4 Books to Read to Understand References: Classical

If you read a lot or watch TV and movies regularly, we all eventually come to realize: 1) we keep retelling the same story in new ways, with new characters (kind of), and in different places, and 2) there are always references, or allusions, to what came before. I want to put together a series of posts about the books or movies that you should read or watch if you want to understand that references that are constantly being thrown about in art and culture. This is not meant to be an exhaustive list because that can be overwhelming. I’m going to give you 4 books or movies (and maybe a bonus) which I believe will give you insight to a large number of references, or, at least, the most common ones. At the beginning of this series, we are going to start at what is considered the beginning of Western culture: the Classical Era.

The Odyssey

The epic poem attributed to Homer has become so ubiquitously referenced that the title, which actually refers to the main character, has come to mean a long and hard journey in our contemporary lexicon. The story follows Odysseus on his journey back to Ithaca after the Trojan War. The journey takes him 10 years due to his own hubris, and angering the gods (most notably, Poseidon). Along the way he encounters gods–greater and lesser–, monsters, demigods, and all manner of problems and puzzles. Though the trials of Odysseus are great and require incredible wit and strength, Penelope, Odysseus’s wife, shines through as one of literature’s strongest women. While her husband is trying to find his way home (and sleeping around a bit on the way), Penelope shows she smart, cunning, and not to be underestimated as she fends of suitors while maintaining her status as a courteous and welcoming host. The Odyssey is noted as one of the works of the classical period which defines “the hero’s journey,” along with Homer’s other famed work The Iliad, and Virgil’s Aeneid. If you read any of these three you will see parallels in everything from the lovable children’s movie “Homeward Bound,” to the original “Star Wars” trilogy. The Cohen brothers even loosely based their 2000 film, “O’ Brother Where Art Thou,” on Homer’s epic poem.

The Old Testament

Because the Old Testament is really a collection of books, there are an incredible number of stories, characters, and situations which appear in Old Testament: a couple of creation stories, a world-destroying flood, hope for oppressed people, the underdog taking on the giant of the day. You will find adultery, love, faith, passion, war, hubris, family feuds, and miracles. Almost every story which looks at what it means to be human, can be found in the Old Testament. Many of the stories we find in the Old Testament have connections to origin stories from other cultures as well, but since Rome was the center of the Western world and adopted Christianity, the Old Testament is a text we can point to which holds the mythology from which many modern tales draw. My suggestion for reading the Old Testament is to approach it like it is a story and not a religious text, regardless of your belief system. Oh, and it is okay skip some books, like Kings and Chronicles, which are mostly genealogy and not much story.

Plato’s Republic

This is a good piece to read for any Renaissance Human seeking to understand more about Western philosophy. The way Plato presents his ideas as a socratic seminar which discusses the operation of humans in society and the nature of reality results in a number of allegories and phrases which have become common. One of the more famous ideas to come out of The Republic is “the Cave Allegory,” in which Plato presents ideas about the way we perceive the world. If you understand the ideas of Plato’s cave you will realize “The Matrix” is based on Plato’s cave from a couple millennia ago! If you are looking to read more in academia or if you want to have a strong foundation for philosophical discussion, Plato is your man and The Republic is where you should start.

Oedipus Rex (Oedipus the King)

Ever heard of the Oedipal complex? Perhaps self-fulfilling prophecy? What about the riddle of the sphinx? All of these things are at the crux of Sophocles’s play, Oedipus Rex. Reportedly the most celebrated playwright of his time, only seven of Sophocles’s plays have survived in their entirety. The three “Theban plays” are among the seven which survived and Oedipus Rex is by far the most well-known and referenced of the three. Freud used the play as the basis for his theory of the Oedipal complex, and J.K. Rowling pays tribute to Sophocles in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. After you make yourself familiar with Oedipus and his terrible fate, you will see parts of his story everywhere you look!


Since they were all oral tales, it is hard to find one book to point to which is better than others for learning about Greek and Roman mythology. My suggestion is to find yourself a collection which you enjoy reading, and I suggest looking through the children’s section at your library. A children’s version of the myths will be easier to read, and you will get the big picture of the myths, which is what references and allusions are usually talking about anyway!

Have yourself a ball looking at these classical works, and impress some people along the way by knowing the piece which is being referenced! If you have a book from the classical era which you think I missed, or would have liked to see on this list, post it in the comments and let us know why! I wish you good reading in your quest to becoming more well-rounded!


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