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The best books on Learning Ancient Greek

recommended by Paul McMullen

Interested in philosophy? Drama? History? Within a year you too could be reading seminal texts in their original language. Academic Paul McMullen recommends the best books for learning ancient Greek.

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Paul McMullen

Paul McMullen has taught ancient Greek literature, history and religion at the University of Sydney and Pembroke College, Cambridge and has lectured on ancient Greek at University College Cork. He holds a PhD in Classics from Pembroke College, Cambridge, where his doctoral thesis, Offending the Gods in Attic Forensic Discourse Before and After Socrates, examines the Athenian lawcourt as a forum where citizens debated and revised their theological ideas in the fifth-century B.C.E., opening up a new, rhetorical context for the trial of Socrates.

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Paul McMullen

Paul McMullen has taught ancient Greek literature, history and religion at the University of Sydney and Pembroke College, Cambridge and has lectured on ancient Greek at University College Cork. He holds a PhD in Classics from Pembroke College, Cambridge, where his doctoral thesis, Offending the Gods in Attic Forensic Discourse Before and After Socrates, examines the Athenian lawcourt as a forum where citizens debated and revised their theological ideas in the fifth-century B.C.E., opening up a new, rhetorical context for the trial of Socrates.

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We’re going to talk about the best books to read if you want to learn ancient Greek and I’m going to ask the obvious question straight up: Why should anyone bother to learn ancient Greek?

That’s the wrong way to phrase the question. Let’s ask what can you learn by learning ancient Greek. First of all, it gives you access to a wealth of material in the original. Which for anyone who can read or speak French or German or Italian and has access to those works in the original…or Russian and can read Dostoevsky in the original! You know the joy that that can bring you.

And when you consider that by reading Greek in the original you get Sophocles, Herodotus, Euripides, Aristophanes—all this seminal stuff that set the pace for the genres which developed ever after them—it’s really more a case of why would you not learn Greek?

Also—and this will perhaps be seen by some as somewhat masochistic—it’s such a phenomenal challenge. It tests you in learning it and it keeps compelling you to try and master it.

How difficult is it?

It’s not as difficult as everyone thinks it is. A lot of people say, ‘Oh well, unless you’ve learnt Latin first, don’t even try and learn Greek.’ That’s not the way around that I did it. In my undergraduate degree, I picked up Greek and it was only a year-and-a-half later that I picked up Latin.

Studying Greek introduced me to a lot of grammatical concepts which, technically, I should have learnt in high school. But this is so often the way for native speakers of a language: You know exactly how to use it but you don’t know why it’s correct for you to use it in a certain way. That was my experience of learning ancient Greek: suddenly syntax makes sense, you learn what cases are—even though it seems we don’t have them in English but we actually do. It was a learning curve for me in my own language, as much as it was about learning another language.

It gave me access to all these texts and to all this historical evidence for me to think about patterns in history and causality and causation and time and all these big concepts. It was everything all together, at one time.

Did you find Latin a lot easier than Greek?

I suppose if I’d done Latin first, Latin would have been harder. They’re both still challenging languages for sure. For anyone who’s had a crack at learning either one or both, in whichever order, you know the challenges that come along with it. But it was definitely easier learning Latin after having broached the concepts that exist in Latin, which also exist in Greek, and doing those first by learning Greek.

“If you set a day aside to learn the alphabet, then you’ve got it in hand. ”

A lot of people often, incidentally or on purpose, do it the other way around and use Latin as a way into Greek, if nothing else just because in Latin at least the alphabet is the same. Some see the alphabet as a barrier to entry for Greek and that’s why they’re a bit hesitant to go Greek first. But why not?

I think we should just dwell on the alphabet for a second. I think it puts off people way more than it should. If you set a day aside to learn it, you’re sorted, aren’t you?

Absolutely. A lot of the letters look very, very similar and the sounds are the same. If you set a day aside to learn the alphabet, then you’ve got it in hand. I remember in my first lesson at university learning ancient Greek, it wasn’t so much a day that was set aside as 48 seconds. ‘There are this many letters in the alphabet, this is what this means, this is how this sounds. Great, let’s begin reading shall we?’ So a day will be plenty.

How long before you could read your first Greek text that hadn’t been abridged?

It was about nine, ten months. It’s definitely possible in that time.

So on to your first book. Where should people get started?

I think a really good place to start is with a seemingly formal textbook. It’s called Reading Greek and it’s published by Cambridge University Press. The revised edition of this textbook is very informal and very accessible. It introduces you, step by step, to each part of speech and each concept of the language, at a very manageable speed. And, most importantly—and I think this is the great triumph of the book—it’s in a very accessible order as well.

