The Ancient World

Infinite Source of Reading Pleasure

Ancient Greece and Alexander the Great

Of the ancient world – up to the Fall of the Roman Empire – possibly 3 main characters have had more historical novels written about them than any others: Alexander the Great, Cleopatra and Julius Caesar – with the legendary heroes of Troy perhaps being up there with them. See the Masters of Rome and Song of Troy.

Such is immortality!

Of them all, it’s perhaps Alexander the Great who is the most fascinating, enigmatic and complex of them all – even if more is known about Caesar and Cleopatra …. though not much more unfortunately.

Time and again, authors have turned to Alexander and taken us back into a world long gone, but only distant in time – ancient Greece being a source of our Western society.

The legendary stories and myths surrounding Alexander evoke ancient Greece in a way that it becomes vibrantly alive for us today when told through the penmanship of modern writers Like Renault, Gemmell, Pressfield and Manfredi.

Achilles drags Hector Around Troy

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Mary Renault

For me, she has set the standard by which I judge all other novels of the ancient world – especially stories about Alexander the Great – probably because it was her books that introduced me to the ancient world and began a life long fascination with it. As I read other authors, I always yearn for the standard she set – though rarely meeting it.

The following have met my requirements in a reasonable fashion – though others may well disagree and ……….be correct.

David Gemmell

Though more truly an exemplary fantasy writer, Gemmell has twice used historical characters and events to tell riveting yarns – mixing history and myth with elements of fantasy.

His real talent is with direct fantasy novels and they clearly show that not only was he a masterful storyteller, but skilled in characterisation, marvelous use of the language and a great ability to make his heroes come alive and mean something to the reader.

Even though I don’t particularly like fantasy mixed in with real historical characters – he certainly does it better than any others I have read – due, in no small part, to his skill as a writer and believable dialogue, solid plotting combined with nuanced and rich characterization to ensure high anxiety plots that always deliver on every level. His imagination and treatment of the ancient world is rich and varied – and maintained throughout the many series he wrote.

    Alexander the Great
      The Lion of Macedon
      Dark Prince
    Trilogy about Troy
      Lord of the Silver Bow
      Shield of Thunder
      The Fall of Kings (completed by his wife after he died)

These three books deal with the story of Aeneas – before and after the Trojan War.

The genre David Gemmell really excelled at is Fantasy – he is a master story teller who can create another world and make it seem and feel real - believable heroes, ripping action and sheer good writing. Click for more of Gemmell in the Fantasy section.

Valerio Massimo Manfredi

An Italian historian and archaeologist, Manfredi has offered up quite a literary feast of generally good solid stories set in the ancient world beginning with his trilogy of Alexander.

    Alexander the Great Trilogy
      Child of a Dream
      The Sands of Ammon
      Ends of the Earth

Followed by

      The Spartan
      The Last Legion
      The Talisman of Troy

The Last Legion links historical and mythical events, The Last Legion is a good novel of its type set around the collapse of the Roman empire. the Last Legion have the task to free Emperor Romulus Augustus. It suggests this as an origin for the Arthur and the Camelot myth.

The Talisman of Troy was OK – but not as satisfying as the Alexander trilogy or The Spartan. According to Herodotus, not all of the three hundred Spartan warriors perished during the Battle of Thermopylae: Two were spared. Spartan is their story.

His Other Novels

    The Tyrant I found this a bit plodding or dry – a bit of a struggle.
    Empire of the Dragons (yet to read)
    Pharaoh (not really an historical novel – a mix of the ancient with the present - an archealogical thriller)
    The Lost Army (2008) (yet to read)

Nicholas Nicastro

"Empire of Ashes"

323 B.C. The great Alexander is dead. Machon—the late conqueror's renowned friend and ally—is being scapegoated for his downfall. An outsider on trial for his life, Machon tells his Greek accusers the stunning, tragic truth behind the meteoric rise and fall of a peerless military leader who proclaimed himself a god—and lost his humanity.

