The best books on global history before the modern era

David Abulafia Author Of The Boundless Sea: A Human History of the Oceans
By David Abulafia

Who am I?

We live in an increasingly connected world. But human beings have always made connections with one another across space, and the space I find especially exciting is water - whether the narrow space of seas such as the Mediterranean and the Baltic, or the broader and wilder spaces of the great oceans. These are spaces that link distant countries and continents, across which people have brought objects, ideas and religions as well as themselves - a history of migrants, merchants, mercenaries, missionaries, and many others that can be recovered from shipwrecks, travellers' tales, cargo manifests, and many other sources, a history, ultimately, of the origins of our globalized world.


I wrote...

The Boundless Sea: A Human History of the Oceans

By David Abulafia,

Book cover of The Boundless Sea: A Human History of the Oceans

What is my book about?

This book brings together the history of the different oceans into what became, after Columbus, a closely inter-connected story of movement across the seas by merchants, migrants, missionaries, mercenaries, and of course slaves; and for me to it was a journey in imagination across space and time from ancient Polynesia to the present day.

The books I picked & why

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The Histories

By Herodotus, Tom Holland (translator),

Book cover of The Histories

Why this book?

The ‘Father of History’ was not just keen to record the events of the war between Persia and the Greeks in the fifth century BC; he was also interested in what we would now call anthropology, and there are marvellous descriptions of the life of distant peoples such as the Scythians and the ancient Egyptians. ‘History’ means ‘enquiry’, and Herodotus was as persistent an enquirer as you are likely to find.


The World Turned Upside Down: Medieval Japanese Society

By Pierre François Souyri,

Book cover of The World Turned Upside Down: Medieval Japanese Society

Why this book?

A marvelously coherent and stimulating introduction to the turbulent politics and social and economic life of Japan between revolutionary changes in 1185 and the early sixteenth century, with much to say about cultural life as well. Souyri is as interested in the lives of peasants and traders as in that of shoguns and samurai.


The Sicilian Vespers: A History of the Mediterranean World in the Later Thirteenth Century

By Steven Runciman,

Book cover of The Sicilian Vespers: A History of the Mediterranean World in the Later Thirteenth Century

Why this book?

This is perhaps the best book by this prolific historian, because of the way in which he successfully weaves together the histories of lands right across the Mediterranean and beyond: Aragon in Spain, France, Italy, Greece, and the Levant, focussing on a successful rebellion in Sicily in 1282 that permanently changed the face of the Mediterranean.


Prince Henry 'The Navigator': A Life

By Peter Russell,

Book cover of Prince Henry 'The Navigator': A Life

Why this book?

This is a rich and revisionist account of a figure long celebrated in Portugal as a national hero and the founder of what became the worldwide Portuguese Empire; but Russell reveals a flawed figure consumed by ambitions that resulted in the establishment of a trade in black slaves from West Africa, alongside successful colonisation of uninhabited islands such as Madeira and the Azores.


History in the Making

By J.H. Elliott,

Book cover of History in the Making

Why this book?

John Elliott is a world-class historian of Spain and its Empire, his reflections on how to write history without becoming immersed in jargon or obscure theories are beautifully woven into the story of how he himself learned the craft of writing clear, accessible, and original works of history, taking the reader from Cambridge to Franco’s Spain. This is a charming book with a valuable message.


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in Spain, explorers, and Japan?

5,215 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about Spain, explorers, and Japan.

Spain Explore 120 books about Spain
Explorers Explore 66 books about explorers
Japan Explore 291 books about Japan

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like Amerigo: The Man Who Gave His Name to America, Columbus: The Four Voyages, 1492-1504, and Samurai William: The Adventurer Who Unlocked Japan if you like this list.