Ancient Greece and the Roman Empire continue to fascinate children and provide fertile ground for historical novels that resonate with today’s readers. Author and classicist Annelise Gray talks us through some of her favourite books for children set in the ancient Mediterranean world and Roman Britain.
Your book, Circus Maximus: Race to the Death is on our list of the best books for kids of 2021. It centres on twelve year old Dido, who dreams of becoming the first girl to race chariots at the Circus Maximus, the greatest sporting stadium in the ancient world.
Could you define for our readers what ‘Classics books’ are?
Annelise Gray: ‘Classics’ is the commonly used term for the study of the ancient Greeks and Romans. So the books I’ve chosen are all for younger readers who might be interested in that world. There is some complicated history around the term ‘Classics’ and there’s an important debate going on at the moment about whether we should consider renaming this area of study so that it doesn’t carry so much of a value judgement about the worth of Greek and Roman literature over that of other cultures and civilisations (the word ‘Classics’ derives from a Latin word ‘classicus’, implying something that is of the first or highest rank). But it’s still the standard shorthand term – I’m happy for people to substitute ‘Books about Ancient Greece and Rome’ if they like.
Do you know what sparked your interest in the ancient Greek and Roman worlds?
I had a battered old book of Greek myths which I was obsessed with when I was around nine or ten. When I was thirteen, I started at a new school where they studied Latin. We learned from a textbook called the Cambridge Latin Course, which introduces you to the language via a series of stories all revolving around the comings and goings of a family living in Pompeii in the months leading up to the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. I remember being completely gripped by the final chapter, in which I found out which members of the family survived and which didn’t. I’m actually a Latin teacher now and I think that textbook was really key to my own sense of what studying an ancient language was in aid of – not to give you a grounding in grammar per se (although that’s useful) but to help you find a path back to the Romans themselves and learn about them as real people, as the ancestors of who we are now.
D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths
Your first pick is an illustrated classic about Greek mythology. Can you tell me about it?
This is the same book of Greek myths I was talking about earlier. It was published in the US in the 1960s and for many young American readers in particular (I grew up in Bermuda, on that general side of the Atlantic) this was their introduction to all the classic stories like Theseus and the Minotaur, Hercules, Daedalus and Icarus and so on. Of course there are lots of other fantastic myth compendiums for children out there but the beautiful, lithograph illustrations were what made this one an almost sacred text for me – I found them completely mesmerising and used to pore over them rather than reading the stories sometimes. The d’Aulaires of the title were Ingri and Edgar, a Norwegian and Swiss-German immigrant couple who, as I’ve since discovered, were pioneers in a golden era for picture books.
I do recognise that it is of course bizarre in all kinds of ways that ancient myths have come to be seen as appropriate reading material for children, given that most of them are about pretty disturbing subjects – parents killing their children, women being turned into trees to escape predatory men and so on. But the stories are just so gripping – I rarely meet kids who don’t love them – and the d’Aulaires’ version, like most of the others on the market, helpfully glosses over a lot of the dodgy bits from the originals. I love the way the birth of Aphrodite, goddess of love, is breezily dealt with in one sentence, ‘Nobody knew from where she had come.’ (Awkward fact check: she emerged from the foaming sea after Uranos chucked his father’s severed genitals in there).
Do you have a favourite god or goddess, hero or monster from this book?
There’s a particular illustration from the book which has always stuck in my head, of the deified Four Winds who were kept under control by their keeper, King Aeolus. Each drawing sums up their individual personalities – fierce and powerful for Boreas, the strong north wind; cherubic and carefree for Zephyr, the gentle west wind. I’ve always remembered it and I actually named a team of chariot horses in Circus Maximus: Race to the Death after the Four Winds and gave them something of those ancient prototype personalities.
The Odyssey by Homer, as told by Gillian Cross, illustrated by Neil Packer
The Odyssey is one of the most-recognised book titles in world literature, and Gillian Cross is a Carnegie medal-winning children’s author – is it as good a combination as it sounds?
Yes, very much so. Gillian Cross was one of my favourite storytellers growing up – I loved her Demon Headmaster series – and this is a perfect introduction to one of the most famous and important of all works of literature. The Odyssey is Homer’s epic telling of the troubled homeward journey of Odysseus, the cunning king of Ithaca, in the aftermath of the Trojan War. It’s originally a poem but Cross’s version renders it into a very simple and natural prose style and it’s in an accessible large-font layout which should appeal to children of different reading abilities. The illustrations by Neil Packer are also wonderfully and sinisterly evocative.