It’s not the kind of textbook or learning experience where they throw every single minute detail about this particular verb or about this particular grammatical construction at you at one time and say, ‘Right, master all that’ and then move on to the next one.

They introduce one very accessible part of a verb, or a noun, or a concept, or a grammatical construction and say ‘Right, okay, it won’t take you long to master that. Master that, and now we’ll give you the next part.’ So you build up your mastery of the language very much block-by-block, step-by-step. You feel very comfortable moving on to the next block or having it revealed to you what the next form is to learn because it’s not overwhelming in its detail.

When was it written?

So the first version of this textbook was published in, I think, 1978.

Okay, so the reason I ask is that the 1970s, it’s a bit post-hippy culture, but what I’m associating that era with, in terms of language learning, is not rote learning. I have to put my cards on the table, I’m a big fan of rote learning. I think you have to go through the pain. Tell me, does this book encourage rote learning?

It doesn’t make it the frontline of learning. But inevitably, it must be part of it. You can’t learn any language without a bit of rote learning, that’s for sure.

So it doesn’t pretend that you don’t have to?

No, it definitely doesn’t mask the hard bits of learning ancient Greek by any means. But, at the same time, it doesn’t inflate how hard they are. In fact, it cushions the blow of how hard they are by the way that it introduces you to each new block in turn. You can’t get around rote learning, it’s just one of those things. But it pairs the inevitable rote learning with the right way of explaining concepts.

Obviously people’s problem with rote learning is that it’s desperately dull, but I would say learning Latin or Greek is a desperately dull enterprise. But one great antidote to that dullness is that quite quickly you can be introduced to readings and not just readings, but salacious readings. I had a quick look and I noticed that this book doesn’t shy away from saucy or controversial material. They’re interested in introducing you to readings that are entertaining, even when really, on the sly, they’re trying to persuade you to learn the aorist.

That’s a brilliant observation. They do smuggle in the harder tenses under the guise of salacious jokes.

And he’s got quite a good authorial voice. He’s a bit sarcastic, isn’t he, about some of the challenges he sets you? Which I like. You feel the writer is a friend.

Absolutely. Ultimately you feel there’s a person on the other side of the book. Particularly when it gets hard—as learning any difficult thing does—it’s strangely comforting to know that a human person sat down and wrote this and thought about you and how easy or difficult you might find the material when they were arranging it for you. It’s a very pleasant experience.

To your next book. In some ways, I see this as a duplication of the Cambridge book. Why have you put another book that seems pretty similar on your list?

I’ve put this book on the list because people learn in different ways and there are some people out there, some may call them masochists—I would not—who very much like to know every single thing about a concept or if we’ve talking about language, about linguistic forms or about parts of speech or syntax or grammatical constructions.

They want to know everything about it right then, no matter how detailed or complicated it is; to have it dispensed all at one time, so that they can situate themselves in that landscape of all that material and arrange that for themselves before moving on to the next new thing. So this book is another textbook and it’s by Donald Mastronarde. It’s called Introduction to Attic Greek, and it’s published by Berkeley. It’s published significantly later than the first version of Reading Greek: it was published in 1993. And it says in the preface that it’s aimed at, if not university students, then students or potential learners of ancient Greek who feel very confident in their ability and want to get up to speed quickly.

“Studying Greek introduced me to a lot of grammatical concepts which, technically, I should have learnt in high school.”

Potentially this is a really good option for people who have some previous experience with other languages that are not their first language. I’d say particularly if you already have some exposure to Latin, this book is a good choice. Because ultimately, whether it’s Latin or a modern romance language, or German or any other language that has formal cases—that’s inflected—you’ve already been introduced to the concepts which are the bedrock of these languages as they’re taught. For that reason Mastronarde’s Introduction to Attic Greek would be an extremely good option for you.

So with no further ado, I’m going to move on to the next book because we’re now getting to the meat-and-potato content. These are original texts. You obviously believe in going straight from learning the rules to reading original texts pretty quickly, because over half of your books are legitimate classical, Hellenistic authors. Do you think that we need to memorise a lot of the rules in your first two books before reading these books? Or are these books almost companions to the grammar books that you’ve cited?

That’s a really good question and implies a really interesting approach to learning Greek which I completely agree with. You dip one toe into one pond and dip your other toe into the other pond. You start to confront the full complexity and majesty of the language at the same time as you’re learning forms and getting up to speed with it.

