Aug 16

Ancient History Core Reading Selections

This elementary history of Greece is intended for supplementary reading or as a first history text-book for young pupils. It is therefore made up principally of stories about persons; for, while history proper is largely beyond the comprehension of children, they are able at an early age to understand and enjoy anecdotes of people, especially of those in the childhood of civilization. At the same time, these stories will give a clear idea of the most important events that have taken place in the ancient world, and, it is hoped, will arouse a desire to read further.—Preface to Story of the Greeks by Helene Guerber

Famous Men of Greece and Famous Men of Rome by John Haaren
The Story of the Greeks and The Story of the Romans by Helene Guerber
The Story of Greece and The Story of Rome by Mary Macgregor
Greek Gods, Heroes, and Men and City of the Seven Hills by Samuel B. Harding
Story of the Greek People and Story of the Roman People by Eva March Tappan

Comparing Core Reading Selections from Ancient History

Heritage History recommends that every student of Ancient History read at least two comprehensive histories (sometimes called “spines”) for both Greece and Rome. Instead of writing individual reviews for a dozen such histories currently available from Heritage History, this review gives an overview of book sets from five different authors that we recommend as “core” reading for beginning and intermediate students.

Ancient Greece Classical LibraryComprehensive histories provide a broad overview of a specific civilization, from its foundation to its final days. The great merit of comprehensive histories is that they “cover the basics” and provide a good framework for more detailed learning. Their disadvantage is that they deal with so much material that there is no time to tell some of the most interesting stories of history in adequate detail.

All of the books in the Heritage Classical Libraries are “story-based,” so even our comprehensive histories are child-friendly and relatively easy to read. Even so, students who have a hard time remembering details can be overwhelmed if comprehensive histories are read too quickly. Although some students can read any of the books listed below in a few weeks, others should pace themselves and take their time to complete their core reading so they can focus on one period at a time. No matter what a student’s abilities are, however, reading at least two comprehensive histories is essential for mastering the basic facts of each historical era. Most students are likely to remember events and characters much better after a second reading.

Famous Men of Greece, Famous Men of Rome by John Haaren and A. B. Poland

Macgregor - Story of Greece Macgregor - Story of Greece Famous Men of Greece and Famous Men of Rome are two books from a favorite series so well known among homeschoolers that they need little introduction. They were written in the early 20th century by John Haaren and A. B. Poland, two classically educated teachers in the New York school district who wrote the series with the intention of introducing grammar school children to the delights of classical history. As experienced teachers themselves, they understood the type of stories that most appeal to children, and their short, historical biographies strike just the right note. Haaren and Poland understood that younger children lack a framework in which to organize history, and emphasizing memorable heroes of a civilization is an excellent way to provide the kind of highlights that make history memorable for younger students.

The Famous Men of the Ages series is so well done that we recommend it not only for younger children but also for intermediate students or even advanced students who need a quick review. Older students will be able to remember more details from the book than younger students will, but the book is organized in such a way that early readers will be able to remember the most important highlights. The books are simple but instructive; written at a level easily accessible to a grammar school student, but interesting to students of all ages.

Another plus is that both books in the series cover important heroes that are associated with later periods of Greek and Roman history. This is important because many histories written for grammar school children confine themselves to the earlier and more romantic eras of ancient history. Prominent later heroes featured by Haaren include Ptolemy and Pyrrhus representing the Hellenistic Age, and Nero, Trajan and Constantine of the Roman Imperial era. These biographies provide helpful reference points for a later study of these more difficult and complicated periods.

Story of the Greeks, Story of the Romans  by Helene Guerber

Guerber - Story of the Greeks Guerber - Story of the Romans Helene Guerber wrote a whole series of histories that are appropriate for the late grammar school and early middle school years. The first two in her series, The Story of the Greeks and The Story of the Romans, are favorite introductory history books, recommended not only by Heritage History, but also by a number of other “living books” style curriculums.

Guerber’s series of histories is outstanding in a number of ways. All the books in her series are written in a child friendly manner with short chapters and paragraphs. Each chapter deals only with a single character or a single event so students have a clear idea of what they are learning. The books cover all the essential topics of ancient history in a balanced way, covering both the heroic age of myth and legend and the later, more difficult periods of Greece and Rome, which are sometimes neglected by children’s historians. Guerber’s accounts are so well balanced that they touch on almost every important topic—one can get a fair review of the major points and characters of the period just by reading the table of contents.

Another strong point of the Guerber series is the fact that all of her books include dozens of attractive illustrations, so students have plenty of visual aids to help them remember their favorite stories. Many of her illustrations are black and white reproductions of classical works of art, rather than original illustrations, so even the illustrations have historical value.

