Epic history book suggestions
February 21, 2012 1:43 AM   Subscribe

MagnumOpusFilter: What are some epic history books?

I'm looking for some truly epic works of history. The sort of thing that would be categorized as a life's work. Things like Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, or Churchill's History of the English Speaking People. Preferrably also a work that's stood the test of time, or at least isn't totally refuted by modern scholarship.
posted by Guernsey Halleck to Writing & Language (40 answers total) 45 users marked this as a favorite
 
I thought Postwar was rather epic , comprehensive, and authoritative.
posted by tempythethird at 2:04 AM on February 21, 2012 [2 favorites]


The works of Josephus, particularly Antiquities of the Jews.

Maybe not quite "a life's work" but still impressive are A Peace to End All Peace and The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money, and Power.
posted by Houstonian at 2:18 AM on February 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


Churchill's 4 volume history of World War 2.
posted by nestor_makhno at 2:25 AM on February 21, 2012 [1 favorite]




You're familiar with Herodotus' and Thucydides' books, right? They're not as long as your examples but they're pretty long for when they were written.
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 2:36 AM on February 21, 2012


Shelby Foote's three volume Narrative of the (American) Civil War is about as epic as it gets.
posted by three blind mice at 2:41 AM on February 21, 2012 [3 favorites]


Robert Fisk's The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East:

I'm not sure if this fits in with what your looking for, far more recent, but I think it can count as his life's work - and it does cover an exhaustive amount of material.
posted by xqwzts at 2:43 AM on February 21, 2012


Joseph Needham's Science and Civilisation in China (CUP, 1954-). Wikipedia says 27 volumes now, and still going, seventeen years after Needham's death.
posted by hydatius at 2:46 AM on February 21, 2012 [2 favorites]


Titus Livius, ab urbe condita: a history of Rome from its foundation to the time of Augustus, 142 books, of which only about 35 survive; still, there's plenty in those 35 to keep anyone going for a few years.
posted by Gomoryhu at 3:24 AM on February 21, 2012


caek: Herodotus' Histories

There's a great new translation out. I can't recommend it highly enough.

As for more recent works, Chris Wickham's Framing the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean, 400-800 is pretty stunning in scope and ambition.
posted by Kattullus at 3:53 AM on February 21, 2012


Eirc Hobsbawm's trilogy on the 1800s is a significant work.
Frank Stenton's book on Anglo-Saxon England is a life's work and still hugely influential, despite some errors.
posted by Jehan at 4:03 AM on February 21, 2012


A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous Fourteenth Century covers a good part of the hundred years war. And it's quite entertaining.
posted by chaiminda at 4:05 AM on February 21, 2012


Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by W Shirer
posted by Flood at 4:48 AM on February 21, 2012 [2 favorites]


Mommsen's History of Rome
Grote's History of Greece
Zinn's People's History of the U.S.
Any of the dozens of multi-volume Cambridge Histories
Raul Hilberg's history of the Holocaust
posted by facetious at 4:53 AM on February 21, 2012


Thomas Carlyle's three volume French Revolution, which has an interesting history in itself: his only existing copy of the manuscript was accidentally burned shortly after he finished writing it, and he wrote the whole thing again from memory.
posted by frobozz at 4:58 AM on February 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


I really liked Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond. Could be considered epic in that it was also published with the subtitle: A short history of everybody for the last 13,000 years.
posted by Grither at 5:29 AM on February 21, 2012


Another vote for the following, tey were all great reads:
Postwar by Tony Jundt
The Great War for Civilisation by Robert Fisk
Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond

and also

The Second World War by Winston Churchill
posted by Vindaloo at 5:55 AM on February 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


Because Thucydides was referenced above, I'll say it: Donald Kagan's four-volume set on the Peloponnesian War (The Outbreak of the Peloponnesian War, The Archidamian War, The Peace of Nicias & the Sicilian Expedition, and The Fall of the Athenian Empire) is fascinating, compelling, and comprehensive, as befitting a set of works written over a 20+ year period. It's no substitute for the old general, but if you've already read Thucydides and you want more than his approach gives, then Kagan is the place to go. By the way, Kagan summarized the four-volume set in a slimmer single monograph, The Peloponnesian War, which is also quite good. But we're looking for the big sweep here, right?
posted by .kobayashi. at 5:56 AM on February 21, 2012


Fernand Braudel's The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II and Civilization and Capitalism were both genre-changing (and are enormous). Only historians ever read them, but he was a wonderful, literary writer, as well.
posted by oinopaponton at 6:16 AM on February 21, 2012 [2 favorites]