It has a couple of benefits. The first benefit is that it shows you where your gaps are. If you pick up a full Greek text with a facing English translation, you may find yourself reading the English and perusing the Greek and feeling that perhaps you’re not ready for it yet. But, by the same token, it also acts as a motivator—to read Thucydides, to read some Plato.

I suppose it’ll be different for each person. It really depends on what your motivation is to learn this language. If, at the start, you think, ‘I’m really interested in this particular concept or this part of history or the transmission of this idea’ and that’s why you want to read it, then a little thing like not completely understanding exactly how this language is written is not going to be a barrier to you.

I think it’s important to confront yourself with your ability and where the ceiling of that ability currently stands and then, ideally, bust through it and set the ceiling a bit higher.

So what is the first book you’d recommend people read to test where their ability is?

So for someone who falls into the intermediate expertise category—so you’ve read and worked your way through Reading Greek or Mastronarde’s textbook.

The whole book?

I’d say at least two-thirds of it. So you know not only what all the different tenses look like, and what all the different noun forms look like, but you’ve also met some different grammatical constructions. So you’re intermediate, you’re a little bit more than half way through. Go and read Plato’s Apology in ancient Greek.

It’s excellent for many reasons but in terms of improving your Greek, it’s really good for two reasons. One, it’s not as hard as a lot of the other so-called seminal works of classical Greek literature. It’s no Thucydides for example, which is widely regarded as excellent Attic, which is the Athenian dialect, but also very highfalutin, quite sophisticated and often quite difficult.

Plato writes and therefore we read him in the vernacular. It’s almost colloquial, in parts very colloquial—which for someone coming to the language for the first time, can be a bit weird to encounter. It’s as if you’ve learnt French in a classroom and then you go to France and try and hang out with cool kids and they’re saying all these things and you suddenly realise that your textbook was published in the 1940s and you don’t have any idea what anyone’s talking about. There’s maybe a slight learning curve. It’s not quite every man’s Greek but it’s real Greek.

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So Plato’s Apology of Socrates, which was his defence speech in 399 BC, at his trial for impiety, is one of the watershed moments of Western civilization, whatever you think about Western civilization or teleological constructions of it. Depending on what your motivation is for learning this language, I think probably you’re going to want to read Plato’s Apology at some point in time.

I would imagine that’s hugely encouraging to our readers, that they just have to get two-thirds of the way through the textbooks that you’ve mentioned in order to read Plato. That’s quite something. How long would it actually take?

It depends on how much time you have. If you’ve got a couple of hours every day to spend on Greek—as indeed of course you should—then I’d say at the very least, probably a couple of months. And then get cracking with Plato’s Apology, I would say. If you’ve got less time than that, obviously just extend it out.

There’s an easy way to check if you’re ready which is to buy a copy of the Apology and try and read it. See how many of the forms you recognise and if you’re not quite ready yet, then dive back into the grammar textbooks. But keep having a crack and just keep checking back in with Plato. He enjoys that.

Okay, so I have a theory. It’s kind of embarrassing because Five Books has some really serious literary critics on it. But I think that Socrates’s speech influenced Tolstoy’s War and Peace and Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye to a really extraordinary extent. Essentially Socrates is very, very anti-phony, just like Pierre and Holden Caulfield.

I find Socrates a fascinating and bizarre character. Obviously Socrates, via Plato, occupies this monolithic place in the Western canon of thinkers. It’s the beginning of Western philosophy, Socrates’s dialectic is the beginning of the scientific method. He looms large as this arch-expert, which is potentially an unpopular thing to be at the moment.

But, on the other hand, he’s described by Plato, at some temporal remove, as this old bloke who didn’t wear shoes, who would stop people as they’re walking through the central square in town and say, ‘Hey you, what’s colour?’ ‘I don’t know. Here are some colours.’ ‘No, but what is colour?’ He’s this nuisance.

Somewhere between Socrates himself and 2018 in the UK, he has been reconstructed as this intellectual when actually he was both. He was an intellectual in his own context but he’s also just a bloke who was fascinated by the world and wanted to know and wanted to push the boundaries of what knowledge was and how to get it, and how to keep it, and how to transmit it, and what education was about.

And these questions are still really fundamental to us. Every generation thinks they’ve solved them but the next generation after them reopens these questions. In many ways Socrates is the beginning of that for us, certainly in the classical Greek tradition.

So in terms of relevance, I think that your next choice is brilliant. I think it’s Aristophanes, am I right?

It is. It’s the comic playwright Aristophanes. We have a lot of plays left by him from the middle-to-late fifth century BC. But the one I thought I’d share is The Clouds.

