Favorite authors on ancient history

It’s Summer Book Week at Via Negativa. Since I’ll be gone part of the week on vacation myself, I decided it would be an ideal time to consider what constitutes the perfect summer read. I’ve enlisted the help of my family to put up posts while I’m gone, and also do a little guest-blogging.

Over the last few years, my brother Steve has been making an intensive study of ancient Greek, Roman and Byzantine history, finding many parallels with our own times. Here’s his annotated list of favorite authors on (and mostly from) that period. I’ve refrained from including Amazon links, since many are available in multiple editions and translations.

In general, I prefer culling history from original sources wherever possible. This list is therefore top-heavy with the works of Greco-Roman historians, and is by no means inclusive. It is also more an author list than a book list, since I have found reading the works of the best historians, ancient and modern, to be a the most rewarding approach (also, it’s a sneaky way to slip in more than the recommended maximum of ten titles!). Included are two modern historians, J. B. Bury and Steven Runciman, whose exceptional scholarship fills in much of the gaps of Byzantine and Medieval history, owing in no small measure to their interest in subjects not popular with many other historians (witness Runciman’s works on the Sicilian Vespers and the Bulgarian Empire, for example).

Some might be disappointed that I have excluded Gibbon. While the unabridged Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is often an edifying and informative read, Gibbon’s undeniable command of his material is unfortunately surpassed both by his ego and his inept conclusions. In addition, Gibbon was an uncritical champion of empire as a benign and civilizing influence, a premise I reject without apology.

Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War: The first book of descriptive history, Thucydides’ masterpiece is a timely parable on the pitfalls of imperial hubris. The famous Funeral Oration of Pericles highlights the glories of Athenian society at its apogee, while Thucydides’ accounts of the ruthless Athenian subjugation of Melos and the disastrous and unwarranted invasion of Sicily highlight the follies of hegemonic overstretch.

Herodotus, The Histories: This famous work by the “Father of History�? is a must-read for its entertainment value as well as its genuine historical interest. Sandwiched between riveting accounts of Greek heroics at Marathon, Thermopylae, Salamis, and Platea in the long Greco-Persian conflict, are fascinating if improbable cultural, geographical, and faunological digressions, such as the fabled gold-digging ants of India. Also of great interest is Herodotus’ account of Achaemenid Persian history and culture.

Appian, Roman History: This lesser-read Greek historian of republican Rome is palatable to an informed modern audience because his accounts of various Roman wars of subjugation (the Iberian wars and “Mithridatic�? wars against independent Pontus, e.g.) are marked by the author’s obvious sympathy for the vanquished tribes. In addition, Appian is the only continuous source for the tumultuous period from the Gracchi to the rebellion of Spartacus, an era that saw Rome for the first time convulsed by civil war and ravaged by the despotism of Marius and Sulla. Appian shows better than any other author how Rome morphed from a republic into an autocratic empire in the space of a few generations, and lays much of the blame on Rome’s incurable love for militarism and territorial expansion.

Plutarch, Lives: Plutarch’s timeless character studies, while of dubious historical value in places, nonetheless offer priceless glimpses into the way that Romans in the 2nd century AD were apt to regard their semi-legendary past. Particularly attractive is the biography of Numa Pompilius, Rome’s second king, who made peacemaking his top priority. For his entire reign, Rome was at peace with her neighbors. Pompilius supposedly founded the College of the Fetials, a priestly caste charged with investigating the facts of any international dispute, to determine whether Rome had a grievance legitimate enough to justify going to war. Plutarch’s larger-than-life biographical sketches have been credited with helping to inspire the chivalric code.

