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.

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The books I picked & why

The Histories (Translated by Tom Holland)

By Herodotus, Tom Holland (translator),

Book cover of The Histories (Translated by Tom Holland)

Why did I love 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.

By Herodotus, Tom Holland (translator),

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked The Histories (Translated by Tom Holland) as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

One of Western history's greatest books springs to life in Tom Holland's vibrant new translation

Herodotus of Halicarnassus-who was hailed by Cicero as "the father of history"-wrote his histories around 440 BC. It is the earliest surviving work of nonfiction and a thrilling narrative account of (among other things) the war between the Persian Empire and the Greek city-states in the fifth century BC.

With a wealth of information about ancient geography, ethnography, zoology, comparative anthropology, and much else, The Histories is also filled with bizarre and fanciful stories, which award-winning historian Tom Holland vividly captures in this major new…

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

Why did I love 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.

By Pierre François Souyri,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The World Turned Upside Down as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In the late twelfth century, Japanese people called the transitional period in which they were living the "age of warriors." Feudal clans fought civil wars, and warriors from the Kanto Plain rose up to restore the military regime of their shogun, Yoritomo. The whole of this intermediary period came to represent a gap between two stable societies: the ancient period, dominated by the imperial court in Heian (today's Kyoto), and the modern period, dominated by the Tokugawa bakufu based in Edo (today's Tokyo). In this remarkable portrait of a complex period in the evolution of Japan, Pierre F. Souyri uses…

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

Why did I love 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.

By Steven Runciman,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Sicilian Vespers as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

On 30 March 1282, as the bells of Palermo were ringing for Vespers, the Sicilian townsfolk, crying 'Death to the French', slaughtered the garrison and administration of their Angevin King. Seen in historical perspective it was not an especially big massacre: the revolt of the long-subjugated Sicilians might seem just another resistance movement. But the events of 1282 came at a crucial moment. Steven Runciman takes the Vespers as the climax of a great narrative sweep covering the whole of the Mediterranean in the thirteenth century. His sustained narrative power is displayed here with concentrated brilliance in the rise and…

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

Why did I love 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.

By Peter Russell,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Prince Henry 'The Navigator' as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Henry the Navigator, fifteenth-century Portuguese prince and explorer, is a legendary, almost mythical figure in late medieval history. Considered along with Columbus to be one of the progenitors of modernity, Prince Henry challenged the scientific assumptions of his age and was responsible for liberating Europeans from geographical restraints that had bound them since the Roman Empire's collapse. In this enthralling account of Henry's life-the first biography of "The Navigator" in more than a century-Peter Russell reaps the harvest of a lifelong study of Prince Henry. Making full use of documentary evidence only recently available, Russell reevaluates Henry and his role…

History in the Making

By J.H. Elliott,

Book cover of History in the Making

Why did I love 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.

By J.H. Elliott,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked History in the Making as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

An eminent historian offers rare insight into his craft and the way it has changed over his lifetime

From the vantage point of nearly sixty years devoted to research and the writing of history, J. H. Elliott steps back from his work to consider the progress of historical scholarship. From his own experiences as a historian of Spain, Europe, and the Americas, he provides a deft and sharp analysis of the work that historians do and how the field has changed since the 1950s.

The author begins by explaining the roots of his interest in Spain and its past, then…

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