It is a comedy and quite vulgar, which I love. The basic idea of the play is that there’s a middle aged man called Strepsiades, who’s up to his eyeballs in debt, seemingly because his son has horse fever. The son loves horses and horses are very expensive to keep. His debtors are crowding around his door and he has no way to pay them. So he’s heard of this bloke called Socrates, who runs the Phrontisterion, or the Thinkery.

The Thinkery?

Yes, or Thinking Shop, perhaps. And Socrates, he’s heard, teaches these two arguments: the good or better argument and the bad or worse argument, otherwise known as the virtuous argument and the dodgy argument. Strepsiades wants to go and learn the dodgy argument. It’s the kind of argument where you can make it and it doesn’t really matter about facts. It doesn’t matter what’s true, but by using it to attack whoever’s on the other side of the argument, you’ll win.

So the premise of the play seems evocative of our times in this post-truth world that we’re in. It’s still really relevant and interesting. It feels incredibly modern, not least because it sets up this big gulf between Strepsiades, who’s this self-confessed man from the country, who has been forced by his family to move to the city and didn’t really want to and wants a simple life.

It’s a caricature of a rural bloke, as set against this effete, emaciated set of pasty elites who spend all day inside, with books, thinking about stuff and not really doing anything in particular.

In any case, when Strepsiades shows up at the Thinkery he finds all the students there and Socrates and Chaerephon, his right hand man, doing all these seemingly fascinating but ultimately ridiculous experiments. So it’s simultaneously an indictment of philosophy and an indictment of spending all day inside, reading books. It doesn’t end well for Socrates. Ultimately The Thinkery burns down with Socrates and Ch inside it.

Spoiler alert!

But, at the same time, it’s a celebration of this dramatic literary form. It was performed in a festival context, at the City Dionysia. But, while being very literary—and you might think quite highfalutin as a result of that—there’s jokes about arses. Everyone on stage was wearing a big prosthetic penis, a big phallus. This is typical of not just The Clouds, but all of Athenian Old Comedy, which is technically the genre this fits into.

That’s the really good thing about studying classical literature across many of the genres, that you don’t have to be highfalutin to have good knowledge. You can celebrate phenomenal versions of poetic form and learning and art but at the same time tell arse jokes.

The classics are not these sanitised works of literature with a capital L. You can view them like that of course—and it’s wonderful to celebrate them in that way—but they shouldn’t be confined to some sort of reading elite. They’re for everyone. And there’s something in them for everyone.

Basically what you’re saying is that learning Greek is not just about the grand concepts that Greek literature will teach you—about honour versus glory in battle, say. Learning Greek will also give you access to some fantastic scatological and willy jokes.

I suppose what it comes back to, for me, in terms of The Clouds and Aristophanes, and this particular genre of Greek literature, Greek drama, is that for us now, if we’re looking for a reason not to learn Greek what comes to mind is ‘Well you’re going to spend a significant amount of time locked away in this dark room, learning about this language of dead Mediterranean people, and how relevant is it to us? It seems disconnected.

And in our culture, associated with being elite and very dry and dusty.

It’s very much not. It’s developed that reputation but it need not have it. And if you find yourself locked away in a room, it’s a wonderful way out. It’s not a pursuit which forces you to stay there. It’s something which gives you inspiration for what’s outside the room.

Paul, we’ve come to your last book.

Ah, Herodotus, The Histories. This might be familiar to some and unfamiliar to others. It holds a special place in my heart. This is one of the first works of great ancient Greek history that I had contact with and it was the work of historiography that inspired me to pursue all this…

You mean ancient Greek?

Ancient Greek history, politics, religion, literature, how they fit together, how they blend, how they come into conflict and why.

From a linguistic perspective the first thing that needs to be said about Herodotus’s Histories, is that Herodotus is from a place on what is now the top coast of Turkey, the Ionian Coast. He’s from a place called ancient Halicarnassus, which today is beside if not underneath Bodrum. So he writes with the same alphabet but in a slightly different style, so there’s a little bit of linguistic slippage.

But I think it’s definitely, in its writing style, very accessible to an intermediate learner.

At what stage should someone read this?

If you’ve spent several months working through the grammars and maybe read a bit of Plato on the way, and then gone through Aristophanes, then really you ought to find yourself with Herodotus.

There’s a lot more of Herodotus than there is of Plato’s Apology or a single play of Aristophanes, but it’s basically a series of phenomenal and rollicking tales told from an ancient Greek reader’s perspective, in an almost fairy tale style. There’s a lot of ‘and then this happened and then that happened,’ which is what makes it accessible. But I think actually, it’s deceptively sophisticated, this work.

