Reading Guide Questions
Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
- In his analysis of Homer's Iliad, Thomas Cahill cites the
epic's intense depictions of loyalty, villainy, and the honorable way to
fight. Yet Homer ascribes noble behavior to both Trojans and Greeks. What
parallels do you see between Homer's perception of heroism and our own? What
do you make of the mythic justification for the Trojan wara golden apple
inscribed "to the fairest," bestowed by the Spirit of Discord? Do the mythic
aspects of the Trojan War reveal any truths about why we do battle?
- The book addresses the question of luck versus prowess in the rise of a
powerful civilization [see p. 49]. Intellect and drive obviously contributed to
the Greeks' success, but do you consider them to be fortunate also? If so, in
what ways were they luckier than those they defeated?
- The tragedies written by Greek playwrights such as Sophocles, Aeschylus,
and Euripides often feature tremendous violence, such as Oedipus's blinding
self-mutilation and the bloody conclusion to Antigone. One effect of this
was catharsis for the audience, while demonstrating the power of the gods in
determining our destinies. Do modern-day depictions of violencein video
games, films, and the mediaserve a similar purpose?
- In what ways was the Greek perception of sexual power reflected in
male-dominated politics? How does Athenathe female goddess of battlefit
into this schema?
- In your opinion, was Pericles's version of democracy too inclusive or
not inclusive enough? How did scales of economy shape Greece's political
- In the introduction, Thomas Cahill writes that his role as historian is
not to expose breakthrough discoveries but to bring history to life. How would
you characterize your role in this process? In what way do reader and writer
serve to shape history? Does this process differ in ancient oral traditions?
- What does our knowledge of homosexuality in ancient Greece indicate about
this culture's understanding of sexuality in general? What are the
contemporary implications of this ancient approach?<
- Does Sappho's "finishing school" represent a particular notion about
the ideal woman?
- In contrast to Sappho, instructors in Sparta attempted to excise all but
the most brutish traits in their students. Do you consider the Spartan approach
to military training to have been successful?
- What did Plato's writings reveal about the nature and reality of love,
in its complete spectrum of manifestations? Did the death of Socrates contradict
or reinforce those observations?
- Discuss the emotional and psychological subtext conveyed by Greek art and
architecture. Does it appear to glorify or subjugate humanity? What does it
imply about the psyche of its creators?
- The Greco-Roman world was in many ways a hostile locale for the seeding
of Judeo-Christian values. Yet Greek became the language of the New Testament,
and the geographic strongholds of the "Latin West" and "Greek East"
survive to this day. In what ways did the ancient Greeks shape Christianity?
- The book cites several Western poets, from Tennyson to Yeats to Auden,
whose works often refer to classicism (a cornerstone of these poets'
schooling). Thomas Cahill, who first encountered Latin and ancient Greek in high
school, provides us with a few of his own translations of Greek lyric poetry.
Would it be valuable to make such a curriculum more widespread among
twenty-first century American schools?
- Was hubris at the heart of the Athenians' fall from prominence? What
lessons could they impart to today's superpowers?
- What common threads emerge in Greek pantheism, spanning the seasons of
Demeter, the retribution of Icarus, the unbridled pleasure of Dionysus? How
would you say the Greeks understood their faith?
Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Anchor Books.
Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.