Best Books for Ancient History?
February 7, 2014 2:26 PM   Subscribe

I've recently developed an interest in ancient history (yes, the recent history-related posts on the blue may have helped) and am looking for good books on the subject that I can buy/check out from the library. I'm particularity interested in technological and cultural histories of major ancient civilizations.

I've heard Susan Wise Bauer's "The History of the Ancient World: From the Earliest Accounts to the Fall of Rome" is a good book and is roughly the period and scope in which I'm interested, but I've also heard that it focuses primarily on political and religious histories to the detriment of looking at those civilizations in broad strokes. Does anyone have recommendations for books that, perhaps, focus on particular civilizations and periods in more depth? I'm particularly interested in the history of Ancient Egypt and early Chinese history, for what it's worth.

posted by Noms_Tiem to Education (15 answers total) 38 users marked this as a favorite
Anything by Donald Redford is great but in particular "Egypt, Israel and Canaan in Ancient Times" is one of the best history books I have read. Robert Drews "The End of the Bronze Age" and "The Coming of the Greeks" are also good. The books from Oxford University Press on various subjects (such as the Oxford History of Ancient Egypt) tend to be dry but very accurate accounts.

In general, always check the first copyright date of books on ancient history. If it's from before the mid 80s - at the very earliest! - do not buy it or at least take it with a HUGE grain of salt. Ancient history is a very recent field and even the best scholarship from before the 80s is now hopelessly out of date due to newer data. By the by, this is also why Wikipedia is often so terrible for these subjects. They get wrapped up in modern political and religious bullshit (see the Discussion section on most ancient history pages) and also Wikipedia is terrible at adjudicating between sources that were good in their day but are not out of date vs newer sources.

The other general rule is that the larger the subject of a book, in covering more time or a larger area, the less good it is going to be.
posted by Riemann at 2:43 PM on February 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

Will and Ariel Durant's magesterial 11 volume The Story of Civilization (published from 1935-1975) is one of those big love it or hate it everyone's read it macrohistories of human civilization, and actively sought to portray history in a unified way, which may be what you mean by "broad strokes." It's getting a bit dated now, and even when it was new it was criticised for relying too uncritically on primary sources and for errors of detail in the service of covering a lot. All 11 volumes used to be somewhere on the Internet Archive site in both ebook and audiobook form but I can't find the link at the moment. Again, as Riemann says above ancient history scholarship has advanced a lot from the time the series was written, but that doesn't mean it's not worth reading, just don't take it as gospel.

Lars Brownworth's account of the Byzantine Empire Lost to the West is a very readable pop-history.

Not a book but Mike Duncan's looooong podcast series on the history of Rome is very popular.
posted by Wretch729 at 2:46 PM on February 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

oh, also Trevor Bryce's books "The Kingdom of the Hittites" and "Life and Society in the Hittite World" are worth reading.
posted by Riemann at 2:47 PM on February 7, 2014

Oh also in case you missed it you might enjoy the content of a recent FPP on the blue that focused on the sea peoples.
posted by Wretch729 at 2:50 PM on February 7, 2014

I love maps, so Colin McEvedy's Penguin Atlas of Ancient History is perfect for me.
posted by tangerine at 2:50 PM on February 7, 2014

Lost to the west is accessible but inaccurate on both specifics and generalities. It you are open to audio books, The Great Courses has some excellent series by proper academics and they are very interesting.

For your request, I can strongly recommend "the other side of history" which is exactly what you are after, but they are all foods and reliable. Most libraries have them.

For books consider Rubicon by Tom Holland and Byzantium by Judith Herrin.
posted by smoke at 3:39 PM on February 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

If you're open to a documentary television series, about half the episodes of Engineering an Empire deal with the ancient world, including China and Egypt. It's pretty recent (2005-2007) and is hosted by Peter Weller, who in addition to his film career has an MA and is working toward his PhD in art history, and teaches the subject at the university level. I saw it on DVD from Netflix, but your library might also have it.
posted by immlass at 4:19 PM on February 7, 2014

L Sprague De Camps "The Ancient Engineers" is a very good light introduction to engineering/technology in the classical world and the ancient world. He uses actual ruins and discusses the challenges they faced to build such structures with the tools and knowledge at hand. This kind of history is actually much easier to source and less prone to revision since we actually do have the ruins to look at and most artifacts that remain give a clearer picture of technology than political structures.
posted by bartonlong at 4:24 PM on February 7, 2014

If you're more interested in the way the people actually lived, you might like the series of books called A History of Private Life, which focuses on the daily lives of people during those times.
posted by homesickness at 4:31 PM on February 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

Not the most serious scholarly tome, but great fun: The Cartoon History of the Universe I, II, and III
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 12:04 AM on February 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

Honestly, Herodotus' The Histories is one of the most engrossing and entertaining books of all time. The second half is about the invasion of Greece by Persia but the first half is a travel guide for the ancient world. He's not 100% accurate on all things (there weren't giant ants in India probably), but he's been surprisingly proved right on others (graves of Scythian warrior women) The Oxford edition has tons of footnotes to fill you in on modern historians take on events; then there's a lavish new edition full of maps.
posted by Erasmouse at 2:43 AM on February 8, 2014

20,000 years of Women's Work is amazing and changed the way I looked at other history books because I started asking "what were the women doing? How much did that cost?"
posted by viggorlijah at 4:39 AM on February 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

If you're interested in primary sources, I recommend Pliny the Elder's Natural History, Vitruvius On Architecture and Frontinus on Aqueducts. There's also a great array of medical texts from the Hippocratic Corpus to Galen. But for a different type of technology (and magic for the ancients was in its way also a technology that was meant to help you manipulate the world) there's the collection 'Greek Magical Papyri' - a bang up entertaining insight into the ancient world.
posted by lesbiassparrow at 6:19 AM on February 8, 2014

One of my favourite books about Egypt is Joyce Tyldesley's Hatchepsut: The Female Pharaoh about the woman who was Pharaoh of Egypt during the 18th dynasty between the death of her husband and the coming-of-age of her son. It's a fascinating piece of Egyptian history in the height that is often dismissed because she was a woman and couldn't possibly have had an influence, despite reigning for about 20 years.

Otherwise, one of my favourites about Ancient Rome is Paul Zanker'sThe Power of Images in the Age of Augustus, which is also wonderful for understanding what you're looking at in neo-classical art and sculpture, since so much image-based propaganda draws inspiration from Ancient Rome.
posted by urbanlenny at 12:12 PM on February 8, 2014

Cullen Murphy's Are We Rome? used to be required reading for Prof. Allison Stanger's first year seminar courses. I think she gets called pretty regularly to consult with the Admin et al. in Washington, so this was kind of a neat book to read.
posted by ABlanca at 4:33 PM on June 17, 2014

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