Overall the Guerber books are very strong introductory ancient histories. A student who is ready to learn comprehensive history will learn much from them without a great deal of toil. Even though they each contain over 100 short chapters, the books themselves are not overly long and many children will be able to read five or more chapters at a sitting without undue difficulty.

Greek Gods, Heroes, and Men, City of the Seven Hills by Samuel Harding

Harding - Greek Gods, Heroes, and Men Harding - City of the Seven Hills Samuel B. Harding wrote a four book series covering Ancient History and the Middle Ages that were written as history readers for public schools around 1900. In later years, several of his books were “updated” by adding study questions and summaries to each chapter. These changes made the books more textbook like and easier to use for classroom study, but from the homeschoolers point-of-view, they were not necessarily an improvement. In their original versions, however, the Harding series provides high quality narrative histories that are enjoyable introductions to Ancient history.

Harding’s Lake History Stories is another series that may be appropriate for older grammar school children. It is well written and engaging, and focuses on topics of interest to younger students. Harding’s books have only about a third the number of chapters that Guerber has and his books are shorter overall, so they may be a better choice for students who have a hard time remembering details.

There are several factors that conspire to make the Harding series less well known than other series of similar quality. The first is simply that the titles of the Harding series do not fall into a regular pattern so they are not as recognizable as a series. Harding’s book on ancient Greece is call Greek Gods, Heroes, and Men while his book on Ancient Rome is titled The City of the Seven Hills, so some educators are not aware that the individual books are related.

Another complication regarding the Harding series is that chapter summaries at the beginning and study questions at the end that were added to later versions, are not necessarily attractive to families that prefer a living books style history program. The additions were made explicitly to aid classroom teachers and the study questions are thoughtfully presented, but they make later versions appear more “textbook-like” than they really are, so we have omitted them in the Heritage History version. Even so, families who are only familiar with the “enhanced” version of the book, may not recognize them as exceptionally good narrative histories.

A final characteristic of the Greek and Roman volumes is that they are not as thorough in the topics they cover as are some other series, such as those by Haaren and Guerber. Greek Gods, Heroes and Men spends most of its time on Greek mythology and hero stories, and offers only a dozen chapters on Greek historical heroes from Lycurgus to Alexander the Great. Likewise, The City of the Seven Hills covers Roman history only until the reign of Augustus, and provides very little insight into the five hundred year history of the Roman empire. In both cases the decision was made to focus only on stories of greatest interest to younger students, so this selection could be an advantage to families with younger children. Harding’s Lake History series is rated as an “intermediate” collection mostly because the later works in the series are more challenging than the ancient history volumes. The books reviewed above are no more challenging than Haaren’s Famous Men series.

The Story of Greece, The Story of Rome  by Mary Macgregor

Macgregor - Story of Greece Macgregor - Story of Greece The longest and most detailed of the intermediate ancient histories is Mary Macgregor’s Story of Greece and Story of Rome. They are similar in style and organization to Guerber’s Story of the Greeks and Story of the Romans, but almost twice the size. Because of its large size, Macgregor’s histories are recommended for middle school students who are reading fluently rather than younger readers. Each book in this series was originally over 300 pages, but both were as engaging narrative histories, and are highly recommended.

The story-based approach is more common in shorter books, but Macgregor adapts the genre to her more sophisticated work very well. She does this by telling the usual stories, such as the Battle of Salamis, or Caesar’s conquest of Gaul, in more detail than is usually provided by children’s histories, and also by introducing a few less commonly known characters.

The Story of Greece tells tales not only about Leonidas, Pericles, and Epaminondas, but also about Brasidas, the Great Spartan general who turned the tide of the Peloponnesian War for Sparta and Agesilaus, the Spartan king who nearly conquered Persia sixty years before Alexander. The Story of Rome tells tales, not only of Cincinnatus, Sulla, and Julius Caesar, but also of Menenius, who helped protect the rights of the Plebes by defining the role of the tribune and Clodius, the demagogue friend of Caesar and arch nemesis of Cicero.

These fascinating stories from ancient history are usually left aside for simplicity’s sake, but Macgregor brings them to life, and provides a much richer overall understanding of Ancient history than most other intermediate histories. To make her books even more attractive, each is illustrated with twenty original color pictures that render beautiful and unusual scenes from ancient history.

