Friday, 3 June 2016

Classical History for Intermediates

If you’re a beginner, check this post for some recommendations.

So, you’ve read a fair few histories, but what comes after the more obvious books, your Livy, Dodge and Norwich?

Here are some books, ranging from those I might have included in the first piece (Polybius) to the heavy reading (I’m unlikely to write an Advanced third part of recommendations, because I’m not an expert on classical history, but a second Intermediate part may come about).

First up is The Rise of the Roman Empire, by Polybius. The heart of this is an account of the Second Punic War, which is a little less easy to read than Livy’s but does have the benefit of being both more objective and more accurate. There is a glaring problem, though, in that we only have it to about halfway into the war (from memory, I think the account ends after Cannae). Despite that, and missing the Numidian shenanigans of Syphax and Massinissa, it’s well worth reading, and was one of the very first classical history books I read.

The Fall of Carthage by Adrian Goldsworthy covers all three Punic Wars (the first two were massive, the third was a superpower being surprisingly ineffective at crushing a single disobedient city). It lays out the history in a concise fashion (indeed, the relative brevity would be my only criticism) and allows a nice overview of Carthage’s waxing and waning fortunes. It’s also interesting to see how capable Hamilcar Barca (Hannibal’s father) was, and how Carthage as a city only really developed a backbone when it was too late.

The Peloponnesian War by Donald Kagan is a great book. It’s a thick volume which covers the war from start to finish, unlike Thucydides (although, in Thucydides’ defence, this was probably because he died). The book is festooned with great maps, which is handy when the places are in Greece/Asia Minor and have often changed names over time (Athens is the same, of course, but Corcyra has become Corfu, and so on). There’s a great level of detail but it doesn’t (from memory) require any especial knowledge of the time period.
Ghost on the Throne by James Romm is about what happened after Alexander the Great’s death. Whilst Alexander’s a fascinating chap, that same fascination has meant the dynamic, complicated and hugely interesting period after his demise is generally a bit neglected (NB click the link for my review to also see some other books that cover this period). Romm’s history is engaging and skilfully explains the complicated picture without either resorting to matter-of-fact tedium or swamping the reader with endless detail. Do not be put off by the unstable, dynamic and complicated picture, because this period of history was crammed with Alpha males (and females), all tussling for dominion of the known world. It’s rare to have so many capable, bold, sly, intelligent and personally brave leaders, but when Alexander died without a strong heir, the cadre of elite generals he’d built up gradually splintered, coalescing into (often temporary) alliances and fighting for the vast empire he’d conquered.

The Later Roman Empire by Ammianus Marcellinus is an engaging read. It covers much of the 4th century, with the lion’s share devoted to Julian the Apostate (a pagan who became emperor of what was then a Christian state). The book beings with internecine skulduggery and rumblings of civil war, before Julian (an academic plucked from obscurity to become Caesar [Deputy Emperor] on the basis he was the Emperor’s only surviving male relative) appears on the scene, tasked with protecting Gaul from perpetual Germanic raiding. The time period is lesser known generally but intriguing, as paganism wanes and Christianity waxes. It helps that the author is pretty objective, and that Julian, in particular, is a complicated and interesting character. I devoured this upon my first reading and will be going back to it sooner or later.

Perhaps the most difficult, but also amongst the most enlightening, of histories is Edward Gibbon’s 17th century classic: The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. It’s a beast of about 4,000 pages (six volumes, latter half reviewed here), and be sure you buy an edition with the footnotes, which are very extensive (the Everyman’s Library edition has them). As well as charting the title matter, the book includes substantial related areas, such as the rise of Christianity and Islam, and the Mongols. At times (especially the tediously peaceful Christian beginnings) the book can be a slog. But it also covers in extensive, lurid, and often riveting detail the Roman Empire, both West and East. This largely progresses in unbroken detail, but the last few centuries of the East (Gibbon perhaps realising he had too much to write) is condensed significantly. Although well worth reading if you have the stamina, this six volume collection is the reason Byzantine is used as a dirty word, and why the Eastern Roman Empire is something so rarely known about. Gibbon is not objective, but he is wry and sarcastic. The language is sometimes a little old-fashioned and stilted but it can also be old-fashioned and magnificent (“they enjoyed the uninterrupted contemplation of their own magnificence” or similar was used as a euphemism for two men who got fired from being consul).
[Edited extra bit: as an enlightened reader points out, Gibbon was 18th, not 17th, century. My mistake].


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