Herodotus basically sets out to write an account of why all of the various Greek poleis, the Greek city-states, came to have war waged on them by the Persian Empire. That’s his goal. More or less the first words of his text are, ‘the aim of this is to write why the Greeks and Persians fought each other.’

But in doing that he doesn’t just ask how these series of events were connected, but why they came to be at all. So despite the fact that stylistically, it’s much, much simpler and arguably less rich than something like Thucydides—who is the other main pillar of Greek historiography—it smuggles in, under the cover of this semi-simplicity, a whole bunch of absolutely essential and seminal concepts for historiography. Is history devoid of morality or is history tragic? Is time cyclical? Is there any way for humans to truly understand why things happen or can we only come to grips with the how?

If you’re trying to explain an event, do you just need the players involved or, as Herodotus does, do you actually want to give an account of what their culture is like and what their landscape is like and the reactions of the people who live there to their environment? All of this is embedded in The Histories.

And over and above that, perhaps as a bonus, there’s a whole bunch of really weird stuff that he delivers.

Before you tell me your favourite weird stuff, isn’t Herodotus also the best for a dinner party anecdote? The reason I think that is because of The English Patient, the movie based on the Ondaatje novel. They’re all gathered around a fire at one point and they’re asked to tell a story and the Kristin Scott Thomas character tells a story from Herodotus. I mean the stories, they’re just absolutely …Okay, I’m sorry. I’m stealing the limelight. So you tell your great Herodotus story.

There’s a bit that I’m pretty keen on. Herodotus is describing this region in the desert of Egypt or North Africa, where there’s all this gold dust. For whatever reason, it has been deposited in the sands, just below the surface. Obviously that’s fantastic, a potential boon to anyone who’s trying to build a navy, for example, or just trying to get rich quick.

But, as with everything in Herodotus, wherever the really amazing stuff is, there’s equally weighted really, really horrific things. Which is a central idea or conceit of Herodotus, that the further away you get from Greece, which is very moderate and balanced, the more you get fascinating things, stranger things, better things, more lucrative things but also much worse, much more sinister things.

So in this sand with the gold dust live these giant ants, which Herodotus describes as ‘larger than a fox but smaller than a dog.’ The level of detail for this potential lie is astounding.

“Herodotus basically sets out to write an account of why all of the various Greek poleis, the Greek city-states, came to have war waged on them by the Persian Empire.”

He’s describing the cultural practice of people who live in the region and he says that enterprising young lads have worked out a system to skirt around the outside of these larger-than-a-fox-smaller-than-a-dog, ants and get to the gold dust.

So he says that what you need to do is this. You need to wait till the hottest part of the day. You need three camels, two male camels and one female camel who’s recently given birth. You tether them together and you ride the female camel in the middle, with your big packs on the side to carry the gold dust back.

And you race out there in the hottest part of the day, when it’s too hot for the ants to be on the surface. So they’re burrowed underground. And you hurry out there and as quickly as you possibly can, you scoop as much of this gold dust and sand and everything else into these bags. And then the ants inevitably come out of the ground and start to attack you. So you turn tail and you run with your three camels sitting on the middle one, which is the female one who’s recently given birth.

And, as you’re running, you cut the ties which hold the male trace camels (that’s the best translation of the Greek at this point). The idea is that the female camel really wants to get back to her young, who she’s just given birth to, so she races ever so slightly quicker ahead of the male ones, who are condemned to be eaten by these giant ants.

Which is completely bizarre but it really sustains you in what is a very long but fascinating and rich work. It crosses boundaries of genre and concepts in philosophy and historiography while, at the same time, being extremely accessible in its original language.

It seems to me that your main motivation for learning ancient Greek is so obviously to do with reading the original texts. I agree actually, I think that you do get more out of both Latin and Greek text when you read it in the original. Not least because it gets you reading these texts.

Yes, it’s a bit of a call to action.

Okay. So I’m just going to say three words to you before this interview ends: Liddell and Scott.

Yes. At first when you’re learning Greek, this lexicon, this Greek to English dictionary is formidable. When you look at it and you’re like, ‘oh God, how do I deal with this?’ But very quickly it becomes your compass and your North Star.

Why is it not on your list? Is it because you think other dictionaries are adequate alternatives or is it just because you wanted to get in Herodotus, Aristophanes and Plato?

For me, it was important to get those three in, absolutely. But If I had six, Liddell and Scott would be the sixth.

Would it really?

Yes. Absolutely.

Interview by Katie Walker

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