(sorry, linked to the second volume of MMWAPII-- here's the first)
posted by oinopaponton at 6:18 AM on February 21, 2012


A Study of History by Arnold J. Toynbee.
posted by yz at 6:19 AM on February 21, 2012


The Years of Lyndon Johnson by Robert Caro has the advantage of being epic, contemporary, and unfinished. The fourth volume will be released in May 2012.
posted by beukeboom at 6:30 AM on February 21, 2012 [2 favorites]


22 answers and no mention of Gibbons' The History of the Decline and Fall of the ROman Empire (note that links seems to go to an abridged version; I actually can't find where you would buy the unabridged version, which should be six volumes.)
posted by d. z. wang at 6:38 AM on February 21, 2012


Also, Francis Parkman's France and England in North America. I've not read it, and don't know it's value, but fits into the idea of "epic" history which took a lifetime to write.
posted by Jehan at 6:52 AM on February 21, 2012


John Julius Norwich's three-volume History of Byzantium: The Early Centuries, The Apogee, The Decline & Fall.
posted by Johnny Assay at 6:52 AM on February 21, 2012 [5 favorites]


d. z. wang: "22 answers and no mention of Gibbons' The History of the Decline and Fall of the ROman Empire (note that links seems to go to an abridged version; I actually can't find where you would buy the unabridged version, which should be six volumes."

Probably because the OP mentioned it himself.
posted by Grither at 7:30 AM on February 21, 2012 [3 favorites]


Stood the test of time you ask ? Epic you ask ? Here's my favourite
The Conquest of New Spain by Bernal Diaz del Castillo

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Conquest-New-Spain-Classics/dp/0140441239/

The overthrow of Montezuma in 1520 !
posted by Sturdy at 7:36 AM on February 21, 2012


22 answers and no mention of Gibbon

Well the poster did say "isn't totally refuted by modern scholarship."

Gibbon isn't totally refuted, but modern histories of Rome don't line up well with Gibbon's 18th century masterpiece.
posted by three blind mice at 7:38 AM on February 21, 2012


Seconding the Braudel recommendation, as well as Raul Hilberg's The Destruction of the European Jews.
posted by besonders at 7:40 AM on February 21, 2012


Chandler's The Campaigns of Napoleon is the definitive volume on Napoleon, focused on his military pursuits, but containing other biographical information as well.
posted by yeti at 8:04 AM on February 21, 2012




"The Story of Civilization" series by Will Durant.
posted by phoenix_rising at 9:28 AM on February 21, 2012


James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom.
posted by Beardman at 9:31 AM on February 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


Maybe not exactly what you're looking for, but just about everything by Allan W. Eckert is AWESOME and quite expansive and sweeping. I'm a particular fan of "That Dark and Bloody River." (The Ohio)
posted by TomMelee at 10:06 AM on February 21, 2012


The Story of Civilization by Will and Ariel Durant. Eleven volumes, written across forty years. Easy to read, and while somewhat dated, still rewarding.
posted by bonehead at 10:27 AM on February 21, 2012


The Making of the Atomic Bomb. Hugely detailed in the science of the bomb, the personalities involved in its making, and odd errata from the daily lives of the Manhattan Project. So good.
posted by Turkey Glue at 12:22 PM on February 21, 2012


Incredible set of answers so far! I'm not sure which one to read first, but I think I'm going to be very busy for a long time. Thank you everyone.
posted by Guernsey Halleck at 12:29 PM on February 21, 2012


Worlds at War, by Anthony Pagden, is both scholarly and engaging. It puts the history of Europe and the Middle East, from the Greek-Persian conflicts to the Crusades to Napoleon's Egyptian campaigns within the context of East-West conflict.

And not at all as political as you might expect from the name.
posted by switchsonic at 12:36 PM on February 21, 2012


Manning Marable's Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention.

Liza Picard's series of books about everyday life in London in different eras are fantastic. She's done four to date.

Henry Mayhew's London Labour and the London Poor is pretty amazing.

A little off the track, but possibly of interest, is The Inman Diary, which was diarist Arthur Crews Inman's life work, though not necessarily destined for publication until American literature scholar Daniel Aaron discovered it.
posted by Sidhedevil at 12:41 PM on February 21, 2012


David Hume's six-volume history of England, though to be honest Volumes 5 and 6, dealing roughly with the English Civil War, are the masterwork.

Hume may be better known as a philosopher, but he was a thoughtful historian and elegant stylist.
posted by psycheslamp at 3:11 PM on February 21, 2012


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