Normally, I wouldn’t recommend that you read a sequel before its predecessor and in this case that would be Homer’s other great epic, the Iliad, which focuses more on certain events in the Trojan War itself. There’s a retelling of that by Cross and Packer as well for anyone who wants to start there. But if you ask me, the Odyssey’s got everything you want in a story – heroes, gods, monsters, flesh-eating giants, deadly whirlpools, revenge, betrayal, justice, archery contests, you name it. It’s a great one to read with and to your children – in fact I lent my copy recently to a Year 6 pupil [age 10-11] that I teach and her mother emailed me later to say that they had read it together in stages every night and her daughter was enthralled by it.
The book is very richly illustrated, do you want to say anything more about the illustrations?
Yes, the illustrations are wonderful – lots of dramatic colour and striking, ghostly silhouettes. Some of the monsters, like the Cyclops, are rendered in fantastically grotesque detail. In the wisdom of my later years, I realize how much more appropriate they are than the d’Aulaires’ lithographs, which though exquisite, tended to rose-tint everything and also portrayed a lot of the gods as if they were golden-haired Scandinavian surf dudes. With Packer, there’s much more diversity and edgy wit.
The focus is on the hero Odysseus, but the book also describes the dangers faced by his wife Penelope and his son Telemachus at home. Do you want to talk about that aspect of the story?
Absolutely, the story of what’s happening to Penelope back home in Ithaca while her husband is away fighting in Troy and then sailing back home, is just as important – if not more so – than what’s happening on the high seas. Odysseus is away from home for twenty years in total – ten years fighting the war and ten years trying to get back – and all that time, Penelope has to raise her son Telemachus, who’s just a baby when his father leaves home. She also has to use her own cunning to put off an increasingly persistent and bullying bunch of suitors who want to persuade her that Odysseus is dead and that she should marry one of them. People often think of the Odyssey as just a tale about Odysseus’s encounters with monsters like the Cyclops and the Sirens, but only a small fraction of the poem actually covers those bits. What’s going on back home with Odysseus’s family takes up much more space.
The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff
Your third pick is an adventure novel set in Roman Britain. What is it about?
The Eagle of the Ninth tells the story of a Roman officer, Marcus Flavius Aquila, who sets off on a dangerous journey to discover the fate of his father’s missing legion – the Ninth – which has mysteriously disappeared to the north of Hadrian’s Wall. Accompanied by his faithful slave, Esca, part of Marcus’s mission is also to recover the legion’s eagle standard, a totem of honour for the Roman military.
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This, for me, is the best historical novel ever written about ancient Rome. I actually only read it for the first time as an adult but it’s often regarded as a classic for children, although I don’t think Sutcliff herself divided her work into ‘for children’ or ‘for adults’. Whichever way you look at it though, it’s a brilliant, often incredibly tense adventure story and a beautiful piece of writing that really makes you feel as if you’re there in the dark, damp British landscape of the second century.
Historically speaking, who were in the Ninth Legion, do we know?
I’ve never found Roman military history especially interesting I’m afraid, but I’ll have a crack at this. A legion was a unit in the Roman army consisting of around about four to five thousand men. The Ninth was stationed at various points around the Empire during its history and then it served in Britain after the Roman conquest in 43 CE. Sutcliff says in her own foreword to The Eagle of the Ninth that her inspiration for the story was rooted in two ‘mysteries’ – the apparent disappearance of the Ninth Legion in around about 117 CE after it marched north from its base at York to deal with an uprising among the Caledonian tribes, and the excavation of a little bronze Roman eagle near Silchester in Hampshire nearly eighteen hundred years later. As far as I’m aware, many scholars now believe there was nothing ‘mysterious’ in the Ninth’s apparent disappearance from the historical record and that they probably simply got posted elsewhere. The little bronze eagle is also unlikely to have been from the top of a standard. But I wouldn’t let that stop you, for one nanosecond, from enjoying Sutcliff’s story.
The Eagle of the Ninth is well known as a standalone novel but I’ve just realised that it is the first in a series. The third book, The Lantern Bearers, won the 1959 Carnegie Medal for its portrayal of the turbulent years after the withdrawal of the last Roman troops from Britain. Anyway, let’s leave the Roman military history behind and move on to your next book, which is a retelling for children of Sophocles’s story of Antigone.
The Story of Antigone by Ali Smith, Illustrated by Laura Paoletti
This is my favourite of the five books I’ve recommended. To be honest, I prefer Ali Smith’s version to Sophocles’s. It’s a lot funnier, for a start. But it follows the same plotline and is part of the ‘Save the Story’ series from Pushkin Press, which gets the best writers to retell great stories from around the world and across history for today’s children.