Like the Guerber series, each of Macgregor’s books includes over 100 chapters, each dedicated to a particular character or incident. Macgregor also writes accessibly, using short paragraph, vivid descriptions, and plenty of conversation to tell her stories. There is a significant difference in depth, however. Macgregor’s books are almost twice as long as Guerber’s and her chapters tend to be three to four pages long instead of one to two pages. And this additional depth covers an even shorter historical period than Guerber because her Story of Greece continues only until the conquests of Alexander, and Story of Rome, covers only the Kingdom and Republican eras of Roman history.

The type of student who will most benefit from Macgregor’s histories, therefore, is one who is older and sophisticated enough to handle the level of detail she provides. For a reasonably well read middle school student, especially one who has already read Haaren or Guerber’s histories, Macgregor provides an excellent review and is the perfect vehicle to transition from a child’s understanding of Ancient history to a more sophisticated and analytical understanding. It not only reviews the basics, but gives solid, story-based introductions to many of the characters students will meet in more detail as their studies increase in complexity.

Story of the Greek People, Story of the Roman People  by Eva March Tappan

Tappan - Story of the Greeks Tappan - Story of the Romans If one was to rate the authors we’ve considered in comparing Roman and Greek history core reading in their degree of “textbook-ness”, then the Tappan series would probably be first. However, her two Ancient history texts Story of the Greek People and Story of the Roman People, are well written, informative, and do a good job of integrating many different historical stories into common themes. Because her books take a more thematic approach than most of the others, she is able to integrate a certain amount of social history, including a discussion of how ancient people lived. Topics such as marriage, education, markets, money, and household furnishings are difficult to deal with using a story-based approach, so they tend to be glossed over in other accounts.

Tappan organizes her books into few chapters, and covers all topics related to a particular theme, such as The Early Days of Athens or Romans conquer Carthage. This leaves less time to tell the detailed stories of exciting incidents in history, but it leaves students with a good understanding of what the overall effects and significance of the major movements of Ancient history were. If Tappan is the only book students use to study Ancient history, we believe that they will be denied the best “story-based” accounts of some of the most fascinating characters of Ancient history, but her series provides an excellent complement to any of our other, narrative-oriented accounts.

We recommend the Tappan series for middle school, rather than grammar school students, and we also recommend that it be the second, rather than the first or only book they read on the subject. Tappan’s insights are well written, and help younger students understand how ancient societies operated in an age-appropriate way. Nevertheless, students are apt to take a great interest in ancient history if their first exposure is by way of Haaren, Guerber, or Harding, and Tappan is used for review and integration.

Tappan’s theme-based approach does have a few real strengths. She provides a solid enough background for students to draw certain lessons from her works, and each chapter includes study questions that may be helpful for drawing out important lessons. The study questions are simple and age appropriate. They often ask students to “imagine” that they were in the position of one of the ancient characters they read about, or to draw a straight forward conclusion from the facts presented. Being more textbook-like than some of the other histories in our series, it may do a better job of preparing a student who intends to transition into a more traditional learning environment.

Hopefully, we’re not overstating the analytical nature of Tappan’s works. Like all the other books in our collection, it is accessible and easily approached by middle school students. All her books are abundantly illustrated, and feature replicas of many works of ancient art and artifacts. We recommend Tappan to augment Macgregor for our intermediate students. Together they provide a strong introduction to middle school ages students.

About the author

T. A. Roth

Content Editor at Heritage History, Homeschooling Mom of Five, Armchair historian


  1. Christy

    This is a great summary. I’ve been waffling about which spines to use for ancient history and this helps me narrow it down.

  2. Linda

    I have just stumbled upon your site and am amazed at the offerings! I do have a confusion I hope you can clear up though. When you say every student of Ancient History should read at least two comprehensive histories (sometimes called “spines”) for both Greece and Rome do you mean one after the other or do you mean at two different spines over the course of their elementary schooling years ?( the way the three and four year curriculum suggest)

    1. T. A. Roth

      Hi Linda. This is such a good questions, I should write a whole post about it. The answer you need has a lot to do with the age of your child, and whether or not they are a fluent reader. I personally recommend just reading all sorts of short, easy books, about many different historical ages, until children are confident readers. A single spine–such as Ancient Men of Rome–should fit well into this informal period, but I wouldn’t consider it was a thorough study of Rome. The “Young Readers” collection can be used for this purpose for one, two, or three years, depending on how long it takes kids to get really comfortable reading. Once children are good readers, they should be able to read through a few spines as well as several other books over a single session. There is, of course, a *huge* variation in how much children read, so I even with older children, some might only read five books over a session–some will read fifteen. This is why history is such a good subject to “customize” for individual children. Hope that answers your question, and I’ll try to write more on the subject soon. – Teresa

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