Classical fiction

Reading suggestions – updated at Roehampton Summer School 2013

This article has evolved from the Option Group which met at this year’s Summer School in Durham. It begins with brief reviews of three contemporary novels of interest to Classicists: this is then followed by a reading list of fiction which might appeal to our pupils.

The Secret History by Donna Tartt

First published in 1992 and set in the Arts Faculty of a New England university. Told from the viewpoint of a student, Richard Papen, the novel chronicles his initially peripheral, but ultimately pivotal role, in a series of macabre events, culminating in the murder of one of his fellow students. The fact that the story is set in the Classics Department naturally adds to its appeal as does the author’s incorporation of references to Dionysiac ritual into the story. The plot is intricate and skilfully executed, the characterisation strong and although some felt that the pretentiousness of some of the writing can grate at times, nevertheless the group found the book intriguing and would certainly recommend it to anyone with a direct interest in Classics, as well as the general reader.

The Course of Honour by Lindsey Davis,

Published in 1997, is the fictional biography of Caenis, Vespasian’s mistress. The novel is cleverly developed from a single reference to Caenis in Suetonius. It describes her upbringing as a slave in the household of Antonia, mother of Claudius, her manumission, her developing romance with Vespasian and their long lasting relationship up until his accession in AD70. As in her Falco novels, Lindsey Davis vividly creates the atmosphere of ancient Rome and writes authoritatively about its customs and culture. Characterisation, dialogue, love interest and historical detail are handled with a light touch.

Swimming to Ithaca by Simon Mawer

As she lies dying, Dee Denham believes she is being punished for her past. The novel describes how her son Thomas, a history lecturer, unravels the truth behind his childhood from letters, photographs and conversations with his younger sister, Paula. The story swings between the present day as Thomas attempts to build a relationship with one of his students, a single mother called Cale, and the late 1950s when Thomas’ father was serving with the RAF in Cyprus. The young Thomas remained in England, except for the summer holidays, while his mother and sister sailed out from Southampton to join his father.

The story unfolds through Thomas’ eyes as he seeks to construct the narrative of his mother’s history from his childhood memories. Simon Mawer himself was brought up in Cyprus and writes with insight about the island, its landscape, archaeology and people. The allusions in the title to the Odyssey and to Cavafy’s poetry enhance its interest to a Classicist.

During the Summer School, we also enjoyed a reading of Mrs Midas from Carol Ann Duffy’s The World’s Wife, a wonderfully witty collection of poems inspired by Greek mythology. Classics teachers may also be interested in reading Bad Blood, Lorna Sage’s fascinating autobiography, which, inter alia, records her delight in discovering she was good at Latin at school and her enduring love of the poetry of Vergil.

Pupils’ book list suggestions

Classical fiction for younger readers

Some favourite Authors:

Rosemary Sutcliffe

Caroline Lawrence

Mary Renault

Adele Geras

Henry Treece

Jill Paton Walsh

Ian Serraillier

The Percy Jackson Series

Strong Stuff: Herakles and his Labors, by John Harris, The J P Getty Museum.

The Roman Mysteries, by Caroline Lawrence, Orion.

The Thieves of Ostia

The Secrets of Vesuvius

The Pirates of Pompeii

The Assassins of Rome

The Dolphins of Laurentum

The Twelve Tasks of Flavia Gemina

The Enemies of Jupiter

The Gladiators of Capua

The Colossus of Rhodes

The Fugitive from Corinth

The Sirens of Surrentum

The Charioteer of Delphi

The Slavegirl from Jerusalem

It’s Jason, by Colston West, Eagle House

The Shadow of the Minotaur, by Alan Gibbons, Orion

The Legions of the Eagle, by Henry Treece, Bodley Head (hbk) & Penguin

The Crown of Violet , by Geoffrey Trease, Macmillan (hbk) & Puffin

By Rosemary Sutcliffe, Bodley Head (hbk) & Penguin

Her Roman Britain trilogy:

The Eagle of the Ninth

The Silver Branch

The Lantern Bearers

For older readers

By Mary Renault, Arrow & Penguin

Her Alexander the Great trilogy:

The Persian Boy

Fire from Heaven

Funeral Games

The King Must Die

The Bull from the Sea

The Mask of Apollo

The Praise Singer

The Sibyl, by Pär Lagerkvist (out of print?)

By Robert Graves, Penguin

I Claudius

Claudius the God

Stephanie Plowman (out of print?)

To Spare the Conqueror

The Road to Sardis – Stephanie Plowman

Pompeii, by Robert Harris, Random House

By Lindsey Davis, Arrow

The Falco novels

The Song of Achilles –  Madeleine Miller

The Swerve – Stephen Greenblatt  NF

A Short History of Myth – Karen Armstrong  NF

Here Three Roads Meet – Salley Vickers

Weight –  Jeanette Winterson

The Helmet of Horror – Victor Pelevin

The Penelopiad – Margaret Atwood

My Brother Michael – Mary Stewart

The Moon spinners – Mary Stewart

Gadget City – I.O. Evans

The Island – Victoria Hislop

The Thread – Victoria Hislop

The Hemlock Cup – Bettany Hughes

Helen – Bettany Hughes

The World and his Wife – Poems of Carol Ann Duffy

Linda Soames and friends: July 2006/July 2013