A while ago I wrote up Ancient History in a Summer, and while I do like it, I feel like it’s a bit rough. It tended to just say a few things about each of the books involved and as a result, I couldn’t talk about a lot of the interesting questions they brought up. With that said, consider this to be the second version of that article – we’ll cover some of the same books again, but in a much more polished manner. We’ll also cover some new books I’ve read since then to add some new material to the mix.
Let’s start off with two “big picture” books – Worlds at War and Egypt, Greece, and Rome: Civilizations of the Ancient Mediterranean. The former covers the beginnings of civilization to nowadays, and specifically forwards the thesis that “the monotheistic religions want you to obey authority blindly and reason is largely unnecessary.” The latter is often used as an undergraduate textbook and covers what I will informally refer to as “the first half of history”, namely, the beginnings of civilization to the middle of the Byzantine Empire (mid 700s C.E.). They’re both excellent books – Worlds at War has a specific goal in mind and thus spends only a little bit of time in each time period, focusing on how religion develops over each time period. Egypt, Greece, and Rome has a very different approach – it has a great amount of breadth over the ancient world. It largely covers how archaeology and art history are being used to discover new sides to history, and spends a lot of time delving into parts of history that you wouldn’t think to think of right off the top of your head.
The main thesis of Egypt, Greece, and Rome is that we really only have recorded info from the richest people and that this often doesn’t represent how life really was for everyone. To learn how the underrepresented lived (e.g., the poor, women, foreign peoples), we have to do a bit of detective work. And this is the hard part of the book to gauge – there is so much breadth that it really is the definitive intro book on seeing how people actually lived back then. It spends time on the “main history stuff” – that is, all the big figures and politics, but also spends an equal amount of time delving into economics, art history, architecture, social life, religion, life for the poor, and life for women. All of this makes for a big book and is hard to read from cover-to-cover, mainly because my mind likes to chunk things together and there’s so much important information here that it’s hard to compress without a bit of mental gymnastics.
Both books are great at giving a “big picture” – if you’re not so much into history then Worlds at War is likely the better choice (or go for Egypt, Greece, and Rome and just read the “main storyline”, that is, what happens to all the rich and important people). If you read either and decide that you really want to drill down about a particular point in history, here are the options I’ve seen so far (chronologically, from oldest to newest topic):
- Scipio Africanus: Greater than Napoleon: This book focuses on the titular character as the Roman Republic encounters one of its defining moments – the Punic Wars. It’s a bit of an older book but provides good starting points for how we can measure how effective a general is. The author is also a bit too blatantly biased towards Scipio but is otherwise a good read – if you want to get your feet wet the source that got me interested in this in the first place was Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History series on the Punic Wars – those are a lot more exciting and you get a good amount of coverage of all the main characters (whereas in the book it’s largely assumed that you know who Hannibal and his family are, for example).
- Rubicon: The Last Years of the Roman Republic: Tom Holland does an amazing job of focusing on a very small period of time and really bringing it to life – here, the last hundred years or so of the Roman Republic. It’s mostly focused on the social aspects of the time and the mentality of the Roman people, as well as how they could be transformed from a people fiercely opposed to kings and tyrants but eventually be governed by an emperor (while still saying they hate kings and tyrants). Like I said last time around, it’s the most illuminating book of the pack (tied with Egypt, Greece, and Rome) and while a lot of the drama is forgettable, it’s a great read and is incredibly immersive.
- Caesar’s Legion: While Rubicon focused on social aspects of the fall of the Roman Republic,Caesar’s Legion focuses on the military aspects. If you find topics like troop rotation time, armor and weapons used, as well as the specifics of Caesar’s various battles (and many after, as it follows his 10th Legion through to Jerusalem), then I definitely recommend this book. It probably has less broad appeal than Rubicon since it’s military focused and doesn’t entirely follow the main characters of the time, but is a great complement to Rubicon if you went through that and want more from the same time period that’s well written.
- The Ruin of the Roman Empire: The original book from long ago that I read about the Roman Empire – specifically the “collapse” of the Western Roman Empire. This is probably the most contentious book – it takes the view that the “fall” was completely preventable if only Justinian (emperor of the Byzantine Empire) hadn’t got so caught up in Christianity. It seems to try to relate problems to modern ones and while quite interesting, it comes on a bit strong for the evidence it has. Egypt, Greece, and Rome paints a more understandable picture – that the ‘fall’ wasn’t really a fall, but a change in administration over a long period of time and that the sacking of Rome by Alaric, while important psychologically, didn’t mean much otherwise. It also counters this book’s thesis effectively by saying that these problems were around for a long time and (my opinion here) that it was way too late to be solved when Justinian showed up on the scene. These problems seemed to be going on for at least 200 years when he shows up and saying Justinian was caught up in Christianity doesn’t seem to adequately explain why the author’s solutions were out-of-sight for Justinian – they seem to be out-of-sight because Justinian was a Roman, and the Roman mindset precluded him from seeing it. Regardless, I’d recommend reading this book, the next book, and Egypt, Greece, and Rome if you found this interesting in any substantial way.
- Lost to the West: A bit more of a broad book, covering the entire history of the Byzantine (Eastern Roman) Empire. It’s a good read and is essentially the foil to the previous book, but may be too short to really get into any real detail like the other books.
- A Brief History of King Arthur: A comprehensive (don’t let the name fool you) study that tries to sort out if King Arthur was a real person, and if he lived, when he lived and what he really accomplished. It’s unusually detailed and assumes you already know all the players or are willing to spend a lot of time learning who all they are. Each of the dozen candidates are examined, and for each, the main questions are asked – who were they? When did they live? What did they do? Could they be King Arthur? This book is great for showing why this is such a tough problem – the sources are few and far between and all are pretty biased. After the end of an extremely long search, a few candidates end up being reasonable to call King Arthur, but certainly in no way related to any of the legends surrounding him. For being only four hundred pages or so, this book is the most dense book I’ve ever read – I ended up reading the first chunk of the book and the last two chapters, so I’d recommend grabbing a coffee at the bookstore and skimming it there.
- The Enigma of Hastings: Also a bit too focused – I really loved the Hardcore History episode by Dan Carlin (The What-Ifs of 1066) that sums up the pivotal battle of Hastings in 1066 and wanted to know more, but this book is a bit dry and perhaps has too much detailed information. I believe Tom Holland’s The Forge of Christendom also covers the Battle of Hastings, so I would be much more inclined to check that out instead. The author also takes a mild diversion onto the “greatest general ever” realm but does so much less effectively than in the Scipio book – check that out to see how it should be done.
- Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World: If you’re tired of all these Mediterranean and Western books, you may want to check out this excellent read. It wonderfully captures the emotion and mood of the times like Rubicon and stays to a relatively short time period. I’d definitely recommend checking this one out.
- The Empire of the Steppes: After reading the previous book and the Hardcore History episode Steppe Stories I just wanted more, and surprisingly there isn’t much out there on the Steppe people. But this book is simply massive and way too dense to get into for me – it seems to be aimed at the historian wanting to learn about the field and certainly not the casual reader.
So that’s our tour of a ton of books once more! There’s many great books out now so get reading!