The Roman poet Ovid is exiled to a barbarian village at the edge of the Black Sea, where he ends up caring for a feral child. Most historical fiction tries to impress the reader with the sophistication of the period it recreates (for some reason my mind jumps here to Gwyneth Paltrow’s toothbrush thingy in Shakespeare in Love). Malouf, in contrast, portrays the absolute fear and dread of the “civilised” mind (represented by Ovid) in the face of the truly primitive. The author powerfully conveys the sheer otherness of the ancient world.
2. Dragonflies by Grant Buday (2008)
A prose retelling of the Iliad from Odysseus’s point of view. The great strength of Buday’s novel isn’t in any formal innovation or revisionism. Rather, it’s the crispness, humour and beauty of the prose that make this book worth seeking out.
3. Fire From Heaven by Mary Renault (1969)
The first 20 years of Alexander the Great’s life, including his time with Aristotle, from the young boy’s point of view. This novel is the first of a trilogy on the life of Alexander. I avoided reading it for a long time because it dealt with many of the events I was writing about, and I didn’t want to have my conception of events influenced by another writer. When I finally finished my own novel and allowed myself to read Renault, I was relieved I hadn’t read her sooner, because I would have been completely psyched out: the writing is excellent, the research immaculate, the characters subtly drawn. I particularly appreciated her no-nonsense portrayal of Alexander’s bisexuality. A lesser author would have made this the focus of the novel, but Renault is cool enough not to let the hot stuff derail her larger narrative.
4. I, Claudius by Robert Graves (1934)
Violent, dirty, shocking, funny, erudite, utterly compelling – Graves’s account of the Julio-Claudian emperors of Rome has become a classic, immortalised in the great 1973 BBC series of the same name. The novel is supposedly the autobiography of the emperor Claudius, who survived to adulthood only by pretending to be an idiot. Graves himself is supposed to have claimed to dislike the books, and wrote them only out of financial need.
5. The Moon in the Cloud by Rosemary Harris (1968)
This young person’s book is the first of a trilogy set in ancient Canaan and Egypt at the time of the Biblical flood. The main character, Reuben, journeys to Egypt to find a pair of lions for Noah to win passage on the ark for himself and his wife, Thamar. The book’s quietly irreverent humour and delicate use of magic realism are unusually sophisticated for a young audience.
6. Plato’s Symposium (385-380BC)
We think of this as a work of philosophy rather than a work of fiction, but it’s the author’s use of scenes, dialogue, and setting that make the book a 2,400-year-old delight. The characters drink, bicker, make passes at each other, wax lyrical, complain about their sandals, and generally remind us that men were never carved from marble and philosophy can be good fun.
7. Aeschylus’s Oresteia, translated by Ted Hughes (1998)
A ferocious translation of Aeschylus’s masterpiece by the great English poet. These plays concern the fall of the House of Atreus and the coming of the rule of law to Greek society. Hughes intended his translation to be performed on stage, not simply read, and it’s not hard to imagine a modern audience thrilling to this bloody, lyrical, utterly accessible version.
8. If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho, translated by Anne Carson (2002)
Reminiscent of small bones or shards of pottery, these poems often consist of single words or broken phrases; it’s up to the reader to perform the archaeological task of imagining what they might once have been. Carson’s translations are sexy, stark, poignant, and haunting.
9. The Gathering Night by Margaret Elphinstone (2009)
Elphinstone writes about hunter-gatherers in Mesolithic Scotland. A tsunami that scientists guess struck the east coast in 6150 BCE is the catalyst for the action; Elphinstone says on her website that she “used firsthand accounts of the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami” as the basis for her character’s story. This interest in linking past and present filtered into her research: she went on archaeological digs and hand-made a coracle of the type her characters would have used. A vivid, detailed book bravely imagining the “silent history” of prehistoric Scotland.
10. The Centaur by John Updike (1963)
An anxious teenage boy and his depressive schoolteacher father in small-town Pennsylvania shift and shimmer in and out of Greek myths: the father becomes the tragic centaur Chiron, while the son becomes Prometheus. It’s a magical feat, pulled off with Updike’s signature wit, painterly vision, and keen eye for beauty in the tiniest of details.
Full article and photo: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/sep/29/annabel-lyon-top-10-books-ancient-world