The best ancient history books that challenge assumptions

Henry Davis Author Of Creating Christianity - A Weapon Of Ancient Rome
By Henry Davis

The Books I Picked & Why

The Roman Revolution

By Ronald Syme

Book cover of The Roman Revolution

Why this book?

Considered a controversial masterpiece, this book has helped reveal far more than many realize. It examined the fall and overthrow of the Roman Republic and the re-establishment of the monarchy centered on the life and career of Octavian, who became Augustus, the first emperor. Syme, a much-respected scholar of ancient Rome, was immensely skilled in the use of prosopography, the technique of examining and tracing genealogical connections between the various leading families of republican and imperial Rome. He showed that republican Rome was ruled by an oligarchy, in this case, where a small group of powerful people, related by blood, marriage links, are in control. Syme’s expertise in examining the nomenclature of ancient history has allowed further discoveries to be made, mainly the family connections between the Roman Emperors of the first and second centuries. This is not the best book for an introduction to Roman history, but it is an incredibly important one for revealing the family relationships and political motivations of the Roman aristocracy. This is not just ancient history, but very much portrays how politics functions now.

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Encyclopaedia Biblica

By John Sutherland Black, Thomas Kelly Cheyne

Book cover of Encyclopaedia Biblica

Why this book?

The official title of the book is ‘Encyclopedia Biblica: A Critical Dictionary of the Literary, Political and Religious History, the Archaeology, Geography, and Natural History of the Bible.' This work was produced by various professors of Oxford University and was a continual work from 1899-1903. It seems to be rarely mentioned by historians and Biblical scholars today, and I am recommending this work because there is a considerable wealth of information in it, and any student of history would find it incredibly useful. The Oxford professors critically examined ancient folklore and legends, without being swayed by traditional opinions of the time. For example, the origins of the people of Israel, and Egyptian and Hittite history are thoroughly examined, as is the Biblical literature. Interestingly, in this work, the professors doubted the existence of Nazareth, stating: ‘Was Nazareth originally the name of a town (or village) at all? There are two NT passages which may well suggest a doubt...’(page 362, column 3360).

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Marcus Aurelius: A Biography

By Anthony Birley

Book cover of Marcus Aurelius: A Biography

Why this book?

This is a very scholarly, decent history of Emperor Marcus Aurelius, full of direct quotes and personal letters. A great alternative to Marcus’ Meditations, this book examines the family politics concerning his son Commodus, and his wars with Parthia and Germany. Birley also provides, in Appendix I, information regarding which sources he considers good and bad in regards to Roman historiography, as he became the main student of Sir Ronald Syme, a reader can feel safe that the information is well researched. I feel all scholars and those passionate about the history of imperial Rome should have a copy of this book.

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Myth of Persecution

By Candida Moss

Book cover of Myth of Persecution

Why this book?

Certain events that the ancient writers described, do not always seem to fit within the time they were writing, and I very much enjoy books that question what was written. In my opinion, this book by Candida Moss is very provocative, as it challenges the traditional view of the alleged persecution of Christians. A particular point she makes is in regards to the Roman historian, Tacitus, she states: ‘Tacitus’s Annals dates to 115-20 (CE), at least fifty years after the events he describes. His use of the term “Christian” is somewhat anachronistic. It’s highly unlikely that, at the time the Great Fire occurred, anyone recognized Jesus followers as a distinct and separate group.’ Although this book leaves questions unanswered, it offers a great deal to think about. Another scholar of note, who also argues against the idea that Christians were a special group being attacked by the Roman state or Nero, is Andrew Fleming West, Professor of Classics at Princeton University, his article is titled ‘The Myth of the Neronian Persecution.

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The Jewish War

By Flavius Josephus

Book cover of The Jewish War

Why this book?

I am recommending this book because a lot of my own work has involved examining this book very deeply, and gaining a new and very controversial understanding of it. The Jewish War is considered by many historians as probably the greatest history book of all time, and if not the greatest, then it is in the top 10. It documents, in great detail, the war between the people of Judea and the Roman aristocracy. The individual known as Josephus describes himself as a general in the Jewish revolt against the Romans in 66 CE, and then later switches sides. He has been described as one of the first war correspondents, with his work being considered one of the most important sources of first-century history. Josephus’ work was included in some of the handwritten Bibles in the Eastern Christian churches of Armenia and Syria. Latin editions of the Bible also included Wars of the Jews and his other work, Antiquities of the Jews, and this was because his work was seen as describing the same prophecy described in the Gospels, that of the destruction of Jerusalem

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