Sallust, The Jugurthine War/The Catilinarian Conspiracy: Sallust’s two brief extant works are usually bound together and make for a quick, rewarding read, in spite of Sallust’s preachy tone. The Jugurthine War was a late first century BC conflict against a wily Numidian usurper in North Africa who dared to challenge the Roman right to dictate terms to the Africans. Rome finally captured Jugurtha and subdued his rebellion–but at a price. The two generals who secured Jugurtha’s downfall, Marius and Sulla, quarreled over receiving credit for the outcome, and became bitter rivals. Their enmity led a few years later to the awful civil wars that tore the republic asunder a generation before Julius Caesar, and led to the slaughter of thousands of Roman partisans. Sallust’s other work is one of several accounts of the celebrated conspiracy of Lucius Catiline and his confederates in the Senate, a conspiracy that was discovered by chance and exposed by Cicero. Julius Caesar himself was quite possibly one of the conspirators, or so Cato, Cicero, and the historian Appian all believed. The downfall of Catiline cemented Cicero’s reputation as the greatest statesmen of his age and, with Cato, Brutus, and Cassius, one of the last spokesmen for the old Republic.

Tacitus, The Annals/The Histories: Tacitus, Jefferson once opined, is not to be read but to be studied. This finest Roman historian is our best source of the traumatic events of the early imperial period spanning much of the first century AD. In his economical style, Tacitus describes the intrigues of Tiberius, Messalina, Nero, Galba, Otho, and many other polititicians and rulers of this turbulent period of western history.

Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars: This scandalous set of biographies of Caesars from Julius to Domitian accuses most of Rome’s early despots of monstrous personal crimes. From the well-known aberrations of Nero and Caligula to the personal depravity of Tiberius and Claudius, this book is a depressing but probably fairly reliable illustration of the corrupting influence of absolute power.

Anna Comnena, The Alexiad: Anna Comnena was the daughter of the very capable Byzantine emperor Alexius Comnenus, whose task it was to rebuild the state after the disastrous defeat to the Seljuk Turks at Manzikert and the subsequent political turmoil. Though somewhat hagiographic, as might reasonably be expected from an adoring daughter, this is the first known work of Western history written by a woman, and is easily the most readable of the Byzantine chronicles. Aside from the endearing personal touches, this book is noteworthy for its detailed account of the use of the Byzantine secret weapon, Greek fire, and for Comnena’s lengthy discussion of the Bogomil heresy. She describes Comnenus’ efforts first to convert, and then to exterminate, the Balkan-based sect that later gave rise to the Albigensian movement in Lombardy and Languedoc.

J. B. Bury, History of the Later Empire, from the Death of Theodosius I to Justinian: John Bagnell Bury, an eminent English historian of the late 19th and early 20th century, was almost single-handedly responsible (along with Vasiliev) for restoring the image of the Byzantine or Eastern Roman Empire, an image which (outside of the Orthodox world) had languished in opprobrium ever since Gibbon’s dismissive treatment of this greatest Medieval European state. Generally considered Bury’s most definitive work, History of the Later Empire carefully examines the history, culture, and economics of the Eastern Empire (and of neighboring states) during the fifth and sixth centuries AD. Other works by Bury carry the history forward through the reigns of Heraclius, Irene, and other noteworthy rulers until the tenth century. As a historian, Bury far surpasses Gibbon for his impartiality, attention to detail, and avoidance of ego insertion.

Steven Runciman, The Emperor Romanus Lecapenus and His Reign: A more modern English historian, Steven Runciman, was one of the most erudite people ever to write history. Runciman seems to have known most of the languages of Eastern Europe, as well the classical and standard research languages, not to mention Turkish, Arabic, Armenian, and various other Middle Eastern languages. He was thus ideally positioned to write the many superb historical, cultural, and religious studies of Byzantium for which he is remembered, and of which the above-named is perhaps the best but by no means the only one worth reading. Lesser-known books of tremendous value include The Medieval Manichee (a history of heresy from the early Gnostics through the Cathars, and containing much material to be found nowhere else on less-studied heretical movements like the Paulicians), Byzantine Civilization, The Fall of Constantinople, History of the First Bulgarian Empire, and The Sicilian Vespers (a fascinating account of a Medieval intrigue between the thrones of Byzantium and Aragon to bring about the downfall of the ambitious hegemon, Charles d’Anjou). Runciman is also justly celebrated for his three-volume History of the Crusades, still considered the definitive work on the subject.

– Steve Bonta

Leave a Reply