient History Edition

It’s very easy to get caught up in the more visible aspects of the ancient classical world. We get movies about bloody battles and warfare, the cut-throat world of politics, and the lives of famous figures. Inevitably, these often end up being the tales of men. And while these are all still enjoyable, there is still something special in finding narratives either about women or controlled by women.

And thus, over the past few months it has been my mission to track down as many books by women or about women in the ancient world as possible. This search is ongoing but what I have put together here is a list of the highlights of my exploration of these books so far. One of the best things about the books that I have listed is that they are all very accessible. I managed to find almost all of them at local bookstores, and they were all fairly priced.

All the translators, classicists, and authors listed here have many other works which I also highly recommend!

TRANSLATIONS BY WOMEN

IF NOT, WINTER (trans. Anne Carson): In this translation of Sappho’s surviving poetry, Anne Carson takes these ancient poems and mixes in her own poetic talents with her translations. This results in a work that feels both like something you could imagine being sung on a 6th century Greek island, and performed at an open mic night. I’m willing to admit that I know nothing about poetry, but even I’m able to see the beauty and talent in what Carson has translated. Something absolutely essential to enjoying reading an ancient text is finding the right translation, and I think Carson is the perfect translator for Sappho’s work. Reading this truly feels like a collaboration between the ancient genius of Sappho and the modern genius of Anne Carson.

THE ODYSSEY (trans. Emily Wilson): For anyone looking to enjoy reading the Odyssey, I would absolutely recommend this translation. No offence to other translators, but Wilson’s talent for capturing the aesthetic beauty of Homer’s epic poem without sacrificing the readers’ enjoyment, is an admirable skill that shines through in this text. She takes full advantage of the written medium to change up some of the repetitive epithets that Homer was so fond of, and she gives the poem a fresh new feel – unafraid to take the text into her own hands to craft the story that she wants to translate.

HISTORY BOOKS BY WOMEN

SPQR (by Mary Beard): Reading this, it’s easy to see why it’s an international bestseller. It is an extensive account of the period of Roman history spanning from its start to its (proposed) end. SPQR is perfect for anyone looking to start learning about Roman history or wanting to consolidate their knowledge of it. One thing I found particularly refreshing in this, that I have found lacking in other historical books, is that she remembers to keep women in the narrative. With some history books (especially ones spanning such a large time period) I will go pages and pages before realising it’s been way too long since there’s been even mention that women existed. It is quite refreshing to read through this and notice that; yes, women were a part of history! Who would’ve thought? It’s a relatively dense 600 pages, but it’s well written and clear to follow.

Venus and Aphrodite (by Bettany Hughes): I have a huge soft spot for Bettany Hughes but all my praise for her is fully deserved. This book is about, as the title suggests, the goddess Aphrodite (‘Venus’ to the Romans), and her history. Hughes has a way with words that makes this book extremely accessible and educational at the same time. For a subject like classics, I think that this is particularly important. My favourite aspect of this book is that it doesn’t just tell the readers about the myths of Aphrodite and Venus. Instead, it ties everything back to history. Hughes doesn’t stop at telling us that Venus is a more warlike form of Aphrodite; she takes the extra step of tying this back to Roman culture and the way it differs to Greek culture. The book is only 200 pages, and if you are in any way interested in mythology, it’s perfect book for you.

HISTORICAL FICTION BY WOMEN

A THOUSAND SHIPS (by Natalie Haynes): This 2019 novel follows the stories of several women from the Odyssey; all framed around Calliope (the Muse of epic poetry) listening to the prayers made by Homer. It’s broken into short fragments telling the women’s stories– all suffering in some way by the war that none wanted to be a part of. Haynes manages to create an incredibly enjoyable and easy-to-read book while also writing a cutting condemnation of ancient war inflicted by men and suffered by women. Haynes manages to exceptionally create such human and relatable characters – something I’ve often found lacking in other works of historical fiction. Though these characters are fictional, and written in a time long past, it’s impossible to not be absorbed into their world. It only took me a few days to read and immediately skyrocketed to becoming my favourite book. If you ever want to read something to get you feeling emotional about the ancient world – this is the book for you.

CIRCE (by Madeline Miller): You’ve probably either heard of or read this one. The book follows Circe (a minor Greek goddess) as she struggles through life with her more powerful and beautiful relatives. Because she is considered too plain and talentless to be a worthwhile goddess, she lives an isolated life of lovelessness and rejection until she stumbles across a skill she can develop; witchcraft. It’s a beautiful tale that deals with trauma and isolation and has earned a lot of well-deserved praise; last year being shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction.

~ Sophie Roberts

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