The story goes like this: Antigone is the daughter of exiled Theban king Oedipus. Her two brothers, Polynices and Eteocles have been killed battling with each other for the Theban throne. The new king, Antigone’s uncle Creon, has ordered that Polynices – who attacked the city to reclaim power from his brother Eteocles – is a traitor and shouldn’t be given a proper burial. As a grieving sister who doesn’t want her brother’s body to be left to the animals, Antigone defies her uncle’s orders, even though she knows that death is the penalty. Outraged at having his will challenged, Creon orders Antigone – who also happens to be his son’s fiancée – to be shut up in a cave and left to starve to death. Although he later has a change of heart, it’s too late. Antigone has killed herself inside the tomb and Creon’s son kills himself in grief as well, as does Creon’s wife. In this way, Creon finds his punishment.
How do you feel about having the story narrated by a crow?
The crow narrator is a stroke of genius. He reminds me a little of Statler and Waldorf from the Muppets – cynically watching events unfold from his greedy vantage point above the battlefield, casting snide aspersions on the cast of humans (or ‘still-alives’ as he calls them) but also, in a completely unsentimental way, showing his appreciation for the bravery of Antigone. There’s a brilliant little interview between Smith and the crow at the end of the book, in which she explains that she chose him as a narrator because Sophocles’ version of the drama is full of crows, who stand poised to devour the bodies of the unburied dead. This in turn leads to a discussion about the separation between the supposedly civilized, tame world of humans and uncivilized, savage world of animals, and how fine the line is between them.
Can you explain the role of the chorus of elders?
Ancient Greek dramas usually featured a chorus of some kind – a group of people (maybe town citizens, as in this case) who respond and comment in unison on the action as it unfolds. They also hold up a mirror to the reaction of the spectators in the theatre and reflect on the moral conflicts at stake in the story. In The Story of Antigone, the elders act as Creon’s voice of conscience in a way, nudging him towards realizing the awfulness of what he’s done. But Smith also injects moments of almost Python-esque humour into the chorus scenes which I love. There’s one early on when the chorus is reciting away in verse, and they suddenly stop mid-sentence because they can’t think of a rhyme for temple, and start throwing out all kinds of daft alternatives like ‘bemples’ and ‘demples’.
Do you have any reservations about recommending a Greek tragedy to children?
Nah! If they’ve survived the Greek myths, they will be fine with this (it’s not like I’ve suggested they read Oedipus. That really would mess with their heads). I think it’s important that children learn not to be afraid of unhappy endings but in a way, despite the bleakness of this story, there is something curiously uplifting about it. It’s about love and being brave enough to be the lone voice standing up to tyranny, when going along with the crowd would be easier.
Empire’s End: A Roman Story by Leila Rasheed
Your final pick is a relatively recent book from Scholastic’s Voices series of historical fiction. In this series, the protagonist is fictional but the setting and some characters and events are historically accurate. Did it convince you?
Yes, I thought the blending of fictional and real characters was cleverly done and I’d recommend this book to any child who wants to learn about ancient Rome but at the same time just enjoy a really engaging, sensitively written story. It’s very well researched and deals with themes of migration, female adolescence and growing up between worlds. The Voices series seeks to highlight the lesser known, unsung stories of our past and Rasheed’s novel is a valuable corrective to the idea that the Roman empire wasn’t a cultural melting pot, which it definitely was, particularly in the era in which the story is set, when the Roman Emperor himself – Septimius Severus – came from Africa and his wife from Syria. I only read it recently, having seen it recommended on social media, but will be passing it on to as many of the children I teach as I can.
A lot of issues that resonate today. Can you tell me a bit more about the story?
The main character is a well-born girl called Camilla, born to an African mother and Roman father, who has grown up in affluent circumstances in the city of Leptis Magna, in a Roman province of north Africa. Camilla is excited when her father – a physician and friend of the Emperor – is summoned back to Rome, which she will be seeing for the first time. But being part of the Emperor’s entourage is much more unsettling than she thought it would be and she soon finds herself undergoing a traumatic and frightening journey to Britain, a cold, unfamiliar place she must now call home.
There is a short extra narrative set in the present day, is it too much of a spoiler to discuss that?
Camilla is the narrator of her own story but there is indeed a clever little chapter at the end, not in her own voice, where a young girl in the 21st century unearths something that once belonged to her. I won’t say what the object in question is, but suffice to say that its discovery acts on the young girl in something like the way reading Empire’s End: A Roman Story does on us. It reminds us of the stories hidden in the earth, waiting to be found by the young archaeologists and historians of the future, who will then hopefully be inspired to re-write and re-imagine the past anew.
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