    "Nicastro describes life in ancient Athens with a vividness that leaps from the page ... I was charmed by the notion of a teenaged Alexander with greasy hair and acne — an image characteristic of Nicastro's humanizing approach. He avoids both apologetics and exaggerated sensationalism, making EMPIRE OF ASHES one of the best recent novels on the conqueror."— Jeanne Reames, Amphora

    "EMPIRE OF ASHES manages to be many things at the same time. The book is a grand historical epic combined with a court-room drama and political intrigue. Believable characters rise off the page in clear, evocative language. Nicastro has a talent for capturing the attitude and motivations of historical times, and creating stories which tell us something about our current time and situation. The result is a captivating and compelling page-turner."—Pamela Goddard, Ithaca Times

"Isle of Stone"

This is a tale of two cities — the legendary duel between haughty, democratic Athens and brutal, unbeaten Sparta. After seven years of bloody conflict, a barren island in a remote corner of Greece becomes the stage for what promises to become a second Thermopylae. Four hundred Spartan soldiers are cut off by enemy ships on a narrow strip of land, starving, without supplies, yet sworn to uphold their indomitable heritage. Meanwhile, all around them, the powerful Athenian Navy masses for the inevitable assault.

As the war of nerves wears on, Spartan nobles and Athenian demagogues manoeuvre in the background — and two estranged Spartan brothers serve together for the first time. The eldest, Antalcidas, is a legendary warrior hobbled by a damaging secret. His brother Epitadas is envied, popular, and cruel. Together they must overcome a lifetime of hostility to survive the battle of their lives.

    "With THE ISLE OF STONE, Nicholas Nicastro joins the illustrious pedigree of Mary Renault, Valerio Massimo Manfredi and Steven Pressfield with great style and enormous panache. His hero's checkered lifestory is used to frame a dark and darkening history of Sparta between a hugely destructive natural disaster, a great earthquake in 464 BC, and a self-inflicted, man-made debacle during the prolonged and even more destructive Peloponnesian War. Nicastro knows his ancient sources intimately, but also has the born novelist's instinct to flesh out their bare bones all too plausibly. Nicastro's antiheroes of the isle of Sphacteria are the dark side of Pressfield's heroes in Gates of Fire: both demand and repay the attention of all lovers of expert historical fiction."—Paul Cartledge, Professor of Greek History, University of Cambridge

    "Reading one of Nicastro's books has the same fascination as staring at a terrible car crash. The scenes he constructs force us to grapple with the disturbing roots of our own cultural assumptions. Each of these characters spins into a series of bloody events far beyond individual control. Nicastro lays naked the complex web of collective motivations that shape the events of history... By giving human faces to the dry bones of ancient battles, he goes a long way towards making ancient motivations somehow explicable. Once again, Nicastro proves his talent for capturing the attitude of historical times while spinning a passionate drama."—Pamela Goddard, The Ithaca Times

Scott Oden


He lived in the shadow of kings. One trusted him with his empire; the other feared his every move . . . Memnon of Rhodes (375-333 BCE) walked in the footsteps of giants. As a soldier, sailor, statesman, and general, he was, in the words of Diodorus of Sicily, outstanding in courage and strategic grasp.

A contemporary of Demosthenes and Aristotle, Memnon rose from humble origins to command the whole of western Asia in a time of strife and slaughter. To his own people (the Greeks), he was a traitor, to his rivals, a mercenary. But, to the King of Kings, Darius III of Persia, Memnon was the one man capable of defending Asia Minor from the rising power of the barbaric Macedonians.In a war pitting Greek against Greek, Memnon proved his quality beyond measure. His enemies fought for glory and gold; Memnon fought for something more, for loyalty, for honor, and for duty. He fought for the love of Barsine, a woman of remarkable beauty and grace. Most of all, he fought for the promise of peace.

Through the deathbed recollections of a mysterious woman, the life of Memnon unfolds with brilliant clarity. It is a record of his triumphs and tragedies, his loves and losses, and of the determination that drove him to stand against the most renowned figure of the ancient world -- the ambitious young conqueror called Alexander the Great.

Robert Harris A writer of historical fiction set in Italy, Harris is a solid story teller.

I enjoyed his Pompeii – and its destruction – quite an original approach.... it related by one of the aqueduct engineers.

His next two, Imperium and Conspiracy are set in ancient Rome and evolve around Cicero – not one of my favourite historical characters.

Steven Pressfield

His work seems well researched and the unfolding of his storylines is very good – yet there is something missing – they are almost impersonal and technical or too objective......perhaps .... he lacks the literary charisma of a Renault, a Penman or McCullough that allows you to feel for and want more of the characters written about.

I find it interesting that US soldiers in Iraq have found his books very good.

      The Gates of Fire (Thermopylae)
      The Virtues of War (Alexander)
      The Afghan Campaign (Alexander)
      The Last Amazons (not read)

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